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March 22nd, 2012
Bartee Haile: Soldier-for-hire leads Spaniards against Apaches


Gen. Hugo Oconor, an Irish mercenary on the Spanish payroll, submitted for the viceroy’s approval on Mar. 24, 1775 an ambitious plan to annihilate the Apaches.

Although the men from Madrid preferred to parley, peace talks were doomed from the start due to the decentralized nature of Apache society. No one spoke for the nomads, who were neither a nation nor even a tribe but a loose alliance of autonomous bands, and an understanding reached with one group was in no way binding on the others.

When the Spaniards came back to Texas in 1715 and established a permanent presence at San Antonio de Bexar, the Europeans were already on bad terms with the Lipan Apaches, the dominant eastern band. The wary warriors had not forgotten that the palefaces had given aid and comfort to their mortal enemies, the Comanches, and sold into slavery every Apache they could lay their hands on.

San Antonio became the Lipans’ supply depot, which they raided at will. In 1723 and again in 1731, they made off with every horse in the presidio corral. Retaliation by the shamefaced Spanish soldiers, such as the 1732 attack on Lipan rancherias or villages along the San Saba River, were sometimes successful but had no long-term effect.

By 1737 the situation had deteriorated to the point that Christianized Indians decided the countryside was safer than the missions. Frightened civilians pleaded for permission to move their families south of the Rio Grande, and the garrison called for the evacuation of San Antonio in a petition to the governor.

Franciscan priests finally persuaded the secular authorities to let them try the spiritual approach with the Lipans. The first mission opened near modern-day Menard in April 1757 but was burned to the ground the next spring by the Comanches. Convinced neither heaven nor earth could protect them from their fierce foes, the Lipans boycotted the Franciscans forcing the friars to abandon the project after ten fruitless years.

The failure of the missionary outreach coincided with the arrival in the New World of Hugo Oconor. Following in the footsteps of a high-ranking uncle, the Irishman left his native Dublin at age 15 to find fame and fortune as a soldier-for-hire in the Spanish army. Advancing to the rank of major while still in his twenties, he fought in the Seven Years’ War before being sent to Mexico in 1765.

As inspector general of the eastern provinces, Oconor was shocked to find defenses in Texas in such a deplorable state. The governor had not merely let down his guard but allowed the Lipans free run of the territory.

Oconor immediately sacked the incompetent and took personal charge of the northernmost province. The strict disciplinarian cracked the whip and by his own brave example showed the timid troops how to fight the Apaches, who nicknamed their new nemesis the “Red Captain” because of his scarlet locks.

In 1770 Oconor was recalled to Mexico, where the Apaches were striking at the very heart of the country. An official at Chihuahua pessimistically predicted the city would soon become a ghost town unless drastic and decisive steps were taken.

Given full powers to plug the frontier dike that stretched 1,700 miles from the Gulf of California to the Gulf of Mexico, Oconor quickly increased the number of presidios to 17. But he never for a moment believed more forts were the answer to the Apache peril. Only a coordinated military campaign could rid New Spain of the elusive guerrillas.

Oconor’s battle plan called for the mobilization of 2,200 officers and men, the largest Spanish force ever assembled in this hemisphere. Four separate columns would converge on the southern New Mexico desert and crush the Apaches.
The offensive started right on schedule in September 1775. The Coahuila contingent combed the Big Bend before pushing north to the Guadalupe Mountains in southeastern New Mexico. Meanwhile, the western wing marched east from Sonora, while Oconor headed north from what today is Chihuahua.

But the Santa Fe force never took the field. The self-absorbed governor decided he had his hands full with the Comanches and could not squander precious manpower on Oconor’s adventure. This left the Apaches with a wide-open route of retreat to the north.

Forced to improvise, Oconor combined his 195 foot soldiers and cavalry with the 300-man brigade from Sonora for a series of sweeps across southern New Mexico. But the nimble Apaches, expert horsemen who always traveled light, proved elusive prey for the heavily laden Spaniards burdened by 150 pounds of weapons and equipment.

Before the Sonoran troops called it quits in November, the Spaniards fought 15 skirmishes with small bands of Apaches. The final body count, likely inflated in order to impress the viceroy, was 138 dead and 104 prisoners. Thousands more, however, slipped through the dragnet and lived to fight another day.

His health wrecked by the exhausting wild goose chase, Hugh Oconor requested and received a desk job as governor of Guatemala. He never recovered from the desert ordeal and died in October 1777 at the age of 45.

“Tornadoes, Hurricanes & Other Disasters,” latest “Best of This Week in Texas History” column collection, available at or mail a check for $14.20 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.

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