The Massacre of Don Pedro Villasur. Courtesy photo
SANTA FE ― The New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors is hosting an opening reception Feb. 1for the new exhibition: The Massacre of Don Pedro Villasur. The reception will be held from 5-7 p.m. in the lobby of the New Mexico History Museum Friday, Feb. 1.
This exhibition inaugurates the new Segesser Gallery in the History Museum’s permanent exhibition and features 23 original graphic history artworks by Santa Fe artist Turner Mark-Jacobs. This display, The Massacre of Don Pedro Villasur, narrates the history of an ill-fated Spanish colonial military expedition which set out from Santa Fe in 1720, a story that is also depicted in the History Museum’s Segesser Hide paintings. The purpose of this campaign was to determine the extent of French activity in the Louisiana Territory, which corresponds roughly to the modern-day Midwestern USA. The Villasur expedition came to a sudden and violent end on the banks of the Missouri River where it was ambushed by a band of Pawnee Native Americans.
The events described in this story were depicted by unknown Nuevomexicano artisans in Bison-hide paintings, known as the Segesser Hides, which now reside permanently at the New Mexico History Museum. The Segesser Hide Paintings represent the massacre as it was described by then-governor of Spanish New Mexican Territory Don Antonio Valverde. His accounts include uniformed French soldiers, as well as Pawnee Native Americans, attacking the Villasur expedition. However, historians continue to debate the accuracy of Valverde’s account.
This story is a work of historical fiction. While the Villasur expedition, massacre, and the subsequent investigation thereof were real events, the actual investigation played out over several years via letters written back and forth between Santa Fe and Mexico City. For dramatic purposes, the author has condensed many of the arguments made in these letters into a single scene.
As a graphic novel artist/writer who does work for hire for many clients, Mark-Jacobs has had to develop a storytelling style that works well across different genres or kinds of subject matter. “In some cases, it is up to me as the writer to find or develop the theme of a project, in others my role might be more that of an artistic collaborator with the client.”
Mark-Jacobs adds: “For this project, it was up to me to do my own research, then develop the script, then design the characters and finally look and feel of the artwork. When the Palace of the Governors initially approached me about a graphic novel that would be essentially the story of the battle depicted in the Segesser hide paintings, I was hesitant about taking the job, given the amount of historical research required and the difficulty of translating historical events into an entertaining narrative.”
After doing some initial research, it became apparent to the artist/author that there were multiple different accounts of the battle, and that historians continued to debate the accuracy of each one. The hides themselves could be in fact viewed through the lens of an ‘unreliable narrator.’
For this reason, cites Mark-Jacobs, “I decided to use a narrative framework for this project similar to the one first used in Akira Kurosawa’s famous film ‘Rashomon’ in which 3 different characters tell 3 different versions of the same story. As each character gives their testimony in the courtroom, the audience experiences that version of events as a story within a story. The overall story is not finished with a definitive version of the ‘truth’ but rather the audience is left to decide which version of events to believe or disbelieve.”
To paraphrase Walter Benjamin ‘history belongs to and is written by the ruling classes.’ In Spanish Colonial times that would exclude the many Puebloans who were just as important (if not more, given their language and guiding skills) to military campaigns as the native Spaniards who fought alongside them.
This exhibition opening, hosted by the New Mexico History Museum and the Women’s Board of Santa Fe, is free and open to the public.