In 2015 archaeologist Donald Blakeslee was searching the Great Plains for what he believed was a lost Native American city. Four-centuries-old conquistador writings had given him the idea that this city existed. But he’d drawn a blank. Then a student, Adam Ziegler, heard a signal on his metal detector and uncovered a cannon ball. But was this the evidence Blakeslee had been seeking?
The city that Blakeslee had hoped to find was called Etzanoa. And, if it existed, it could blow beliefs about how the Great Plains Indians had lived out of the water. The generally held idea was that they had been nomadic, following the herds of wild buffalo. But Blakeslee believed that they had actually built large settlements on the city scale.
The basis for his beliefs was the writings of two Spanish conquistadors who visited what is now central Kansas, traveling north from modern-day Mexico and New Mexico. Of these, the first was Francisco Vazquez de Coronado. Like so many of the conquistadors, he was following vague tales about fabulous riches, principally gold.
De Coronado found no gold, but he did come across an array of Native American settlements that he named Quivira. And then, 60 years later in 1601, a second conquistador led a band of 70 of his compadres to south-central Kansas. Juan de Oñate hoped to find Quivira and gold. Besides that, a bonus would be to get some Christian converts.
Contemporary Spanish archives describe de Oñate and his band coming across people from the Escanxaques tribe. They told the conquistadors that there was a city not far away, which they called Etzanoa. The Escanxaques claimed that a Spaniard was being held prisoner there.
The Spaniards approached the location that the Escanxaques people had described. Sure enough, many houses constructed from grass appeared along the heights. And the good citizens of Etzanoa approached their visitors with offerings of corn cakes. This was presumably a hospitable act that they intended to convey good will.
By de Oñate’s account, the Etzanoans were of robust build and had tattooed stripes extending from their eyes to their ears. But trouble was to disrupt the friendly terms between Old World and New. The Spanish for some reason decided to take hostages. Unsurprisingly, the Etzanoans fled in the face of this aggression, abandoning their city entirely.
Presented with this intriguing and now deserted city, the conquistadors decided to explore. Spending two or three days at the site, they found an urban settlement with some 2,000 dwellings, each designed for as many as 10 people. There were carefully tended garden plots where sunflowers, pumpkins and corn grew.
The conquistadors could see that more of the city’s buildings stretched off into the distance. But mindful that there previously friendly hosts might decide to attack, the Spaniards though it wise to retreat while they could. But it turned out that it was not the Etzanoans that the Spanish had to fear.
As they made their way across the plain, the Spaniards came under attack from a force of some 1,500 Escanxaques, the very people who had previously shown them the way to Etzanoa. Despite the disparity in numbers, the small Spanish group were able to use their firearms, including cannon, to make good their escape. And no Spaniards ever returned to the mysterious city of Etzanoa.
Some 100 years later, French explorers reached this part of Kansas, at the modern-day Kansas City, but of the Etzanoans there was not a trace. It seems likely that diseases such as smallpox that the conquistadors had unwittingly brought with them from Europe annihilated them.
So then these swashbuckling tales of exploration and adventure sat in the Spanish archives. And these set Donald Blakeslee, a Wichita State University professor of archaeology and anthropology, on his quest for the city of Etzanoa. Fortunately, researchers at UC Berkeley had re-translated the original Spanish documents in 2013. Consequently, this resulted in a much clearer set of documents that Blakeslee used to form his theories.
Blakeslee decided that the best archival evidence pointed to the location of ancient Etzanoa as being at Arkansas City. This is a modern community of some 12,500 citizens located where the Walnut and Arkansas rivers join. But there were other pieces of evidence that indicated that this modern city might be sitting atop a much older settlement.
Arkansas City is well known for the extraordinary amount of ancient Native American artifacts that its citizens frequently turn up with little apparent effort. Indeed, in his 1959 book An Introduction to Kansas Archaeology, Waldo Wedel noted that the valleys and heights around the city “were littered with sherds, flints, and other detritus.”
When freshman Adam Ziegler found that small cannonball we mentioned earlier, Blakeslee believed that he had found the precise location where the conquistadors and the Escanxaques warriors had joined battle. In fact, three cannonballs were unearthed at the site, as well as a horseshoe nail of Spanish provenance.
And this historic battlefield, near the ancient city of Etzanoa, is actually set in the back yard of Arkansas City resident, Warren “Hap” McLeod. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, McLeod enthused, “It’s a great story. There was a lost city right under our noses.”
For McLeod, the discovery of the site of Etzanoa clears up a mystery – why the area has yielded so many ancient Native American pottery shards and arrowheads over the years. “Now we know why. There were 20,000 people living here for over 200 years,” McLeod observed.
Blakeslee believes that in its heyday, which probably lasted for about 250 years from 1450 to 1700, the population of Etzanoa could have been as high as 20,000. The city, he postulates, would have consisted of a five-mile long ribbon of dwellings shaped like beehives set on the river banks and heights.
Blakeslee believes that previous ideas about how Native Americans on the Great Plains lived are almost entirely wrong. He claims that they not only had large cities, but they also traded as far afield as the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan in modern-day Mexico. They also made sophisticated ceramics and grew crops.
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in August 2018, Blakeslee said, “So this was not some remote place. The people traded and lived in huge communities. Everything we thought we knew turns out to be wrong. I think this needs a place in every schoolbook.” And now the good folks of Arkansas City are hoping to see UNESCO declare Blakeslee’s find a World Heritage Site.