Old Times and Old Timers


Some New Mexico Nicknames.  

Sobriquets attached to characters in the American West of the late 19th century are an interesting, and sometimes conflicting, collection of names…

Pancho Villa and the
Columbus Raid
Some pedants have attempted to draw comparisons between the September 11, 2001 Attack on America in New York and Washington, D.C. by terrorists and the 1916 raid on the town of Columbus, New Mexico by Mexican revolutionaries under the direction of Francisco “Pancho” Villa. There are few comparisons.
n The Attack on America resulted in the deaths of about 3,000 civilians. Villa’s raid resulted in the deaths of 17 Americans, nine of them civilians.
n The Attack on America was unprovoked. It can be argued that Villa’s raid was specifically provoked, even though his motive has been debated from that day to this.
n The Attack on America was unconventional. Villa’s attack was surreptitious, to be sure, but it was conventional in the context of the times. The Americans had the chance to fight back, and did so successfully. They killed more than 100 of Villa’s soldiers and captured many others
It seems worthwhile to review the Columbus raid.
About 400 Mexican revolutionary troops crossed the border into the United States about three miles south of Columbus, New Mexico in the early morning hours of March 9, 1916. They immediately set about looting the town. A detachment of the 13th U. S. Cavalry, camped nearby, was taken by surprise and responded in some disorder before soldiers and citizens alike effectively repelled the invaders. One source claims the Villistas took more than 100 Army horses and mules and many guns as they retreated south. Another source reports that the Mexicans actually left behind so many of their own horses, that an auction was held to sell them, along with their saddles. Such is the confusion about what happened that day, even so many years after the fact.
Most historians believe that Villa was not present at Columbus. One writer1 reports that the Mexican commander was Pablo López who was wounded in both legs during the fighting. He was subsequently captured near Satevó, Chihuahua by Mexican regular troops, tried and executed by firing squad at Chihuahua City.
A Rio Rancho man, Enrique Garcia, argues that Villa was present during the raid. Garcia’s grandfather, Alejandro Garcia, was a colonel in Villa’s army. Alejandro claimed that he participated in the Columbus raid, and that he rode at the head of the column with the famed revolutionary.2
Garcia said that the raid was the result of a business deal gone bad. His story was that Villa delivered a herd of cattle to some Columbus businessmen who refused to pay. He also said that the Villistas only took from Columbus banks the money that was due them.
Another alleged motive frequently cited is that Villa had paid Columbus merchants for delivery of guns and ammunition.  They had taken his money and then failed to deliver the weapons. Yet another conjecture is that the raid was simply meant to steal guns and ammunition from the cavalry detachment camped there.
There may also have been a political motive. Villa remained at war with the Venustiano Carranza government in Mexico City in 1915-163. He had managed to get along with the Americans up until 1915 and he hoped the United States would recognize him as the legitimate leader of Mexico. Instead, the Woodrow Wilson administration recognized Carranza. And it went beyond that. The Wilson administration also placed an arms embargo on trade with the Villistas, which closed the munitions traffic in places like Columbus.
And militarily, Villa was on hard times.  He’d suffered several humiliating defeats by Carranza’s army and his troops had been reduced in number from thousands to hundreds. He had been declared an outlaw in Mexico. In late 1915, the United States allowed a force of about 4,000 Mexican soldiers to cross into Texas at Eagle Pass, and to take a train to Douglas, Arizona. There they reentered Mexico and attacked Villa’s forces at Agua Prieta, winning a telling victory. Villa blamed the United States for his defeat.
Pancho Villa’s days as major force in northern Mexico were numbered. The United States Army sent a so-called Punitive Expedition — about 12,000 strong — under the command of General John “Black Jack” Pershing, into Mexico to exact retribution from Villa for the Columbus raid. After 11 months of searching the deserts and mountains of northern Mexico, Pershing gave up and withdrew. Villa had simply dispersed his troops into small groups, and he himself hid out in a cave in the Sierra Madre until summer.
One historian of the Mexican Revolution said this: “The centaur of the North [Villa] was becoming a minor character in a drama that was becoming more political than martial. In the years [after] the Punitive Expedition he continued to fight a war peculiarly his own. Much of the time it seemed to be a war for war’s sake.”
In July of 1920, Villa quit fighting altogether. He had about 700 men left in his “army.” The Mexican government gave him a 25,000-acre rancho in the state of Durango. He stayed out of politics after that, but he had made many enemies over the years. It all caught up with him on July 20, 1923 when he was assassinated in the town of Parral, shot 13 times by eight gunmen. He was 45 years old. The identities of his killers have never been proven, but a man named Jesús Salas Barraza claimed to be the “intellectual author” of the assassination plot.
The final distinction that must be made between the Attack on America and the Columbus raid is this: A park commemorating the raid was dedicated in 1959. It was not named for any of the citizens who were killed there, or even for General Pershing. It was named for Pancho Villa. No park in New York City is likely to be named for Osama Bin Laden.
1 William Weber Johnson. Heroic Mexico: The Narrative History of a Twentieth Century Revolution.  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968.
2 Alejandro Garcia lived in Las Cruces for many years. He died in 1983 at the age of 113. He would have been about eight years older than Villa.
3 Villa had been at war since the 1910 Revolution in which Francisco Madero ousted long-time dictator Porfirio Diaz.

