The Centennial of Pancho Villa’s Raid on Columbus, NM: Intersections of History, Historical Memory, and Forgetting

We´re excited to welcome our newest contributor, Brandon Morgan, to the blog. Today, he writes a great piece on the historical memory and ceremony.  This post originally appeared in the blog, The Mexican Revolution: Memory, Culture, and History. -ed

Slowly and surely...Speakers and dignitaries present as the Vill Raid memorial got underway in Columbus on March 9, 1916

Speakers and dignitaries assembled as the Villa Raid memorial got underway in Columbus on March 9, 1916.

Slowly and surely people arrived at the crossroads of New Mexico 9 and 11 where the old El Paso and Southwestern rail station stands. Today, the old depot houses artifacts and memorabilia from the turn of the twentieth century. Most specifically, it contains relics that gained significance on the early morning of March 9, 1916, when General Francisco “Pancho” Villa led about 480 men across the international boundary three miles
southwest of town.

One hundred years later, behind the historic train station, restored over the past few decades through the efforts of the Columbus Historical Society (CHS), a slight, cool breeze flapped the edges of the American flags draped across the replica of General Pershing’s review stand and the desert sun grew warmer. I arrived just as the CHS memorial ceremony to mark the centennial of Villa’s raid got underway. Like most of the other 150 or so attendees, I had traveled hundreds of miles to participate in the ceremony to honor the memory of the eighteen Americans who were killed during the course of the attack. Only a handful of the participants in the memorial hailed from Columbus.

One hundred years later...

Following a proclamation read by Columbus Mayor Philip Skinner and the presentation of the colors by a detachment of the U.S. Border Patrol, CHS President Richard Dean provided an overview of the events of the raid. Characterizing the villistas as “bandits,” and Villa himself as a disgruntled “former general,” Dean explained how they cut the border fence at about 4:00 am on March 9, 1916, and then battled members of the Thirteenth Cavalry and civilian Columbusites for the better part of two hours before the resistance led by Lieutenants Lucas and Castleman forced the villista retreat. Colonel Frank Tompkins then led a small contingent across the border in pursuit for about four more hours.

Lives of everyone in the town were shattered. Dean specifically recalled the harrowing experiences of civilians killed during the raid. He recounted the story of Charles C. Miller who was killed as he attempted to secure weapons from his drugstore across the street from the Hoover Hotel where he had been living. After her husband was shot down, Mrs. J.J. Moore hid in the brush out by her home when villistas shot her in the hip. Outside the Commercial Hotel, Villa’s men shot Charles DeWitt Miller—an out-of-town visitor—as he attempted to escape in his new Model T. Inside the hotel, male guests and William T. Ritchie, the hotel proprietor, faced threats and several—including Ritchie—were eventually forced downstairs to the street where they were executed.

Dean’s own grandfather, James T. Dean was killed during the raid as he attempted to check on his grocery store on Broadway street. To conclude his comments, Dean read an El Paso newspaper correspondent’s account of the slain soldiers’ caskets being loaded on the El Paso & Southwestern, written a couple of days after the raid. A four-piece brass band provided accompaniment, playing the songs mentioned by the correspondent in his account.

Following Dean's remarks...

Following Dean’s remarks, Helen Patton, granddaughter of General George S. Patton, spoke of her grandfather’s assignment to General John J. Pershing’s Punitive Expedition tasked with hunting down Villa in Chihuahua in the months after the attack. Captain David Poe read the comments of one of Pershing’s descendants who was unable to attend personally, and General Salas of the New Mexico National Guard commented on the support provided by New Mexico guardsmen following the raid. To close the memorial, a roll call of the victims was made as audience participants answered for them. I answered for Charles D. Miller. The entire mood of the ceremony was one of solemnity and patriotism: pride in the military and the heroic stand of those in Columbus.

After the proceedings...Roadrunner Food Bank truck puls up to the Columbus park where locals wait for food distribution

Roadrunner Food Bank truck pulls up to the Columbus park where locals wait for food distribution.

After the proceedings, participants fanned out to take the walking tour of the various sites that had been razed by the villistas in 1916. Others attended a screening of a new documentary film about Pancho Villa and General Pershing. Although I had taken the walking tour before, I wanted to be outside. As I wandered from marker to marker, I also couldn’t help but notice the large crowd of (mostly) Mexican residents of Columbus that had gathered in the village park. None of them had attended the memorial, although, I assume, that many of them trace their ancestry to the New Mexico-Chihuahua border region. Instead, they jovially conversed and visited as they waited for food and clothing from Catholic Charities and the Roadrunner Food Bank to be distributed. As I watched the crowd, a woman I recognized from the memorial walked past me and commented, “there is nothing for us up here.”

