Sending in the Cavalry
By Jeff Berg
R.L. Curtin, man of the West, is one of the last of his kind. He has not created a carefully polished faux westerner image, nor does he ramble on about historical incidents that we will never know the truth about. It's unlikely that he writes cowboy poetry.
Curtin, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the late lamented film director, Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Ride the High Country), instead interprets history through historical reenactments of noted rides by the US Cavalry.
His latest trip back into history will depart on Nov. 7 from a former train stop, once called Canby Station, located on the Coralites Ranch, about halfway between Las Cruces and Deming. After traveling 60 miles on horseback, Curtin and his fellow riders will arrive in Columbus on Nov. 12. The "Last Cavalry Campaign," as Curtin calls this expedition, will follow the actual route used by General John "Black Jack" Pershing when his soldiers were on their way to border duty in New Mexico in 1916. The riders will portray the 13th Cavalry, once an actual cavalry unit, which supplied some of the 10,000 men who chased Pancho Villa into Mexico.
A former US Marine, Curtin has five brothers who also served in the corps at one time or another. Currently, he does leatherwork and horseshoeing and is a horse trainer. A quick proffered tour of his tidy Columbus home shows that Curtin also dabbles in artwork, such as woodcarving. His charming wife, Yuma, offers seats and cold drinks before she plugs in a videotape promoting Curtin's similar outings that took place in Montana. Before relocating to Columbus, he had an outfitting business in south-central Montana that offered historic re-rides of one of Gen. George A. Custer's expeditions.
"I was a young boy living in Wisconsin," he recalls, "when I was at a friend's house who had a picture of that famous Anheuser-Busch painting of Custer's Last Stand. I was fascinated by it. There were naked bodies that had been scalped. That image stuck with me for years."
The painting that Curtin refers to is a lithograph that was commissioned by Adolphus Busch in 1896. The work, done by Otto Becker of the Milwaukee Lithograph Co., was then used as a promotion in bars and taverns around the country, and remains the most readily identifiable, albeit quite erroneous, picture of the battle. Among other exaggerations or mistakes, Becker shows Custer with long hair and a saber, neither of which he had at the time of his demise at the Little Bighorn River in Montana in June 1876. Several of the American Indian fighters are shown with shields that would have more likely been used by African warriors. Some 150,000 of these prints, entitled "Custer's Last Fight," were eventually made, and over a million have been reproduced since 1896.
Curtin started his re-creations of Custer's ride—which Curtin sought to make far more historically accurate than the picture that had inspired him—in 1986. The rides continued "for five to six years," he recollects. "My best year, we had about 18 troopers on the ride. One year the USMC was planning on sending 13 troopers to participate, but they weren't able to make it."
Curtin was also active in the yearly reenactment of the "Custer's Last Stand" battle, which is sponsored by the town of Hardin, Mont., every summer. It has become a huge event, and people from all over the world attend the weekend festivities. Hardin is the closest town to the battle site that is not on the Crow or Northern Cheyenne Indian reservation.
The cavalry camp thrived, but a change in his marital status soon found Curtin living along the border, in Columbus with wife Yuma.
Not afraid to share his opinions of everything from how the town of Columbus is promoted ("Have you seen those billboards along the highway with the false teeth? Whose idea was that?"), to non-politically correct comments and honest thoughts about most anything, Curtin is just as straight a shooter when it comes to the raid by Pancho Villa's men on Columbus in 1916.
"Villa is kind of like New Mexico's Custer," he says. "And the town is not capitalizing on the gold mine they are sitting on.
"Local residents here still have some animosity toward Villa and his men," Curtin continues in his strong clear voice. "When I first talked about doin' this [the Last Cavalry Campaign], some of them got mad because their great-great-uncle or granddaddy was killed by Villa's men. Someone else said I was promoting violence," he adds with a note of astonishment in his tone.
"Other folks are still mad because they said that the Americans burned the Mexicans. But they only burned the dead bodies, not living people."
