A Balloon Adventure

One of the interesting aspects of balloon travel is how long ago in history that ballooning had taken place. This science has a rich history and you’ll find the amazing story in this article quite interesting.

National Balloon Museum

national balloon museum

National Balloon Museum, Indianola Iowa

One of the best venues in the U.S. to learn about ballooning and it’s colorful history is the National Balloon Museum located at 1601 N Jefferson Way  Indianola, Iowa. Learn about over 200 years of ballooning. The National Balloon Museum provides the public with a complete understanding of ballooning and its history through its exhibitions and collections. Were you aware that ballooning goes all the way back to the year 220 A.D. ? Did you also know that most historians credit the Chinese as being the first balloonists?

There is a big reason why this excellent museum is located in central Iowa. Central Iowa has always been thought of as ideal for ballooning. A good many balloonists live in this area. Indianola Iowa was the home of the Balloon Federation of America’s National Hot Air Balloon Championships, and currently is the home of the National Balloon Classic which is a nine day event. The museum is also the venue for the annual US Ballooning Hall of Fame.

early balloon travel

Early 1800’s balloon designs

Following is an amazing story regarding the earlier days of ballooning and the impact it had on the Siege of Paris during late 1870 and early 1871. This story is a balloon adventure like no other.

The Siege of Paris

Balloon adventures in Europe were not something new. Experiments to improve ballooning were progressing steadily.

The way balloons were used during the Siege of Paris France however is a very unique story.

The Siege of Paris took place as a result of the Prussians winning the Franco Prussian War in 1870. The French were defeated largely due to the superior weaponry of the Prussians.

The problem developed when French citizens of Paris became incensed with the thought that their leaders surrendered. What enfolded was both a pride and a political issue. Interestingly, the city was blockaded by leftists who normally were not pro military but in this case wanted the French military to be more aggressive.

The two reasons for the barricade, and many times referred to as the “Paris Commune“, was to prevent the Prussians from entering Paris and also to take over the then current right wing government . There was quite a lot of bloodshed along with a succession of meetings between the two sides (French government and the commune leaders)) and quite a few changes of local leadership.

paris balloons

Illustraion of balloon ascending Paris in 1783

The siege lasted from September 1870 to the end of January 1871. The Prussians finally became frustrated with the barricades and fired some 12,000 shells which resulted in about 400 deaths. In the meantime the French government leaders had fled to Versailles. The Prussians were pressuring the French command to end the siege which was somewhat out of their control. Essentially, the French government at the time was caught between the Prussians and the leaders of the commune. As can be imagined, with a standoff lasting this long, food shortages became a big problem. At one point the Paris Zoo was emptied of it’s inhabitants to supply food to the starving Parisians source although that source wasn’t nearly enough.

Balloons to the Rescue

During the siege, the Parisians had used balloons to try to communicate with the outside world. There was no other way at the time. The Prussians were outside every city gate.

One idea was to send out carrier pigeons on the balloons and then have them fly back to Paris with messages. Balloons are a one way craft, especially in the case of Paris at this time. Pigeons were necessary to bring communications back to Paris.

civil war balloons

Illustration of Civil War Balloon Corp balloon during American Civil War

The balloon venture actually resulted in an aerial post office system. During the four months that the siege took place about 150,000 official and 1 million private communications were carried into Paris by the pigeon post. Letters and other communications were photographically reduced in size to permit higher volume. Letters carried out by balloon cost 20 cents per letter.

Needless to say, the balloons could be diverted easily due to winds and during the siege an unplanned “world distance record” was set. One balloon carrying two individuals left Paris, became lost and eventually ended up in the snow in Norway. The passengers seeing water initially thought they were hopelessly lost over the Atlantic but as it turned out they were really over the North Sea on their way north to Scandinavia.

The successful balloon ascensions out of Paris were frustrating for the Prussians. The balloons were flammable (coal gas and hydrogen) and the Prussian sharpshooters tried to bring them down. Theoretically, a single shot could be capable of bringing a balloon down because of the flammable gases. However, because the sharpshooters were not successful the Krupp company developed a special weapon to fire on the balloons. That weapon too proved to be ineffective.

