In the early morning of March 9, 1916, Pancho Villa crossed the U. S. border and into history. On that day, Villa launched the first attack on American soil since the War of 1812, killing 18 Americans and leaving the small NewMexicantown of Columbus in flames. Among the dead was one-time Las Crucen Charles D. Miller, a 1906 graduate of the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts and brother of college registrar 1. 0. Miller. When the unidentified body was removed from the ruins of the hotel, his Masonic ring was recognized by a Mason in the rescue party and was found to be engraved n the inside with Miller’s name,” the Rio Grande Republican reported. Much of the town turned out for his funeral at the Masonic cemetery in Las Cruces. His death and the raid on the fellow border town shocked Las Cruces, though many of its citizens and college students had actively served along the border in the National Guard ascivil warraged in Mexico.
It was Just one of several connections Las Cruces had with the Mexican Revolution and Pancho Villa, who is the focus of a new exhibit at the Branigan Cultural Center. James Hester, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Colorado, will ick off thephotoexhibit this Saturday with a talk about Villa at the cultural center, which will also present a special showing of a Villa documentary on March 9. Cruces connection Almost a hundred years after the raid, Villa remains a controversial and complicated fgure. A state nature park near Columbus even bears his name, despite the brutal raid on the town. The raid wasn’t the first time Las Cruces telt the impact ot the Mexican Revolution that nad start up Just as New Mexico was finally becoming a state. In late 1911, the one-time-bandit-turned-revolutionary had sided with newly elected resident Francisco Madero. By the following spring, anti-Madero forces led by a disgruntled Gen. Pasqual Orozco had captured most of Chihuahua, except for the city of Parral still held by Villa.
Among Villa’s troops was the Mesilla-born Thomas Fountain, the son of Col. Albert J. Fountain, one of the Mesilla Valley’s most important 19th century figures, who was murdered along with his 9-year old son Henry in 1896. Thomas, whose mother had deepfamilyties in Chihuahua, was one of hundreds of ” foreign” fghters and mercenaries who’d Joined the charismatic revolutionary Villa. That group also included one of the valley’s more unusual new immigrants, former Boer War leader Benjamin VilJoen of South Africa, who Joined with Madero as a military advisor.
In early April 1912, Orozco’s forces were close to taking Parral, and were trying to place a cannon on a strategically vital point overlooking the city. But Fountain, manning a machine gun, single-handedly thwarted their efforts. The Villistas were forced from the city two days later, yet Fountain remained behind in his adopted hometown and was captured. Bad for business Though American diplomatic efforts initially stopped his execution, the Rio Grande Republican reported Fountain’s captors allowed him to flee, under the dubious ” law of flight,” only to shoot him in the back in the streets of Parral.
His killing made national headlines and outraged Americans, among them one of New Mexico’s first senators, Albert Fall, who had a complicated relationship not only with Villa and the Mexican revolution, but the Fountain family as well. As a new senator, the bilingual Fall put himself forward as an expert on Mexico, ultimately heading up the Senate subcommittee on Mexican affairs. Fall had been a long-time bitter foe of Thomas’ father, and in 1898 had successfully efended the men accused of his murder. At the urging ot Thomas’ brother, Albert, Fall taccountabilityfor the execution. d to get some kind ot Fall, who’d started his legalcareerin Las Cruces, was among other locals with extensive business dealings in Mexico that were threatened by the continued political instability. Eugene Van Patten, a former county sheriff, ” Indian fighter,” and co-founder of the local New Mexico Militia, owned the Dripping Springs resort where Villa reportedly visited at least once. In 1914, the Rio Grande Republican reported Van Patten and county assessor Duara Peacock secured a valuable contract to buy seized Mexican cotton directly from Villa.
Another account reports Van Patten met with Villa in Juarez that same year to urge the release of an American-born prisoner Pedro Chaves, the son of wealthy Albuquerque wool merchant Amado Chaves. From hero to villain Any friendly relations with Villa, who many along the America border saw as a sort of revolutionary folk hero, evaporated with the raid on Columbus. The motivations behind the raid remain unclear. After the assassination of Modero in 1913, Villa initially won battlefield victories in orthern Mexico.
But by 1916, he was mostly on the run, with the U. S. government supporting his foe, interim president Venustiano Carranza. Some believe Villa needed the weaponry and supplies he knew were held in Columbus by a small contingent of the 13th U. S. Cavalry. His forces did seize horses and supplies, and at least 80 were killed in the one-hour attack. A half dozen Villistas were captured and executed in Deming in June 1916, and a large American expeditionary force led by Gen. John J. Pershing was soon in Mexico searching for the elusive Villa.
The college newspaper the Round Up reported many of its students were among that force, which at different times based itself in or near Las Cruces. ” Scores of Aggies, alumni, and old students (have) responded to the call. The plow, hoe, the slide rule and transit, were laid aside, the khaki was donned and with gun and bayonet they went forth to keep Pancho Villa on his own side of the line,” the paper reported Villa remained out of the hands of Pershing, who by early 1917 was heading over to Europe with America’s entry into World War l, where some of those same Aggies would serve and die.