Villasur Sent to Nebraska

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The Battle

 

In August 1720, Villasur's army arrived at the Platte River somewhere around Grand Island. The troops crossed the Platte and then the Loup River where Villasur started encountering Oto and Pawnee Indians. He attempted to negotiate with them at various times using a Spanish slave who was a Pawnee named Francisco Sistaca. Near present-day Schuyler, Nebraska, Sistaca disappeared. Villasur became very nervous about the belligerence and numbers of the local Indians, whose villages were south of the Platte, near present-day Bellwood and Linwood. So, his army turned around and returned to the Loup River. They crossed the river and set up a camp in a meadow covered with very tall grass, probably located just south of modern-day Columbus, Nebraska.

Pawnee and Villasur battle

Villasur and his men (center) were quickly surrounded
by the Pawnee and killed.
Source - Palace of the Governors Collections, Museum of New Mexico.

At dawn on August 14, 1720, a huge force of Indian warriors, possibly accompanied by French traders, attacked the camp. Most of the Spanish were still asleep and the tall grass made it easy for the Pawnee to slip in close. There is speculation that Sistaca had informed his people (the Pawnee) of the best time to attack.

General Villasur was killed in the first attack. The soldiers around him who were still alive formed in a circle. There were other Spanish soldiers who were holding the horses nearby. They were also under attack, but they managed to saddle some of the horses and three of the men charged through the enemy forces towards the circle of troops. One of the three men who made the charge was successful in reaching the circle and seven soldiers escaped via horseback. One of these survivors had been shot nine times and had already been scalped. The Pueblo scouts with Villasur were in a separate camp and did not suffer the full brunt of the attack by the Pawnee and Oto. Still, 11 of them died in the fighting.

The battle lasted for only a few minutes and when it was over, 35 Spaniards were dead, including Villasur, the priest Minguez, Naranjo, one civilian, one lieutenant, one corporal, the quartermaster, and eight soldiers. Forty-nine Pueblos and all of the Apaches escaped. The battle was a massacre.

The survivors retreated to Santa Fe and reached home on September 6, 1720, 24 days after the battle. Some of the survivors blamed the French fur traders for their defeat.

This battle was the biggest defeat for Europeans in Nebraska to that time and the biggest victory for Native Americans. It was a major reversal for the Spanish. The governors in New Mexico investigated who was to blame for the defeat for the next seven years.

Meanwhile, the French in present-day Illinois learned of the defeat in October and sensationalized the victory by their Indian allies. The Native Americans brought Spanish swords, guns, clothing, and even part of Villasur's diary from the battlefield.

No doubt the Spanish defeat had a major demoralizing effect upon the Spanish forces in New Mexico. The province had lost a general, its finest scout, a priest, and some of its best frontiersmen. Officials in New Mexico feared an invasion by the French. The defeat of Villasur's elite army was followed by a series visits from Frenchmen in New Mexico territory who were seeking trade with the Indians and fueling the Spanish hysteria. However, the French had little success in establishing trade in the New Mexico and eventually gave up their effort. After that, they relied upon Indians to act as middlemen.

 

Villasur Sent to Nebraska

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Recording the Massacre

 

There is a remarkable record of Villasur's defeat in 1720 still in existence. An unknown artist recorded the battle scene on three large buffalo hides based on descriptions provided by the survivors of the defeat. The artist was expertly trained in the Spanish style of painting, but we don't know if he or she was Spanish or Indian. Scenes were first drawn in pencil, then traced in ink, and later the intense watercolors were added on a yellow ground.

The original painting still exists. It has hung at the family estate of a Swiss nobleman, Baron Dr. Andre von Segesser, for over 200 years. It is the oldest known painting of a Nebraska scene.

A replica of the hide painting is on display at the Nebraska State Historical Society Museum. The replica is painted on six cowhides stitched together. When you view the reproduction of the painting, you are looking to the south at the forks of the Loup and the Platte. The Platte River is near the top of the painting. Two Indians are wading across the Loup River.

The Pawnee and Oto attackers can be identified by their vivid body paintings and skull caps with drooping tassels. Pawnee warriors were known, in later times, to strip themselves of clothing before a battle. In addition to their bows, arrows, and spears, many are shown armed with swords and hatchets received from French traders.

