Anatomy of Disaster: The Villasur Massacre

World War Zero

Between 1689 and 1763, there were no less than four colonial wars (often called World War Zero) involving France, Britain, Spain, and their respective colonies. These conflicts were expressions of European competition over balance of power, expansionism, mercantilism, and Native American alliances.

In the summer of 1720, colonial New Mexico Governor Antonio Valverde y Cosío found himself entangled in one episode of these international conflicts: the early days of America’s longest (1622 – 1924) and deadliest war (40 million deaths), The Indian Wars.

The Set-Up

Governor Valverde had a problem. Rumors circulated in the Southwest that French troops planned to seize Santa Fe’s gold and silver mines. A recent expedition had reported the French were bribing Pawnee, Otoe, and Missourias with gifts, including firearms, to guarantee their loyalty. Quite often, colonists dreaded other European powers more than they feared their Native American neighbors, and these stories kept frontier Spaniards on edge, especially Valverde.

After relaying his concerns to the viceroy in Mexico City, Valverde appointed his own lieutenant governor, Pedro de Villasur, to lead a long-range scouting expedition eastward to seek out and put an end to French mischief. On June 16, 1720, a well-armed military excursion departed Santa Fe with both Valverde’s and Villasur’s expectations that this mission could be easily accomplished.

Villasur’s force was composed of forty-two regular soldiers from Santa Fe’s royal presidio and sixty Pueblo fighting men under their own war captain. Father Juan Minguez, Indian interpreter José Naranjo, and the French-speaking Juan L’Archiveque accompanied the force. Villasur also used the Pawnee Francisco Sistaca, a Spanish slave, as interpreter to local tribes until the man disappeared.

Villasur guided his men to Taos, crossed over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, then angled northeast to the Great Bend of the Arkansas River in today’s central Kansas. From there the Spanish cut northward to the Platte River and followed it downstream to the junction with the Loup River in eastern Nebraska where the Spaniards came upon large numbers of Pawnee and Otoe. Negotiations lasted for several days, with the Indians growing increasingly hostile.

Out-numbered, Villasur withdrew his men upriver to just south of modern-day Columbus, Nebraska, camping next to tall grass and trees on August 13. The horses were turned out to graze and sentinels posted for the night. Sixty Pueblo allies, perhaps distrustful of the lax security, encamped separately nearby.

The Battle

Pawnee and Otoe warriors attacked at dawn the next morning. The Spanish were asleep at this hour and it is possible the deserter Sistaca had given his brother Pawnee this critical intelligence.

Accompanied by heavy musket fire and punishing flights of arrows, the Natives charged into combat clad only in warpaint, headbands, moccasins, and short leggings. In a brief battle thirty-six Spaniards died. Villasur was killed in front of his tent. Chaplain Minguez fell while rushing to his aid. L’Archiveque, Naranjo, and ten Pueblo scouts also died that day.

Among the Spaniards, only one officer and a dozen soldiers escaped alive, along with fifty of the Pueblo allies. The escape to Santa Fe stretched roughly 600 miles and the sixty-three survivors nearly perished by the time they reached the edge of New Mexico. Friendly Jicarilla Apaches rescued and accompanied them to Santa Fe.

After Interviewing the survivors, Valverde was alarmed to hear that the Indians had been carrying a French flag during the battle. Further, some of the returning Spaniards claimed to have seen Frenchmen in uniform (37 are depicted in Segesser II. See Figure 1.) fighting alongside Pawnee and Otoe warriors.

The fate of the Villasur force had become one of the most grievous episodes in New Mexico’s colonial period. The slaughtered soldiers represented more than a third of the royal garrison, and Santa Fe went into mourning. Stricken, Governor Valverde, wrote in his report: “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.”

Aftershock

Subsequently, many Spaniards questioned Valverde’s decision to allow the inexperienced Villasur to lead such an important mission. Authorities in Mexico City charged Valverde with facilitating the murder of troops through the botched expedition.

After seven years of investigation, Valverde stood before a board of inquiry. The court fined Valverde, the richest man in New Mexico, two hundred pesos. A lenient judgement under the circumstances.

Nevertheless, the historic importance of the Villasur Expedition is undeniable. The defeat of the Spanish allowed France free reign in conducting trade with Native Americans in the region until the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Given this heritage, the influence of the expedition in the territorial and economic evolution of the United States is profound.

But the story does not end there.

War Pictures

Today, an extraordinary piece of art (named the Segesser after a previous owner) remains a visible connection to the event that rocked New Mexico long-ago. In 1988, supporters of the Santa Fe Palace of Governors and the state acquired the 17-foot-long 137 square-foot painting on bison hide under the slogan “Save Our Hides.”

Figure 1. Segesser I (Top) and II Panels

The artwork, painted by contemporary artists from survivors’ testimony, consists of two sections. Segesser I (at the top of Figure 1), depicts a fight between Spanish-allied Pueblo Indians and Plains Apache, that occurred sometime between 1693 and 1719. Segesser II (at the bottom of Figure 1), illustrates the Villasur Massacre. Below, the faded paintings have been reproduced for better viewing.

In Figure 2, uniformed soldiers fire at an enemy to the right. Mounted fighters are the Spanish and their Indian allies.

Figure 2. French Fighters

In Figure 3, Villasur lies mortally wounded behind his white tent (lower left). The blue-robed and wounded Chaplain Minguez (center) runs to deliver last rites before his own death. In the same frame, brightly painted and naked Plains Indians fight French soldiers wear European-style uniforms and tricorn hats.

Figure 3. Indian Fighters

Figure 4 shows the New Mexico force’s last stand. Spanish defenders, Soldado de Cuera – leather jacket soldiers – hold bull hide shields and wear period hats. Muskets of the day, Miquelet-lock flintlocks, were normally fired from the hip.

Figure 4. Spanish Fighters

Native Americans demonstrated, as they were to prove repeatedly, they were a military force to be reckoned with and a serious obstacle to Euro-American westward expansion.

The artwork is not only a rare example of the earliest known depictions of colonial life in the United States, they carry the very faces of men whose descendants live in New Mexico today. The Segesser hides are on display in the New Mexico History Museum, Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe.

For more information: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2w5t5OhSPyE or

http://nmhistorymuseum.org/hides/

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