O'Conor, Hugh (Oconór, Hugo) (1734–79), soldier and colonial military officer, was born in Dublin in December 1734, the second son of Daniel O’Conor and Margaret (née Ryan), who married in September 1720. Daniel (1694–1769) was the O’Conor Don, head of the family long established at Clonalis, Castlerea, Co. Roscommon, reputedly descended from the high kings of Ireland and kings of Connaught. Margaret Ryan was the eldest daughter of Captain Dominick Ryan of Dublin. Hugh O’Conor was one of six children, with an older brother (Dominick), two younger brothers (Alexander and Thomas) and two sisters (Elizabeth and Jane).
Very little is known of O’Conor’s early life. As a second son he was unable to inherit land under the provisions of the penal laws, choosing instead to pursue a military career with one of the catholic powers on the continent. His uncle Thomas O’Conor (d. 1791), a brigadier general in France, obtained an audience for him in Spain with another relative, Alexander O’Reilly. O’Conor left Ireland to join O’Reilly in November 1751 (after a brief stay with another relative, Charles O’Conor of Belanagare (qv)) and was commissioned as a cadet in the Regimiento de Infanteria de Hibernia. Following Spain’s entry in 1762 to the Seven Years War (1756–63) as part of the coalition against Great Britain and its allies, O’Conor participated in the invasion of Portugal. He applied for and received a knighthood in the military order of Calatrava in 1763; his application to become a knight of Santiago, however, was unsuccessful.
At the war’s end, Spain recovered its territories in Havana, Cuba (which had been seized by the British during the war), as well as gaining territory in Louisiana. With O’Conor as his aide, Alexander O’Reilly (then with the rank of major general) was sent to Cuba to oversee the return of the territories, reorganise troops, and reinforce defences. O’Conor was subsequently dispatched to Mexico City in March 1765, with most of his time spent in the northernmost part of New Spain, in the Interior Provinces (Sonora, Nuevo Mexico, Nueva Vizcaya, Cohahuila, Texas, Nuevo Santander and Nuevo Leon) which extended from California to Louisiana. His primary task on the frontier was to contain the Native American population, in particular the Apache, whose resistance had been the main obstacle for Spanish expansion in the region. He soon received the nickname el capitán colorado (‘the red captain’). Whether this referred to his ruddy complexion, red hair or his ruthlessness, is unclear.
O’Conor’s first mission, in August 1765, came when viceroy Joaquin de Montserrat, Marqués de Cruillas, sent him to Texas to investigate the burning down of the presidio (fortified base) of San Augustin de Ahuamada. When O’Conor reported on corruption of the governor of Texas, the latter was recalled in March 1767 and O’Conor was appointed governor ad interim. He established himself at the presidio of Las Adaes, the capital of the province, and swiftly eradicated abuses in the military administration. With the morale of both civilians and soldiers much improved, O’Conor successfully led the presidio’s garrison to reduce the threat posed by the Native Americans.
In May 1768, O’Conor relocated the capital of Texas to San Antonio de Bejar, which he had identified as the most important presidio and population centre of the province. He moved there with a twenty-two-man garrison to counter the threat posed by the Native Americans. Replaced as governor of Texas in 1770, O’Conor left for Mexico City around April of that year. With the help of a letter of recommendation from O’Reilly, who had just finished his tenure as governor of Spanish Louisiana, O’Conor was appointed commander of the presidio of San Sabá in February 1771.
