Pancho Villa

Mexican General Francisco 'Pancho' Villa
Library of Congress/Contributor/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

Pancho Villa was a Mexican revolutionary leader who advocated for the poor and wanted agrarian reform. Though he was a killer, a bandit, and a revolutionary leader, many remember him as a folk hero. Pancho Villa was also responsible for a raid on Columbus, New Mexico in 1916, which was the first attack on U.S. soil since 1812.

Dates: June 5, 1878 -- July 20, 1923

Also Known As: Doroteo Arango (born as), Francisco "Pancho" Villa

A Young Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa was born Doroteo Arango, the son of a sharecropper at the hacienda in San Juan del Rio, Durango. While growing up, Pancho Villa witnessed and experienced the harshness of peasant life.

In Mexico during the late 19th century, the rich were becoming richer by taking advantage of the lower classes, often treating them like slaves. When Villa was 15, his father died, so Villa began to work as a sharecropper to help support his mother and four siblings.

One day in 1894, Villa came home from the fields to find that the owner of the hacienda intended to have sex with Villa's 12-year old sister. Villa, only 16-years old, grabbed a pistol, shot the owner of the hacienda, and then took off to the mountains.

Living in the Mountains

From 1894 to 1910, Pancho Villa spent most of his time in the mountains running from the law. At first, he did what he could to survive by himself, but by 1896, he had joined some other bandits and soon became their leader.

Villa and his group of bandits would steal cattle, rob shipments of money, and commit additional crimes against the wealthy. By stealing from the rich and often giving to the poor, some saw Pancho Villa as a modern-day Robin Hood.

Changing His Name

It was during this time that Doroteo Arango began using the name Francisco "Pancho" Villa. ("Pancho" is a common nickname for "Francisco.")

There are many theories as to why he chose that name. Some say it was the name of a bandit leader he met; others say it was Villa's fraternal grandfather's last name.

Pancho Villa's notoriety as a bandit and his prowess at escaping capture caught the attention of men who were planning a revolution. These men understood that Villa's skills could be used as a guerilla fighter during the revolution.

The Revolution

Since Porfirio Diaz, the sitting president of Mexico, had created much of the current problems for the poor and Francisco Madero promised change for the lower classes, Pancho Villa joined Madero's cause and agreed to be a leader in the revolutionary army.

From October 1910 to May 1911, Pancho Villa was a very effective revolutionary leader. However, in May 1911, Villa resigned from command because of differences he had with another commander, Pascual Orozco, Jr.

A New Rebellion

On May 29, 1911, Villa married Maria Luz Corral and tried to settle down to a quiet life. Unfortunately, though Madero had become president, political unrest again appeared in Mexico.

Orozco, angered by being left out of what he considered his rightful place in the new government, challenged Madero by starting a new rebellion in the spring of 1912. Villa gathered troops and worked with General Victoriano Huerta to support Madero.


In June 1912, Huerta accused Villa of stealing a horse and ordered him to be executed. A reprieve from Madero came for Villa at the very last minute but Villa was still remitted to prison. Villa remained in prison from June 1912 to December 27, 1912, when he escaped.

More Fighting and a Civil War

By the time Villa escaped from prison, Huerta had switched from a Madero supporter to a Madero adversary. On February 22, 1913, Huerta killed Madero and claimed the presidency for himself. Villa then allied himself with Venustiano Carranza to fight against Huerta.

Pancho Villa was extremely successful, winning battle after battle during the next several years. Since Pancho Villa conquered Chihuahua and other northern areas, he spent much of his time reallocating land and stabilizing the economy.

In the summer of 1914, Villa and Carranza split and became enemies. For the next several years, Mexico continued to be embroiled in a civil war between the factions of Pancho Villa and Venustiano Carranza.

The Raid on Columbus, New Mexico

The United States took sides in the battle and supported Carranza. On March 9, 1916, Villa attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico. His attack was the first on American soil since 1812. The U.S. sent several thousand soldiers across the border to hunt for Pancho Villa. Though they spent over a year searching, they never caught him.


On May 20, 1920, Carranza was assassinated and Adolfo De la Huerta became the interim president of Mexico. De la Huerta wanted peace in Mexico so negotiated with Villa for his retirement. Part of the peace agreement was that Villa would receive a hacienda in Chihuahua.


Villa retired from revolutionary life in 1920 but had only a short retirement for he was gunned down in his car on July 20, 1923.