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Pedro Alonso O’Crouley y O’Donnell: “anchor baby” and explorer

16 March 2016

In 1727, perhaps because of a bad harvest that year, or perhaps because as minor Catholic nobility there was no future in their homeland, 22-year old Dermot O’Crowley and his wife, the former Mary O’Donnell of Ballymurphy. County Clare, made the decision to emigrate.  Surprisingly perhaps to us now, the preferred destination for Irish emigres at the time was not the Americas, but Cadiz.

OcroulyThe Spanish port, with trade ties to the Mediterranean and to the Americas, was booming, and home to a thriving immigrant community.  While the Spanish and British Empires generally turned away each other’s subjects, Irish Catholics were always welcome.  Whether Dermot’s decision to emigrate to Cadiz was based more on the bad harvest of 1726, or on the general discrimination against Catholics (and restrictions on the business activities of Catholics), as Demetrio O’Crouley and María O’Donnell, the couple found Cadiz a congenial place to live and where they could establish a small trading company.  However, as immigrants, they could not get a license to trade in the American colonies.  With the birth of their son, Pedro Alonso, in 1740, they not only obtained a son and heir, but a son who could … as a “natural born Spaniard”.

Pedro took over the family business in 1765 (at the age of 15!), making his first voyage to New Spain in the same year.  What exactly he did in Mexico isn’t quite known (a typically morose teenager, he merely recorded that he bought and sold “stuff”), made the usual travel route of Veracruz, Puebla, Mexico City, and returned to Cadiz… to sell “stuff”.  Quite a bit of stuff apparently, as young Pedro was becoming known as an up and coming businessman, with American experience that might be useful.

And, he collected still more “stuff”… his hobby, or perhaps, obsession, being the cataloging of his various collections of miscellaneous items picked up in his travels, and in speculating on the sources of the collection.

Going into business with another young “anchor baby”, Felipe Smith, O’Crouley crossed the Atlantic several times over the next few years, traveling throughout New Spain… at least the “civilized” parts.  More communicative than when he was a teenager, O’Crouley not only gathered up whatever he could sell back in Europe, but information on the sources and supply centers.  Although his vendors were supplying gold, silver, hides, and crafts from “somewhere up north”, very little was known about the region.  And… like any good businessman, O’Crouley was keen to cut out the middle-man if possible.  He got his chance in 1774, when the merchant fleet he sailed with was accompanied by a scientific expedition, commanded by Antonio de Ulloa.  Ulloa was interested in mapping the ports and bays along the Pacific, and O’Crouley wanted to know what was inland… where that gold and silver and “stuff” was coming from.

Although there was quite a bit of literature available on northwest Mexico, O’Crouley realized what he read might not reflect present realities.  Most of what was in print was written by the Jesuits, who had been expelled from Spanish territory in 1754, meaning not only was the information 20 years out of date, but that it had been written while the Jesuits were the main source of administration in the region. After 1754, administration had become ad hoc… military officers ran administrative posts, but forced to leave isolated communities (as most were in the area) to their own devices.  Whether the Jesuit mission posts were still operating (supposedly they were, or there were at least towns on the map that every once in a while an Army patrol might wander through) and somebody was mining the gold, there wasn’t a lot to go on.  So… with no particular training as an anthropologist, a map maker, or … much of anything other than being interested in stuff, and the source of stuff, O’Crouley set out to map and record the resources and peoples of what is now Sinaloa, Sonora, Chihuahua, Durango, New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona.

Although he didn’t stop in every hamlet and town, he made a point of visiting every Bishop’s seat and Presidio (military fort), administrative center, mine and port to gather whatever statistics were available on populations and communities.  What pre-conquest history was available he included, as well as observations of the daily lives of the regions inhabitants, both indigenous and colonial.  His drawings of wildlife and people, together with the information on mining activities, geography, geology, history, anthropology, zoology, botany, mineralogy in the region was shared out with the “men of science” of his day.

O’Crouley’s final account,Ydea Compendiosa del Reyno deNueva España en que se comprehunden las Ciudades y Puertos principales, Cabezeras de Jurisdicción, su latitud, Rumbo y distancia a la capital México.  Señalanse los principales Prsidios y Guarniciones: con cicunstanciada Descripció de las partes mas remotas y meos conocidas; Arzobispos y Virreys que ha tenido, con varias particularidades de los Indios, anitugos y moernos, de su Conquista, Curiosidades, e historia natural had a title designed to scare off all but the most dedicated wonk… but the late 18th century was an era of great wonks.  Although never published in full, the Ydea Compendiosa, etc.  found its dedicated audience.

The all-round scientist José Antonio Alzate y Ramirez (a sort of Mexican Ben Franklin, he published the first general interest magazine in the new world, discovered the chemistry behind magic mushrooms, and invented the ball-cock, which later was used to create flush toilets, among many other things) used O’Crouley’s notes and maps to create the first detailed maps of the region;  Alexander von Humboldt — who never visited the area during his epic travels — would trust O’Crouley’s writings enough to feel comfortable using them to make his own estimates on mining potential in the region, and to guess at the population and ethnic composition of the area; and, port towns like Mazatlán (described by O’Crouley as a run down place with a few adobe shacks) which he noted were closer to mining camps were developed largely because O’Crouley recognized the commercial value of ports close to mining regions.  For the next 75 years, under the crown, and then during the independence era, O’Crouley’s work would influence government policy in the region.

Considering how much of O’Crouley’s travels and work were in places now part of the United States, it’s more surprising the work was never translated into English until 1972 (with a thankfully much shorter title: “A Description of the Kingdom of New Spain”), but by an Irishman, Seán Galvin.

Galvin says of his O’Crouley, he was … “one of the many Irishmen who, either themselves or their forebears, had left Ireland to escape the dominance of an English rule… [but] had little difficulty in procuring employment for as fighters they were without equal…”

O’Crouley’s fight was against the unknown, and against the temptation to ignore the small details, to overlook the seemingly unimportant.  And Ireland itself is the land of saints and scholars.   A scholar… and a great one… definitely.  Perhaps a saint of scholars?




2 Comments leave one →
  1. Richard Baldwin Cook permalink
    16 March 2016 6:11 am

    This is an excellent, valuable post. Thanks!


  1. The History Files #49: British Colonialism in India

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