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The Villusar Expedition

A color enhanced central section of the Native American bison hide painting showing the last stand of the Villasur Expedition.

Trail Dust: French, Indians slaughtered Spanish from S.F. in 1720

Historian Marc Simmons is author of numerous books on New Mexico and the Southwest.

One of the most grievous episodes in New Mexico's middle colonial period was the destruction of the Pedro de Villasur expedition in Nebraska by Pawnee and Otoe Indians allied with the French.

When the well-armed military force departed Santa Fe on June 16, 1720, it was with the full expectation its orders from the viceroy in Mexico City could be easily carried out.

They were to engage in a long-range scouting expedition eastward in a bid to intercept French traders who were busily making alliances with Indian tribes on the plains.

The military body was composed of 42 regular soldiers from Santa Fe's royal presidio and a contingent of Pueblo fighting men under their own war captain.

Others attached to the party were three civilians, four servants, Father Juan Minguez as chaplain and Indian interpreter José Naranjo. Another member was Santa Fe resident Juan L'Archiveque, a survivor of the 1685 French colony of La Salle on the Texas Gulf coast. He went along to interpret should Frenchmen be found.

To command this important mission, New Mexico Gov. Antonio de Valverde had appointed his lieutenant governor, Pedro de Villasur.

He guided the expedition to Taos, crossed over the Sangre de Cristos, then angled northeast to the Great Bend of the Arkansas River in central Kansas.

From there, the little Spanish army cut northward to the Santa María River — now the Platte — and followed it downstream to the junction with the Loup River in eastern Nebraska.

At that point, the Spaniards came upon large numbers of Pawnees and Otoes who dwelled in the vicinity. Negotiations were carried on for several days, with the Indians growing increasingly hostile.

Being far out-numbered, Villasur withdrew his men upriver and camped near its edge amid tall grass and trees. The horses were turned out to graze and sentinels posted for the night. All seemed serene.

The following dawn, Aug. 12, Indians swept down on the Spanish camp in a screaming horde, firing volleys of arrows and shooting old muskets.

Pedro de Villasur was killed in front of his tent. Chaplain Minguez fell while rushing to his aid. L'Archibeque and Naranjo also died.

The attack cut the expedition to pieces. Among the Spaniards, only an officer and a dozen soldiers managed to escape, wounded.

The distance back to New Mexico was roughly 600 miles. The survivors were on the point of perishing as they reached the edge of the province. But friendly Jicarilla Apaches rescued, fed and saw them safely into Santa Fe.

Residents of the capital were stunned by the enormity of this disaster. The soldiers slain represented more than a third of the royal garrison, and the town went into mourning.

Valverde in his report of the massacre, based on accounts of the survivors, wrote: "When I contemplate the fields with the spilt blood of those who were the most excellent soldiers in all this realm ... my heart is broken."

He was also very much alarmed, as he learned the Indians had been carrying a French flag during the battle. And some of the returning Spaniards claimed to have seen Frenchmen in uniform fighting alongside their Pawnee and Otoe allies. Historians have been unable to confirm that, however.

Rumors had long circulated that the French intended to seize New Mexico, believing it was rich in gold and silver. For instance, a Spanish officer in East Texas notified the viceroy that "some Frenchmen were marching to attack the mines of Santa Fe."

Fanciful stories like that served only to keep frontier Spaniards on edge. Velarde was among them.

A curious modern postscript exists with regard to "Villasur's Last Stand," as historian John L. Kessell calls that episode.

In 1988 the state of New Mexico acquired a 17-foot-long elaborate painting on animal hide that depicts in part the Villasur massacre. It is an extraordinary historical artifact and has been exhibited in Santa Fe's Palace of the Governors.

The painting evidently was done in the years soon after the massacre, for it seems clear the unknown artist had access to the eyewitness survivors. They provided him with details that lend authenticity to the work.

Called "the Segesser" because the painted hide once belonged to a missionary named Felipe Segesser, this museum piece remains as a visible connection with a long ago occurrence that rocked New Mexico.



(ca. late seventeenth century-1720)

Don Pedro de Villasur, a Spanish government official and military officer, led a disastrous expedition north into modern Nebraska in 1720. Born a Castilian nobleman in the late seventeenth century, he died on August 13, 1720, in a battle against Pawnee and Otoe Indians. In the early eighteenth century he reached the Americas, where he became a sublieutenant at El Paso, then later a war captain and alcalde at Santa Barbara, Nueva Vizcaya. By 1719 he had risen to be lieutenant governor of New Mexico. To find out what their French rivals planned to the north, Governor Antonio Valverde de Cosio sent Villasur, an inexperienced officer, on a reconnaissance mission.

The expedition, consisting of forty-two veteran soldiers, three settlers, sixty Pueblo Natives, chaplain Juan Minguez, chief scout Jose Naranjo, and interpreter Jean L'Archeveque, set out on June 16, 1720, from the Santa Fe presidio. They crossed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, then moved north to modern Pueblo, Colorado. From there they pushed across the Plains of eastern Colorado to the South Platte River, which they followed to the Platte and down into what is now eastern Nebraska. There, Villasur sent a captive Pawnee to parley at a nearby village.

Negotiations with the Pawnees collapsed after two days. The other officers convinced Villasur that the situation had reached a crisis, and they retreated fifty miles upstream to the Loup River near modern-day Columbus, Nebraska. That night the sentries heard noises in the dark, but Villasur responded only by sending Pueblos to look around. In the early morning of August 13, 1720, while the groggy Spanish rounded up their horses, a united band of Pawnees and Otoes attacked. Most of the Pueblos escaped, while the disoriented Spaniards milled around on foot and fell victim to the attackers' musket fire. Thirteen soldiers and one settler managed to escape, but they left behind forty-five dead, including eleven Pueblos and thirty-two Spaniards, Villasur among them. All the survivors were wounded, but the attackers themselves had suffered so heavily that they could not give chase.

Subsequently, many Spaniards seriously questioned Valverde's decision to allow an inexperienced lieutenant such as Villasur to lead such an important mission, blaming this officer's mistakes in leadership for the massacre. Valverde was found guilty of negligence by a court of inquiry but had only to pay a small fine. Despite its tragic end, Villasur's expedition remains important because it was the most northerly penetration by the Spanish into North America and the only Spanish incursion into Nebraska.

Steven Jackman University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Hotz, Gottfried. The Segesser Hide Paintings: Masterpieces Depicting Spanish Colonial New Mexico. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1991.

Steven Jackman University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Hotz, Gottfried. The Segesser Hide Paintings: Masterpieces Depicting Spanish Colonial New Mexico. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1991.

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