In the early morning hours of March 9, 1916, a group of Mexican nationals under the direction of General Pancho Villa raided the U.S. Army’s Camp Furlong and the nearby town of Columbus, New Mexico. The town and camp were about three miles north of the Mexican border. Villa’s soldiers, called “Villistas,” were the first foreign forces to attempt a ground attack on the continental United States since the War of 1812.
The reasons for the raid are still under debate more than a century later (and it’s not certain that Villa himself participated directly in the attack), but Mexico was in the midst of a violent and drawn-out revolution at the time and Villa may have been attempting retribution for the United States declaring its support for another political faction within Mexico. Others think that Villa was simply seeking to take the U.S. Army’s supplies and weapons at Camp Furlong to aid in his fight against Mexican rival Venustiano Carranza.
Whatever the motive, the attack resulted in the deaths of 10 American civilians and eight U.S. soldiers, and about 80 Villistas. The town of Columbus was also burned. Within a week, a U.S. Army force commanded by General John J. Pershing entered Mexico to bring Villa and his followers to justice. This “punitive expedition” lasted until February 1917, when the U.S. forces returned north of the border without having captured Villa. However, nearly 200 Villistas and a small number of U.S. Army troops had been killed during the expedition’s battles. The U.S. Army had sent about 5,000 soldiers deep into Mexico in pursuit of Villa, and Camp Furlong was extensively developed to support the expedition. The Mexican general was assassinated, most likely by a Mexican political rival, in 1923.
In the late morning hours of December 26, 2021, Nancy and I arrived at Pancho Villa State Park in Columbus (present day population: around 1,600). The park, 30 miles south of where we were camping in Deming, New Mexico, is on the same ground as Camp Furlong, which had been decommissioned by 1923. The park was established in 1959.
Some may wonder, and Nancy and I believe rightly so, why there’s a New Mexico state park named after a person who attacked the United States. According to signage at the park, the New Mexico state legislature, in 1959, designated the park in Villa’s name “in recognition of the subsequent long continued friendly relations of the two countries.” Villa had, in turns, been both a friend and foe to the United States, and his story, as well as that of the Mexican Revolution in which he was a major participant, is a complex one. In any case, there’s much to be learned about U.S. history and Mexican history, and the relations between the two countries, at Pancho Villa State Park. Nancy and I had both heard of Pancho Villa prior to our visit to this state park, but our familiarity with him and his exploits ended with just knowing his name. The exhibits at the state park rectified that and encouraged us to learn more about the people involved on both sides of the border, and we enjoyed our visit quite a lot.