Wichita State professor explores ancient Native American city
Make note of the name Etzanoa, a long-lost city. Donald Blakeslee says he’s found it.
The discovery could put south-central Kansas on the map as the second-biggest settlement of Native Americans found in the United States, Blakeslee said. And it’s now, finally, the known location of a 1601 battle pitting outnumbered Spaniards firing cannon into waves of attacking Indian warriors.
Etzanoa has remained a mystery for 400 years. Archaeologists could not find it. Historians thought reports of a permanent settlement with 20,000 Native Americans in it were exaggerated.
But here in Arkansas City, at the confluence of the Walnut and Arkansas Rivers, Blakeslee, an anthropologist and archaeologist at Wichita State University, has found evidence of a massive town stretching across thousands of acres of bluffs and rich bottomland along two rivers. What clinched it was the discovery, by a high school kid, of a half-inch iron cannon ball.
He even found a still-functional water shrine, depicting communication with the spirit world, carved into a limestone boulder in Tami and Greg Norwood’s backyard.
It’s a good story, all true, Blakeslee said: A lost city, a forgotten mythology — and the story of the once-great Wichita Nation, decimated by European diseases, then pushed aside by American settlers and the United States Army.
Amazed by the size
With the discovery, Arkansas City leaders are hoping to turn their town into a tourist destination.
“We always knew we once had a whole bunch of Indians living around here, because we had found way too many artifacts to think otherwise,” said Jay Warren, an Arkansas City council member. “But we had no idea until Dr. Blakeslee came along about how big it was.”
Etzanoa might have been comparable in size to Cahokia, Blakeslee said. That alone should bring world attention.
The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in western Illinois, with its pyramid Monk’s Mound, is the biggest Native American urban complex ever built in the United States. It showcases the 14.4-acre mound that was the centerpiece of the ancient city, along with the outlines of the city, enclosed by fortress walls and filled with shrines of a powerful mythology and culture outside St. Louis.
Cahokia — the remnants of the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico — attracts 400,000 visitors a year, a fact that gets the attention of Arkansas Citians. If Etzanoa was bigger, “and it might have been,” that will rewrite American history, Blakeslee said.
“The Spaniards were amazed by the size of Etzanoa,” Blakeslee said. “They counted 2,000 houses that could hold 10 people each. They said it would take two or three days to walk through it all.”
But for four centuries, the story of a big Native American town in Kansas made no sense to historians.
When French explorers came in the 1700s, 100 years after the Spanish battle, they met only migratory bands of Kanza, Wichita, Pawnee, Kiowa, Cheyenne and Apache tribes.
So historians read the Spanish accounts and raised questions: If there were a permanent mega-site named Etzanoa, where was the huge accumulation of pottery shards?
And where did those tens of thousands of people go? Twenty thousand, as the Spaniards estimated in 1601, is equivalent to modern-day Derby, Liberal or Hays.
And how could Plains hunters feed tens of thousands day after day? Bison are dangerous. The Wichita had no horses and hunted on foot.
And where were the Spanish cannonballs, fired by outnumbered and terrified Spaniards?
For years, Blakeslee, 73, had read the accounts of soldiers who served under the Conquistador Juan de Onate, the founding governor of the colony of New Mexico. Onate’s soldiers said they fought a battle 60 years after Coronado, somewhere in the Great Plains.
The battle reports said Onate led 70 soldiers from New Mexico and found a vast town at the junction of two rivers.
Warriors on the outskirts threw dirt into the air as the Spanish approached, signaling they were ready to fight. “The Rayados,” Onate called the Wichitas — “The striped ones,” from the way they painted and tattooed their faces.
The Spaniards entered the town, and the Wichita fled, thousands evacuating to the north.
Onate sent armed patrols into the empty town.
What his soldiers saw unnerved them. They told Onate they’d counted 2,000 big beehive-shaped homes — clusters of these homes surrounded by cornfields. Nervous about the size of the place, they turned around. Indians told them later that the settlement extended for miles past where the Spaniards stopped, meaning the true population might have been higher than the 20,000 Spanish estimate.
Onate turned his men south — and came face to face with hundreds of warriors, firing arrows and charging at Onate’s small Spanish troop.
The attackers were Escanxaques, a tribe enemy to the Wichita. They had come to attack Etzanoa — and now attacked the Spanish.
Sixty of the 70 Spaniards were wounded. Their four cannons saved them, clusters of iron bullets fired from cannon-like shotgun blasts, whistling into trees and boulders. The Escanxaques, stunned, regrouped in a rock-lined ravine, but then charged repeatedly uphill to attack before finally backing off.
It was a high school kid, Adam Ziegler, who made the link that cinched the verification of Etzanoa.
