The last organised Spanish foray into the territory of the Great Plains - the Villasur Expedition of 1720

20 August 1720, the last organised Spanish foray into the territory of the Great Plains, an expedition led by General-Lieutenant Pedro de Villasur, known as the Villasur expedition, was overwhelmed by large numbers of Pawnee and Otoe near the confluence of the Loup and Platte rivers in Nebraska, marking the end of Spanish ambitions north of Colorado.

“I was heading to Nebraska. Now there's a sentence you don't want to say too often if you can possibly help it.” (Bill Bryson, “The Lost Continent”)

A contemporary visualisation of the battle by an unknown Pawnee artist, 
painted on a buffalo skin, now exhibited in the Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe.

While Queen Anne’s War left the north western territories of New Spain more or less unaffected, the interest of France had shifted from their lost territories in Newfoundland and Acadia to their holdings in the Upper Mississippi Valley and the West. French traders began to establish trade ties with their immediate neighbours, at the beginning of the 18th century most notably the Caddoan-speaking tribes on the Great Plains. One of them, the Pawnee had for the last 100 years suffered from Apache raids who sold quantities of Pawnee as slaves to the Spanish and French that made the words “Pawnee” and “slave” synonymous in the local languages. Thus, they were glad to get their hands on European weapons to fight back and welcomed the French traders with open arms.

Charles Bird King (1785 - 1862): "Young Omahaw, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawnees" (1821)

The Spanish Viceroy, Francisco Fernández de la Cueva, Duke of Alburquerque, became wary of the growing French leverage just north of his own zone of influence in Colorado and decided to send an expeditionary force to inquire and, at best, do something about it. Since Queen Anne’s War was often fought as a proxy conflict, setting native tribes on each other, de la Cueva’s apprehension that the French were planning even more mischief than expanding their trade empire westward, was not unreasonable. Thus, in June 1720, Villasur left Santa Fé with the experienced frontiersman Joseph Naranjo, son of an African father and a Hopi mother who had probably “discovered” the Platte river, as a guide, 40 Spanish soldiers and 60 Indian auxiliaries to capture French traders, discover their plans and negotiate with the Pawnee.

Spanish soldiers of 18th century California*

Crossing the Arkansas and Republic river, the expedition met them about 100 miles west of the Missouri for the first time and Villasur used a Pawnee slave, Francisco Sistaca, as an interpreter. The Pawnee were less than enthusiastic about the Spanish presence and motives and when Sistaca disappeared, the Spanish became rather nervous and tried to withdraw to the Loup River. Obviously sleeping late in the tall grass and without posting pickets or sentries, the expedition was surprised by a huge force of Pawnee, Otoe and very probably French trappers in the morning of August 14th. Villasur was killed during the first moments of the assault, and 35 of the 40 Spaniards, including Naranjo, were killed a couple of minutes later, most of the Indian auxiliaries managed to flee and the 5 surviving members of the expedition reached Santa Fe three weeks later, bringing word of the disaster. The news spoiled the appetite of the Spanish Crown to venture that far north into the Great Plains again forever until the Viceroyalty of New Spain finally ended a hundred years later.

* The image, along with excellent explanations was found on

And more about the Villasur Expedition on: