Villazur Expedition

The next expedition entering what is now the State of Kansas was sent out from the Spanish settlements in New Mexico. The first intimation the French authorities had of this invasion was contained in a letter written on the 24th of May, 1721, by M. De Boisbriant, Governor of the Illinois District, to Bienville, saying that three hundred Spaniards had left Santa Fe to drive the French from Louisiana, but that they had been turned back by the Pawnees and Osages.

The facts concerning this foray into the Great Plains have not been available until recently, the first intelligible account of it having been published by the Kansas State Historical Society. ((See Vol. XI, Kansas Historical Collections, pp. 397, et seq., for the article, written by John B. Dunbar. )) Its object was to throw back the Pawnees, who had established a strong town in the forks of the Platte River as a means of protecting their hunting grounds from the Spaniards and the Indians under their influence. The Pawnees were moved to this action by the erection of a pueblo or tribal dwelling by the Picuries in what is now Scott County, Kansas. The Picuries were from Northern New Mexico, and had there been under Spanish rule. They moved to the Great Plains and set up their communal establishment, called El Quartelajo, about 1702, and its remains are yet to be seen. This alarmed the Pawnees, then seated in what is now Nebraska and Northwest Kansas, and as an offset they made the settlement at the forks of the Platte. This Pawnee town, projected into the center of the buffalo range, was likely to have an adverse effect on the hunting operations of the New Mexicans and their allies, and the Spanish authorities decided that it must be destroyed. This decision was the more natural since it was well known on the Rio Grande that French hunters and traders were then appearing upon the Great Plains in close alliance with Indian tribes dwelling there. As early as 1700 they had destroyed the village of Jumanos far out on the plains, if Spanish reports are to be credited. And all this is proof of how far individual enterprise and personal effort move in advance of governmental action. History rarely preserves the names of the first explorers of the interior of any country. Hardy traders and adventurers plunged into the woods and streamed over the plains long before the expeditions set down as the original explorations. But the names of these old rangers are lost—were never recorded except in local family annals.

An additional motive for the Spanish expedition was the punishment of the predatory Comanches and Utes, or at least a display of force sufficient to curb their arrogance. Coming in upon the eastern or plains country of New Mexico from the southeast, they had stolen horses and harried the white and Indian inhabitants of the province.

Don Antonie Valverde was Governor of New Mexico. In 1719 he determined to lead a military force against the Pawnee village at the forks of the Platte. But he did not get beyond El Quartelajo, returning from that outpost to Santa Fe. The action of Valverde can only be explained by a knowledge of his character, which seems to have been of the worst. A renegade Frenchman, Jean L’Archeveque, one of the murderers of La Salle, was one of his associates and his tool. This degenerate Frenchman bore an ignoble part in this final Spanish expedition, where he met justice in death at the hands of the Pawnees and their French allies.

Valverde had a force of two hundred men, which he considered insufficient in 1719, but he ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Villazur to proceed in 1720 with but forty men. Villazur marched from Santa Fe on the 14th of June. He halted at Jacarilla, one hundred and ten miles north of Santa Fe, to rest his troops and secure Indian recruits. From that post it was two hundred and fifty miles to El Quartelajo, which was reached by toilsome marches. There Villazur secured another band of Apaches and set out for the Pawnee village, one hundred and ninety miles away. It was another difficult march, but on the 15th of August the Spaniards came in sight of the Pawnee town. It was on the north Fork of the Platte about a mile and a half above its junction with the South Fork. The Spaniards first saw it from a hill or bluff some distance from the river.

When the Spaniards came into full view of the town the Pawnee warriors, who were even then south of the river, rode forward to meet them. The Spaniards had dismounted, but they now mounted their horses and rode slowly forward to meet the Pawnees, who, when within a quarter of a mile, put their horses to the gallop, parted into two wings, and encircled the Spanish command. In this situation all advanced to the bank of the South Fork of the Platte a little above its junction with the North Fork. The Pawnees there leaving the Spaniards and returning to their town, Villazur dismounted his force, and permitted the horses to graze. Early in the afternoon the Spaniards descended the river to a point about two miles below the junction of the forks of the Platte. There camp was made on the river bank. The grass was of rank growth on the rich river bottom, and perhaps so high as to well-nigh conceal the horses. The Spaniards cut it away from a space large enough for the camp—some two acres. Here were piled the baggage and the camp-equipment. At night the horses were brought up and tied about this cleared space.

The Pawnees had early information of the departure of the expedition from the Rio Grande. After it left El Quartelajo they kept it ever in sight. They were not deceived as to its purpose. The Indian town was not surprised when the Spanish force came into view on the south plain—it was expected. There were more than twenty Frenchmen in the Pawnee town, all armed with muskets. They were traders and trappers, hunters and coureurs de bois, and friends of the Pawnees.

There was a low bush-grown island in the Platte opposite the Spanish camp. To this island the Pawnee warriors quietly swam with their bows and arrows in the afternoon. At night they swam to the south bank and concealed themselves in the tall grass around the camp. The French were with them and directing them.

At daylight Villazur thought to move his camp to higher land in the open plain, and his men were busily engaged in breaking camp for that purpose. As the Spanish commander was mounting his horse, a volley of musketry was fired into the camp by the Frenchmen. Two-thirds of the Spanish soldiers were killed by this first fire. The survivors drew themselves together and charged their surrounding foes, driving them back three times. But the Spanish Indians had fled at the first fire, and were then galloping headlong over the plain intent only on saving their own lives. The Spanish soldiers, seeing they could not beat off their enemies, soon followed their Indian allies. Only six or seven of them reached Santa Fe, twenty-two days later. When the tidings of the dismal failure of the expedition were told there, the town was in a panic, and the expedient of abandoning it was seriously considered. But the Pawnees and French were satisfied with their decisive victory on the Platte and did not pursue. And the French had established their claim to the Mississippi Valley up to the Rocky Mountains. This claim was never afterward disputed by the Spaniards.

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