Blakeslee says artifacts he and Ziegler found in the past two years show the old stories were true, and that between the years 1450 and 1700, at least 20,000 ancestors of today’s Wichita Nation thrived in and near what is now Arkansas City.
Blakeslee realized the confluence of the Walnut and Arkansas rivers could be the one described by the Spanish. He found traces of houses and granaries. He’s walked over much of Arkansas City and saw that the ravines and bluffs fit the Spanish accounts.
After locals like Hap McCleod told him people had been digging up “literally tons” of flint tools and clay pottery shards for generations, Blakeslee dug up his own shards, flint arrowheads, knife blades, hide-scrapers and awls.
Two years ago he found a rock-lined ravine in McLeod’s backyard that matched the Spanish account of where the Escanxaques regrouped under fire to attack. He took a metal detector there, along with Ziegler, a Lawrence Free-State High School freshman.
“They couldn’t find anything that day,” Ziegler recalled. “Dr. Blakeslee said I could use his metal detector. An hour or two later, I found the little ball, buried four inches deep.”
Blakeslee found two more Spanish cannonballs.
That did it, Blakeslee said. The old story was true.
Tough beyond belief
Blakeslee says the Wichita were wronged by fate, disease epidemics and war. He’s going to try to set right what he can.
Smallpox and other illnesses killed probably tens of thousands after 1600, he said.
War and relocation forced survivors to Oklahoma reservations. The tribe lost most of its culture. The tribe’s last fluent speaker of the Wichita language, Doris McLemore, died last year.
The Wichita were organized, cultured — “and tough almost beyond belief,” he said.
They and their Wichita cousins in Quivira, in Rice County, built a trade network with ancestors of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. They strapped 50-pound packages of dried meat and hides to themselves and their pack dogs, and walked 550 miles to the Pueblos. They’d then walk back, bringing home cotton fabric, obsidian and turquoise.
They had no horses. The women and children likely helped hunt bison, Blakeslee said, forming lines and waving hide blankets while driving bison toward warriors carrying bows and arrows. “Think of the courage that took,” Blakeslee said.
They cultivated beans, maize (corn), pumpkin and squash. They slaughtered bison meat and hides on an industrial scale. The men likely scouted, walking miles a day, shadowing herds. The women used flint hide-scrapers to thin down bison hides. “From doing that all day, they probably had the toughest fists,” Blakeslee said. “You’d never want to get in a fistfight with a Wichita woman.”
Modern-day Wichitas number about 3,000, based now in Anadarko, Okla., said Gary McAdams, who has held several leadership positions with the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes.
The Wichita are intrigued — and concerned — by what might come next, McAdams said. Blakeslee has consulted with them for years, telling what he’s found, inviting them to visit sites at Arkansas City and at the 160-foot-long serpent symbol still visible in the pasture grass in Rice County. Wichitas have helped on some of his digs.
“We would have some concern about how they go about developing their thinking about Etzanoa as a tourist center,” McAdams said. “We are supportive of any respectful endeavor they want to pursue there — but would want to provide our input.”
Jay Warren, a city council member, says the town will explore development.
Cahokia, in Illinois, attracts 400,000 visitors a year, but mostly because of how striking the 100-foot-tall Monk’s Mound looks, and because it’s located next to St. Louis and Interstate 70.
Arkansas City, in contrast, has pastureland.
But Civil War battlefields don’t have a Monk’s Mound either, Warren said. “And yet they attract thousands of visitors by doing a great job with walking trails and signs that explain step-by-step what was going on.”
If Arkansas City with its 12,000 people could attract 20,000 students, archaeologists and tourists a year, it would give the city a boost, said McLeod, in whose backyard Adam Ziegler found that cannonball. McLeod now runs the Etzanoa Conservancy, and has worked for two years to polish ideas. “We’re really proud that all this history happened here, and we want to share it with the world,” he said.
“We’re not talking about putting together a one-day wonder,” Warren said. “We’re looking at creating something that could be great for the region, and for 50 years and more down the road. We’re talking with (Unified School District) 470 about how it could enhance education. And we think the site could also be a hands-on field training facility for archaeologists from all over the world.”
They could build an interactive visitor center, he said. They could build reconstructions of the grass houses and granaries the Wichita used. They could employ flint-knappers who could show how skilled craftsmen made arrowheads and knife blades.
Etzanoa would have been beautiful, McLeod said. The river bluffs south of Arkansas City look like picture postcards. The bluffs and hills pour out clear spring water from dells and nooks.
McLeod drove up recently to the tallest point in Arkansas City — where the city’s golf course clubhouse sits.
Blakeslee had told him that’s where Caratax, the Wichita chief in 1601, probably kept his home.
“You can see 360 degrees in any direction from here,” McLeod said.
“And it’s all beautiful.”