restricted access San Joaquín Canyon and the 1916 Punitive Expedition
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San Joaquín Canyon and the 1916 Punitive Expedition

Whereas nearly everyone has heard about Francisco 'Pancho" Villa's March 9, 1916, attack on Columbus, New Mexico, few are aware of the many interesting facets of the U.S. Punitive Expedition led by General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing into Chihuahua, Mexico, to disperse Villa's troops. Virtually no one knows about the activities undertaken by members of the 17th Infantry during the last half of 1916 in San Joaquín Canyon, about twenty miles across the mountains just east of Juan Mata Ortiz. U.S. infantrymen actually conducted an extensive archaeological investigation of several mounds within the canyon while protecting a road used by the expedition.

For nearly eleven months, Pershing's troops chased Villa's men across much of the western half of Chihuahua. This was the last great cavalry campaign of the U.S. Army, and produced many firsts for the military. The Punitive Expedition saw the first use of airplanes by the Army for military reconnaissance and communication, and the very first use of vehicle support of the troops. Members of the 10th Cavalry (Buffalo soldiers) from Fort Huachuca, Arizona, were involved in many of the important skirmishes of the campaign. While Pancho Villa was never caught by the expedition, the U.S. military learned valuable lessons prior to its involvement in World War I.

Pershing entered Mexico on March 15, 1916, and the last of the troops left Mexico on February 5, 1917. The last real action seen by the American forces occurred to the east at Carrizal on June 21, 1916. Due to political negotiations between the United States and Mexico, Pershing's troops essentially spent the remainder of their time in Mexico training and keeping busy. This article tells of how their time was spent at San Joaquín Canyon. [End Page 47]

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Looking west into San Joaquín Canyon. (Photo by R. Bridgemon)

Although camps were set up at several locations in Chihuahua, the Mormon settlement of Colonia Dublán served as Pershing's main encampment throughout the Punitive Expedition. As the expedition pushed south of Dublán to El Valle (Buenaventura), it was necessary to cross the Río Santa María. This proved to be a fairly practical route until it became apparent that the Army was not going to catch Villa before the commencement of the summer rainy season. Once the Río Santa María started to swell, a new route was needed. The engineers chose a route that left the original route at Chocolate Pass and went straight south along the eastern flank of the Sierra América. At San Joaquín Canyon there was a spring that allowed for a semi-permanent camp for Troop K of the 17th Infantry.

The Smithsonian Connection

During Sylvia Brenner's employment as heritage educator at Pancho Villa State Park, in Columbus, New Mexico, from May 2006 to January 2009, she was challenged to discover "untold chapters" of General Pershing's 1916-17 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. Research through military [End Page 48] accounts yielded only sparse facts of troop activities during the expedition's later period, from June 1916 until U.S. troops exited Mexico in February 1917.

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Punitive Expedition routes
Map by Ronald R. Bridgemon from Ernest Graves original area map.

As part of her research, she was reading Secrets of Casas Grandes, edited by Melissa S. Powell, when her attention was caught by a reference to Pershing's troops conducting some of the earliest Casas Grandes excavations, taking the "opportunity to dig in the Casas Grandes area ruins." Powell's footnotes to the article state, "Artifacts from these excavations are now at the Smithsonian Institution." [End Page 49]

After tracking down the manuscript (MS 2494, "Archaeological Researches in the San Joaquin Valley, 1917" by Capt. Weissheimer), Sylvia contacted Leandra Gahegan, reference archivist with the Museum Support Center, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, for photocopies of the documents. These documents had remained obscured by time, filed away in the Smithsonian's vast archives. Sylvia contacted two...