Chasing Pancho Villa

It’s time for another story from my family lore. This one is about Uncle Bill, William Watson. Uncle Bill was born in Scotland, not far from Edinburgh, in 1894. He and the rest of the family immigrated to the US in 1904 when My father was two years old. Grandpa and a few of my Grandmother’s brothers were already in the US, having arrived some years earlier in response to the gold rush in Colorado.

Grandpa and his Brothers-in-law found a small gold strike near Cripple Creek, CO. The mine produced enough for their families to be brought to the US. Grandpa was the one selected to go back to the UK and escort the families to Colorado. This he did.

When the families arrived in Colorado, the Brothers-in-Law were missing and the gold mine was owned by John D. Rockefeller. According to the land records, the Brothers-in-Law sold the mine to Rockefeller three months after Grandpa left for England and disappeared. Grandpa and the rest of the family always believed the disappearance came first in that transaction.

The families of the Brothers-in-Law moved to Pennsylvania where they had other relatives. Grandpa’s family remained in Colorado for a number of years until they were forced to flee to Illinois.

The family settled near Trinidad, CO, to work in the mines. The family trade was hard-rock mining. My father was too young, at that time, to work in the mines like his older brothers, John and Bill.

Uncle John was the oldest and was able to get a scholarship to the Colorado School of Engineering. Uncle bill tried to do the same, anything to escape being a miner. He, unfortunately, lacked the scholarship of Uncle John. Consequently, he chose to escape the mines by joining the Colorado Militia. In 1911, at age 17, he became a cavalry trooper in the Militia.

Colorado had two different militia categories due to the Dick Act of 1903. A year or so later, Uncle Bill’s Militia unit was merged into Colorado’s National Guard. Uncle Bill had been a part-time Militiaman and attending a local Pueblo college on the side while gaining some blacksmithing skills working for the mines.

After being a National Guardsman a few months, the Army nationalized a few of the western Guard units to expand Cavalry coverage of the US border. The Mexican Civil War was building and cross-border raids were becoming a problem. Uncle Bill’s Guard unit was one of those nationalized for a six-month tour guarding the border around El Paso, TX.

Members of the 11th Cavalry, Circa 1913.

Uncle Bill liked being in the Cavalry and transferred to the 11th Cavalry. When the Ludlow Massacre occurred, the 11th was sent to Trinidad to ‘pacify’ the area. There was open warfare in some more remote locations between the miners and the Colorado Militia. When the 11th went to Trinidad, Uncle Bill, assigned to be a farrier, stayed in El Paso. There was the concern that Uncle Bill might not be ‘neutral’ if he went with the 11th to Colorado.

The cross-border excursions from Mexico grew. In 1916, the 11th Cavalry, along with Uncle Bill, was sent into Mexico after Pancho Villa. That trip soured Uncle Bill on his future in the Cavalry. A number of the 11th’s officers had been trained in the German Kavallerie Schule (Cavalry School) during the period after the Spanish-American War of 1898. The Germans did not treat their enlisted troopers well. The officer graduates retained that training when they returned to the US.

It was not uncommon for a German officer to slap or strike an enlisted trooper with the flat of his sabre. A saber-strike, although with the flat of the blade, often caused cuts and other small injuries. US trained Cavalry officers did not strike troopers. They told their NCOs to ‘instruct’ Trooper Smith as necessary. The NCO would then lead the offending Trooper behind the barracks and ‘reason’ with him.

A fight with an NCO was acceptable. In those situations the Trooper could fight back. But, when struck by an Officer, the Trooper could not. That difference caused problems when the 11th was sent into Mexico.

The techniques taught in the US and German Cavalry Schools differed. The US School taught officers to lead with their troops, live with their Troops, and fight with their Troops. The German School did not. They taught their officers to be aloof from their units, to lead from the rear, to ‘manage’ the fight by issuing orders from a vantage point. To the Troopers, this appeared to be cowardice. The opinion of the Troopers were that the German trained officers cared little for their men, that they were brutal and many Troopers said they would shoot any of those officers during a fight if that officer appeared in front of them.

Uncle Bill rejoined the 11th, after their time in Colorado, in New Mexico, and in 1916, under the command of General John Pershing, went into Mexico. For nearly a year, the 11th and other US Army units chased Villa around the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The effort failed to catch Villa and strained relations with Mexico.

Uncle Bill spent World War I with various Cavalry units patrolling the US/Mexican border. He was in high demand for his skills as a farrier and by the end of World War I was promoted to Sergeant. He left the Army in 1920 and entered College at Champaign, IL at the school that would later become the University of Illinois. I don’t know if Uncle Bill actually acquire a degree…I don’t remember if he or Dad ever said. Uncle Bill was hired by the State of Illinois as a highway engineer during the 1920s and would eventually become the state’s Chief Highway Engineer. He died in 1965 in the Veteran’s Hospital near Jefferson Barracks, MO.