I was told the following story by an elderly doctor from Pitiquito, Sonora, some of whose ancestors had been involved in the incident. The year was 1916. Pancho Villa had raided Columbus, New Mexico in March, killing several Americans. An expedition commanded by General Pershing was sent into Chihuahua to capture or kill Villa. Unable to catch him, they stayed for almost a year, until February of 1917. The longer they stayed, the more their presence was resented by Mexicans.

Out in Pitiquito, Sonora, the men discussed the situation. They agreed that it was all right to chase cross-border raiders who fled to their own country, but that one should either catch them or leave, and Pershing’s expedition had stayed altogether too long. Moreover, many did not like the phrase “punitive expedition.” They reached the conclusion that something should be done, and, being of rugged frontier stock, that they were the ones to do it. The Gringos should get a taste of their own medicine, so they decided to raise a volunteer group and capture Tucson.

Each man should supply his horse, food, and arms and ammunition. I have seen a photograph of the group gathered in the Pitiquito plaza, and a determined bunch of men they looked. I got the impression that by some at least it was regarded as a bit of a lark, until the group was formally presented with the Mexican flag. At that point the whole enterprise became a serious patriotic duty.

They set off on horseback for the border, but when they reached the Rancho de la Garapata (“Tick Ranch”) the Mexican authorities caught up with them, and pleaded with them not to go on. So they held a meeting and turned back. I have seen the document they drew up, written in pencil on lined paper. It basically said, translated from very formal Spanish, “We could have done this thing, and we would have done it, but we decided not to.” So they rode back to Pitiquito with honor satisfied.

But stop and consider what might have happened had a large force of armed Mexicans indeed crossed the border. Even if they had just ridden to the mining camp of Ruby and bought sodas and then returned home, they would not have gone unnoticed. The border was in a state of great tension. German spies were believed to be creating trouble. If this story had gotten out, and if the Hearst papers had published it, a war with Mexico would have been hard to avoid. If we had been fighting Mexico, we might not have made it to Europe in time to help defeat Germany.

“What if” history is a futile exercise, but I like to think of this incident as one of the reasons Germany lost World War I.

Big Jim will be hiding from the heat in California through July. He'll probably start up again sometime in August.