As part of the Bourbon reforms of the Spanish colonies, in March 1766 the king had commissioned the Marqués de Rubí, then in charge of military affairs, to inspect the line of presidios stretching along the northern frontier of New Spain, from the Atlantic ocean to the Pacific. Rubí recommended that the presidial line be reorganised, with presidios placed 40 leagues apart and, in certain areas, relocated to better align with the actual territory of New Spain. He also recommended a much tighter, more unified northern command, with the consolidation of the presidios intended to form a buffer against the indigenous populations, rival imperial ventures, as protection for the silver mines of northern Mexico, and as bases for expansion of the empire. Rubí’s report also led to the creation of the post of commandant inspector of the Interior Provinces. In the ensuing reorganisation of the frontier, begun in 1771, O’Conor was gradually entrusted with greater responsibilities. In September 1771 he was given command of the Nueva Vizcaya frontier, considered one most important yet difficult in the north. There he was initially faced with a lack of equipment, administrative corruption and the absence of cooperation between the military and civil institutions of the province. Apache raiders harried the Spanish settlements with ease. O’Conor settled at the Villa de Chihuahua and immersed himself in the archives of the city to find out where Apache raiders had previously attacked, to better plan the defence of the province. He addressed the corruption that had plagued the provisioning of soldiers with necessary supplies and obtained enough men to form four flying companies. By July 1772 he had 427 men under arms, a significant increase of manpower compared to the previous year. The troops at San Antonio de Bejar were augmented by the redeployment of troops from the abandoned eastern presidios of Ahuamada and Los Adaes.
In a boost to his career, Antonio Bucareli succeeded de Croix as viceroy in 1771. A close friend of Alexander O’Reilly, Bucareli often consulted with him on matters of appointments. O’Conor was thus appointed as commandant inspector of the Interior Provinces in September 1772. Over the ensuing fifteen months, O’Conor travelled about 1,500 miles to choose adequate locations for the presidios, slowly but surely strengthening the line. He fought a successful campaign against the Apache in Cohahuila, then returned to Villa de Chihuahua in February 1774. O’Conor next turned his attention west, to complete the line in the province of Sonora, moving his headquarters to the presidio of Carrizal in July 1774. He continued to relocate presidios (such as Terranate) as his reforms of the line continued, occasionally shifting control from local civilian élites to professional military commanders (as in Carrizal). New presidios were also constructed, including at San Augustin del Tucson in the northernmost point of New Spain; it developed into the city of Tucson, Arizona, of which he is regarded as a founding father. In the last months of 1775, O’Conor led his largest and most carefully planned campaign against the Apache, which killed as many as 138 between September and November. That December O’Conor could report that his reform of the cordon of presidios was complete; the following month he submitted a lengthy account of his four years as commandant inspector.
In May 1776 the Spanish crown created the official jurisdiction of the Interior Provinces, a military government for the northern frontier of New Spain, independent of the viceroy in Mexico City. Teodoro de Croix, the nephew of the former viceroy, was appointed as O’Conor’s replacement. Promoted to brigadier general, between May and July 1776 O’Conor undertook his last expedition against the Apache, afterwards turning to administrative matters. Exhausted by the toll of leading military campaigns, the constant traversing of difficult terrain (he was once stranded with his men for forty-two days on the banks of a flooding river, forced to survive on acorns and herbs) and suffering from poor health, O’Conor requested a transfer to a less strenuous post (he remained in situ as commandant inspector until his successor arrived in March 1777). In late 1777, he was appointed captain-general of Yucatan and settled at Mérida, the capital of the province, in February 1778. While he sought to regain his health in Yucatan at a spa at Miraflores, he died there in March 1779.
O’Conor’s life and initial service with the Spanish army was not unconventional. The geopolitical changes brought about by the Seven Years War, however, saw him sail across the Atlantic, never to return. On the northern frontier of New Spain, O’Conor came to embody Spanish imperial power at a time of profound change. His main legacy was to develop a centralised government for the Internal Provinces of New Spain, and to build a physical line of forts which acted as a protective border. The Native American population had been a formidable obstacle to Spanish imperial expansion, and remained so long after O’Conor was gone; however, he was the first to promote a frontier-wide, more concerted effort to meet their resistance. An agent of imperialism, O’Conor’s treatment of the indigenous population included murder, dispossession, enslavement and the deportation of captives. His career as a leading administrator and military officer in New Spain offers a rare insight into the Irish contribution to eighteenth-century Spanish expansionism in the new world.