Text and photos by Don Laine
General Francisco “Pancho” Villa was not a nice person, but the Mexican bandit-revolutionary, certainly without meaning to, played a major role in helping the United States prepare for its entrance into World War I.
Today, those traveling in southern New Mexico can drop in to Pancho Villa State Park in the border town of Columbus to learn about Villa and see some of America’s first mechanized military equipment. If your timing’s right you might also see blooming cactus in spring and do a bit of bird watching in winter.
The story begins in the early morning hours of March 9, 1916, when guerilla revolutionaries, under Villa, crossed the border from Mexico and attacked Columbus, New Mexico, looting it and setting it on fire while killing 18 Americans and wounding another 12. This is generally recognized as the last armed invasion of the continental United States.
A small garrison of U.S. troops at Camp Furlong, on the south edge of town, mounted a defense, and by dawn, the Mexicans were back across the border. Initial reports said there were 2,000 attackers, but later estimates put that closer to 500. Estimates of Mexican guerillas killed ranged from about 100 to more than 200.
A likely reason that Villa attacked Columbus is that he wanted to punish the United States, and especially President Woodrow Wilson, for recognizing and helping his political rival, Mexican President Venustiano Carranza. Villa also wanted the supplies he got from looting the town and Camp Furlong.
If nothing else, the raid did get the attention of President Wilson, who sent General John “Black Jack” Pershing on what was called a “punitive expedition,” in which thousands of U.S. troops chased Villa for 11 months, traveling some 400 miles into Mexico. Although there were a number of skirmishes with Villa’s men, in which 75-to-100 Mexican guerillas were killed, Villa was never captured.
However, documents unearthed in 1991 indicate that the U.S. tried to assassinate Villa — and came very close to doing so — in 1916. According to the reports, written by an Army intelligence officer, the Army hired two Japanese, who made their way to Villa’s camp and went to work as cooks. They brought with them a poison, supposedly odorless and tasteless, and after a few days put some in Villa’s coffee. Always cautious, Villa poured half of it into another man’s cup, watched him drink it, and then drank the rest himself. The Japanese quietly left. While it is not known if Villa and the other coffee-drinker suffered any ill effects, Villa did not die at that time. He was finally killed in 1923, reportedly by Mexican enemies with no connection to the U.S. Army.
Although Pershing’s trek through Mexico in search of Villa did not attain its goal, it was a success in another way. It was a training ground for World War I, which the United States was about to enter. Industrialization had brought changes to the world, and to war. Pershing’s punitive expedition was the last time the U.S. would use mounted cavalry, and was also the first time a U.S. military operation would use motorized trucks and planes. Ironically, fuel for the new internal combustion engines was carried by mules.
Visitors to Pancho Villa State Park today can see the ruins of the camp, including the adobe shells of the judge advocate’s office and jail, and also the first grease rack installed to service U.S. military vehicles. Also remaining is the camp’s airstrip, used by the Army’s First Aero Squadron, which consisted of eight biplanes. The old U.S. Customs Service building, constructed in 1902, serves as the park’s visitor center, and contains artifacts, historic photos, and exhibits describing Villa, the attack on Columbus, and the U.S. military’s incursion into Mexico.
Despite this park’s name, however, it has another side that has absolutely nothing to do with Villa’s attack. The park is home to extensive botanical gardens, filled with more than 30 varieties of cacti and their drought-resistant brethren, including cow tongue and beavertail prickly pear, tree and cane cholla, claret cup, horse crippler, long mama, yucca, agave, ocotillo, sotol, and Joshua trees.
Birders have catalogued more than 50 species in the park, including American kestrels, red-shafted flickers, Inca doves, mourning doves, starlings, western meadowlarks, scaled quail, Brewer’s blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, cactus wrens, roadrunners, red-tailed hawks, ravens, and an occasional sandhill crane. The park also has jackrabbits, coyotes, javelina, rattlesnakes, and bullsnakes. Every once in a while a bobcat is seen.
Trails are short and easy. A 130-yard nature trail has identifying signs on cactus and other desert plants. The Coote’s Hill Trail — about 0.5-mile total — is a series of interconnecting trails that wind through a botanical garden and up to the top of Coote’s Hill, providing a good view of the surrounding countryside, all the way to Mexico. The park’s only paved trail, it was named for a soldier who was stationed here. There is also a 1-mile exercise loop trail that is convenient for getting to and from the campground and other park facilities. There are RV hookups, restrooms with showers, and a dump station.