In 1921, a manuscript titled “Massacre of the Spanish Expedition of the Missouri (August 11, 1720)” was discovered in Paris; the diary was written by a Spanish officer and describes the events of a Spanish expedition up to the date of Aug. 10, 1720. Now known as the “Villasur Expedition,” the contingent had been dispatched from Santa Fe to check the French activities in the area of modern-day Nebraska. The day after the diary’s last entry, most of the Spaniards were killed during an early-morning attack by Pawnee and Otoe. After the diary’s publication, it was quickly determined that the most likely location for the massacre was at the confluence of the Platte and Loup rivers in what is now Nebraska.
Influenced by the manuscript’s publication, E.E. Blackman, curator for the state historical society, headed west to Nance County in the summer of 1924 to study prehistoric village sites along the Loup and to look for artifacts from the Spanish expedition. According to the article “Exploration of Aboriginal Remains in the Loup Valley” published in the journal Nebraska History and Record of Pioneer Days, Vol. VII, No. 1, Blackman made an extensive study of the Burkett site west of Genoa. Blackman stated that “A number of Spanish trinkets which might have belonged to the expedition of 1720 were found . . .” No real descriptions of the objects are given in the in the account, but the accompanying photo features two artifacts; a length of “Bronze chain, possibly Spanish” and a piece of “Bronze plate, probably of quilted armor”.
Fortunately, the article “Finds Show Spanish Expedition Visited Loup Valley in 1720,” published in the Columbus Daily Telegram on Aug. 2, 1924, gave a fairly accurate description of the two bronze artifacts found by Blackman. The artifacts were said to be plate armor and brass horse trappings.
The Telegram stated: “The plate armor was made of small brass pieces about three inches long and an inch and a half wide and about the thickness of an ordinary piece of thin cardboard. In each corner was a small hole. Through these holes the wire thread was drawn then held the pieces together so that they formed a solid piece of armor for a coat and covering for the arms and legs. The pieces were bent and hammered to fit the body”.
Concerning the horse trappings: “Such pieces as these have been unearthed by Mr. Blackman, who has also found a little brass chain on which are fastened, about a third of an inch apart, a number of little balls of brass about the size of the heads of the old-fashioned hatpin…This little chain was used under the chin, or jaw of the horse to hold the bridle in place.”
Although Blackman’s explanation of the use of the items may not be entirely accurate, his description of the two Spanish artifacts is still valuable. The whereabouts of the artifacts has been lost to time.
The use of metallic armor by the Spanish had been discontinued long before the 18th century, but it’s possible that some pieces could have been in possession of the Plains Indians. On July 24, 1924, the Telegram published an interview with Luther North, a former captain in the Pawnee Scouts. He described a certain Cheyenne warrior who was feared by the Pawnee “because Pawnee arrows were turned away when they stuck the body of this Cheyenne warrior; the Pawnees came to believe he was protected by the Great Spirit.” The warrior was finally killed in a battle on the Republican River in 1852. Captain North continued: “Upon examination the Pawnees found that the Cheyenne warrior was protected by a chain mail vest. The Pawnees cut up the armor in small bits and divided it up among themselves, and it may have been one of those pieces that was found near Genoa, though I hope Mr. Blackman’s investigations up there will prove otherwise.” Captain North didn’t enter military service until 1862, so there is a chance he didn’t actually see the pieces of mail and had heard about the incident during his time spent with the Pawnee.
For more information on the Villasur Expedition you can check out a reproduction hide painting of the battle at the Nebraska History Museum or visit the expedition webpage at https://history.nebraska.gov/visit/villasur-massacre-hide-painting-reproduction.
Columbus Daily Telegram July 24, August 2, 1924
Luther North biography The History of Platte County, Nebraska by Margaret Curry, 1950
“New Chapter in Nebraska History” NEGenWeb Project Resource Center, On-line Library, Journals NE History & Record of Pioneer Days Vol. VI, No. 1
“Exploration of Aboriginal Remains in Loup Valley” NEGenWeb Project Resource Center, On-Line Library, Journals NE History & Record of Pioneer Days Vol. VII, No. 1
“Ambushed at Dawn: An Archaeological Analysis of the Catastropic Defeat of the 1720 Villasur Expedition” Thesis by Benjamin Bilgri, Dec., 2011
Submitted by, Tom Bryan Nebraska Archaeological Society