Viva Villa!

Certainly an unpopular and even dangerous thing to say today down on the Texas border, where they are reclaiming the bodies of two Americans killed by bandits in Matamoros. But by ironic coincidence March 9 marks the 107th anniversary of the predawn attack on the little town of Columbus, New Mexico, and the adjacent U.S cavalry Camp Furlong by the outlawed bandit and failed revolutionary Pancho Villa.

It’s not clear Villa himself was on the scene or directing the attack from otra de lado, just as there is some uncertainty over whether he was aiming for the 13th Cavalry’s stables and armories, the vault of the local bank (it was still standing forlorn in an empty lot the last time I visited), or the head of the town’s leading merchant, who had cheated the general on an arms deal.

Whatever Villa’s motives, the raid left 17 American soldiers and citizens dead. Public outrage forced revered professional intellectual and passive-aggressive pacifist President Woodrow Wilson to send the Army into Mexico to capture Villa “dead or alive.” If you’re interested in the details, I highly recommend The Great Pursuit.

America faces a much greater threat today from the murderous cartels that have controlled the border for more than a generation, reaping enormous profits from the traffic in illegal immigrants and illicit drugs. We’ve ignored that underlying problem in our endless arguments over immigration and border security, but it’s past time both governments confront the issue –hopefully with more success than Black Jack Pershing (hampered by a hostile Mexican government and a dithering Presidential administration) had in chasing Pancho Villa.


You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.

Jed Smith

Another man in Nana’s mold worth remembering: Jedediah Strong Smith. A devout Christian who carried his Bible and a good rifle wherever he ventured, Jed was a double-tough mountain man who fought a wounded grizzly until his comrades arrived to drive the bear off and then calmly directed one of them in piecing back together and sewing up his torn face, scalp and ear. He survived and went on to discover the South Pass, opening the Oregon Trail to the Pacific Northwest. He next led a party of fellow trappers from the Salt Lake down through today’s Utah and across the Mojave to sunny southern California, becoming the first white man to cross that desolate terrain, and then brought the survivors back across the Sierra Nevada, through the Great Basin and back to Missouri. From there he adventured southwest along the new Santa Fe Trail. His luck finally ran out somewhere in today’s southwest Kansas when a party of marauding Comanches spooked his horse and overwhelmed him — but not before he killed three of them. That was 190 years ago today, on May 27, 1831.


“die like a hero going home.”

“Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.
When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”
~ Tecumseh

Another very tough old man

My obsession with historic monuments and their cultural significance sidetracked my last post, which turned into a defense of the “Minuteman” statue. But what I set out to do on the anniversary of the opening clashes of the American Revolution was to recall the story of yet another old man in the mold of Nana.

Sam Whittemore fought for the crown in King George’s War (1744-48) and the later French and Indian War (1754-63). He retired a captain of dragoons and settled on a farm in Massachusetts to enjoy his golden years.

He was 80 years old when the King’s men showed up in his dooryard. Humiliated by their repulse at Concord and infuriated by the sniping that was thinning their ranks as they retreated to Boston, the redcoats revenged themselves on the countryside as they went, burning and plundering farms along the line of march and shooting suspected rebels on the spot.

Although far too old to have any obligation to militia service, Captain Whittemore picked up his musket, added a brace of dueling pistols and a cutlass (a souvenir of his service against the French) and went out to contest these outrages. He took his stand behind a stone wall and opened fire on the King’s 47th Regiment of Foot.

He killed one soldier with his musket and then killed another and mortally wounded a third with his pistols as the grenadiers charged the ambush, then fended off their bayonets with his cutlass until shot in the face. As he struggled to regain his feet, the redcoats clubbed him down with their gun butts and bayoneted him on the ground. They left him for dead by the roadside, but when his neighbors came to collect the body they found the old man up on one knee, reloading his musket.

