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.
Villasur and his men (center) were quickly
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
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
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
Sent to Nebraska
3 of 3
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
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.