Pancho Villa

… and the Punitive Expedition of 1916



Historical negationism is an intentional distortion of the historical record.  It attempts to revise the past by telling a different story about the people who participated in historical events.  In most cases, historical negation is designed to achieve a national or political purpose.  It could be, for example, to transfer war guilt, demonize an enemy, sell more books, or make someone into something he never was.  Once we’ve factored out all the lies and myths told about famous people, then we begin to understand that we know far less about them than we thought.  José Doroteo Arango Arámbula is one such individual — starting with his name.  He is known to history as Francisco “Pancho” Villa, and almost nothing we know about him is verifiable.

The Boy

No one can control the circumstances of their birth.  What matters more than how a man begins his life is how he finishes it.  We believe Doroteo’s father was a poor sharecropper.  There is no shame in being poor; if Doroteo’s father was poor, he at least had something in common with 95% of Mexico’s population.

La Casa de Pancho Villa

Sharecropping was backbreaking work.  The sharecropper either worked the land by himself, or he employed his family as his helpers.  Sharecroppers and their families lived in homes on land they didn’t own.  They were at the mercy of the landowner, who could evict them at will, who decided how much profit they could expect from a field’s production.  In many ways, a sharecropper’s life was similar to the life of an indentured servant.

Pancho was raised on one of Durango’s largest haciendas, and the proof of this is that the hovel he grew up in (pictured above left) is now a historic museum in San Juan del Rio.  The environment of Doroteo’s youth taught him to value machismo, even if it meant murder.  It led him to place a high value on the lowest form of human behavior.  Fast-forwarding to the present, given the ruthlessness of the soldiers of drug cartels, we may safely conclude that no other people in the world revere cutthroats quite so much as Mexicans.

When Augustin Arango died, José dropped out of the second or third grade to help raise four younger children.  Pancho claimed that in his formative years, he worked as a field hand, muleskinner[1], butcher, bricklayer, and foreman on an American-owned railway system.  In his dictated memoir, Poncho claims to have moved away from home to work in Chihuahua.  Sometime later, the 16-year-old returned to Durango to kill the owner of a hacienda named Augustin López Negrete — whom his sister accused of rape.  The murder accomplished, he stole a horse and fled into the Sierra Madre mountains, where he became a fully vetted bandit.  Joining an outlaw gang, he began calling himself Arango.

Petty Bandit – Petty Revolutionary

By 1902, Porfirio Díaz had served as President of Mexico for 26 years.  Señor Díaz maintained an iron grip on Mexican society and made no hesitation in tracking down bandits and political opponents.  In that year, the Guardia Rural arrested José, charging him with the theft of mules and deadly assault.  At trial, he avoided the customary death penalty because the recipient of most of his stolen goods was the wealthy and very powerful Pablo Valenzuela.

Instead of death, Valenzuela arranged to have José enlisted in the Mexican Federal Army (Federales).[2]  Undisciplined, Pancho soon deserted the Army.  Worse, a year later, he murdered an army officer, stole his horse, and fled to Chihuahua.  This is about the time José began calling himself Francisco Villa — which is how I will refer to him from this point on.  In later life, Pancho explained that Francisco Villa was his grandfather’s name, but historians say that he lifted it from another bandit in Coahuila.

In 1910, Pancho met Abraham González de Hermosillo y Casavantes — a supporter of presidential hopeful Francisco Madero[3].  González assured Pancho that he could make good use of his natural affinity for murder and mayhem — to help the ordinary people in their war against the rich and powerful.  In effect, Pancho’s willingness to aid González made Pancho one of González’s “useful idiots.”

When the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910, Pancho was 32 years old.  Villa’s campaign of domestic terror began in earnest after President Díaz ordered the arrest of Madero.  Madero’s idea, communicated through González, was that Villa should “deal with” anyone who opposed Madero’s presidency.  In effect, President-hopeful Madero began using the same strategies as President Diaz.  Pancho Villa had no hesitance in arresting or assassinating Madero’s political opponents.  Moreover, Villa was so efficient in murdering other human beings that Madero appointed him a colonel in his revolutionary forces.

