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Town Marking 75-Year Anniversary of Columbus Raid

March 18, 1991

COLUMBUS, N.M. (AP) _ Seventy-five years after Pancho Villa’s troops surged across the border into Columbus and killed 18 people, the park in the middle of town is named after an unlikely historical figure: Pancho Villa.

When Richard Dean’s great-uncle learned the park would carry Villa’s name, he was furious. He wrote the governor, who wrote back that the state merely wanted to capitalize on the Villa mystique.

″My great-uncle didn’t like it, but he accepted it,″ Dean said.

Dean’s great-uncle had reason. The park was located at the spot where he found the body of his father - Richard Dean’s great-grandfather - under a pile of dead Mexicans.

It happened on March 9, 1916. Three-quarters of a century later, the day the Mexicans attacked Columbus is still remembered.

Two survivors of the Mexican raid joined in a 75th anniversary memorial ervice for those who died in the fighting.

There were other anniversary celebrations as well: Bronze plaques were etched with the names of those who died, pewter commemmorative coins were sold, there was a barbecue, a chili cook-off and a dance.

Richard Dean, the great-grandson of the unfortunate James T. Dean, is president of the Columbus Historical Society and was at the center of the anniversary planning. There still is anger in Columbus, and Dean tried to avoid glorifying the man behind it all.

″As you know, the glamorous part of this whole affair was probably the magic name of Pancho Villa,″ Dean said. ″We do not want to glamorize and that’s a very difficult task.″

There are a number of theories about why Francisco ″Pancho″ Villa - reviled by Americans as a brutal bandit, beloved by Mexicans as a revolutionary - invaded Columbus.

Some say he was angry that President Woodrow Wilson had recognized Mexican President Venustiano Carranza; others say he needed weapons, money and food.

Columbus was a flourishing community at the time, benefiting from the railroad and military troops at Camp Furlong who were part of a military buildup to keep the Mexican Revolution from spilling onto U.S. soil.

At 4 a.m. on March 9, Villa’s fighters entered Columbus. Sources differ on whether Villa was with them, although some witnesses claimed they saw him; the number of Mexicans also is unknown.

At the time of the raid, James T. Dean was in his grocery store, according to his great-grandson. ″He saw the ‘Villistas’ had set fire to the Commercial Hotel. Of course it lit up the town,″ Dean said.

″He insisted he was going to help his fellow townsmen put out the fire. As he headed downtown, he walked right into the middle of the battle.

″My great-uncle was here at time of the raid. He fought all that morning with the soldiers and as they were trying to clean up and haul off some of the Mexicans in the street, that’s when he found his father.″

Margaret Epps, 84, said her family lived on the outskirts of Columbus at the time of the raid. Margaret, then 9, and her 7-year-old brother were in school when they learned Villa had attacked the town.

″The people who lived right across the road from the Sunnyside schoolhouse had a telephone and they had gotten the word that Pancho Villa killed everybody in Columbus and burned all the buildings down,″ she said. ″The teacher sent us all home and she went home and she never did come back.″

The battle lasted just two hours. Villa and his men were turned back by the U.S. Army’s 13th Cavalry and residents who joined in the fight, but not before 18 U.S. citizens died, including 10 civilians.

The number of Mexicans who died is not known - some were buried in mass graves, and other bodies were burned. According to one history, at least 110 were killed or captured.

The day after Villa’s attack, the president ordered Gen. John J. ″Black Jack″ Pershing to hunt down the raiders in Mexico and capture Villa. That assault became known as the Punitive Expedition. U.S. troops traveled deep into Mexican territory, but never were able to capture Villa.

Even so, the troops returned to Columbus on Feb. 17, 1917, to crowds of children who greeted them in song.

Failure that it was, the expedition marked the last great cavalry stand and the first time motorized vehicles were used in warfare. It also marked the start of the nation’s air force. The Army used cloth-covered biplanes, the Curtis JN3 known as Jennys, in the expedition.

Villa died in 1923, slain in an ambush. Columbus became a footnote in history and the home of Pancho Villa Park, located where the cavalry’s Camp Furlong once stood, a collection of crumbling adobe slabs amid gardens of cacti.

And not far away, a cluster of white stones marks the grave of James T. Dean. Nothing on his headstone indicates he was a victim of the last invasion of the United States by a foreign armed force.

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