Which is the earliest known picture of a Nebraska event?

Make your guess, then scroll down for the answer.


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#1. This photograph was made in an Oglala Lakota village in Nebraska Territory’s North Platte Valley in 1859. It is the earliest known photo of a Lakota village, but is not the earliest known Nebraska image. (NSHS RG3122-1)

#2. This is Titian Ramsay Peale’s 1820 watercolor of the steamboat Western Engineer at Engineer Cantonment north of present-day Omaha. If you follow our blog, you already know all about it. It’s old, but not the oldest.

#3. George Simons’ 1854 sketch of Mormon emigrants landing at Florence, Nebraska. (NSHS RG 2271-1-5)

#4. And we have a winner!

Spanish soldiers fought a bloody battle with Pawnee and Oto Indians near present-day Columbus, Nebraska, in 1720. Few of the Spaniards made it home alive. A hide painting recorded the event. It is the earliest known illustration of an event in the place we now call Nebraska.

This is partly a story of national rivalries. Spain, France, and Britain were jockeying for position in North America. Each wanted to control the valuable fur trade. In 1720 the Spanish government heard rumors that French traders were working the region around the Platte and Missouri rivers. In June Don Pedro de Villasur led a band of Spanish troops north from Santa Fe. On the morning of August 14, a combined force of Pawnees and Otos attacked the Villasur party at the confluence of the Loup and Platte rivers. A historical marker commemorates the event.

We don’t know when the hide painting known as Segesser II was made, but it dates at least to the mid-18th century. The faded original is in the collections of the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe. The NMHM believes it is the work of multiple artists who “were indigenous New Mexicans with tribal affiliation who had the benefit of eyewitness descriptions.”

When the painting became widely known in the 1980s, History Nebraska artist Curt Peacock decided to paint a replica. He wanted to re-create the scene as it looked when the painting was new and the colors were bright. For authenticity, he replicated the hues of the painting’s natural dyes on cowhide. A detail of his replica is shown above.

And here’s a close-up of the dying Villasur.

bleeding man in red coat lying on ground

Villasur wasn’t the first European to reach the Platte River. Historian Harlan Seyfer writes about the “Changing Consensus on the European Discovery of the Platte River” in the Summer 2018 issue of Nebraska History. The same issue features articles about Nebraska bootlegger “Queen” Louise Vinciquerra and the time when one of Nebraska’s best lending libraries was a sod dugout in Nemaha County.

History Nebraska members receive quarterly issues of Nebraska History as part of their membership; single issues are available for $7 from the Nebraska History Museum (402-471-3447).

—David L. Bristow, Editor (5/31/18)


Update, 8/12/20: The painting is once again on exhibit in the Nebraska History Museum, and we’re about to post a new video about it. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter to learn about our latest projects.

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History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
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