By Jim Marion Etter
Richard Dean and his wife, Betty, love their adobe, hacienda-style home in the desert peacefulness of southern New Mexico. They live a short drive outside the small town of Columbus, near the Mexican border.
But the scene of beauty and contentment is also one of irony. And, as March 9 draws near, Dean is quite mindful of this.
Dean, 72, a native of Iowa, is a long-established resident and local historian of the Columbus community. His interest in the town's history springs from the death of an ancestor in Columbus nearly 90 years ago.
His great-grandfather, James T. Dean, then a Columbus storekeeper, was killed—shot and his throat cut—when Pancho Villa's raiders attacked the border town in the early morning of March 9, l916.
Richard Dean's home is near where his ancestor is buried, in the Valley Heights Cemetery. Except for the mesquite, yucca and cactus, he could virtually look out his door and see the grave.
"I had heard the family stories most of my life," Dean says, explaining that he learned of his New Mexico ancestor's death from family members when he was a youngster in his home state. "I heard some of them mention how he had died tragically—Iowa farm people get together and talk quite often."
But, he says, "I didn't get real interested until later in life. And the more I found out, the more interested I got."
He did much of his research—poring through library material as well as old family records—after he moved to California, where he owned an office supply business until he retired. His research over the years also included visits to Columbus, where he finally moved in 1988.
It was before dawn on a Thursday morning when some 600 raiders under the command of Mexican revolutionary Gen. Doroteo Arango, better known as "Pancho Villa," crossed the border in a daring raid. They left their horses outside of Columbus and invaded the sleeping town on foot.
Amid yells of "Viva Villa! Viva Mexico!" the Mexicans stormed the downtown area and the vicinity of the Army post of Camp Furlong, setting fires, looting stores and shooting anyone on sight—even dragging some residents out of buildings and executing them in the streets. By the time the raid ended shortly after daylight, 10 local civilians and eight soldiers were reportedly killed.
James T. Dean apparently was killed soon after he, his wife, Eleanor, a
Eleanor Dean, in a letter to her other sons in Iowa, described the "butcher and plunder" in Columbus that day in 1916. She told of being "frantic" for a time after her husband, followed by their son, left the house, and of not knowing "where Papa was, without a gun and so helpless."
And soon, she wrote, Edwin returned from his search for his father and told her at the door, "Mama, they got Papa, he's killed."
She told of first looking upon her husband's body: "He lay in the street . . . with Mexicans dead all around him, but all I saw was Jimmie dead—dead, shot like a dog." She described him as "so white and covered with blood and all shot to pieces."
The dead also included about 200 of Villa's men, killed in the fight with Camp Furlong soldiers and with some civilians who'd managed to arm themselves during the chaos. The soldiers chased the rest of the Villistas out of town and several miles into Mexico. A punitive expedition led by Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing would later follow, chasing Villa—in vain—with 10,000 American soldiers for 11 months.
Today, Richard Dean is not only believed to be the lone Columbus resident who is a descendant of a victim of the Pancho Villa raid; he's among the authorities on local history—especially relating to the 1916 period. He's the author of a small book, The Columbus Story, which he describes as "a tour guide—telling of places, and what it was like here in 1916."
He acknowledges the importance of the military segment of the history of Columbus: The US Army, though failing to catch Villa during nearly a year of searching in Mexico, found the military expedition invaluable as preparation for the subsequent US involvement in World War I.
Dean says, however, that in both his writings and in speaking presentations, he stresses the experiences of the local residents during the episode. "My expertise and my interest," he says, "is with the civilians—what happened to them during the raid. For instance, what happened to the Elliott family? What happened to the Miller family? The Walker family?"
He's become a source of information about the raid for many people—including other descendants of people who lived in Columbus during the 1916 raid.
Dean also occasionally gives talks on Columbus history elsewhere in New Mexico and in El Paso. He gives local weekly seminars, mainly for others who teach or are somehow involved with history.
But he disagrees with some ways the historical event is publicized—especially with the name, "Pancho Villa State Park."
"I've been a pretty loud voice on the subject," he says, explaining that he's tried for several years to get state officials to change the park's name. "I think it's wrong!"
He says he discusses it when he gives presentations, and often doesn't have to be the one to bring the subject up. "That's the first thing people ask me—why the park is named that," he says. "I've also been asked by others if it was 'a mistake' for the park to be named after the man that sacked the town.
He compares the 1916 incident to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center in New York: "I don't think many people would be in favor of a 'Bin Laden Square' in Manhattan."
And he says he hasn't given up hope that someday the name will be changed.