There are French attackers in the painting, and they are all wearing either three cornered hats or pointed caps. Their similar equipment and clothing styles suggest a military unit, but this may have been artistic license to help explain the Spanish defeat.

The Spanish had built a defensive perimeter of saddles and baggage before the battle, but it may not have been manned when the surprise attack took place. Frenchmen are shown firing from behind the Spanish defenses.

One figure is believed to be Jose Naranjo, a black man who served as chief scout for this and earlier expeditions. He died in the battle.

Pedro de Villasur can be identified by his red officer's coat. He died of wounds received early in the battle.

Spanish soldiers wore broad brimmed leather hats, long leather coats, and some carried heavy leather shields. They are grouped together in a final defensive circle. The extremely long guns are an exaggeration by the artist, though French muskets were longer than those of the Spanish. The orange flame is the gunpowder's "flash in the pan."

Father Juan Minguez, a Dominican priest, is shown giving last rites to his fallen comrades. He died in the battle, as well, but for several years rumors circulated that he was taken prisoner by the Oto and later escaped.

 

     
     

 

     
     

Horses Change Native Lives

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Europeans Compete for Trade
1714 French Trader Uses Oto Word to Name "Nebraskier"

 

French Explorer de Bourgmont

French explorers used canoes and dugouts to travel throughout the interior of the New World.
Source - National Parks Service.

In 1714, a French explorer with a long name — Étienne de veniard, sieur de Bourgmont — reached the mouth of the Platte. He named it the "Nebraskier River," using an Oto word that means "flat water." Bourgmont was the vanguard of a century and more of intense competition between the Europeans for trade and treaties with the Native Americans. He had been in North America for 27 years and was a remarkable soldier, trader, and explorer. When he reached the Missouri territory he married a Missouria Indian woman and lived with the tribe. While living with them, he began to systematically explore the Missouri River and record his observations. It was on one of these trips that he reached the mouth of the Platte.

In 1724, he was sent to negotiate peace treaties among and between the plains tribes. The goal was to secure the burgeoning fur trade for the French. In a remarkable entry into the official journey of the trip, the essential bargain or deal between Europeans and the Native Americans was eloquently outlined.

All of the chiefs of these tribes replied: "Yes, my father, we will keep our word, and we have no other wish than yours. Our only grievance is to see ourselves so far away from the French, for we often lack merchandise, especially gunpowder and balls." M. de Bourgmont replied: "My friends, I shall send Frenchmen to your villages to bring you some." They answered: "That is good, for we have many peltries, especially beaver. We will trade them with your people. They will be very pleased and so will we."

You can read all of the journal entries of that 1724 expedition here.

By the early 1700s Spain laid claim to the southwestern regions of what would become the United States. Britain had claimed all of North America in 1497 and had colonies in the east and Canada. France controlled the area along the Mississippi River. In the west, no boundary had been drawn between the claims of Spain and France. There were numerous land disputes. The Spanish government felt that trade throughout the continent should be conducted only by its citizens, thus none of the profits would go to other countries. The French and the British did not agree.

The French moved on to the Plains via the Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri rivers to take advantage of the expanding fur trade. They opened regular trade with the Indians of the central Missouri River basin (including Nebraska) by 1703. They concluded treaties of peace and friendship with the Missouri River tribes. French presents and trade goods flowed up the Missouri and overland from the Great Lakes to the tribes in Nebraska.

The French supplied guns and steel weapons, which gave the Pawnees, Osages, Missourias, Kansas, and Wichitas great military advantage over their enemies, the Apaches. The Spanish, on the other hand, did not have enough firearms to supply their own people, and prohibited gun sales to all Plains tribes. That put them at a distinct disadvantage against the French and British. It also set up a remarkable encounter between the Spanish and the Pawnee.

