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Mexican Immigrant's Act of Honor

Disunion: New York Times

While Arizona’s single brief Civil War skirmish at Picacho Peak between the Texas-led Confederates and Union soldiers from California, on April 15, 1862, is annually taken out of mothballs for celebration, perhaps the state’s most enduring story of honor during the war remains one Mexican immigrant’s courageous act in the face of the Confederate occupation of Tucson.

On Valentine’s Day in 1862, Jefferson Davis signed the territory of Arizona — in truth, southern Arizona, below the 34th parallel — into the rebel states as their westernmost capital. It took the Civil War to bring such long-sought territorial recognition, which came with competing claims and declarations. As the United States Congress dallied, Confederate sympathizers had first gathered in Mesilla, N. M., on March 16, 1861, and hastily claimed that the greater Arizona territory would not “recognize the present Black Republican administration.” A subsequent convention in Tucson elected a delegate to the Confederate Congress.

When the Confederate flag rose from the mesquite poles in Tucson’s depopulated main plaza, the Johnny Rebs were joined by Mark Aldrich, a merchant from western Illinois who had been indicted for but not convicted of the murder of the Mormon founder Joseph Smith, and had also served as mayor. The remaining citizens and merchants in the occupied town, like the mining pioneer Sylvester Mowry, sided with the Confederate forces. A Republican from Rhode Island, Mowry took advantage of his entrepreneurial spirit to provide lead from his mines for their ammunition.

One Mexican immigrant stood his ground for the Union.

Estevan OchoaArizona Historical Society/TusconEstevan Ochoa

Estevan Ochoa, impeccably dressed, strolled the streets of Tucson like a benevolent don over Tucson’s territorial version of Tammany Hall. One of the Southwest’s most enterprising businessmen in the pre- and post-Civil War era, he had amassed a small fortune from his shipping business and pioneering ventures in cotton, livestock and mining.

Ochoa had served on a special committee with Mowry as a delegate at a convention in 1859 in Las Cruces, N.M., calling for the organization of Arizona as a separate territory. Having immigrated only two years before, he was at 28 already a leader in the emerging territory. He had been praised by The Weekly Arizonan newspaper for his “beautiful and happy style peculiar to himself requesting every member of the meeting to labor diligently and energetically in the good cause in which they had embarked.”

Contemporaries, journalists and historians alike, in fact, always proffered the honorific title of “Don Estevan,” perhaps to justify Ochoa’s influential role in an increasingly Anglo-dominated gentry.

Ochoa — who was born in 1831 in Chihuahua, Mexico, and whose family held huge land grants and traced their coat of arms to the historic 16th-century Cortes expedition from Spain — could have made a tidy little war-time fortune meeting Confederate demands as a conduit of wagon supply trains. With the Texan Confederates occupying his town, Ochoa had to make a choice. The historian Frank Underwood narrates the dramatic moment from the perspective of the rebel captain:

Mr. Ochoa, you realize, of course, that the United States no longer exists. I trust, therefore, that you will yield to the new order, and take the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy and thereby relieve the necessity of confiscating your property in the name of the new government and of expelling you from the city.

Politely and unflinchingly Don Estevan replied: Captain Hunter, it is out of the question for me to swear allegiance to any party or power hostile to the United States government; for to that government I owe my prosperity and happiness. When, Sir, do you wish me to leave?

Ochoa, who was allowed to take his favorite horse, 20 rounds of ammunition and some rations, set off across Apache country alone.

In truth, a third army held more sway in Arizona than the rag-tag remnants of any Union troops or the occupying force of the Confederates: the Apaches. Their threat worried the self-appointed governor of the Confederate Territory of Arizona, Texas Lieutenant Colonel John Baylor, as he raised his army across the Southwest.

In the spring of 1862, Baylor took the barbarism of slavery one step further for the American Indians, writing to his commander in Tucson: “The Congress of the Confederate States has passed a law declaring the extermination of all hostile Indians. Use all means to persuade the Apaches of any tribe to come in for the purpose of making peace, and when you get them all together, kill all the grown Indians and take the children prisoners and sell them to defray the expense of killing Indians.” (That declaration cost Baylor his governorship, though he managed to remain in the Confederate Congress.)

The Confederates stayed around less than modern-day snow-bird tourists. By the summer of 1862, Union forces from California sent them fleeing from Tucson. Mowry was arrested as a “Confederate sympathizer, spy and traitor” and imprisoned briefly in Yuma. One Confederate deserter, Jack Swilling, would eventually migrate north and found the city of Phoenix.

Some claimed Ochoa heroically foretold the state’s destiny on his departure — “I will yet live to see you drive out of here in a worse condition than you are now sending me” — and indeed, he returned to the Old Pueblo and re-established his various businesses.

President Abraham Lincoln finally signed Arizona into existence as its own territory on Feb. 24, 1863.

Adorned with bamboo bird cages and meandering pheasants and peacocks, Ochoa’s hacienda in Tucson after the Civil War became the watering hole for the town’s most prominent families and visitors and enlightened schemes.

Mild-mannered, famously courteous and generous, he liked to roll his own tobacco cigarettes in corn husks. When he married later in life, he reportedly showered his young bride with the best linens, silks and elegant clothes imported from Mexico’s more urbane trading centers.

In 1875, while serving as Tucson’s mayor — the first and only Mexican-American to do so — and president of the school board, he upstaged a recalcitrant territorial legislature and a domineering Catholic bishop by single-handedly raising the funds, and donating the land, to build the town’s main public school. (Three years earlier, as chairman of the territory’s Committee on Public Education, Ochoa had founded the first enduring public education system in Tucson after earlier efforts had failed.)

In the spring of 1876, the Arizona Citizen declared: “Ochoa is constantly doing good for the public,” and concluded, “Ochoa is the true and useful friend of the worthy poor, of the oppressed, and of good government.” With the school completed in 1877, Ochoa literally placing on the last “shingles to build a ramada on the front side” of the school house, the same newspaper raved: “The zeal and energy Mr. Ochoa has given to public education, should give him a high place on the roll of honor and endear him more closely than ever to his countrymen. He has done much to assist in preparing the youth for the battle of life.”

The military chronicler John Bourke, who served on the Apache war campaigns with General George Crook, described Ochoa as “one of the coolest and bravest men in all the southwestern country.” Bourke quotes a fellow pioneer’s tribute: “He was a typical frontiersman, bold, aggressive, and fertile in resource, laughing danger to scorn, rarely daunted by any obstacle, and in brief, possessing just those qualities which are essential in the foundation of a new state.”

But it was Ochoa’s defense of the Union that remained his greatest legacy in Tucson. Five decades later, with the territory on the cusp of statehood, the Arizona Daily Star reminded its readers that the Mexican-American pioneer was unique in his Union stance.

Sources: “The Creation of the Territory of Arizona,” B. Sacks, Arizona and the West, Summer 1963; Tucson Citizen, April 2, 1872; Tucson Citizen, May 22, 1875; Tucson Citizen, October 27, 1877; “Los Tucsonenses: The Mexican Community in Tucson, 1854-1941,” Thomas Sheridan (Tucson: University of Arizona Press 1986); “Preserve the Old Landmarks,” Arizona Daily Star, Dec. 29, 1910; “Pioneer Portraits,” Frank C. Lockwood (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1968); “The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” Washington: GPO, 1897.