ONE of the oldest stories of white men on the Nebraska-Kansas plains is that known as the story of the Spanish Caravan. This story has always been wrapped in mystery. The early French writers on the Missouri country tell it in different forms. It has been handed down in various tribes of Missouri and Nebraska Indians. The Spanish histories of New Mexico do not mention it, but the great American-Spanish scholar, Adolf T. Bandelier, says he found record of it in the archives of the Franciscan monks and retells it in his book "The Gilded Man." There is great variation in the versions of the Spanish Caravan story, but they agree in the main features, which are these:
In the year 1720, a Spanish army marched out of Santa Fe to conquer the Missouri valley country. There were several hundred armed men besides women, children, a Franciscan monk and a great number of horses and cattle. Comanche Indians went along as guides and allies. Their plan was to conquer the Missourias, the Otoes, the Pawnees, and other Indians living near the Missouri River and to colonize the country for Spain. Somewhere in the region of the Republican or Kansas River the Spanish Caravan was attacked by the united nations whom they came to destroy. All of the Spaniards were killed except the Franciscan monk who was captured and held prisoner. He afterward escaped to the French forts near St. Louis where he told the story of his comrades' fate.
Some of the stories of the Caravan say that the Spanish commander intended to get the help of the Osage tribe, which was at war with the Missourias and Otoes. By mistake he reached first a village of the Missourias, whom he thought to be Osages. He told them of his plan to conquer the Missouria tribe, to make their women and children slaves and to settle in their country. The Missouria chief understood the mistake. He thanked the Spaniards and told them he would join the war. Great feasts followed. The Missouria chief sent messengers to all the friends of the Missouria tribe. Over two thousand warriors came. After a night of feasting the Indians fell upon the Spaniards just at daybreak and in a few minutes killed all except the monk. All the Spanish horses were captured. As the Indians did not then know how to use horses, they made the Franciscan mount every day and show them how to ride. While the Indians were trying to imitate him, he mounted the best horse and rode away into the wilderness, finally reaching the French forts.
Afterwards, says one of the French chroniclers, the Missouri River Indians came to the French forts with the sacred vestments and chalices of the church which they had taken from the friar.
A Spanish Sword and a Basket Hilted Cavalry Saber Found in Nebraska.
(From photograph collection of A. E. Sheldon.)
Other accounts tell about the plunder of the Spanish camp, the rich garments, the books, and a map which was seen in the camps of the Nebraska Indians in the years that followed. Charlevoix, a noted Jesuit father who traveled in this region and wrote an account of it, tells the story of the Spanish Caravan and says that he bought the spurs which the Spanish monk wore when he escaped from the Indians to the French.
At a great council held by the French commander Bourgmont with the Indians of this region in 1724 one of the chiefs boasted how the Missourias, Otoes and Pawnees had entirely destroyed the great Spanish army which had come to conquer the Missouri River country.
These are some of the stories of the Spanish Caravan, wrapped partly in mystery and dispute, but with a core of agreement and truth. The truth is that an attempt was made by the Spaniards at Santa Fe to conquer and settle the rich land of Nebraska and Kansas, which had been discovered by Coronado nearly two centuries before; and that their expedition was defeated by the Nebraska Indians.
We know that the Indians of the Nebraska country kept the Spanish settlements in New Mexico in fear for many years. And in the year 1824, a hundred years after the time of the Spanish Caravan, the city of Santa Fe sent an embassy to Fort Atkinson, in our state, to make peace with the Pawnees and bring to an end the raiding of the Rio Grande valley by their war parties.