Presidio San Augustin del Tucson

“La forma!” shouted the commander to his troops.  At least, that’s what it sounded like to me. I don’t speak Spanish — except the few words I remember from lessons in a past century — so it’s just a guess. The troops scurried to form a line and come to attention, so it seems as good a guess as any.

In the late 18th century, while the British were trying to quell an uprising by their colonists on the eastern side of the American continent, the Spanish were trying to protect theirs in the West. The Spanish had been creeping into what would become Arizona starting around the late 17th century and the indigenous population, the Apaches in particular, weren’t happy about it.

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Enter Hugh O’Connor, Spain’s military governor for the area. I know — O’Connor — not the name you’d expect of a Spaniard, right? But something new that I learned while doing research for this post: immigrating to Spain was the in-thing to do among Irish aristocrats in the 18th century seeking to flee the religious and political persecution of English rule in Ireland.

Hugh was from a family that traced its lineage back to medieval Irish kings and at age 18, he followed some cousins to Spain. They helped establish him in the Spanish military and he rose through the ranks to become military governor over a wide swath of what is now the southwestern US.

Hugh wasn’t a sit-on-his-butt-in-Spain-and-govern-from-afar kind of governor.  He was an active, front of the pack, kill as many Apaches as possible military leader. And in 1775 (the year George Washington took command of the Continental Army — yes, it would have killed me if I hadn’t mentioned that), O’Connor showed up in southern Arizona and built himself a fort.

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The fort was the Presidio San Augustin del Tucson, and it eventually morphed into the town of Tucson. And because he approved the construction of the fort, Hugh O’Connor lives forever in Arizona history books as the founder of the town of Tucson. Of course, the area had been occupied a few years — about 12,000 years — before that.

Mexico became independent of Spain in 1821 and the US bought southern Arizona from Mexico in 1853.  In 1856, the US Army came to town and dismantled most of the presidio. Located in what’s now mid-town Tucson, a city of government buildings eventually rose on the site.

But all was not lost. In the early 21st century, a small-scale version of the Presido was reconstructed in what was once the northeastern corner of the fort. It opened in 2007 as a museum. That’s where I was when I saw the “Spanish soldiers”: at the Presidio San Augustin Museum. It was Living History Day at the Presidio and it was 1775.  Spanish soldiers were marching (and, in a rare nod to authenticity, speaking Spanish), town folk were making tortillas…

 

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… and Spanish missionaries were MCing the activities in a way that was more Vegas lounge act than Father Kino. The man in the first photo was teaching a child how to play a game, that he called “Captain Morgan’s Revenge,” consisting of betting coins on the spin of a teetotum.

“Can I take your photo?” I asked the tortilla ladies.

“We’re not allowed to say no,” said one of them.

I’ve mentioned before that I usually ask permission before I take a photo.  And I’ve gotten the “We’re not allowed to say no” line more than once. So gratuitous advice to reenactors: If the museum requires you to allow your photo to be taken, don’t volunteer to be a reenactor unless you can accept it. Or just say no.  I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t willing to accept whatever answer comes and I promise not to squeal on you if you do.  I find it annoyingly passive-aggressive when people respond “We’re not allowed to say no.”

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I visited the day after Veterans Day, so there was a short ceremony acknowledging the day and honoring Presidio Museum volunteers who were veterans. In a break with the 18th century timeline, late 19th century US soldiers stepped forward to raise an American flag and, with unapologetic anachronism, the Star Spangled Banner blared out over an iPad as the flag went up.

The History Gods were not pleased, however, and the twilight was  last gleaming when the iPad stopped playing.

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During the winter season, Living History Days are on the second Saturday of the month. If you go on other days, there’s a one-room museum, a gift shop, and one room in the fort decked out as a soldier’s house.

I probably wouldn’t recommend the presidio as a visit independent of other reasons to be in the area (on a day that’s not a living history day), but it’s a very worthwhile part of a general visit to the downtown Tucson area. In fact, they developed a historic downtown walking tour and you can get a free map of the tour in their gift-shop. The tour, including the Presidio, would be a perfect way to spend a day exploring historic downtown Tucson.

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7 Responses to Presidio San Augustin del Tucson

  1. “seeking to flee the religious and political persecution of English rule in Ireland” – you have made me feel guilty again now!

    • I’d rather you feel guilty about the American Revolution, you evil Tory.

      • What? Please explain?

      • My attempt at a joke. Sorry it didn’t come through. One of my pet peeves is blaming people for something their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. No, current Germans are not responsible for Nazism, the Japanese are not responsible for the ills of Japanese WWII atrocities and modern Britons and Americans aren’t responsible for the colonial ambitions of their ancestors. Again, I apologize. I wasn’t actually blaming you for the AmRev. I was trying, with exaggerated indignation (which apparently didn’t come off in writing), having a mock battle renewal. Apparently I was the only one who knew I was playing.

      • Ah I see, my mistake!

  2. Is the USA so high and mighty that it has nothing to feel guilty about? Does it think it is so superior? What about the atomic bomb – possibly the biggest atrocity in World history? Discuss!

  3. If the British had not been back stabbed by the treacherous French and won the American War, there would have been no American Civil War, WW1 or WW2 or Donald Trump!

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