In a tactic to fool the Prussian Cavalry, the Paris balloonists started night ascensions. Ascending at night did add danger to an already dangerous exploit however the French were successful. Hopefully for the balloonists by daylight the balloon would be long gone.

It’s interesting to note that the Paris balloons were used entirely as a means of communicating and not in any type of offensive operation. Since the Prussians had the city surrounded with an overwhelming force it’s doubtful that any offense, especially via balloons, would have succeeded.

hot air balloons ascending

Three modern hot air balloons getting ready to ascend in Florida

During this time the world, especially Europe, was captivated by what was going on in Paris and the balloon communications became quite a newsworthy event. News of the  situation the Parisians were in was successfully carried out by the balloons. This worked to build public sentiment on the side of the Parisians. The Prussians were coming under heavy diplomatic attack throughout Europe for the Paris siege. The Franco Prussian War had gone on long enough for both sides. It was time for both the siege and the Commune to end.

The links below are to additional Trips Into History articles you may find interesting:

Japanese Balloon Bombs of World War Two.

Airships of the California Gold Rush

Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of the Airplane

The End of the Siege

The siege was over when the Paris Commune finally surrendered in late January of 1871. Rather than stationing a garrison inside Paris, in mid February 1871, the Prussians did a brief victory march into Paris and withdrew to the east. When war indemnities were finally agreed upon the Prussians withdrew from France altogether. During the Siege there were a total of 65 to 66 balloons launched from Paris with an impressive number of 57 making it successfully out to the distant provinces. Viewing today’s hot air balloons is a colorful spectacle and the history of manned ballooning is quite colorful as well.

(All images from public domain)

When General John Pershing Chased Poncho Villa

poncho villa

Poncho Villa

When the United States launched a military expedition against Mexico’s Francisco Poncho Villa on March 14, 1916, the U.S. Army undertook one of the most historic manhunts in all of history. The roots of the expedition grew from the ongoing Mexican Revolution.

The match that lit the fire and forced President Woodrow Wilson to order General John Pershing into northern Mexico was the night time invasion of Columbus New Mexico, just north of the Mexican border. The invader was Poncho Villa and his Villistas.

There are two theories among historians for Villa’s invasion into the United States. One reason offered is that the United States appeared, or at least appeared to Villa, to be backing one of his foes. There were many factions during the revolution. The second reason proffered is that Villa had purchased and paid for supplies in Columbus New Mexico and hadn’t received them. Both have their merits but the first reason seems more probable. There is even another more probable reason explained later in this story.

As to what Poncho and his troops hoped to achieve with the invasion is more murky. If he was looking for attention, he certainly got it. Pershing’s orders were reportedly to catch Poncho Villa dead or alive and to make certain no further incursion on American soil would take place.

The Chain of Events

The trouble in Mexico began in 1913 when General Huerta seized the reins of the Mexican government. The United States refused to recognize the new government and ceased to have any diplomatic relations with Mexico. At the same time John Pershing returned to the U.S. from the Phillepines in December of 1913 and was ordered to report to the San Francisco brigade. At the time this was due to the increasing hostilities with the new Mexican army dictator. For whatever reason, the San Francisco brigade was designated as the first to be up in combat. Tragedy struck when Pershing’s wife and three daughters died in a fire at the Presidio in San Francisco. Only Pershing’s son survived. He and his son then moved to Fort Bliss Texas where Pershing was commanding officer.

On March 9, 1916, five hundred of Poncho Villa’s troops including three of his officers invaded the U.S. border town of Columbus NM. New Mexico history would forever change. At the time, the 13th U.S. Cavalry regiment was camped at Columbus. Villa’s troops raided the village in the middle of the night. The village was attacked by surprise. It didn’t take long for the U.S. to react. On March 14, 1916, Brigadier General John J. Pershing, on orders from President Woodrow Wilson, was sent into Mexico with what would eventually be a 10,000 man force with orders to capture Poncho Villa dead or alive.

