On Sunday, August 14, 1720 Santa Fe Presidio Garrison Lieutenant Pedro de Villasur died on the Platte River during an altercation with Pawnee Indians. Villasur was the leader of a force of Spanish soldiers, Pueblo Indian militia, and several citizens who’d set out that spring on an expedition to the Platte River in what is today’s Nebraska. The expedition was following up on reports that large numbers of Frenchmen were trading with the Pawnee, a tribe which dominated the central plains. This made Mexican officials nervous. Not only did Spanish mercantile policy forbid foreigners from trading within her empire, but the traders from French Louisiana could be providing the Plains Indians with arms and ammunition that could then be used against New Mexico’s settlements.
To find out what was going on, Villasur and his men were dispatched on a fact-finding mission. the reached the plains east of what is today Colorado’s Front Range in mid-August. When they found a large village of Pawnee, Villasur sent a note in to ask for a parlay.
It’s unclear whether there were any Frenchmen in the village to translate the note, which was in French, but the Pawnee didn’t waste any time responding to it. They attacked the next morning.
Villasur was among the first to fall and among the forty-five who died. The few expedition members who survived the battle carried the news back to Santa Fe and seem to have provided the details subsequently recorded in a unique artwork, one of two painted hides that eventually came into the hands of Jesuit priest Philipp von Segesser von Brunegg.
In 1758 Segesser von Brunegg sent these artifacts to family members in Switzerland. They were eventually sold to the Palace of the Governors Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico and returned to thecity that Villasur and his men departed from over 300 years ago. They are officially known as the Segesser hides.
There’s documentary evidence of other reposteros, or artwork painted on tanned hides, created in Santa Fe during the 1700s and some scholars believe the Segesser pieces were also produced there. Because of the details in the Segesser II hide, the painting that reflects contemporary accounts of the Villasur debacle, it seems clear that the painting was done by people who were familiar with the events.
The other fascinating thing about this artwork is the way it combines pictorial elements characteristic of indigenous or folk-art paintings while also reflecting influences from European battle tapestries of the late 1600s and early 1700s. The wide borders on the hide painting contain flower and leaf designs similar to of those works.
If you’d like to know more about these unique historical artifacts and the Villasur expedition, the Segesser hides are on display in Albuquerque, New Mexico through October 20, 2019 as part of a larger exhibit titled A Past Rediscovered. If you can’t make it to Albuquerque, you can view portions of the hide paintings here.
Sources: Marc Simmons, New Mexico, an Interpretive History, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988; Ruben Salaz Marquez, New Mexico, a brief multi-history, Albuquerque: Cosmic House, 1999; https://www.cabq.gov/culturalservices/albuquerque-museum/exhibitions/a-past-rediscovered