As a student of the New Mexico-Chihuahua border’s history, I was struck by the extent to which Mexican people were excluded and forgotten, even as the Anglo residents of town were heralded and memorialized. Columbus was founded in 1891 as an outgrowth of the Palomas colonization and cattle concessions granted just across the border in northwestern Chihuahua. Connections between Deming, Columbus, Palomas, and La Ascensión (part of a trans-border region known as the Lower Mimbres Valley) had characterized the 1890s and early years of the 1900s. The Pacheco family, among many others, maintained homes on both sides of the international boundary, and frequented both Columbus and Palomas. Festivities to mark the July 4 and September 16 national holidays had routinely included residents from both sides of the border.

Despite continued cooperation...

Despite continued cooperation, by 1910, agents of the Columbus & Western New Mexico Company headed a deliberate campaign to (re)create Columbus as a space for white American family farmers that just happened to be on the border with Mexico. In their publications, they claimed that as of 1910 there were “less than five percent of the native, or Mexican, population in the valley.” Census counts, however, countered such claims (Morgan 2014, 489). All the while, the specter of the Mexican Revolution just across the border created tension, as well as economic opportunity in the form of the arms trade, for Columbus. Interestingly, Pancho Villa maintained an office in Columbus in 1913 and 1914, when he was at the height of his military prowess and popularity in both the United States and Mexico. Locals reported feeling a sense of safety due to his officers’ regular communication with Columbusites. Villa also had regular commercial dealings with Lithuanian immigrant Sam Ravel, who owned a mercantile and several other Columbus businesses. Ravel and Villa’s relationship subsequently fell apart; indeed, many have speculated that Villa chose Columbus because he had a personal score to settle with Ravel over an arms shipment.

Another forgotten figure in the complex history of relations between Villa and Columbus is Juan Favela, a foreman for the Palomas Land and Cattle Company who lived in town. A few days prior to the raid, Favela warned Colonel Herbert Slocum, commanding officer of the Thirteenth Cavalry in Columbus, that Villa was planning an attack. For various reasons, Slocum ignored the warning. On the morning of the raid, as the Commercial Hotel was in the process of burning to the ground, Favela entered through the rear entrance and led the surviving guests and members of the Ritchie family to safety.

Many, if not most, of the villistas present during the raid can also be characterized as victims themselves. Following his devastating string of defeats at the hands of revolutionary rival Alvaro Obregón, Villa could no longer count on his reputation for invincibility. Neither could he count on raising soldiers to his side with ease. In late 1915 and early 1916, Villa began a series of brutal reprisals against people—even entire towns—who had once supported him. Rather than lose their lives, many men opted to join his forces. Apparently, Villa did not inform his impressed army that their actual goal was a small town on the U.S. side of the border. As became apparent in the subsequent trials of villista soldiers in Deming and Santa Fe, most of Villa’s forces believed that they were attacking carrancistas in Chihuahua when, in reality, they attacked Columbus.

As former newspaper...

As former newspaper editor Perrow G. Mosely reported in a letter to his sister shortly after the raid, Columbusites summarily executed several villistas located in town when the dust had settled. Even local people of Mexican heritage were hunted down or run out of town, due to suspicion of complicity with the villistas. Others were taken prisoner and then tried. Six villistas were condemned to hang following a trial in Deming in the late spring of 1916. Twenty-one others received pardons from New Mexico Governor Octaviano Larrazolo, himself a Chihuahua native, in 1919—a decision that proved to be controversial at the time. As is the case for many of today’s migrants and refugees, I can’t help but think that if any of us were placed in the same situation as the impressed villistas, we would have made the same decision in an effort to preserve the lives of our family members. Also, see this post on Jesús Paez, an 11-year old boy who survived the raid, but remained a cripple.

Much like boosters connected to the Townsite Company of the 1910s, the memorial service focused on the memories of Anglo American residents of Columbus at the cost of erasing the presence and suffering of people of Mexican heritage on that Thursday morning in March one hundred years ago. As a historian, I sincerely hope that, not only as Americans or as Mexicans, but as human beings, we can be strong enough to allow all sides of our history to be heard—even when the histories in question are particularly painful. The case of Columbus shows us that March 9, 1916, was about far more than a group of Mexican “bandits” attacking a small U.S. border town. Unfortunately, segregation and tension still exist on the border over the historical memory of that day. I hope that the seventeenth cabalgata binacional, slated to arrive in Columbus this Saturday, can provide some additional context for the memory of the raid, and that we can be strong enough to realize that, especially on international borders, our story should never be reduced to “us vs. them.”

See this slideshow of Raid Memorial Photos at the Las Cruces Sun-News website

Categories: Events | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “The Centennial of Pancho Villa’s Raid on Columbus, NM: Intersections of History, Historical Memory, and Forgetting

  1. Pingback: The Centennial of Pancho Villa’s Raid on Columbus, NM: Intersections of History, Historical Memory, and Forgetting | Buffalo Doug

  2. Michael K. Bess

    Thanks for the pingback!

  3. Brandon Morgan

    Yes, thanks Doug!

  4. Pingback: Making History | Ground Zero

  5. Pingback: Layers of Memory on the Landscape – Musings on Borders and Violence

  6. Pingback: A Year in Review: BHB in 2016 | Borderlands History

  7. Pingback: Lessons from the border – Around Latin America in a Semester

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