Rich past to richer future: WSU professor uncovers lost city


A Wichita State University professor believes he’s solved a centuries-old mystery and it could have a major impact on a small Kansas town.

Nestled between the Arkansas River and Walnut River sits the quaint town of Arkansas City, referred to by many as Ark City.

“It’s just got that small town feel, friendly feel,” said Pat Simmons.

“The biggest asset in our community is the people,” said Visit Ark City Director Pam Crain. 

Ark City’s main drag is peppered with festival flags, a museum and a popular cafe. 

“We love it here,” Simmons said. 

“I have lived here off and on my whole life,” Crain said. 

Crain and her husband are both from the area. It seemed only right for the couple to start a family in Ark City. 

“We wanted to raise our children in a small town environment. There’s a security knowing the people you do business with, the people you see on the street,” she said.

However, Ark City as the locals know it may change into a tourist destination in the near future.

Finding Etzanoa

For years, Ark City residents said they’d heard stories about the area’s past. Many of them reported finding artifacts along the river.

“People finding arrowheads for example along the Arkansas River banks. There’s always been stories that you hear about some of the caves along the Walnut that were maybe inhabited,” Simmons said.

It was those stories and a new translation of the Coronado Expedition that led Wichita State University Anthropology Professor Doctor Don Blakeslee to the region several years ago.

“I had been wading through the many documents of the Coronado Expedition, and I thought this will be worth a look, and it was,” said Blakeslee. “When I compiled all of the descriptions together, I was like, ‘Yeah it’s on the south and and I’ve been there.'”

Blakeslee then enlisted a team of experts and volunteers to explore the area in search of the lost City of Etzanoa. Etzanoa is believed to have been home to about 20,000 ancestors of today’s Wichita Nation.

“In 1601 A.D., it might have been the largest town in what is now the United States,” said Blakeslee. “The Spaniards describe clusters of houses, tightly clustered together, 30-to-40 houses per cluster. They described the distance between the houses, size of the houses, all of that and we are slowly accumulating evidence to see how well the remains match the description.”

“That first year was basically using that specialized equipment to look under the ground. We also used volunteers to do what we call a pedestrian survey. That’s just where we walk the ground surface and identify artifacts,” said Etzanoa Project volunteer and Cowley College Social Science Instructor Meredith Mahoney. 

Mahoney and Blakeslee have now spent several summers combing through what they believe to be a 5-mile stretch once known as Etzanoa.

“Oh, well, it just got better and better and it has continued to get better,” Blakeslee said.

In the last three years, Blakeslee and his team have uncovered dozens of artifacts. In the summer of 2018, they found what they believe to be food storage pits turned into trash pits.

“Inside the pits we find pieces of broken ceramic, pieces from jars and pots. We find projectile points and other stone tools. We find animal bone, charcoal and pieces of shell,” Mahoney explained.

Blakeslee and his team plan to continue to excavate portions of the area. He adds this is only the beginning of the project.

“We have already hired my replacement,” Blakeslee laughed. “We are working on proof. We like to test every single statement we make.” (Story continues below)

Gallery: Uncovering a lost city Photos courtesy: Carol House

Visiting Etzanoa

The Etzanoa discovery has made international and national headlines. It’s created a sense of curiosity from people all over the world. 

Pam Crain with Visit Ark City said several people visit her office each day inquiring about Etzanoa. Her office also takes several dozen calls a week about the discovery.

“‘We heard about this lost city. Can you tell us about it and how can we see it?’ So that’s where we try to educate them a little bit about what there is and what there isn’t,” Crain said. 

Crain said the city is somewhat at a standstill while officials wait for the Etzanoa Conservancy group to decide how it wants to move forward in preserving the area of Etzanoa while allowing public access.

Right now, the Cherokee Strip Land Rush Museum in Ark City offers tours of the Etzanoa site.

“We would give you a 15 minute introduction to it, it’s a video. On Saturdays, there’s tours that are offered. For $10 you kind of caravan out to the different areas,” Crain explained. 

However, Crain believes the public will eventually be able to get a real-life glimpse into how the mysterious city once was.

RELATED LINK | Arkansas City’s Ancient Indian City “Etzanoa” Facebook page

“I feel like eventually we are going to have investors who are going to want to come in and kind of recreate the village of the Etzanoa people, have the huts, and the fire pits and recreate some of the things they would do in their daily life,” Crain said.

“At the very least, there’s going to be an emphasis on preserving the site, making sure its safe for the future, making sure that we can learn some information that continues to develop our understanding of this region in the past and also offering opportunities for education and outreach,” Mahoney said.

Dr. Blakeslee would also like to see the area preserved. 

“One of the ideas is to have a teepee camp nearby, not on the site itself, and have people experience the native foods, native story telling and things like that,” Blakeslee said. 

Blakeslee added he’s currently negotiating with landowners to open up sections of the region to the public. He would like to see sections reverted to the natural state of the land, so visitors can see for themselves how people lived in the time of Etzanoa. 

Impact on Ark City

The discovery of Etzanoa is expected to have a positive economic impact on Ark City.

“Every rural town in Kansas needs a little help and this one, yeah, if we do it right, it should provide a steady flow of people coming to town that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” said Blakeslee.

Ark City boasts about 12,000 residents. Visit Ark City expects that number to swell once the tourist attractions are developed. 

“Economically, of course, anytime you come into the community, there is usually a stop to purchase something. There’s usually gas. There’s always something to eat. We really feel like there will be a significant impact in that area,” Crain said. 

“It could be a phenomenal find for the community and the State of Kansas. I just can’t imagine how it couldn’t really help the community as a whole economically, especially with tourism and stuff like that. I mean, it’s an open bag. It could just mushroom and be great for everyone,” said Simmons.

Blakeslee is quick to note it will take years to develop the tourists attractions, however he is optimistic.

He has nominated the site to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. He is currently awaiting confirmation.

Recreated Map of Lost City of Etzanoa

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