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Antonio de Valverde Cosío
By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint
A major player in the re-conquest of New Mexico in the 1690s under Diego de Vargas was Antonio de Valverde Cosío. He became interim governor of the province in 1715 and was named to the post in his own right in 1718. He served until 1722. Since the re-conquest, Spanish New Mexico had continued to be plagued by periodic raids by Comanches and other semi-nomadic Plains Indians. In fact, the intensity and frequency of such attacks had increased. Valverde and other leaders of the provincial government were convinced that French agents were supplying the raiders and even directing their movements against New Mexico. Much of Valverde's term was spent trying to ascertain the extent of French penetration of the Great Plains and to block their further encroachment on Spanish-claimed territory.
As part of that strategy the viceroy in Mexico City directed Valverde to establish a mission among the Jicarilla Apaches near what is today the town of Cimarron and a presidio at El Cuartelojo, in what is now western Kansas. Rather than take either of those steps, the governor and his advisors decided on a retaliatory campaign against Comanches who had recently raided New Mexico. It was assumed that while on the campaign the soldiers would pick up intelligence about French activities.
In September 1719 Valverde himself led a party of 100 soldiers and 500 Pueblo allies out of Santa Fe, headed first to Taos. The troop crossed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and then turned north along the eastern foothills of Colorado's Front Range. Repeatedly, they encountered bands of Apaches who complained of attacks against them by Comanches. Turning east, Valverde reached the modern Arkansas River in eastern Colorado without ever engaging Comanches. Apaches told of five French settlements among the Pawnee to the northeast. Valverde promised to expel the French and put an end to Comanche raids. But with the impending winter, the soldiers and their allies turned about and returned to Santa Fe.
Valverde sent an alarming report of French presence to the viceroy, a report made all the more disturbing because war had been declared between Spain and France in Europe. The viceroy sent a return message north, instructing Valverde to fortify El Cuartelejo. In response, the governor wrote that he was "prepared to attend to the matter personally, or my lieutenant general will do so."
Pedro de Villasur, Valverde's lieutenant governor and friend, had been a resident at El Paso at least as early as 1684 and made his way north to Santa Fe after the re-conquest. By 1719, he had been in Santa Fe at least five years, commanding its presidio. During the spring of 1720 preparations were made, under orders from the viceroy and Valverde, for a new campaign that he would lead. It was "to discover by means of the infidel [non-Christian Indian] nations if there were any French established in these regions." Indeed, French traders had been entering the territory west of the Mississippi River since at least 1703.
Villasur's expedition, comprising somewhat over a hundred men, both Hispanos and Pueblo Indians, finally got underway in July 1720. Having reached El Cuartelejo without incident, the force pushed on toward the northeast, the direction of the rumored French settlements.
In what is now central Nebraska, at the junction of the Loup and Platte Rivers, the Spanish-led force came upon a large band of Pawnees, "singing and dancing." When visited by an Indian from the expedition, the Pawnees rebuffed his gestures of friendship, frightening him so that he fled. Villasur and his men established themselves at the distance of several leagues from the Pawnee camp. Then they moved their camp closer until they were just across a stream from the Pawnees and once again the native intermediary from the expedition made contact with the Pawnees.
Although the emissary did not return, a party of Pawnees came to the expedition's camp, seemingly with peaceful intent. Juan Archibeque was asked by Villasur to write a note addressed to any Frenchmen who might be in the Pawnee camp. Archibeque was a French survivor of the La Salle colony that attempted to establish itself in East Texas in the1680s but had lived in Spanish New Mexico for years. That afternoon, a group of Pueblo allies of the expedition were taken captive while bathing in the river. Then during the ensuing night, the sounds of people crossing through the water were heard.
The next morning, as the Villasur party was preparing to mount and move forward, several hundred Pawnee and Oto warriors attacked from ambush. In the resulting chaos, 34 soldiers and a dozen Pueblo allies died, a little less than half the force. Among the dead were Villasur himself and Juan Archibeque. Those who survived the attack on the Platte River fled back to Santa Fe, arriving there nearly two months after the battle.
Most of the written, firsthand, accounts of the expedition were lost during the battle however, Felipe de Tamarís, a young presidial soldier and Villasur expedition survivor retained a portion of what remained of Villasur's journal. He wrote a version of it from memory. It may have been at this same time that a painting of the battle was made, based on the testimony of Tamarís and other eyewitnesses.
