On Aug. 20, 1775, while at his headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., commanding the Continental forces surrounding British-occupied Boston, George Washington penned a letter to his cousin expressing concern about the safety of his letters and personal records at Mount Vernon, his home in Virginia.
He worried that the British might invade Virginia and burn his home in retribution for his leading the American rebellion.
Meanwhile, on the same day 2,000 miles to the southwest, Hugo O’Conor, a red-headed Spanish Army captain of Irish descent, on a low-slung hill above an ephemeral stream in the Spanish colonial region of Sonora, penned a document establishing a Spanish fort that would eventually be called Presidio San Agustin de Tucson.
O’Conor was the Spanish Army’s inspector general for Sonora and had been tasked with improving the string of forts in Northern Sonora providing protection to Spanish ranchers and miners from attacks by Native Americans. He didn’t like the location of the Spanish fort at Tubac about 30 miles to the south and wanted it moved to a more defensible location with better water, farm and pasture land.
Spanish control of the hilltop settlement would be short-lived. Mexico erupted in rebellion in 1810 and an 11-year revolutionary war left Northern Sonora in chaos. The new Mexican government finally re-established control over Tucson and northern Sonora in the 1820s, but that too, would be short-lived.
The Texas rebellion 14 years later and the U.S. invasion of Mexico 10 years after that transferred most of northern Mexico to the United States. Tucson was appended to the conquered lands through purchase in 1853.
Tucson was home to the Tohono O’odham and earlier, older Native American tribes for several thousand years. It was ostensibly part of the Spanish empire for 300 years though it only exercised control over the area for about 200 years. It was part of Mexico for either 43 years or 33 years depending on which year you use for Mexican independence, and, so far, it has been part of the United States for 158 years.
Saturday is the 236th anniversary of the founding of the Tucson presidio. Our city predates the United States by one year.
Our past matters. Why we’re here and how we’ve managed to stay here and prosper informs who we are now and how we can overcome our current troubles.
Tucson’s fortunes have risen and fallen over the centuries. Our current fortune seems on the ebb and we’re divided about the best way to keep that little fort on the hill growing and prosperous.
But rather than be alarmed, history teaches us that we need only look back to see that adversity almost always causes division yet out of that division eventually comes consensus and prosperity.
Perhaps Saturday will be that day?
On Aug. 20, let us all be Tucsonans and put aside our differences and petty disputes and see what that red-headed, Irish Spaniard saw 236 years ago – a great place to build a city.
Happy Birthday, Tucson.