The biggest problem Pershing faced at the start was a lack of adequate supplies. Some historians found this a shock since relations between the U.S. and Mexico had been on a downtrend for a few years and certainly adequate supplies should have been placed near the border with Mexico in case of trouble. The possibility of hostile action had been on the table since 1913. For General Pershing, the supply situation was critical since his troops penetrated some 300 miles into Mexico in search of Villa.

A Unique Conflict

john pershing

John J. Pershing, 1901 as an Army Captain

On a historical note, this expedition was the first to introduce an aircraft into a combat zone. During this expedition, anything immediately south of the Mexican border was a combat zone. The aircraft flown was a Curtiss Jenny. Jenny stood for the JN designation that Curtiss used for the first series of aircraft produced. Eight Curtiss JN-3 aircraft were deployed to Pershing’s Mexican campaign during 1916-17 with most being used for observation. The JN-3’s were newly produced aircraft taking the place of the discontinued JN-2″s.

To give you an idea of how military campaigns changed at the turn of the century, the Curtiss Jenny deployments to Mexico occurred forty years after George Armstrong Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Another first when it came to military expeditions was the media involvement. The media during the last half of the 1800’s regularly accompanied army expeditions in the west. Most were reporters from eastern newspapers and magazines. Some were from the midwest used as stringers for the eastern press. In fact, one reporter lost his life during Custer’s defeat. Technology changed a lot from about 1890 to 1916.

The use of the Curtiss Jenny during the Mexican campaign was not the only first. The attack on Columbus New Mexico was the first time that a U.S. settlement in North America was attacked by a foreign force. Another unique element regarding the reporting of the Pershing’s expedition was the use of film footage. Never before had that been done and this type of video would also chronicle much of World War One which was only a few years later. Pictures of Poncho Villa were printed all over the U.S. Yet, another first in the Mexican Expedition was the use of three Dodge armored cars by the U.S. The armored attack was led by then Lt. George Patton.

Historians will notice that there were conspiracy theorists opining about why the U.S. went to war with Mexico. Pershing’s expedition was really not a war with Mexico. It was designated officially as a punitive action targeted against Poncho Villa and his troops. Villa had been a Mexican officer in the northern part of Mexico and was a faction among several during the Mexican Revolution. I have read accounts where some have speculated that it was an action by the U.S. government to help prepare their troops for possible deployment to the conflicts brewing in Europe. I think that is highly doubtful. The battles in Mexico while Pershing’s troops were searching for Poncho Villa would hardly be a dress rehearsal for what was to come in Europe.

The conflicts in Mexico were essentially hit and run episodes with no defined fronts. What is a much more plausible theory, although not entirely proven, was that Villa raided into the United States at the urging of Germany which wanted to keep the U.S. occupied on their own soil thus keeping them out of the European conflict. There are books written about an intercepted cable from Germany to Mexico implying such a scenario.

See our Trips Into History articles on the links below…

The Paul Revere House in Boston MA

Crossing the Atlantic With Marconi’s Wireless

Engagements During the Mexican Expedition

columbus new mexico raid

Columbus New Mexico clock with Villista bullet hole

General John J. Pershing and his troops never were successful in flushing out Poncho Villa. There were several conflicts with Villistas in northern Mexico. The first confrontation occurred on March 29, 1916 near the town of Guerrero. The U.S. force of 375 men killed seventy-five of Villa’s troops with no fatalities to the Americans. The second engagement was on April 12, 1916 when the American troops were outnumbered some five to one. The Americans were able to retreat to a nearby village. It was reported that two Americans were killed along with more than a dozen Villista losses. Another was a skirmish on April 22nd between the Villistas and members of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry. Killed were two Americans with estimates of over thirty Villista killed. The fight broke off at sunset.

The clock shown above is on display at the New Mexico History Museum. This clock has a bullet hole as a result of the Villista invasion of Columbus New Mexico.

