Lost City Found in Kansas May Rewrite History (Again)
Archaeologists have uncovered what may be the ancient settlement Etzanoa, a lost city found in Kansas that once may have had a population of 20,000 people.
It might be time to rewrite the history books again if a recent discovery in the plains of Kansas turns out to be what many think it is.
Archaeologists believe that they may have uncovered the lost city of Etzanoa, a settlement that may have had a population of 20,000 people around its height, somewhere between 1450 and 1700. To put that in perspective, that would have made it one of the largest cities in North America around the time – in 1700, New York City’s population was just 5,000. It didn’t pass Etzanoa until nearly 75 years later.
The Conquistadors and the Search for Gold
The search for Etzanoa is centuries old and mostly relies on the descriptions of Spanish conquistadors who ventured into the Midwest in search of gold. In 1541, Francisco Vazquez de Coronado made it all the way to central Kansas in search of rumored riches. He didn’t find anything like that, but he did come across a major settlement that he called Quivira.
A few decades later during the height of the conquistadors looting of the Americas, one of the most infamous conquistadors, Juan de Oñate, traveled to central Kansas while searching for gold to plunder, people to convert to Catholicism (often by force), and basically anything he could find to advance his personal reputation back home in Spain. Oñate is perhaps best remembered for two things: founding settlements in modern-day New Mexico, and massacring and maiming hundreds of Acoma Pueblo people when they attempted to stop the Spanish from looting the supplies they needed to survive the winter.
Shortly after the Acoma Massacre, Oñate heard stories from local tribes about a massive city with trees adorned with golden ornaments ruled by a chief that drank from a goblet of gold, all of which immediately attracted his attention. The story of what happened next is very much open to interpretation, as the surviving records are almost all from Oñate.
Leading 70 conquistadors armed with muskets and cannons, Oñate set out to find the city of Quivira in the hopes that they could lead him to wealth, maybe even the fabled city of gold that the Spanish dreamed of for decades. When he reached modern-day Kansas, he met a group of locals who made up part of a large, urban community of around 5,000, based on Oñate’s estimates. The locals who, Oñate named the Escanjaques (possibly Apache or Kaw), told him of a much larger settlement just a few dozen miles away and claimed they were responsible for the death of previous Spanish explorers.
Oñate sought out the tribe he would come to call the Rayados and their city. He located them easily enough and found them to be peaceful and united. He even claimed to like them quite a bit and described them as sturdy, but gentle. The Rayados greeted the Spaniards with food and kindness, and in traditional conquistador fashion, the conquistadors responded by taking hostages.
Seeing what was happening with the invaders, the remaining Rayados fled, leaving Oñate to explore around 2,000 deserted houses, each designed to house up to 10 people. They also found gardens of pumpkins, corn, sunflowers, and other vegetation between each house, revealing a fairly advanced and thriving civilization. Logistically, that is a remarkable feat for any civilization at that time, and it flies in the face of the popular notion that most Native Americans of that region during that period were nomads that followed animal herds, especially buffalo.
Oñate claims to have restrained the Escanjaques from looting the town (again, this is all from his records), but it is equally likely that once Oñate was satisfied that the empty city held no gold or similar forms of wealth, he and his men continued on.
Oñate went on to recount that he saw evidence of a massive population, but very few actual people. He worried that the Rayados were forming an army, and so he and his men turned back. Before he made it too far though, a group of around 1,500 locals laid an ambush. Oñate claims it was the Escanjaques, but he and his men did not make friends with anyone, and they were still holding several Rayados hostages.
The conquistadors’ superior weapons prevented a rout, but Oñate and the survivors were driven back into what was then Spanish territory. (Most of the hostages were rescued of freed, except for a handful of young boys destined for the Church). A few years later, Oñate was recalled to Mexico City, where he was tried and found guilty of using excessive force against the local people (specifically the Acoma). He returned to Spain, and his expedition into Kansas became little more than a historical footnote.
Old Texts, New Translations
Despite the stories of the conquistadors, and despite countless discoveries of Native American artifacts in the area – from arrowheads to pottery – the common consensus was that any settlements were temporary or small as the tribes frequently roamed the land. But when Donald Blakeslee, an anthropologist and archeology professor at Wichita State, began to seriously look into the Spanish stories, a much different story began to emerge.
Blakeslee began his search for Etzanoa in 2013, after scholars at the University of California Berkeley retranslated several accounts from conquistadors active in the region, especially Oñate. The city the conquistador wrote about fit with other stories and descriptions of the rumored lost city of Etzanoa, and the new translations provided a better and more precise picture. When paired with additional historical data, the evidence eventually led him to a site near the Kansas-Oklahoma border near modern-day Arkansas City, KS.
Blakeslee soon became convinced that a bluff on the nearby river was the exact spot Oñate met with the people he called the Rayados. There have been discoveries of musket and cannonballs found in the area over the years as well, which would fit with the story of the ambush. Once they began digging, more evidence of the city was uncovered, and the use of high-tech tools like magnetometers to scan the ground have further added credence to the claim.
Small Town, Big History
Arkansas City, KS is a small town of around 12,500, located about an hour’s drive south of Wichita. To further boost the claims that it sits on (or near) the ancient city of Etzanoa, during a road construction project in 1994, thousands of artifacts were uncovered. At the time the find was considered remarkable, but not all that significant. Previous reports claimed that people have found and removed trucks filled with artifacts, all found around the area.
Even with the new evidence and an increasing amount of proof that there was a settlement in the area, it will be difficult to confirm to everyone’s satisfaction that Blakeslee has discovered the city of Etzanoa – and even if it is confirmed, it will be difficult to fully recognize its scale.
Many of the Native American building techniques used materials that would be absorbed back into nature over the years, as opposed to stone or even some wood structures that would remain somewhat intact under the earth. Even so, there is plenty of evidence to see where people would have built, planted gardens, used for fire pits, and more.
It’s also unclear what happened to the city, although the most likely answer is disease – a sadly familiar end for many of the ancient cities of North and South America. Most of the Etzanoans were likely wiped out along with the city, and survivors may have joined or formed other tribes. The Wichita Nation, currently centered in central Oklahoma and numbering about 3,300, are believed to the direct descendants, and they are watching Blakeslee’s findings carefully.
“The accounts of Oñate and Coronado have been interpreted for years,” Gary McAdams, cultural program planner and historic preservation officer for the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, told the LA Times. “We had a suspicion it was settled like this, but now it’s starting to be documented, which makes it feel more real.”
Along with Etzanoa, Blakeslee has uncovered evidence of other large settlements near Rice and McPherson, KS, both further north. Both existed around the time of Etzanoa, and hint at more than just a few large groupings, but rather a significant civilization and culture that engaged in urban development, including trade.
That all implies that they raised crops, herded livestock, made fine art, and even had dealings with groups like the Aztecs, with merchants and delegates traveling between Etzanoa and the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. When you factor in the ancient city of Cahokia, which at its height in the 13th century had a population estimated to be around 40,000, making it one of the largest cities in the world at the time, the history of the Americas begins to look quite a bit different.
Much of what the archeologists believe to be the footprint of Etzanoa remains underground, and much of it is on private property. Regardless, the excavation continues, and Blakeslee and his team have plenty of questions that remain, from how the people farmed to how they operated to how they lived. Those answers may come in the future, but for now, basically, it’s time to rewrite the history books.