Horses Change Native Lives

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The 1724 Journal of de Bourgmont

 

Éttienne de Veniard, sieur de Bourgmont was the first known white man to systematically explore the Missouri River basin and was the first to record his findings. After leaving France a convicted juvenile delinquent, Bourgmont settled in Canada and joined the military. When an Indian attack on Fort Pontchartrain (near modern day Detroit) damaged Bourgmont's reputation, the acting commander escaped to the wilderness. He lived with Indians for years at a time and became a notorious and powerful figure among the them, eventually becoming the king's personal envoy to the tribes that complicated France's desire for western expansion. The following journal entries chronicle Bourgmont's expedition to negotiate peace between and among the French, Pawnee, Oto, Kansa, and Padouca (or Plains Apache) Native American tribes.

This is the main expedition's travel journal. French historians believe the journal was written by mining engineer Philippe de La Renaudière. The handwriting of his signature at the bottom of the document seems to match the writing of the journal entries. The story also seems to be written by a well-educated person and someone who was present daily. Besides Bourgmont, La Renaudière is the only member who fits that description.

Bourgmont Journal Entries

June 25, 1724

Company sets out

Sept. 6, 1724

Bourgmont negotiates with Padouca

July 3, 1724

Bourgmont departs by land

Oct. 2, 1724

Bourgmont's recovery

July 4, 1724

Bourgmont describes landscape

Oct. 4, 1724

Bourgmont greets Otos

July 5, 1724

West by quarter west-northwest

Oct. 5, 1724

Bourgmont offers peace

July 6, 1724

Encounter with Kansa chiefs

Oct. 6, 1724

Smoking the peace pipe

July 7, 1724

Party reaches the Missouri

Oct. 7, 1724

Chiefs accompany Bourgmont

July 8, 1724

Kansa village welcomes Bourgmont

Oct. 8, 1724

Landscape on way to Padouca village

July 9, 1724

Bourgmont reaches out to tribes

Oct. 9, 1724

An 11 hour day

July 10, 1724

Otos respond to overtures

Oct. 10, 1724

Descriptions of weather & landscape

July 11, 1724

Bourgmont suffers fever

Oct. 11, 1724

The Great Kansas River

July 12, 1724

Kansa chiefs holds feast

Oct. 12, 1724

The sites & sounds of the prairie

July 13, 1724

Waiting for pirogues

Oct. 13, 1724

An abundance of wildlife

July 14, 1724

Indians catch fever

Oct. 14, 1724

Bourgmont shoots bison

July 15, 1724

More fever in camp

Oct. 15, 1724

Traveling the treeless prairie

July 16, 1724

Good medicine and pirogues

Oct. 16, 1724

Party gets off course

July 17, 1724

Bourgmont addresses chiefs

Oct. 17, 1724

Smoke signals

July 18, 1724

Bourgmont negotiates with Kansa Indians

Oct. 18, 1724

Party arrives at Padouca village

July 19, 1724

Osages fear sickness

Oct. 19, 1724

Bourgmont addresses Indians

July 20, 1724

Chief offers daughter's hand

Oct. 20, 1724

The head chief speaks

July 21, 1724

Preparing for the Padoucas

Oct. 21, 1724

Trade begins

July 22, 1724

Departure delayed by rain

Oct. 22, 1724

Living and hunting styles

July 23, 1724

Horsethief strikes

Oct. 23, 1724

Leaving for base camp

July 24, 1724

Departure by land

Oct. 24, 1724

Large herds of bison

July 25, 1724

Party encounters storm

Oct. 25, 1724

Fine weather

July 26, 1724

Reconnaissance

Oct. 26, 1724

Frost

July 27, 1724

Description of travois

Oct. 27, 1724

Re-crossing the Kansas river

July 28, 1724

Journey difficult for many

Oct. 28, 1724

Traveling eight leagues

July 29, 1724

Description of prairie

Oct. 29, 1724

Wolves

July 30, 1724

Bourgmont taken ill

Oct. 30, 1724

Rain

July 31, 1724

Bourgmont turns back

Oct. 31, 1724

Approaching the Kansa village

Aug. 1, 1724

Bourgmont returns on a stretcher

Nov. 1, 1724

Crossing the Missouri

Aug. 2, 1724

Six leagues traveled

Nov. 2, 1724

Leaving for Fort d'Orleans

Aug. 3, 1724

Back at the Kansa village

Nov. 5, 1724

Arrival at Fort d'Orleans

Aug. 5, 1724

Bourgmont at Fort d'Orleans