Following the debacle, recriminations flew fast and furious. Claims were made that Villasur had commanded the expedition ineptly, placing it in a vulnerable position. Some critics asserted that the governor, Valverde, was himself responsible for the slaughter of so many Spaniards and their Indian allies. They said that he should have led the expedition himself and should have selected more experienced men-at-arms. Valverde made claims that the French had orchestrated the attack on Villasur and his men, although no Frenchmen had been reported by the battle survivors. Eventually Valverde was lightly punished for what was seen as his malfeasance in the affair.
In the years immediately following the massacre, Indians from the northeast continued to attack settlements in New Mexico until the last decades of the eighteenth century. A peace treaty was finally concluded with the Comanches in which yearly payments of goods were made by the provincial government, in exchange for peaceful relations. Throughout the period preceding the peace treaty, French traders were repeatedly accused of supplying the attacking tribes and encouraging, if not directing, their assaults. The Spanish provincial government in Santa Fe was never able to convince the authorities in Mexico City to send additional soldiers to New Mexico to defend against the threats from the eastern plains. That was partly because Spain and France had signed a peace treaty in 1720, not long after the Villasur massacre.
Threat of attack by Indians from the northeast remained vivid in the minds of Hispano New Mexicans for years, owing in large part to the stunning defeat of Villasur and his party. As mentioned earlier, that defeat was memorialized in a large, detailed painting that incorporated information provided by the massacre's survivors. It is not known who the painter of the 4-1/2 by-17-foot hide mural was, nor where it resided from the early 1720s, when it must have been painted, until 1758. In that latter year, a Jesuit priest, Philipp von Segesser von Brunegg, ministering in the Mexican state of Sonora, sent the painting, along with two others of a similar nature, to his brother in Switzerland.
Father von Segesser did not send any information to his brother that identified the painting or why it had been in his possession. Nevertheless, the von Segesser family held on to the three paintings he had sent as heirlooms. Over nearly two hundred years they were passed down and sold among members of the family. At some point, one of the three paintings and a small portion of another disappeared. Then, in 1945, Gottfried Hotz, a Swiss scholar and curator of an American Indian museum in Switzerland, took it upon himself to try to determine what the two surviving paintings depicted and when and where they had been made. He made extensive inquiries in Mexico and the United States.
Hotz eventually concluded that the two paintings depicted scenes from the Valverde and Villasur expeditions of 1719 and 1720, making the paintings historically valuable to the people of New Mexican. Subsequent research by other scholars confirmed Hotz's conclusions. Beginning as early as the 1960s, Museum of New Mexico staff began efforts to have the paintings brought back to New Mexico for display in Santa Fe. Those early efforts, however, were not fruitful.
Then, in the mid-1980s staff at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, most notably Thomas Chávez, its director, aided by other American museums, initiated correspondence with the Segesser family about the paintings. After verification of the authenticity and stability of the paintings, Chávez and his colleagues were able to negotiate their loan for eighteen months to the Palace of the Governors. While they were in New Mexico on display, funds were raised and appropriated for their purchase. Since 1988 they have been owned by the Museum of New Mexico and housed at the Palace of the Governors.
As Chávez later wrote: "The Segesser hide paintings are particularly valuable to us today because early pictorial representations of historical events in the present-day United States are extremely rare." Segesser I, as the smaller of the two surviving paintings is known, shows what is thought to be Pueblo allies of the Valverde expedition attacking a village of Plains Indians. The other larger painting depicts in exquisite detail, the death of Villasur and the final stand of soldiers as they are beset by Pawnee warriors. Together, the two paintings bring to life, as words alone rarely can, the story of the precariousness of the province of New Mexico through much of its history.
Carson, Phil. Across the Northern Frontier: Spanish Explorations in Colorado. Boulder: Johnson Books, 1998.
Chávez, Thomas E. "The Villasur Expedition and the Segesser Hide Paintings." In Spain and the Plains: Myths and Realities of Spanish Exploration and Settlement on the Great Plains, edited by Ralph H. Vigil, Frances W. Kaye, and John R. Wunder, p. 90-113. Niwot, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 1994.
Kessell, John L. Spain in the Southwest: A Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.
Thomas, Alfred Barnaby. After Coronado: Spanish Exploration Northeast of New Mexico, 1696-1727. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1935.
Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992.