Once Madero achieved the presidency, he disbanded the Revolutionary Army — as if thugs pay any attention to authority.  Subsequently, Villa teamed up with Pascual Orozco, another bandit, and they made a joint demand that Madero seizes all hacienda lands and redistribute them to his revolutionary soldiers.  Madero, as a wealthy landowner, rebuffed the suggestion — which should surprise no one.  Villa broke from Madero when he appointed Venustiano Carranza as his war minister.[4]  Orozco broke with Madero because Madero failed to reward him for his perfidy against Díaz.  Villa returned to Madero as an ally to fight Orozco, later affiliating his bandits with General Victoriano Huerta.  Huerta “rewarded” Villa by making him an honorary brigadier general.[5]

General Huerta soon realized that Villa was unreliable and attempted to discredit him by accusing him of horse stealing and referring to Villa as a bandit.  Pancho Villa beamed.  It’s nice to be recognized for one’s talents.  Still, such an “insult” must be answered, and Pancho Villa struck General Huerta in the face.  The honorary brigadier general soon faced the prospect of a firing squad.  Villa appealed to Madero, who, in his mercy, ordered Villa imprisoned instead.

While Villa was in prison, Victoriano began to imagine himself as President.  All he needed to do to achieve it was murder Madero, Madero’s two brothers (army officers), and Madero’s political advisor, Señor González.  President Madero and González were assassinated in 1913; brother Gustavo was ripped to shreds by an anti-revolutionary mob led by Porfirio’s nephew Felix Díaz.

When Pancho escaped from the Santiago Tlatelolco prison on Christmas day 1912, he slipped across the US border near Nogales, Arizona.  When Madero met his end in February, Villa crossed back into Mexico in the company of seven other bandits and a string of mules.  He intended to oppose General Huerta, who was at the time living in the presidential palace.  By this time, every petty criminal in Mexico had his sights set on becoming Mexico’s president.  Villa’s choice was dichotic.  He could either knuckle under Huerta or support Carranza, who became Huerta’s principal enemy.  Under Carranza, Pancho Villa moved his criminal activities to far northern Mexico.

Between 1913-14, Pancho Villa became a household name in Mexico.  Some wealthy landowners supported him directly; others required coaxing — not unlike America’s modern-day Rainbow/Push coalition racket.  To supplement this ill-begotten income, Pancho began robbing trains.  Part of Villa’s popularity came from the foolish meanderings of an American journalist named Ambrose Bierce, whose sudden and unexplained disappearance remains a mystery, and the unapologetically leftist writer John Reed.  John Reed glorified Villa’s blatant confiscation of cattle, grain, and bullion and made him into a Mexican Robin Hood.  Of course, Robin Hood never robbed banks, kidnapped bankers, seized haciendas, or murdered anyone in cold blood.

But thanks to the propaganda of American leftist writers and the dolts in Hollywood, slow-thinking Americans began to support Villa in his “fight for the people.”  Once he was on the losing side, however — as the revolution and civil war continued with no end in sight — the United States refused to allow Villa any further supply of arms or ammunition.  Instead, President Woodrow Wilson threw his support behind  Venustiano Carranza, even to the extent of enabling Carranza to transport his military over US-owned railroads in the Southwest United States.  Wilson believed that Carranza represented the best hope for a stabilized Mexico.  In this way, the dreaded Americanos became Villa’s enemy as much as the hated Carranzanistas. 

After January 1916, when Villa’s forces murdered fifteen employees at the American Smelting and Refining Company during an assault on the Mexico North Western Railway (near Santa Isabel), Villa began planning for an attack against the US border towns to resupply his dwindling Army.

