Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

VILLASUR, PEDRO DE (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.

Jones, Oakah L. Pueblo Warriors and Spanish Conquest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

Thomas, Alfred B. After Coronado: Spanish Exploration Northeast of New Mexico, 1696–1727. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1935.

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