Two other towns in the United States came under attack during the Mexican Expedition. The towns of Glen Springs and Boquillas Texas were attacked by Villia”s men while the U.S. Eleventh Cavalry was engaged in another battle nearby, the Mexicans won a small battle at Glen Springs against a squad of nine Fourteenth Cavalry soldiers and at Boquillas they ransacked the town and took two captives. Again, it’s hard to determine what these small raids on Texas border towns would accomplish.

poncho villa pistol

Villista Revolver from the raid on Columbus New Mexico

The revolver pictured at right is on display at the New Mexico History Museum. This revolver was recovered after the villista raid on Columbus New Mexico. The revolver was originally shipped to the Mexican Army but somehow ended up with the Villistas.

The last battle during the Mexican Expedition occurred on June 22, 1916 between the U.S. Seventh Cavalry along with the African-American Tenth Cavalry against troops from the new president Carranza of Mexico. Both sides suffered losses with over 40 U.S. troops taken captive.There were eleven U.S. losses and 24 Mexicans killed and about 40 wounded. The Mexican troops retreated to the town of Chihuahua. Pershing wanted to go after the Chihuahua garrison and was denied approval from President Wilson. Wilson feared that another battle against Carranza’s troops would ignite a full scale war.

The Results of the Expedition

As mentioned above, the United States never was able to capture Poncho Villa. During the campaign, the U.S. troops were able to kill two of Villa’s generals and about 160 of his men. Poncho Villa was never able to cob together another fighting force after the U.S. departure from Mexico in January of 1917. Pershing believed that the expedition was a success but privately blames President Woodrow Wilson for putting too many restrictions on how he and his forces would operate within Mexico. In other words, political considerations from Washington tied his hands. He was probably correct.

As for General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, he would go on in a very short time to lead the American Expeditionary Forces in World War One. As for Poncho Villa, he would become a Mexican folk hero to some but his influence was on the decline. He was given a considerable amount of acreage at his retirement. Many of his loyal troops stayed along on Villa’s hacienda and some served as personal bodyguards. Poncho Villa and two of his bodyguards were killed by a group of riflemen on July 20, 1923 in the town of Parral Mexico. There were two basic theories about Villa’s assassination. The first was that it was revenge from the family of one of Villa’s generals who was killed during the conflict with the U.S. The other theory is that Villa was killed for political reasons after he reportedly boasted about running for president of Mexico. The exact reason I’m sure will never be known for certain. The action of the Pershing Expedition and the attack on Columbus New Mexico by the troops of Poncho Villa will always be a fascinating part of North American history.

(Article copyright Trips Into History. Photos of Poncho Villa and John J. Pershing are from the public domain. Photos of Columbus New Mexico clock and Villista revolver are from author’s private collection)

 

 

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody

The story about the great Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody were two life stories as dissimilar as can be imagined while at the same time had some interesting traits in common.

sitting bull

Sitting Bull

There was probably no other Indian leader who resisted the United States takeover of Sioux native lands as much as Sitting Bull did. Sitting Bull was believed to have been born in 1831 near the Standing Rock Agency which was in the Dakota Territory. To be sure, Sitting was a warrior during his younger years. He was very involved in leading war parties during Red Cloud’s War which lasted from 1865 to 1868 and resulted in the abandonment of three army forts along the Bozeman Trail in Wyoming and Montana. Sitting Bull went on to become the central figure in the Sioux War of 1876 which resulted in the Battle of the Little Bighorn debacle. Following that battle, Sitting Bull along with a few hundred of his people fled to Canada in 1877. His stay in Canada was quite an ordeal for both he and his people. The winter weather was severe and food was in short supply. Finally, in July of 1881 Sitting Bull crossed back into the United States and surrendered himself to the army.

