An ancient battle, an eager teenager and a small iron ball have helped a Kansas archaeologist rediscover a lost Native American city, one that may have been the second largest in what’s now the United States.
It turns out, the clues to this mystery had been floating around for centuries — right underfoot in Arkansas City, Kansas.
“A lot of the older folks always told me, you know, at one time, there were more Indians living here than there are in Ark City right now,” says Jason Smith, who grew up in Arkansas City (current population about 12,000).
Local legends glorified a Native American metropolis.
Smith’s stepfather told him that the small mound in the pasture was probably a place where Native Americans threw their trash. And, without looking too hard, Smith plucks fragments of stone tools and weapons, from the rain-washed dirt around the mound.
“Look at that! There’s a piece right here,” says Smith, reaching for a piece of chipped flint. “You could spend about 15 minutes out here and you’ll have a whole handful of this stuff. It’s just everywhere.”
People have been picking up artifacts around Arkansas City since the 1800s.
And that’s not all.
Not far from the Smith place, spring water flows out of a bluff, and Native American shrines mark some of the boulders. Several are pocked with smooth indentations, almost like you’d expect on an enormous golf ball, though not as regular. Another has pools and channels for water carved in.
But despite the evidence, Arkansas City had no historic records to explain what was once here.
Could it be Etzanoa?
In the academic world, though, there were some guesses.
Donald Blakeslee, an archaeologist at Wichita State University, had for years been trying to pinpoint an ancient Indian city known as Etzanoa.
As Blakeslee tells it, in 1601 about 70 Spanish soldiers rode into Etzanoa fighting a pitched battle with Native American warriors, some 1,500 of them from a tribe hostile to the Wichita Indians. The Wichita Indians evacuated Etzanoa at the Spaniards' approach. The fighting didn’t take place right away, though, and the Spanish were able to make a fairly detailed survey of the settlement. Blakeslee says expedition records describe an enormous farming/hunting village of 20,000, spread over 5 square miles.
“The last, best days would be a way to say it. Before the epidemics, before the warfare,” says Blakeslee.
About a century later, Europeans explorers made it back to the area, Blakeslee says, but Etzanoa was gone.
And, over time, historians treated Etzanoa more and more like a disputed myth.
Lost in translation
Then, a few years back, researchers at the Cibola Project at University of California, Berkeley, transcribed and translated original documents from the Spaniards’ expedition, correcting numerous mistakes. Blakeslee read the new translations, and the descriptions of topography led him straight to Arkansas City.
“So, there was no doubt in my mind, as soon as I read all of the accounts, and put them together, and went, ‘Oh, I’ve been there,’” he says.
Blakeslee is talking about a rocky ravine running into the Walnut River.
“This was absolutely the clincher,” says Blakeslee, standing hear the ravine. “This place right here was involved in description of the battle.”
This depictions describe Native American warriors taking shelter from Spanish cannon and musket fire in a rocky ravine.
A little ball of dirt
But Blakeslee still needed iron-clad proof. And so two years ago, he brought in metal detectors. An inquisitive 15-year-old named Adam Ziegler tagged along.
“Dr. Blakeslee the way he put it, is they were finding historic trash,” says Ziegler, a scientifically minded kid from Lawrence, whose grandmother lives on property the ravine runs through.
“All they were finding were like old cans, and like bottle caps and pull tabs and stuff. And, they just looked for hours, and that’s all they found,” recalls Ziegler.
“And finally,” says Blakeslee, “I realized I was torturing this kid. He was fascinated, and I said, 'Well would you like to take over for a while?' and off he went. And gradually the other two people stopped using theirs and we were standing around talking, and Adam said, ‘What is this thing?’ ”
“It just looked like a little ball of dirt,” remembers Ziegler. “But for the size it was, it felt heavy.”
Ziegler’s dirt-colored ball turned out to be a piece of iron from a Spanish cannon.
“I think it’s pretty cool, that just one little iron ball, can reveal the location of so much stuff,” says Ziegler.
Blakeslee has since found more Spanish ammunition and other evidence confirming that an enormous Native American settlement thrived in and near what’s now Arkansas City for hundreds of years.
This is exciting news for archeologists and for Ark City, a bit less so for present-day Wichita Indians like Garry McAdams.
“It’s not actually a new discovery,” says McAdams. “It’s a validation."
Validation that a tribe now reduced to about 3,000 members, today mostly living around Anadarko Oklahoma, was once a major power in the center of the continent.
“Our history’s in the ground, you know. Centuries of it,” McAdams says. “Rather than being on written paper, some place.”
Frank Morris is a national correspondent and senior editor at KCUR, a partner in the Kansas News Service. You can reach him on Twitter @FrankNewsman.