Most famous among them is “Buffalo Bill” Cody. There is little confusion about him. His name was William F. Cody, and he was responsible for killing untold hundreds of buffalo on the American plains before he went into show business and really became famous. But others are not so obvious. “Wild Bill” Hickok is a case in point. His name was not William, but James Butler Hickok. Dime novelists made much of his exploits, as Wild Bill, and it is not clear where the sobriquet came from, although it is catchier than “Wild Jim.”

In New Mexico, the most famous nicknames were, of course, “Billy the Kid” and “Black Jack.” Anyone who has been in New Mexico long enough to eat two bowls of green chile stew will be quick to acknowledge that if New Mexico had an official outlaw, like it has an official cookie (the biscochito), it would be William H. Bonney, or Billy the Kid, and in general that would be correct. But was Bonney really known widely as Billy the Kid? One modern source indicates that he was not known as such until the last year of his life. Earlier, he had been known simply as “The Kid,” or even just “Kid,” but that description could be applied to numerous youths, on both sides of the law. And, too, Bonney was earlier known as “Kid Antrim,” Antrim being his step-father’s name, and as Henry McCarty, McCarty being his mother’s name. Another observer has noted that there were probably ten young men known as Billy the Kid in late 19th century New Mexico. One of them, Billy Wilson, actually rode with Billy Bonney. The name “Black Jack” is no exception. Just the name conjures up all kinds of things. A Black Jack is a kind of a small club carried by good guys and bad in years past. It is also a card game otherwise called Twenty-one. In that game, the black jacks have no more significance than any other face card. Black Jack was also the brand name of a licorice-flavored chewing gum in years long gone by. So whence the name? 

In New Mexico, especially among Old West history buffs, the name “Black Jack” might apply to several people: Tom Ketchum, Sam Ketchum, Will Christian and John Pershing.

Thomas Edward Ketchum is probably the best known Black Jack. He certainly got the most attention, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, he was sufficiently annoying that even his own brother, Sam, disassociated himself, leaving Tom to act alone. On August 16, 1899, Tom undertook to rob the same train that brother Sam had robbed a month before. It didn’t work out. The train’s conductor, Frank Herrington, shot and severely wounded Ketchum, who was captured the next day.  What sets Tom apart is that he was charged with assaulting a train; a crime that had been made a capital offense in New Mexico back in 1887. He was sentenced to death by hanging, the only person in the history of the territory to be so punished for train robbery.

What focused even more attention on Tom was the way in which his execution was botched. As a result of a miscalculation, the rope was too long and his head was separated from his body at the end of the drop. Photos of the gristly event were taken, so the public had little opportunity to forget this Black Jack.

Tom’s older brother, Sam, it should be noted, was also occasionally referred to as Black Jack. Odd that neither of these Black Jacks was named Jack. And neither was yet a third. His name was William T. Christian.

While many western writers have referred to Ketchum as the original Black Jack, modern researchers believe that infamy actually belongs to Will Christian.  He was born in Texas in the early 1870s and after a long string of crimes, from robbery to murder, he and his brother, Bob, arrived in New Mexico in the middle 1890s. They continued their criminal ways until “Black Jack” Christian was shot to death by lawmen, led by Deputy U. S. Marshal Fred Higgins of Roswell, in April 1897 at Cole Creek Canyon in eastern Arizona.

One story goes that Ketchum adopted the name for himself after Christian was killed when a hanger-on in an Arizona saloon noted that the two men looked alike.  According to this version, Ketchum and Christian never met.  Other tales suggest that they were acquainted, and actually committed crimes together.  Membership in the outlaw gangs of the time changed with a high degree of regularity, as did gang leadership.

Before he went to the gallows, Thomas E. “Black Jack” Ketchum declared that he was not the “real” Black Jack, and that the other one, presumably Will Christian, was still alive and well (Brother Tom was already dead and buried in Santa Fe). Ketchum refused to say where the original Black Jack might be found.

The final New Mexico Black Jack was General John Pershing. There is no mystery about how he acquired the nickname.  For about ten years, as a young officer in the late 1890s, in New Mexico and elsewhere, Pershing was the commanding officer of a company of the 10th Cavalry, which was made up entirely of Black troopers, known as Buffalo Soldiers. Pershing later wrote, “It has been an honor which I am proud to claim to have been at one time a member of that intrepid organization of the Army which has always added glory to the military history of the United States — the 10th Cavalry.” n