First Evidence Found of Storied Battle That Stopped Spain’s Eastward Expansion

Segesser Hide Painting

Nearly 300 years ago, two great alliances collided on the Great Plains in a battle that  changed the course of American history. But until now, no physical evidence of the storied conflict had ever been found.

In the summer of 1720, where the Platte River meets the Loup in eastern Nebraska, Spanish soldiers, New Mexican settlers and their Pueblo and Apache allies clashed with warriors from the Pawnee and Oto nations of the Plains.

In a daybreak raid, the Pawnee and the Oto — possibly with the support of French traders — routed the Spanish, killing their commander, Don Pedro de Villasur, along with 35 soldiers and 10 Pueblo scouts.

The attack proved to be a turning point in the Spanish conquest, marking the end of the empire’s eastward encroachment across the continent.

Villasur’s defeat was well-documented by survivors at the time, but perhaps nowhere was it more famously captured than in a pair of intricate tableaux painted on bison hides.

Segesser Hide Painting
A detail in the second of the two bison hides — known as the Segesser Hide Paintings — depicts the attack on Villasur’s party in eastern Nebraska. The hides are now housed in Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors museum.

Until now, the paintings have been the most vivid remaining records of the momentous battle.

But archaeologists say they’ve found what they think are its first known, if somewhat unexpected, artifacts: fragments of Spanish olive jars.

Discovered in suburban Omaha at a site called Eagle Ridge, more than a hundred kilometers from where the battle likely took place, the sherds are the only tangible relics of this pivotal episode in Plains history, said Dr. David Hill, of Metro State University, in an interview.

“The olive jar sherds from the Eagle Ridge site are the easternmost evidence of Spanish intrusion onto the Great Plains,” he said. “They are also the oldest European ceramics recovered in Nebraska by over a century.”

The fragments are thought to be remnants of booty looted from the victims after Villasur’s defeat. Archaeologists found them while excavating more than 40 underground storage pits with a host of other artifacts, like native ceramics and projectile points, that suggest Eagle Ridge was inhabited by the Oto, or perhaps the neighboring Ioway. [Read about a related discovery: “Plains Indian Fortress With Moat, ‘Underground Apartments’ Unearthed in Oklahoma“]

“The olive jar sherds recovered from the Eagle Ridge site are the only physical evidence of the battle,” Hill said, “so one or more of the Oto or Ioway village residents of the site may have been participants in the battle against Villasur. The sherds may have been one or more complete vessels and were thus loot from the engagement.”

Such jars, or boijas, were traditionally used for shipping olives, but in the New World, settlers recycled them as vessels for all sorts of supplies, like medicine, oil, and wine.

The widespread use of boijas in Spanish territory allowed Hill to compare the Nebraska fragments with other jars found in Texas and New Mexico.

Olive jar fragments from Villasur battle
These ceramic fragments are thought to be remnants of booty looted from victims after the site of Villasur’s defeat. Archaeologists found them while excavating more than 40 underground storage pits associated with the Oto and Ioway people, near modern-day Omaha. (Courtesy David Hall)

His analysis revealed important similarities among the samples, like granite-based sand that had been added to the pottery mixture, unlike indigenous ceramics made using natural clays, and telltale horizontal “throwing marks” that are still visible on the vessels’ interiors.

“Olive jars were thrown on a potters wheel, a forming technique unknown in the New World,” Hill said. “The parallel throwing marks on the exterior of the olive jar sherds are evidence of this technique.” [Learn about another early Spanish site: “Ruins in Arizona May Be ‘Lost’ Jesuit Mission“]

Hill will publish his findings in an upcoming edition of the journal Kiva, with co-authors John R. Bozell and Gayle F. Carlson of the Nebraska State Historical Society.

The artifacts they’ve identified, they write, “represent physical evidence for the easternmost expansion of the Spanish Empire in North America in the eighteenth century.

“The presence of these sherds in an Ioway or Oto settlement, possibly as loot from the battle, also marks the end of Spanish incursion onto the Great Plains.”

Join Western Digs on Facebook, follow @WesternDigs on Twitter, and follow us on Tumblr and Google Plus!

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Discussion

  1. […] First Evidence Found of Storied Battle That Stopped Spain?s Eastward Expansion | Western Digs Quote: […]

  2. Sidney Brinckerhoff

    Must the word “incursion” be used to describe Spanish movement onto the Great Plains ? The negative implications of Spanish exploration and settlement often seem to color historical interpretation of colonial activity. What about the French and British. Why are the Spaniards the “bad guys” ?

  3. […] via First Evidence Found of Storied Battle That Stopped Spain’s Eastward Expansion | Western Digs. […]

  4. Camilo Díaz

    I must point to the fact that no “boijas” have ever been found anywhere in America. What is common in the continent (sans the plural because the name was first given to South America) is “botijas”; please, if this is a serious archaeological page, first try to document the facts….(I also agree with Mr. Brinckenhorff)

    1. Blake de Pastino

      Camilo, thanks for pointing this out. I used the term that appears in Dr. Hill’s paper, and he also approved a draft of this article. But you’re right that botija is the Spanish word for a food container. It might have just been a typo; I’ll check with Dr. Hill. Thanks again.

  5. John Sanguinetti

    “Must the word “incursion” be used to describe Spanish movement onto the Great Plains ? The negative implications of Spanish exploration and settlement often seem to color historical interpretation of colonial activity. What about the French and British. Why are the Spaniards the “bad guys” ?”

    Perhaps it is because we usually read accounts written by U.S. or U.K writers who come from cultures that had viewed and experienced the Spanish as adversaries, military, political, cultural and economic, for a few hundred years?

    1. Sidney Brinckerhoff

      Thank you, John. I couldn’t have said it better myself. This site reflects much of the worst kind of popular history writing and naturally follows the “black legend” concept when treating the colonial Spaniards.

  6. Nancy Lopez

    All the years I taught New Mexico History, I never thought of the Villasur expedition to the Platte River as “Spain’s eastward expansion.” I have always believed that the Spanish were more interested in finding out if the French were arming Natives in the area. I seriously doubt from all I know about the incident and about the Spanish Southwest, that the Spanish had any inclination of settling the area. They could barely populate the area that today is Texas. Plus they already had Florida, which is very much eastward of the Spanish Southwest. I had at least one ancestor who died at the battle between the Platte River Natives and the Spanish/Pueblo forces, so I’m always interested in it, but this article is greatly flawed.

  7. Maggy

    This Spanish relics belong to Fuerte Carlos build by james Mackay right next to Omaha (in fact Omaha was Maha village) in september-november 1795. .James Mackay was one of the three members of the First Exploration of the Missouri River and its Nations (1794-797) in Spanish Louisiana. (Nasatir etc.)

    Maggy

arrow
loading