Going Home: The Villasur Expedition

Well, here I go again.

Last time I did something like this it was a bike trip following the route of the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, Harold, as he rode north from London with an army to counter a viking invasion near York in 1066. That trip wound up in Hastings where I saw the battlefield where only weeks later, there was a struggle that resulted in the Normans taking over England.

This Saturday I will begin a trip to the confluence of the Loup and the Platte rivers in Nebraska, the site where a Spanish expedition from New Mexico was wiped out by Pawnee Indians in 1720. I’ll follow, in reverse, the most likely route the expedition took from New Mexico.

Why am I doing this?

Well, it’s a long story of course. And speaking of stories, it was “the story,” the vaguely autobiographical fictional thing I’ve been writing lately that inspired the research on this and the trip itself.

The female protagonist in the story is an anthropology professor. I honestly struggled to figure out how to give her academic and intellectual quest some kind of interest. But I was too ignorant of anthropology and of New Mexico history. So I dug into it and found Villasur.

The Villasur expedition was an effort to learn more about French activity in the Great Plains, a region that Spain had not ventured into. In truth, the French had little no control there either. Spain was motivated by the wider global conflict with France and felt that it was important to challenge any French effort to expand their influence in North America. So they sent Villasur.

My female protagonist is from Lebanon, Kansas. Guess where VIllasur’s expedition most likely passed on its way to its destruction? Pretty much right through Smith County, just west of Lebanon. I won’t go into the plot twists that have developed in “the story,” but I now know that my character (who feels more like a friend to me now), would have found it compelling that her own path back to New Mexico after finding out her own origins there would retrace Villasur’s.

So that’s why I am heading back into the heartland, a place I am growing to love more and more as I learn more about the Pawnees, Spaniards, and French that mingled, traded, and fought there. The plains were an example of a place where colonialism was not a form of dominance, but rather growing interdependence between new peoples from Europe and native peoples there. This was before Anglo-Americans decided to simply eradicate native people or put them on reservations in the 19th century.

Where does the trip finally end? It will end not unlike my trip to honor Harold Godwinson, at the site of an artistic and historic depiction of the great battle. At Bayeux, I was able to look at the massive woven depiction of the battle of Hastings, the one that Harold just barely lost to William the Conqueror.

A Segment of the Bayeux Tapestry

Like the tapestry, the Segesser paintings (painted on bison hide) are a historical text. When one reads about the Norman conquest, the tapestry is as essential as any written chronicle to shedding light on what happened and why. The Segesser depictions of the battle show both facts and fiction chosen to favor the Spanish version of the story. In this case the losers wrote the history; there were likely no French at all at the battle, only Pawnee. The hide paintings certainly tried to make it look like the Spanish were defeated by Europeans, not Indians.

Detail of the Segesser 2 Hide Painting

So there you go. Yet another deeply boring trip filled with long stretches of driving punctuated by stops at museums with pot shards and roadside markers on desolate stretches of rural midwest highway. Fortunately for you, you won’t be there. And I’ll be just as happy not to hear you saying, “Are we there yet?” from the back seat.

Note: If you’re interested in learning more about native peoples in this region from the 16th through the early 19th century, Kathleen DuVal’s The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent is a great start.

Arrive Lincoln Evening of Sunday, September 26

Monday, September 27

Villasur Marker 
US-81 & 33rd Ave, 650-698 Lincoln Hwy,
Columbus, NE 68601
Travel to Columbus, Nebraska
Travel time: 1:16

Pawnee Indian Museum
480 Pawnee Trail, Republic, KS 66964
Travel to Republic, Kansas
Travel time: 2:30

Guide Rock Marker
525 University St, Guide Rock, NE 68942
Guide Rock, Nebraska
Travel time :45

Lebanon, Kansas
Travel Time: :40

Quivara marker
US-56 & 12th Rd,
Lincoln, KS 67554
Lincoln, Kansas
Travel Time: 2:15

Hyatt Hotel
400 West Waterman, Wichita, Kansas, 67202
Wichita, KansasTravel time: 1:30

Tuesday, September 28th

El Quartelejo Museum
902 W 5th St, Scott City, KS 67871
Scott City
Travel time: 4:00