Archaeological digs reveal more about lost city of Etzanoa
During a recent work week, Wichita State anthropology professor Donald Blakeslee took two calls from England. The first, an interview with a science writer. The second, a call for an English radio show. Al Jazeera television from the United Arab Emirates is talking about coming to pay Blakeslee a visit this fall. The Travel Channel has talked about coming in the spring.
They all want to talk about one thing: The lost city of Etzanoa, an ancient massive city of Plains Indians near present-day Arkansas City. Blakeslee’s research over the past three years has confirmed the existence and location of the city, and changed what we’ve always thought about how the Plains Indians lived.
“I don’t have time to get my regular work done,” Blakeslee said.
Sandy Randel, the director of the Cherokee Strip Land Rush Museum in Arkansas City can relate. Her work load has doubled with half her time spent giving speeches about Etzanoa and hosting tours of the site on weekends. Tours are booked solid though the end of the year.
Blakeslee is largely credited with the discovery of Etzanoa, a large city of Plains Indians that existed from the late 16th century through the 17th century along the banks of the Walnut River near present-day Arkansas City.
With this discovery, he’s found something else: Interest in this ‘lost city’ is greater than he, or the residents and leaders of Arkansas City, could have ever anticipated.
In 2015, using translated journals of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate written in 1601, Blakeslee was able to piece together that Oñate’s description of a large city of Wichita Indians, up to four miles long and containing thousands of residents, was likely on the banks of the Walnut River at present-day Arkansas City.
To further prove his theory, Blakeslee has sought the assistance of high-tech tools such as drones with thermal cameras, ground-penetrating radar, “and another piece of fancy gear that detected soil disturbances below the ground at three different levels,” Blakeslee said.
This past summer, Blakeslee and many of his anthropology students did some old-fashioned digging in the dirt. They found pieces of pottery, stone tools, bone tools. More importantly they found a Spanish horseshoe nail and a metal button, more proof that Spaniards visited Etzanoa.
The discovery potentially changes nearly everything scientists and historians have long thought about the Plains Indians: They weren’t just bands of nomadic tribes following herds of buffalo. Before white explorers and settlers brought disease and war to the Great Plains, there were possibly large, flourishing cities.
But interest in Etzanoa is mushrooming faster than Blakeslee, and others in Arkansas City, can keep up with.
“I’m worried about that, because we’re not quite ready to deal with international tourists yet,” Blakeslee said.
“The big deal for the community and for the region is tourism and economic development, but you have to give people a good experience, and we’re going to have to work quickly,” Blakeslee said.
Hap McLeod, who up until recently, was the president of the Etzanoa Conservancy, agrees.
“The town of Arkansas City is way behind the curve on what needs to be done and they need to catch up quickly,” he said.
“This is a huge opportunity that may be lost.”
It may take years to make the area of Etzanoa ready for year-round visitors, but in the meantime, tours of some remnants of site are available.
The $10 tours, booked through the Cherokee Strip Land Rush Museum, take people to three or four of the major contributing sites around Arkansas City, including the bluff where Juan de Oñate would have first seen the city, according to Randel.
Arkansas City manager Nick Hernandez cautions that it’s going to take time. He says that civic and education leaders are trying to do their part to make sure the area is ready.
In the past month, a governing committee was formed that includes the city of Arkansas City, Cowley College, Wichita State University and the Etzanoa Conservancy. The idea behind the council is that every interest is represented, from the landowners who live around the area, to the research community and to the tourists who want to visit the area.
Pam Crain, head of the Arkansas City Convention and Visitors Bureau, agrees with Hernandez.
“It’s beyond exciting. It can be so huge, to be honest. That’s why we are taking our time. So that we can do do it correctly,” Crain said.
“If you get too excited, you don’t look down the road far enough. We’re trying to be diligent and respect what that big picture looks like.”
Hernandez says a five-year-plan has been discussed by the council: Start small with tour groups. Possibly give tourists the opportunity to take part in excavations. Use revenues to eventually build up to something like an interpretive center.
“It could become a World Heritage site,” Hernandez said referring to 1,092 sites worldwide that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization considers to have special cultural or natural significance.
Randel, who has been the director of the Cherokee Strip Land Rush Museum since 2010, says she understands the interest.
“The reason I’m not surprised is the story itself is nothing short of fascinating,” she said.
“It really rewrites the history the Plains Indian.”
David Ross, the newly appointed president of the Etzanoa Conservancy also understands the fascination.
“Growing up, we’d be like ‘lets go find some arrowheads,’ and we’d go out by the country club and look for pieces of flint,” Ross said
“No one ever stopped and asked ‘why are all these things here?’”
Donald Blakeslee continues to uncover the answer to Ross’ childhood question. Now Ross is excited about the possibilities for his hometown.
“I think it’s a great thing for Ark City, I think it’s gonna have a positive affect on the city,” he said.
“I’m excited about the possibilities.”
According to Hernandez, the city manager, there is some pressure to get ready for tourists quickly. Hernandez says he understands that, but feels more strongly that every one from scientists to landowners to civic leaders need to be on the same page.
“You only get one shot to bring individuals to your community. We have to make sure that it leaves a lasting impression,” he said.
And he doesn’t think interest will wane anytime soon — not as long as Blakeslee continues to uncover more of the story that lies along the river banks and beneath back yards and putting greens on the eastern side of Arkansas City.
“There’s so much history that’s still below the ground just waiting to be discovered.”