In January 1916, the Mexican Revolution entered its sixth year, and there was no end in sight to the bloodshed.  Understanding these events is difficult for most people because nothing of what happened in those years made any sense.  It may have begun as a rebellion against Porfirio Díaz, the president who simply would not go away, but then everyone who ever rode a donkey proclaimed himself a general and gathered about him as many cutthroats and murderers as he could find, then attempted to seize power for himself.  At least seventeen donkey generals were competing for dominance in Mexico.  The cost to Mexico was 2.7 million killed — between 700,000 and 1.7 millions of those were innocent civilians, for whom Villa and others claimed to be fighting.

Columbus, New Mexico

In March 1916, Pancho Villa stationed himself along Mexico’s northern border, south of New Mexico.  He had with him approximately 1,500 men, half of whom had no weapons or horses.  Villa’s target was the small border town of Columbus.  Villa wanted to know the strength of the small US Army garrison in Columbus, information he required to finalize his attack plan.  A reconnaissance patrol dispatched by Villa later reported no more than thirty American soldiers.[6]

In Columbus, the US Army garrison fell under Colonel Herbert J. Slocum, commanding the Thirteenth U. S. Cavalry Regiment.  On 8 March 1916, the regiment’s strength was 12 officers and 341 seasoned troopers.  Of those, about one-third were on patrol duty over the night of 8-9 March.

One effect of the Mexican Revolution was the surge of tens of thousands of Mexican citizens toward the US/Mexico border, desperate to get out of the way of warring factions inside Mexico.  While understandable, the presence of so many refugees destabilized American border area communities.  Some Americans exhibited great empathy for these displaced Mexicans, but there were others who, given their experiences with border ruffians over many years, viewed these refugees with disdain. 

On 8 March, Colonel Slocum received three separate reports from Mexican sources telling him about Pancho Villa’s presence on the Mexican side of the border.  Slocum constantly received such warnings, all of them nearly impossible to verify, and up until then, all such warnings proved unreliable.  But the fact that Slocum was receiving such information at all increased tensions along the border.  No one wanted Mexico’s war spilling over into the United States.

At midnight on 9th March, Pancho Villa divided his six-hundred effective men into two columns and approached the town on foot.  The attack began at around 0400.  The Army garrison and townspeople were asleep.  Of course, Mexicans cannot attack anything without their obligatory “Viva Mexico” shouting, which immediately alerted the sleeping citizens and soldiers.  Villa’s men wasted no time setting fire to commercial buildings and looting stores and homes.  Civilians and soldiers alike scrambled to arm themselves.  Everyone living in Columbus had at least one gun.  Villa’s scouting party overlooked the Army’s two machine-gun sections, which quickly went into action against rampaging men.  It was not difficult to observe these men because the fires they set inside the town illuminated them.

The shooting lasted for around 90 minutes.  No one thinks that Villa ever set foot inside Columbus; that’s not how Mexican general’s fight.  As Villa’s forces withdrew, Major Frank Thompkins pursued them for fifteen miles into Mexico.  He broke off the chase because he had inadequate water and ammunition.

During the engagement in Columbus, Villa’s men killed or wounded forty American soldiers, sixteen civilians, and a stray bullet killed one infant.  Villa lost 183 men killed or injured, and either the Army or American civilians captured seven of Villa’s men, six of whom they executed. Given his losses, Villa’s attack was costly. Villa’s men did, however, manage to seize 300 army rifles and shotguns, 80 horses, and 30 mules. In the longer term, all Villa achieved was a more significant US military presence along the US/Mexico border.

The Mexican Expedition

At the time of Villa’s invasion, Major General Frederick Funston commanded the Army’s southern department.  He urged President Wilson to authorize a military expedition to pursue Villa into Mexico.  Wilson approved Funston’s recommendation and issued a statement to the press: “An adequate force will be sent at once in pursuit of Villa with the single object of capturing him and putting a stop to his forays.  This can and will be done in entirely friendly aid to the constituted authorities in Mexico and with scrupulous respect for the sovereignty of that Republic.”  President Wilson assigned this duty to John J. Pershing.

