Pre-1836 Texas history could offer students in the classroom a unique perspective of a wide array of fascinating people, places, and events.
Yet, the Texas State Board of Education refuses to include them just because they don’t fit their Sam Houston model.
The interesting life of Hugo Oconór, 23rd Texas Governor (from 1767 to 1770), is one such example. Not only is he a heroic figure, his story offers a peek at the close, olden kinship between the Irish and the Spanish people.
Born Hugh O’Connor in Dublin, Ireland, he is a descendant of 12th century King of Ireland, Turlough Mor O’Conor. How is it that he grew up in Spain? Briefly, English King Henry II first stepped onto Irish soil in 1171, initiating a long Protestant English rule of Ireland. That hated invasion began a significant Irish exodus from Ireland to Spain, meaning that Hugo Oconór was simply following a well-worn path when he left Ireland in 1750. In fact, he joined his cousins Alejandro (Alexander) and Dominic O’Reilly, who were already successful military officers in Spain. In addition, many other Irishmen (known collectively as Wild Geese) were serving in the Spanish army regiment stationed in Aragón, Spain.
The admirable character of Irish soldiers embedded throughout the Spanish realm is well-deserved. Paraphrasing the words of a 19th century Spanish official, he wrote that the king should encourage and welcome Irish immigration because “they are strong, tough people, unafraid of cold weather, sleep on the bare ground and endure all hardship, making them the mightiest, fiercest warriors.” Indeed, their prowess in battle is legendary. It’s believed that Irish expatriates serving France helped organize the world famous French Foreign Legion.
Undeniably, Hugo Oconór enjoyed dignity and respect across his adopted country of Spain. Markedly, here in America his footprints are etched in a large, diverse triangle of land from Texas to Arizona to Yucatán. Fittingly so, his saga is an incredible journey through most of the area we know today as the Southwest from the Louisiana border to Las Californias. Following are distinctive highlights in his résumé.
Joining the Spanish Army at age 18, young Hugo quickly rose through the officer ranks while serving in the Aragón regiment. Oconór came to America in 1765 as a member of General Juan de Villalba’s military staff. Soon after arriving, his red hair earned him the nickname of ‘El Capitán Colorado”.
In 1767, at age 35 he became the 23rd Texas Governor. Extensively travelling through the province, he reorganized Texas presidio settlements. His astute management style gained the attention of not only senior officers, but of the king himself, Carlos III. For some time now, the king had become concerned regarding the lack of progress in securing peace between Spanish settlers and indigenous inhabitants in New Spain.
Based on recommendations proposed by trusted officials, the king approved a set of new laws called the Regulations of 1772. To enforce its goals, the position of comandante inspector (Inspector General) was established. Thanks to his cousin, Louisiana Governor (by now Field Marshall) Alejandro O’Reilly, Hugo Oconór was the first to fill the position. Promoted to colonel, Oconór’s jurisdiction included Texas and the internal provinces stretching west to the Pacific Ocean.
Plainly “hitting the ground running”, he rearranged the presidio organization throughout modern-day northern Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. Of interest is the fact that he saved Presidio San Antonio de Béxar from closing in 1772 by realigning Spanish settlers from Louisiana and moving the Texas capital from Los Adaes to San Antonio.
Most of the changes were to assure a safer environment for Spanish pioneers who continued to suffer under constant native attacks. Administratively, Colonel Oconór enhanced presidial financial and operational procedures as directed by the king’s new laws. Although instability between Spanish settlers and native tribes continued, his tireless efforts proved to be positive steps within the inclusive New Spain management structure. All in all, historians agree that Oconór had a tough job to do, and doing it to the best of his ability, he performed well.
His meticulous manner and loyalty to the Spanish King in fulfilling his duties is aptly demonstrated in the following document he wrote at San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona, on August 20, 1775:
“I, Hugo Oconór, Knight of the Order of Calatrava, colonel of infantry in his Majesty’s armies and commandant inspector of the frontier posts of New Spain certify that having conducted the exploration prescribed in Article three of the New Royal Regulation of Presidios issued by His Majesty on the tenth of September 1772 for the moving of the company of San Ignacio de Tubac in the Province of Sonora, I selected and marked out … a place known as San Agustín del Tucsón as the new site of the Presidio. … On this twentieth day of August of the year 1775 at Mission of San Xavier del Bac. (Signed) Hugo Oconór, Fray Francisco Garcés, and Juan Fernández Carmona.” (Source: Archivo General de la Nación, México City).”
As such, Hugo Oconór is known as the father of Tucson. Nevertheless, King Carlos III initiated further executive actions and reassigned Hugo Oconór to the position of Governor of Yucatán. Alas, Brigadier General Hugo Oconór (‘El Capitán Colorado”), the first New Spain Presidios Inspector General and Governor of two states (Texas and Yucatán), died in Yucatán in 1779. He was only 47 years old.
In summary, I offer the brief biography above to show once again that the heritage of Spanish Mexican-descent people in Texas (and the U.S.) isn’t one-dimensional. It’s as rich as anybody else’s. Expectedly, the close association with the Irish here in America has flourished, including Los San Patricios, an Irish unit that gallantly fought for Mexico against the U.S. during the U.S. Mexico War of 1846-48. My hope is that this synopsis inspires Texans of Mexican descent to learn more of the true roots of this great place we call Texas.
Finally, if next St Patrick’s Day you see New Spain descendants in Texas, throughout the Southwest, and elsewhere wearing the shamrock and sporting green “Kiss me, I’m Irish” T-shirts, you better believe it. Erin go bragh (Ireland Forever)!