Photos Courtesy Dorothy Cole Collection
Life was often uncertain, and at times downright terrifying, for women settling in Mexico during the first two decades of the 20th century. There were women who had their livestock stolen by Mexican revolutionaries, while others watched as outlaws and cattle rustlers murdered their husbands. A few were even taken into captivity by one political faction or another that was trying to gain control of the country during those turbulent years.
Before settling in Mountainair, Maud Wright Medders would suffer all three of these indignities during her first marriage, to fellow Alabama native Ed Wright, who in 1909 had established a cattle ranch in Mexico about 100 miles from the Texas border. Shortly after their wedding, in El Paso in 1910, the Wrights returned to Mexico to run the ranch together. The couple prospered and lived peacefully there for over a year before their first encounter with one of the violent groups roaming the country. One afternoon a group of revolutionaries stopped by the ranch after a raid, leaving their exhausted horses and taking the Wright’s fresh ones without asking or paying for them.
Several years later, on March 1, 1916, Maud was cooking dinner for her husband and their friend Frank Hayden. The two men were due home any minute from a supply trip. Hearing the sound of horses, she went out to greet her husband but instead encountered over fifty men, known as vallistas, who were under the command of Pancho Villa, the infamous Mexican revolutionary.
Soon afterward, Wright and Hayden returned to the ranch leading two pack mules. They were quickly surrounded, their supplies confiscated. Maud was also detained and asked how much food she had in the house. They pushed past her and trashed the Wright’s home while taking what they wanted.
When they were done, Maud was ordered to leave her infant son, Johnnie, with a Mexican couple who lived on the ranch and worked for the Wrights. She realized at this point that she, too, was a prisoner. She would remain so for the next nine days.
The group left the ranch with Maud, Ed, and Hayden in tow, and rode at a fast pace, taking no breaks, through the endless night. Near daylight the following morning they arrived at Cave Valley, where Pancho Villa was camping with his main army. A feeling of despair came over Maud as she saw how vast the army was, extending up and down the canyon for more than a mile. She also saw the Wright’s horses and mules among the herd of animals.
During her desperate night on horseback, Maud was worried about the fate of her husband and child. She considered trying to escape more than once, but the thought of Johnnie kept her in line. Although the long night had ended, sunrise was accompanied by tragedy as she saw her husband and Hayden riding double on one horse with their hands tied behind their backs.
They were only given a brief few minutes to speak to one another. They quickly outlined a plan: at least one of them had to escape, get back to the ranch and rescue Johnnie, and then return to the safety of the United States as soon as possible. It is doubtful they were given the opportunity for a final embrace before Wright and Hayden were taken behind a large rock along the trail.
Maud heard gun shots, and a short time afterward the vallistas returned, leading the rider-less horse that her husband and friend had so recently occupied. She was heartbroken over their fate, but she knew she had to be strong, get back to the ranch, and save her son.
Maud, who spoke fluent Spanish, overheard Villa’s men discussing a raid into the United States at the Columbus, New Mexico, border crossing. She was once again forced to get on a horse and ride with the raiding party toward the United States border. A few hours into their ride, they encountered another large raiding party driving 30 head of cattle. The two groups stopped and camped together for the night.
That evening, the vallistas butchered some of the cattle and cooked the meat over campfires. Maud was offered a piece of dirty meat, burned on the outside and raw in the middle, but she was unable to eat during the first two nights of her captivity. The men tied the leftovers behind their saddles, and Maud eventually began to eat, even though the meat was filthy and covered in horsehair. When the group ran out of beef they butchered their mules and horses.
The vallistas rode hard each day and mostly stopped only at night to rest or to butcher and cook more meat. Once, when they stopped for a rare afternoon rest, Villa called his men together to sit in the shade and discuss their plans. Maud overheard Villa telling his men that they would all be rich when they took possession of the United States.
Maud had only one opportunity to ask Villa about his plans for her. He replied that if she could make it to Columbus he would set her free. Maud knew from the way he was speaking that he did not think she was tough enough to make it that long.
When Villa and his army invaded the United States, Maud was left with the horse herd. Later, when the vallistas were defeated and pushed back into Mexico, Villa let Maud go and told her to ride to Columbus and give herself over to the Americans.
To add more insult to her situation, the Americans initally thought she was a spy for Pancho Villa, and she was questioned extensively until they were sure of her innocence. Later, she was taken to the home of a Colonel Slocum, who was in charge of the army post at Columbus, and turned over to the care of the colonel’s wife, who gave Maud fresh clothing after helping her bathe and tending to her swollen face and feet.
The authorities found the bodies of Ed Wright and Frank Hayden where Maud had told them they would be located. Mexican President José Venustiano Carranza Garza apologized for the Columbus raid, as well as made arrangements for a special train to bring Johnnie to El Paso where he would be reunited with his mother.
The Slocums gave Maud money for a train ticket to Silver City, New Mexico, where her brother lived. A few weeks later, she and Johnnie moved to Stafford, Arizona, to live with her parents. While in Stafford, she met Will Medders, and they married in August 1917. Later, they moved near Mountainair, where they became pinto bean farmers and cattle ranchers. Maud would have seven more children with Will, two sons and five daughters.
According to Lula Spencer, one of Maud’s daughters, her mother did not readily discuss her experience with Pancho Villa’s raiders, but she would answer questions when asked by family members. As much as she might have liked to forget the entire experience, the nine days she was held captive, losing her husband and ranch on the Mexican frontier as a result, would forever be etched into her memory.
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