John J. Pershing as Major General

Brigadier General John J. Pershing, somewhat popularly referred to as “Black Jack” Pershing, had a rather meteoric rise in rank through the Army.[7]  After graduating from the US Military Academy in 1886, he served for six years as a first lieutenant before receiving a commission to major in the Ordnance Corps of U. S. Volunteers.[8]  A year later, the Army transferred him to the Adjutant General Corps of US Volunteers.  In 1903, the Army reverted him to a captain of cavalry in the regular Army.  In 1906, the Army appointed “Black Jack” Pershing to brigadier general, passing over major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel in the regular army.  He served six years as a brigadier and one year as a major general before achieving four-star rank.

Following his raid on Columbus, New Mexico, Pancho Villa led his rag-tag army in a beeline for the Sierra Madre Mountains.  Meanwhile, Pershing began assembling his expeditionary force of around ten thousand men: three brigades, including four regiments of cavalry, two of infantry, horse artillery, motorized transportation units, eight aircraft, and a substantial logistics element.

On 18 March, Pershing dispatched his lead element, the US 7th Cavalry under Colonel George A. Dodd, across the border in pursuit of Pancho Villa.  Colonel Dodd had no appreciation for the distance between Columbus, New Mexico, and the Sierra Madre Mountains.[9]  Persistent winter weather impeded Dodd’s progress, particularly in the higher elevations. 

Villa’s withdrawal strategy was to divide his army into smaller units that could more easily hide in the mountain terrain — but not before some celebration in the foothill town of Guerrero.  On 29th March, after a 55-mile night march through blizzard conditions in the Sierra Madre, Colonel Dodd led his 370 men into an attack on Villa’s celebrating criminals.  The Mexicans, upon seeing the American forces, scattered.  Dodd’s charge faltered when his fatigued horses lost their gait, but still, the 7th Cavalry killed or wounded 75 bandits.  The rest, including Villa, rapidly retreated into the mountains.  Colonel Dodd’s charge was the only successful engagement of the entire expedition.

Pershing’s expedition was a disaster from the start.  He had no viable sources of intelligence, his logistics train was too complicated, regular Mexican army units impeded its progress, and Mexican civilians intentionally interfered with the expedition’s progress.

On 12 April, five hundred Mexican troops assaulted elements of the US 13th Cavalry under Major Frank Tompkins near Parral, Mexico.  Since Thompkins’ orders directed him to avoid confrontations with the Mexican Army, he withdrew his regiment to Santa Cruz de Villegas.  Two of his men lost their lives in a rear-guard action, with one soldier reported as missing in action.

Military opposition imposed by President Carranza edged the US and Mexico closer to open war.  Because Pershing’s progress reports were dismal in the extreme, the Secretary of War urgently recommended that President Wilson withdraw the expedition.  However, following the fight at Parral, Wilson refused.  He did not like the visual effects of caving to Carranza’s pressure.  It was an election year.

President Wilson’s refusal to withdraw the expedition forced General Pershing to change his strategy.  He was no longer looking for Pancho Villa; he was trying to protect his force from attack by the Mexican Army while avoiding war with Mexico.  Moving his force to San Antonio de los Arenales, Pershing began conducting “search and detain” operations against the civilian populace.  But had Pershing been looking for Villa — he was nowhere near San Antonio de los Arenales.

President Wilson finally recalled Pershing’s expedition in January 1917.  As soon as General Pershing crossed back into the United States, he declared victory.  Pancho Villa laughed.  He was still running around inside Mexico doing bandit things.  However, worse for the United States was that President Carranza used the Pershing expedition to mobilize widespread support for his regime — for a time.  Venustiano Carranza was assassinated on 21 May 1920.

La Muerte de Pancho

Pancho Villa

After his disastrous campaign at Celaya, Pancho Villa left the public limelight, returning to his roots as a bandit thug and murdering twit in Chihuahua.  After Carranza’s assassination by Álvaro Obregón, Villa made a deal with the junta: in exchange for a 25,000-acre hacienda in Canutillo, Chihuahua, and 500,000 gold pesos, Villa would remain out of politics forevermore.