A local doctor could do no more than bandage the captain’s 13 stab wounds and the bullet wound to his head before sadly ordering him carried home so that he might die surrounded by his family. Instead, the tough old soldier recovered and lived another 18 years before dying at age 98. I’d love to see Clint Eastwood play him in the biopic.

“I have but one lamp…

Strange that a choleric Scots-English tobacco farmer could have anything in common with an Apache warrior. But I think Patrick Henry and Nana would have understood each other very well. Today marks the anniversary of Henry’s eloquent address to the Virginia legislature .

“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past,” Henry told the assembly.

“Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded… If we wish to be free, if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending, if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight!

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”


In my youth the beauty of poetry was blunted by the pedants who focused on structure rather than substance, attacking what the ancients honored as divine inspiration like boys dissecting a bird in search of the source of its song. One of the few blessings of the past year has been the leisure to allow me to rediscover the emotional impact of well-crafted verse. Now whenever I think of Nana I can’t but recall Macaulay’s Horatius at the Bridge:

“To every man upon this earth

Death cometh soon or late.

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers

And temples of his Gods.”

Escape from Alcatraz

Off topic but well worth recalling when the going gets tough: June 11 marks the 58th anniversary of the only successful escape from Alcatraz federal prison. I say “successful” because whatever happened to them, Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers were never returned to federal custody, and as far as I know the feds are still looking for them. Whether the three men survived the treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay remains an open question, forever muddied by the FBI’s prevarications in the initial investigation. In the years since, the story, like that of Butch and Sundance, has grown barnacles of speculation, rumor and tantalizing but unverifiable clues. Whatever their ultimate fate, the tale of their escape remains an epic of determination, clever improvisation and desperate courage.



Bad Day at Battle Ax

To add a further cautionary note to the previous post on desert travel, here’s another piece from Desert USA that demonstrates how quickly a casual day’s expedition into the back country can turn into a life-or-death adventure. The story is more striking because the author, Jim Hatt, was no inexperienced tourist but a seasoned desert rat who had spent years exploring the Superstitions.  In this case, familiarity bred not contempt for the terrain but feckless overconfidence, leading him to make several mistakes that combined with bad luck (not one but two flat tires!) to cost him a rough 24 hours.

“For every Apache killed, he took many lives.”

I’ve been re-reading Lance Blyth’s Chiricahua and Janos: Communities of Violence in the Southwestern Borderlands, 1680-1880. It offers fresh insights into the Apache Wars from the perspective of the people of northern Mexico.

I hope to have more to say about the book’s overall theme in a future post, but first I want to focus on the short passage (p. 196) devoted to Nana’s Raid. Blyth adds a couple of interesting details, noting that Mata Ortiz was in pursuit of the raiders when they crossed the border. Presumably the Mexicans had taken the field in response to the attacks on the surveying party and other travelers along the Chihuahua Road as the raiders set out from the Sierra Madre at the end of June.

Beyond that, Blyth offers precise statistics on the raid: seven fights, 12 ranches and towns attacked, five soldiers and 30 civilians killed and “at least” 25 wounded.

He doesn’t specify these events so I don’t know if he counts the cluster of ranches around Garcia and the tent camp of Gold Dust and (possibly) an attack on Seboyeta as towns, but certainly the raiders struck at least a dozen ranches. I would list eight encounters as fights involving U.S. military personnel or civilian possemen: Alamo Canyon, the San Andres Mountains, Red Canyon, Monica Spring, Carrizo Canyon, the Cuchillo Negros, Wild Horse Canyon and Gavilan Canyon.

I count 8 soldiers and 64 civilians killed in New Mexico Territory by Nana and his raiders, another 25 wounded (some so badly they never fully recovered) and 14 taken captive – only about half of those ever reported recovered.

Whatever the exact count, we can all agree with Kaywaykla that, “Usen had not commanded that we love our enemies. Nana did not love his; and he was not content with an eye for an eye, nor a life for a life. For every Apache killed, he took many lives.”