The Columbus fight resulted in the deaths of about 100 of Villa's men and 18 US soldiers and civilians. In the wake of Villa's famous raid, apparently fearing an all-out invasion, National Guard troops were called out and served along the entire Mexican-US border from Texas to California.
The so-called "Punitive Expedition" led by Pershing pursued Villa into Mexico with about 10,000 men, including infantry, artillery and cavalry. A squadron of eight airplanes was also utilized, although six of the aircraft broke down or crashed. Skirmishes during Pershing's expedition in Mexico led to a surprising number of casualties. Also surprising is the fact that Pershing's troops were actually defeated in two of the bigger firefights. For most of the time that Pershing was in Mexico, Villa was hiding in a cave, recovering from wounds received in a skirmish with rival Mexican troops.
"The US only really chased Villa for a month and a half after the raid," says Curtin. "The rest of it was a training expedition."
Pershing's expedition, which returned to New Mexico in February 1917, just weeks before the US entered World War I, created a number of historical footnotes, including the last horse cavalry charge by a US force and the first use of trucks, cars, motorcycles and machine guns in combat. It also served as a temporary barometer of things to come for the US troops when they were sent overseas to fight.
Curtin's planned 13th Cavalry re-ride is one of his ways to get people in the Columbus area to wake up and take note of the cash register Curtin feels that they are sitting on, in terms of history. He would also like to start a military-style boot camp for troubled youth in the area.
The "Colonel" pulls a tidy stack of names and addresses from a folder. "These are people that have inquired about the ride," he states proudly. "There are 75 or so." Many of the inquiries came from ads in True West Magazine, where Curtin also used to advertise his Montana-based trips. At press time, four other hard-butted souls had actually paid the $500 deposit to accompany Curtin and were getting ready for as authentic an experience as could be had.
The expedition costs $1,695 for six days, which includes food, lodging, horse, saddle and "authentic accouterments," as well as transportation to and from the El Paso airport. Under "What to Bring" on the expedition, Curtin's Web site recommends: "Campaign Hat 1; Dickie Khaki Shirts 2; Dickie Khaki Trousers 2; Socks 4 pair; Brown Leather Shoes 1 pair; Long Johns 1 pair; Underwear 4 sets; 1 personal knife; Shoe brush and brown polish; Personal Items such as: Toothbrush, Toothpaste, Soap, Razor, 2 White Towels, 2 White Wash cloths." According to the site, the ride will be limited to 50 troopers.
In a storage building on Curtin's property, he pulls out a number of pieces of authentically reproduced equipment to be used on the ride. Canteens, mess kits, cutlery and scratchy-looking wool blankets are stacked neatly or stored in boxes. Sleeping bags, slightly altered, and one-person pup tents are also in abundance. It is clear that Curtin wants to have a whole company of cavalry on this trip, not just a small squad.
Curtin leads the way to another storage building. "This is a wagon that was used in Dances With Wolves. They used my wagons and mules in that movie. When you see the teamster Timmons driving the team across the plain, I am actually the one doing the steering, crouched down behind the wagon seat."
Curtin's expertise was also used in one of the more authentic movies made about Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Son of the Morning Star, a made-for-television production released in 1991.
On the Pershing re-enactment, the "troopers" who accompany Curtin will each be assigned their own horse. Each will be taught the proper way to "saddle, bridle and care for his mount and equipment." Curtin's use of the masculine pronoun is deliberate: Women can also accompany the group, but will have to ride in one of the wagons.
At the end of the ride, after all the riders get their carbuncles and blisters attended to, Curtin hopes to take his troop over the border to Palomas for a little celebration. "I am hoping that we can have a parade in Columbus, too. This could be bigger, a lot bigger. It should be a bi-national event."
And that would please R.L. Curtin immensely. Then perhaps he won't have to endure comments such as the one he got when "I was doing some horseshoeing for a rancher one time, and he asked where I was from. I told him Columbus.
"'Oh,' the rancher says, 'you are from the town with the false teeth!'"