Jeff Guinn’s new book “War on the Border: Villa, Pershing, the Texas Rangers, and an American Invasion” makes history come alive with its bloody shootouts, nasty skirmishes and angry squabbling on the volatile United States-Mexico border. The book spans a period from about the mid-19th century through, and focusing on, the first two decades of the 20th century.
Guinn references a host of relevant major and minor figures of the period – politicians, generals, soldiers, bandits, spies, diplomats and others – who enrich this complicated history on and far from the border. Perhaps two of the most famous border figures are Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and U.S. Gen. John J. Pershing.
Villa led a band of men in a deadly pre-dawn attack on March 9, 1916, on civilians and the U.S. Army’s Camp Furlong in the border town of Columbus, New Mexico, south of Deming. Villa lost 100 men, plus others badly wounded, in a fire fight. A handful of U.S. civilians and soldiers were killed, and some town buildings were burned down. Days later, with some 4,800 soldiers and more than 4,000 animals, Pershing pursued Villa in the so-called Punitive Expedition into Mexico.
One of its four cavalry regiments, the 10th, comprised the legendary Buffalo Soldiers.
In an overreaction, U.S. Sen. Albert B. Fall of New Mexico suggested half a million soldiers “storm into Mexico, seize all critical ports and railroad lines,” then help Mexican President Venustiano Carranza’s government eradicate every Mexican bandit. Guinn writes that Fall failed to mention he held large properties and business interests in Mexico.
The expedition hunted for 11 months, but did not find Villa, nor did they eliminate his raiders. Pershing had no maps of a territory familiar to Villa and their vehicles were quickly stuck in sand and mud. Later, his troops were hemmed in by Mexican federal troops.
Behind Villa’s decision to raid was a series of provocations, Guinn said in a phone interview. By having American military in Mexico, Villa figured it would promote the festering resentment of working class and peasant Mexicans against yet another American incursion.
“Mexicans felt that Americans exploited their country and they weren’t shown respect,” Guinn said. “By enticing the Americans into Mexico, Villa could claim Carranza was somehow in league with the Americans and Villa would gain support. … Villa was more complex than folks like to give him credit for.”
In the backdrop was World War I and Germany’s desire to keep the U.S. bottled up in Mexico and out of the European conflict.
Americans living on the border disliked and feared Mexicans, but, the author argued, Anglo and Mexican criminals were equally blameworthy for making the border unsafe.
The early Texas Rangers are criticized by Guinn as being racist. He writes that the Rangers targeted Mexicans and Tejanos, Texans of Mexican descent. All were suspect because, to the Rangers, “any of them could be Mexican raiders skulking north of the Rio Grande for the opportunity to filch cattle, rob a store, or kill a white person,” he writes.
Americans with enormous ranch holdings in Mexico also tired of rustlers and bandits. They protected their property with fences.
Among the first was the 2.4 million-acre Wood Hagenbarth Ranch near Palomas, just south of Columbus. In 1903, the owner announced he would mark the 140 miles of its northern boundary with three-strand barbed wire, Guinn writes.
In 1909, a federal agency proposed building a barbed wire fence along the California-Baja California border. A year later, a Boston newspaper claimed the U.S. government would erect a fence along the 1,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, he writes. It didn’t happen.
The issue of border wall-building echoes today. “No matter how high it is, people who want to get into the U.S. would,” he said.
Guinn, a Fort Worth, Texas, resident, wrote the book because of “the past few years when there was talk of building a big, beautiful wall on the border, and all the talk of Mexico sending its rapists and murders. … I thought it would be helpful if a book that relied on solid facts as opposed to an alternative version to help people understand the problems about the border and whether anything has changed over the past century,” he said.
In the book’s final chapter, “Afterward,” Guinn writes that “The American vigilantes and their prey from over a century ago would nod in recognition: In so many ways on the border, inherent mutual mistrust and hostility remain.”
Today, the town of Columbus, he notes, “is virtually somnambulant” except when 18-wheelers haul freight to and from Palomas, and when the annual March 9 remembrances are held. One is the Columbus Historical Society’s Raid Day Memorial program at the train depot and the other is the Pancho Villa State Park’s hosting a series of lectures on area history. Guinn said retired park manager John Read told him the park’s name was intended to put “things behind us, of moving forward.”