Huge Indian city found in Kansas

Location of Etzanoa had been mystery for centuries

By

Published:

 

ARKANSAS CITY, Kan. — Donald Blakeslee says he’s found Etzanoa, a long-lost city.

Etzanoa is the second-biggest settlement of Native Americans found in the United States, Blakeslee said. Now it is the known location of a 1601 battle pitting outnumbered Spaniards firing cannons into waves of attacking Indian warriors.

Etzanoa has been 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 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 town stretching across thousands of acres of bluffs and rich bottomland along two rivers.

What clinched it was the discovery, by a high school student, 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, and then pushed aside by white settlers and the United States Army.

With the discovery, Arkansas City leaders hope to turn the 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 Commission 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 and 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, which 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 site named Etzanoa, where was the huge accumulation of pottery shards?

And where did those tens of thousands of people go?

And where were the Spanish cannonballs fired by outnumbered Spaniards?

For years, Blakeslee 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 then attacked the Spanish.

Sixty of the 70 Spaniards were wounded. Their four cannons saved them. The Escanxaques regrouped in a rock-lined ravine, but then charged repeatedly uphill to attack before finally backing off.

Adam Ziegler, the high school student, made the link that cinched the verification of Etzanoa.

Blakeslee says artifacts that he and Ziegler found in the past two years show that the old stories were true, and that between 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 told him that 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 said. “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.