Shortly after the Sioux War of 1876-77, the Native Americans of the Montana and Wyoming area began returning to reservations. Some held out longer than others such as Crazy Horse, but in the end they all gave themselves up and were transported to various reservations. Steamboats were even used by the government to transport some of the Sioux. In fact, as a bit of irony, the steamboat Far West, which was used to transport many of the wounded soldiers from the Sioux battle of June 1876 back to Fort Abraham Lincoln, was also employed by the army to transport surrendering Sioux back downriver towards their reservations months later. This occurred all during the years of Sitting Bull’s self-imposed Canadian exile.

buffalo bill cody

William "Buffalo Bill" Cody

When Sitting Bull surrendered in 1881 he was moved down to the Standing Rock Agency which today is very near the North and South Dakota border. He and his people were kept separate from the others fearing that his presence night reignite trouble. At one point in 1881 Sitting Bull and his band were sent to Fort Randall in the southern part of the territory as prisoners of war but were moved back once again to the Standing Rock Agency in 1883. While Sitting Bull was totally aware that the struggle against the white man was over, he still resisted adopting a new way of life. In a way it was peaceful resistance. At the same time, the U.S. military was aware of Sitting Bull’s influence among his people.

What’s interesting to the historian of the Indian Wars and the old west in general is how Sitting Bull’s return happened about the same time that William Cody was organizing his Wild West. Cody was born in 1846 and went on to be a soldier, a buffalo hunter and finally one of the United States’ most successful show promoters. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West began in 1883 in North Platte Nebraska. This would have been the same year that Sitting Bull was relocated to the Standing Rock Agency.

Although Cody served as an army scout, he fully respected the rights of native Americans. Buffalo Bill was quite outspoken in his belief that the Indian troubles were a direct result of broken treaties on the part of the U.S. government. He went out of his way in calling the Native Americans our “former” foes who are now our friends. This was not necessarily an opinion held by many and it did set buffalo Bill apart from others. The former bison hunter also pressed for limits on hide hunting and the establishment of hunting seasons.

William Cody was known for his employment of Native Americans as part of his Wild West productions. In answer to criticism from some quarters, Cody simply pointed out that he was giving useful work to unemployed Indians. The one thing that could be said about the Wild West was that audiences were seeing the real thing. Native Americans performed as warriors attacking stagecoaches and wagon trains. They and their families were also encouraged to set up camps while traveling with the show similar to the camps they would have set up on their native land. Cody’s use of the native Americans as performers was one of the reasons for the Wild West’s enormous success.

sitting bull and buffalo bill cody

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody

In regards to Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill Cody held no grudges. Sitting Bull was as entrenched in his beliefs as Cody was with his. Sitting Bull was asked by Buffalo Bill to join his show as a performer. Sitting Bull was given permission by the army to leave the reservation to join the Wild West. The great Sioux chief received about $50 a week for riding once around the arena, where he was a popular attraction. Not bad money at all in 1884.  A story was started that Sitting Bull cursed his white audiences as he rode his horse in the arena but historians could find no proof that this really occurred. It was said that Sitting Bull did give out autographs for about one dollar each before and after performances. The Chief reportedly gave this money back to his people who were quite poor. Sitting Bull was also known to have given speeches promoting education for Native Americans and for all parties, Indian and white, to reconcile relations. Sitting Bull spent merely four months with Cody’s Wild West and afterward returned to the Standing Rock Agency. Sitting Bull was ultimately killed while being taken into custody in 1890 during what was called the Ghost Dance movement. The story of the Ghost Dance and Sitting Bull can be found on our link Ghost Dance..

Another related article that’s quite interesting is the story of Pawnee Bill and his Wild West show.

When you look at both Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody, it’s not too hard to see how both men came together in the Wild West shows. The early 1880’s were a time of transition for both. The Indian Wars were winding down, Sitting Bull was being held on the reservation and Buffalo Bill was preparing to showcase an entire era of American history to the world. If anything, Sitting Bull’s participation in Cody’s Wild West gave him a platform to press for aid for his people. Where at one time Sitting Bull was considered an enemy, he was now acting as a delegate for Native Americans everywhere. It’s also fitting that someone with the respect for Native American rights that Buffalo Bill Cody surely had, would also be in a position to help the Indian by offering a public platform for one of their most famous Chiefs.

(Photos are in public domain)