Don Juan de Oñate never found the fabled city of gold he desperately sought in his 1601 expedition in the southern Plains.
But in southern Kansas, the Spanish governor of New Mexico and his soldiers stumbled upon what might have been the largest Native American settlement in what is now the United States.
Notes from Oñate’s expedition described a “great settlement,” known as Etzanoa, that stretched for 5 miles and housed 20,000 ancestors of the Wichita tribe near the confluence of two rivers.
Donald Blakeslee, an archaeologist and anthropology professor at Wichita State University, said evidence uncovered in a study he led in early June confirmed that Etzanoa once straddled the banks of the Walnut River in modern Arkansas City, Kan.
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Now, city residents and the Wichita tribe hope to make the most of the site’s tourist and educational potential.
The link between the ancient settlement and the modern city had long been speculated by historians and anthropologists, but it wasn’t until January that Blakeslee realized he could prove the connection.
He was poring over a Spanish soldier’s account of an ambush by the Wichita when it hit him. The Spanish had been outnumbered, but the superior firepower of their muskets and cannon eventually forced the Wichita to retreat behind large rocks near the junction of two rivers.
Reading that, Blakeslee recalled visiting the area near where the Walnut and Arkansas rivers met and seeing a rock-lined gully near the Walnut River’s edge.
“They talk about rocks beside a little creek that feeds into the river,” he said. “I thought, ‘There’s only one place that could be, and I’ve been there.’”
He was right.
A team of archaeologists, Wichita State anthropology students and local volunteers found small iron cannon balls and a lead bullet near the rocks, confirming the battle site.
The professionals used magnetometers to reveal traces of neighborhood-like clusters of houses north of the skirmish, some surrounded by food storage pits used to keep nonperishable items secure from prying hands and animals. Blakeslee said much of the area between the clusters was used for agriculture.
They were guided by the notes of a particularly observant Spaniard, Baltazar Martinez, who kept detailed notes about the houses and took precise measurements of distances between the clusters.
“I think of him as my good buddy,” Blakeslee said with a laugh. “You get a very, very clear image of how everything was laid out.”
For longtime resident Hap McLeod, the findings confirmed what he and many locals already suspected, and he hopes Arkansas City can capitalize on the site’s potential.
The population figure alone rivals that of Cahokia in southwestern Illinois, a site long considered the largest Native American settlement in the U.S.
Marlin Hawley, now an archaeology curator at the Wisconsin Historical Society, said his team found pottery from southwestern tribes, seashells from the California coast and tools from the southern Mississippi Valley during digs for the Kansas Historical Society in the 1990s. Those goods suggest Etzanoa was a central hub of a continental trade network, he said.
Setting up a visitors center to display artifacts from the site is at the top of McLeod’s list, followed by recruiting archaeology students and volunteers to further map and excavate the settlement.
“We’d like to make this a mecca for first- and second-year archaeology students,” McLeod said, mentioning the anthropology program at Cowley County Community College as a possible partner. “We have so many artifacts and so much ground to cover that we could have a continuous dig.”
The Wichita tribe has also expressed interest in supporting the site.
“It was one of the greatest civilizations at that particular point in time that lasted for a century or two,” former tribe president Gary McAdams said. “I don’t think people know very much about that. Even some of our own people don’t realize the scope of that settlement.
“Revealing the history of most tribes is often kind of hit and miss. Some European comes along and records what they see and moves on. We try to do what we can to fill those gaps.”