On 20 July 1923, during a visit to Parral, seven men stepped into the street ahead of the car transporting José Doroteo Arango Arámbula, a.k.a. Francisco “Pancho” Villa, and emptied their high-powered weapons into the automobile.  On that day, Villa’s numerous bodyguards had other errands to run, so they were not present to assist their patrón.  Villa was instantly killed.  He was 45 years old.  A few days later, Villa’s assassins received appointments as officers in the Mexican Army.

Mexico’s government never embraced the memory of Pancho Villa because his only personal achievement during the Revolution was a change to his title rather than a change in occupation.  He began his adult life as a bandit, and that’s the way he ended his life.  But among the Mexican people, Pancho Villa remains a hero because they admire murderers, assassins, thieves, bullies, and other low creatures.


  1. Arnold, O.  The Mexican Centaur: An Intimate Biography of Pancho Villa.  Portals Press, 1979.
  2. Boot, M.  The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power.  Basic Books, 2003.
  3. Braddy, H.  Cock of the Walk: The Legend of Pancho Villa.  University of New Mexico Press, 1955
  4. Howell, J.  Evaluating the many faces of Pancho Villa: Outlaw, Hero, Patriot, Cutthroat. Historical Text Archive, 2004.
  5. Quesada, A.  The Hunt for Pancho Villa: The Columbus Raid and Pershing’s Punitive Expedition, 1916-17.  Osprey Press, 2012.


[1] A muleskinner is someone who drives a team of mules.

[2] Military conscription was frequently imposed on troublemakers and bandits, perhaps with the expectation that military service would “straighten them out.” 

[3] Francisco Ignacio Madero González (1873-1913) was a revolutionary, assassinated while serving at President of Mexico.  He was also a wealthy landowner, which tends to place the concept of “revolutionary” in its proper perspective in Mexico.

[4] Venustiano Carranza was a typical Mexican opportunist who joined with Madero when Díaz refused to appoint him as a state governor. 

[5] The only place “honorary brigadier generals” are found outside of Mexico is the U. S. Air Force.

[6] One lesson gained from the attack on Columbus, New Mexico, is that whoever conducts scouting missions should be able to count past twenty. 

[7] The genesis of the sobriquet “black jack” came from his assignment to the Tenth U. S. Cavalry Regiment, one regiment of the so-called “Buffalo Soldiers” serving in the United States southwest.  In response to young Pershing’s arrogant manner when dealing with subordinates, his black troops began referring to him as “Nigger Jack.”  The derisive term evolved into Black Jack because it was more acceptable in mixed company, and it remained with him for the rest of his life.

[8] United States Volunteers (also known as U. S. Volunteers and U. S. Volunteer Army) (and other variations) were volunteers for military service called upon during wartime to assist the U. S. Army but who served separately from the US Army and militia.  An officer commissioned within the US Volunteers held a temporary rank while maintaining (usually) a lower rank in the regular U. S. Army. 

[9] Colonel Dodd was Pershing’s senior by ten years.  He had a substantial background confronting hostile Indians.  During the Spanish/American War Dodd fought with Theodore Roosevelt during the Battle of San Juan Hill.  He was wounded in the Siege of Santiago.  He subsequently served in the Philippine Islands until 1904, when he assumed command of the US 10th Cavalry Regiment.  In pursuit of Villa, Dodd was 63 years old.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Military, American Southwest, History, Mexican Revolution, New Mexico. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Pancho Villa

  1. Elizabeth Kanas-Gonzalez says:

    Mustang that was entertaining. Two things 1) His life came full circle – no change – still the bandit he always was; and 2) The people of Mexico still revere him as a hero. Both are a very sad epitaph of one man and his people. History replays itself all the time. No lesson learned. No change. Sad.

    Excellent read.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Brian says:


    Liked by 3 people

  3. kidme37 says:

    Enjoyed it.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Andy says:

    The first history of Villa I ever read. And I’m glad I read it. Well-written.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Now I know how he became “Black Jack”,

    Liked by 1 person

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