It’s one of the most complicated stories to come from Santa Fe’s 400-year-old Palace of the Governors.
Don Pedro Villasur, commander-in-chief of the Spanish forces of the then-Spanish colony of New Mexico in 1720, was chosen to lead an expedition northeast into what is now Nebraska. Assigned by government officials in Mexico City, Villasur was supposed to assess the perceived threat of French colonists moving westward into areas claimed by Spain.
The expedition ended in disaster, when the presidio soldiers and those guiding them were surrounded and attacked by the Pawnee at dawn, leaving a majority of the troops dead, including Villasur. In total, more than 30 men were estimated to have been killed, at least half of the soldiers living in Santa Fe at the time.
The story is depicted in the New Mexico History Museum’s famous Segesser Hides paintings, centuries-old images depicting early colonial life that are believed to tell one version of the story – the “official” version retold by the government in Santa Fe.
But centuries later, there is much debate about what exactly happened at the battle, who attacked the troops and who was to blame for the overwhelming defeat.
While the Palace undergoes its current renovations, the Hides have been taken down and will be traveling to Albuquerque for the ongoing exhibit “A Past Rediscovered: Highlights from the Palace of the Governors” later this year.
Before they move back to their new permanent home in a new gallery at the History Museum behind the Palace next year, the space will be occupied by a modern retelling of Villasur’s demise, one that uses a graphic novel format to chronicle multiple perspectives of the highly contested expedition.
“The Palace was really the beginning and the end of this history,” said History Museum director Andy Wulf.
“What you have here is the culmination of the expedition, how they tried to sort it out by pointing a lot of fingers. One thing they couldn’t deny was that they were absolutely decimated.”
Commissioned by the History Museum and the Las Compadres del Palacio group, local graphic novel artist Turner Avery Mark-Jacobs was tapped to make 23 story pages to line the wall of the new gallery. The framed pages will be exhibited until this time next year. The story in comic book form will be sold in the museum gift shop.
Mark-Jacobs, who said this was his first foray into telling a historical narrative, said he used conversations with the state historian and letters sent about the expedition between Santa Fe and the viceroyalty in Mexico City to develop the story.
His watercolors, in which he says he channeled painting styles used by Spanish Baroque painters like Diego Velázquez and Jusepe de Ribera, utilize a story format similar to the classic 1950 Japanese film “Rashomon.” Most of the pages are set in a courtroom scene at the Palace, with flashbacks depicting three different versions of the truth.
Letters trying to assign blame for the massacre were sent by the then-New Mexico Governor Antonio de Valverde and former governor Don Felix Martinez. Both men, according to Mark-Jacobs, were trying to use the event as a “political football.” Martinez, a lifelong presidio soldier, blamed Valverde for sending out an inexperienced Villasur to lead the eastern expedition instead of going out himself.
According to Alicia Romero, the museum’s Spanish Colonial curator, Villasur was more of a politician than a military man.
“If you look at the Hides, you can see the trees and the big plants, how they were able to be surrounded overnight by the Pawnee who attacked them at dawn and killed all these people,” said Mark-Jacobs. So, in the opinion of this guy, the soldier (former governor Martinez), it was a bad decision to put Villasur in charge because he was the one who made the decision to camp there that led to the massacre.”
The sitting governor, on the other hand, defended his decision to send someone else. Similar to what is depicted in the Hides, Mark-Jacobs said, the government at the time contested that the Pawnee were not fighting alone and maintained there were French soldiers alongside them. Historians do not know if this is true.
Another possibility is that the Pawnee people had been given more modern weaponry by the French.
To bring in a third perspective, Mark-Jacobs came up with a fictional character, a Pueblo man who was on the expedition and witnessed everything except the beginning of the early-morning attack. The Spanish territory soldiers were guided by Pueblo men who had expertise of the land and other native languages.
“You get one extreme example on one side that’s the first story, you get a counter-argument on the other side, then the third is like a bit of a, well is it somewhere in the middle? Is it more ambiguous?” said Mark-Jacobs.
It wasn’t Mark-Jacobs’ goal to determine what really happened on the expedition.
“It’s not wrapped up neatly with a bow at the end,” he said. “You have to decide, who do you really believe, or some combination of all three?”
Though it hasn’t been decided yet, there is talk about exhibiting the Hides and the story pages together on a permanent basis. With research of the Hides continuing to this day, the museum’s Wulf and Romero said the modern-day telling could be a beneficial teaching tool and brings another layer to the narrative.
“Putting these things together, it just adds another perspective,” said Romero. “Because we don’t have a definite answer as to what happened.”