Mysterious ‘Lost City’ of Etzanoa in south-central Kansas now open to tours

About a year ago, a Wichita archaeologist announced he had solved a 400-year-old mystery and found the lost city of Etzanoa.

Now the public can get a tour of the area about 50 miles southeast of Wichita.

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. It is thought to be one of the largest prehistoric Native American towns in the United States, one that archaeologists couldn’t find and scholars doubted existed. They suspected that the Spanish conquistador searching for the fabled city of gold exaggerated accounts of a town that stretched on for miles.

It will take years for the preservation and development of Etzanoa to be made ready for year-round visitors, but in the meantime, Arkansas City historians and leaders are beginning to allow the public to see some glimpses of what and where the mysterious city once was.

Tours of the remnants of Etzanoa, located on the bluffs near the confluence of the Walnut and Arkansas rivers, are available to the public for $10 per person. People can arrange for the tours through the Cherokee Strip Land Rush Museum, which also offers a documentary on the discovery.

“We take people to three or four of the major contributing sites across town,” said Sandy Randal, Cherokee Strip Land Rush Museum director and coordinator of activities for Etzanoa. The tour includes a trip to Quaker Haven Camp, where Juan de Onate first saw the city of Etzanoa, looking across both rivers; the actual battleground where 1,500 Excanxaques faced off with 60 to 100 Spaniards; the main street of Etzanoa; and the location of the chief’s house.

In June, the museum will open an exhibit explaining how the Etzanoans lived, the battles that occurred there and their customs and beliefs. The museum also is building some traveling exhibits that cities and institutions can request, and the Etzanoa Conservancy is creating a website to keep people up to date with information.

Also in June, Donald Blakeslee, an anthropologist and archaeologist at Wichita State University who discovered Etzanoa, will be leading a monthlong archaeological dig along the bluffs and bottomland in search of more artifacts.

The location, size and significance of Etzanoa, “the Great Settlement,” as Spanish explorers labeled it after their 1601 expedition there, had become lost. For many decades, archaeologists debated these issues.

Three years ago, Blakeslee became convinced a mystery city with huge archaeological significance was hidden in plain sight.

It was in Arkansas City

For years, people in and around Arkansas City have found artifacts — arrowheads, weapons and cooking utensils. But a translation done in 2013 by the University of California, Berkeley of the Onate expedition provided more details that Blakeslee was able to use to match geographical details with archaeological evidence.

He began searching the area.

What he found in Arkansas City, he believes, may rewrite American history. The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in western Illinois is considered the biggest Native American urban complex ever built.

Etzanoa, Blakeslee contends, is as big if not bigger.

Spanish accounts record Etzanoa as having 2,000 houses that could hold 10 people each.

Developing and preserving the area is a tug-of-war of thought and principle. How do you preserve an area so significant to American and world history while still supporting tourism in the 19th-century boom town built on top of it?

Hap McLeod, president of the Etzanoa Conservancy, said he knows people are eager to see the Lost City of Etzanoa.

“It’s just a great story,” McLeod said. “The thing people are interested in is not the stuff. It’s the story.”

McLeod is convinced there may be archaeological digs at Arkansas City for years, with people coming from all over the world wanting to know more.

A feasibility study will be presented to the Etzanoa Conservancy board within the next few months, McLeod said. From there, he hopes there will be a direction for a five-year plan.

Some of the plans include the hope of acquiring some land and possibly developing a river walk, he said, allowing visitors to walk or kayak along the river to see some of the Etzanoans’ rock art.

Arkansas City has changed, McLeod said, since news of the discovery.

“People are more aware of it,” he said. “We have more tourism. But we are working to make this a national and world historic site.”

Knowing the significance

The Etzanoans are ancestors of the Wichita tribe. They were farmers and cultivated beans, maize, pumpkin and squash and slaughtered bison.

In 1601, Onate, the founding governor of New Mexico, led 70 soldiers from New Mexico to what is now southern Kansas to a vast town. As the Spanish approached, Indians wearing paint and tattoos threw fistfuls of dirt in the air.

As Onate and the Spanish continued to the homes, they were overwhelmed by the size of the village. Enemies of the Etzanoans — the Excanxaques — had come to attack the village but attacked the Spaniards instead. Sixty of the 70 Spaniards were wounded.

The Spanish fought back with cannons and guns.

At least three Spanish bullets and cannon balls have been found, along with a still-functional water shrine, and other artifacts including a Spanish horseshoe nail. Digs have uncovered burned pits where the Etzanoan houses once stood.

Blakeslee is convinced more will be found in June.

The conservancy is in the process of forming a partnership with Wichita State University, Cowley County College and others to eventually build an interactive visitor center.

In the meantime, hardly a day goes by when Blakeslee doesn’t receive dozens of emails from around the world — all inquiring about Etzanoa.

“We have loads of attention, but we are also wanting to set this up to give layers of protection to the site,” Blakeslee said. “The archaeological community knows about this, and we have been getting help on equipment. This year, in June, we will be ground-truthing. Finding out what is there. You don’t know until you dig holes.”

Next year, the Kansas State Historical Society and the Kansas Anthropological Association will sponsor their annual dig at the site. For four decades, the society and anthropological association have sponsored archaeological digs to give amateurs and professionals a chance to learn about the earlier people who populated the Plains.

And there is more for Kansas, Blakeslee said.

Etzanoa is just the starting point. For now, the focus is on Arkansas City. But Etzanoa is part of Quivira, and Kansas was filled with other Native American towns that were equally large, Blakeslee said.

“There was one south of Winfield, another near Augusta, several in Rice County, McPherson County and Marion,” he said.

Think of the possibilities.

“This is the bluff, the beginning of the Flint Hills,” McLeod said. “Etzanoa starts at the river. Along the river there is spring after spring running down to the river. There is phenomenal rock art.

“We have a story to tell.”

Tour Etzanoa

How much: $10 per person

When: Tours are offered on most Saturdays.

More information: For tour times, contact the Cherokee Strip Museum, 620-442-6750.