Pancho Villa State Park

December 26, 2021

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.

This is the view south from high atop Cootes Hill, a promontory in Columbus from which Villa directed the attack on the town and Camp Furlong. The hill was later became part of Camp Furlong as it expanded to support the pursuit of Villa in Mexico. Columbus is a little more than three miles north of the border, so the mountains in the distance are in Mexico. The campground at Pancho Villa State Park, with 52 campsites built on the former grounds of Camp Furlong, is in the middle foreground.
This early U.S. Army armored vehicle is positioned at the entrance to the park’s visitor center. This is an example of the height of military technology at the time of Pershing’s pursuit of Villa in 1916; compare and contrast this vehicle with the M26 tank (named after Pershing) that was in use in World War II less than 30 years later. While the Army’s pursuit of Pancho Villa and his forces didn’t result in Villa’s capture, the effort proved valuable in getting the U.S. Army ready, from troop readiness to vehicle development, for its actions in the European Theatre when the country entered World War I.
A replica of a Curtiss JN3 Jenny biplane is suspended above the other exhibits in the state park’s visitor center. Following the raid, Camp Furlong established the first tactical military airfield in the United States, and airplanes like the Jenny provided aerial observation and communication services for the U.S. Army as it chased Villa’s forces in Mexico.
Pursuing Villa’s forces across the rough country of northern Mexico necessitated the use of new technology on wheels, including this large truck, in addition to the U.S. Cavalry’s stock of horses and mules. The text above the grille reads “The Four Wheel Drive Auto Co., Clintonville, Wis.”
This 1916 Dodge touring car is identical to the model that Pershing used as his mobile field office while in Mexico. Concurrent with the rapid development of mass-produced motor vehicles in the United States, the actions against Villa transitioned the U.S. Cavalry from a horse- and mule-based command to that which relied on motorized vehicles. Pershing would go on to command the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I – for which he’d gained valuable experience in Mexico.
The museum at the state park has an extensive collection of military equipment, including weapons, vehicles, uniforms and more, from the pre-World War I era. The slim profile of this 1916 Army medical manual gave me pause. I enjoy putting historical events in chronological context and it’s interesting to think that 50 years prior to the publication of this manual, the U.S. had just emerged from its own Civil War; 50 years later, it would be fighting another war, this one in Vietnam.
Some of Camp Furlong’s original infrastructure, such as a raised concrete area in which soldiers changed the oil on newfangled Army trucks, is still to be found in the state park’s campground. Pershing’s expedition to locate Villa was the first time that the U.S. Army used motorized vehicles, including trucks and airplanes, in a campaign; up to that point, it’d been horses and mules (which were also used, of course, in the pursuit of Villa).
You’re looking east from the Pancho Villa State Park Campground. On the other side of this campsite’s shaded picnic table and a highway that will take you to Mexico (located three miles south) is the site of the first U.S. military airfield. It was from this location that daring young men took to the skies in their mighty Curtiss Jennies, soaring southward to keep tabs on the Villinistas. El Paso, Texas (and Ciudad Juárez in Mexico) are about 75 miles to the east, as the roadrunner runs.
I’ll close with something completely different at Pancho Villa State Park: I was pleasantly surprised to still find blooming wildflowers in late December. This pretty flower is the desert marigold, which is native to the southwestern United States and north-central Mexico; it grows about a foot tall. The state park has an impressive collection of wildflowers and succulents in gardens between the visitor center and the campground.

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.

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