Another of the “lost cities” of North America may have been found, according to Dr. Donald Blakeslee, an archaeologist at Wichita State University. The Wichita Indians who discovered Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1541 and Juan de Oñate y Salazar in 1601, according to archaeological evidence, had been farming since 900 CE. The Indians who encountered the Spanish intruders lived in fairly big cities for the times. Coronado called the city he visited Quivira; Oñate found his way to an urban center he called Etzanoa.
The Spanish were looking for the “Seven Cities of Gold,” which in hindsight were probably inventions of various Indians to get rid visitors who were eating their food, raping their women, and forcing them to labor for the benefit of Spain. Not finding the golden cities, the Spanish explorers were less than exact in explaining the locations they had visited. That inexactness let to disputes that play out today among archaeologists and those of us who observe archaeologists in their native habitats.
Blakeslee believes he has found the location of Etzanoa near the confluence of the Arkansas and Walnut Rivers in southern Kansas. If the Spanish estimates are correct, Etzanoa would have been an urban center with a population that would rival Cahokia. Etzanoa does not, however, contain any public spaces the size of the Cahokia mounds. The distinctive Wichita dwellings—they look like wooden and straw beehives—contain little that would not weather away with time, leaving only traces archaeologists would have to get down in the dirt to find.
It’s fair to ask why we who are not archaeologists should care about documenting pre-Columbian cities in North America?
The Wichita Indians are one more example of indigenous Americans who did not fit the stereotype of itinerant hunter-gatherers. That stereotype undergirds the legal theory that made Indian land available for settlement. The Americas, the argument goes, were sparsely populated by peoples who followed the game and annual ripening of berries and other foodstuffs available for gathering by savages who did not know how to raise their own food.
The hunter-gatherers lived in no fixed locations and so had no use for land titles. The empty lands that provided their sustenance were terra nullius, “nobody’s land,” free for the taking by sedentary farmers who represented civilization.
What in the world happened to the Wichita Indians? The Muscogee Creek Nation, where I grew up, and the Cherokee Nation, where my extended family lived, were both on lands once inhabited by Wichitas.
When I relocated to Texas, I learned that Wichita and affiliated linguistic kin occupied Texas from the Sabine River border with Louisiana to where the Edwards Plateau overlooks the edge of the Great Plains. They seldom ventured on the Plains except for an occasional buffalo hunt.
After the Spanish proved unable to keep track of their livestock, the Plains became the habitat of fierce “horse Indians.” First the Apaches and then the Comanches and Kiowas claimed the Southern Plains as exclusive hunting grounds and were prepared to defend the claim against all comers.
The Wichita people also came from the lands we now call Kansas. They have a city named for them in Kansas, a mountain range in Oklahoma, and a river, a waterfall, and a city named Wichita Falls plus another prominent city in Texas, Waco, that comes from one of the affiliated tribes we call Wichita.
I came to know some living Wichitas, and they would be either offended or amused or both to be thought extinct. Like many other small tribes, they live near Anadarko, Oklahoma, and do most of their government-to-government business with the Southern Plains Regional Office of the BIA, located in Anadarko.
I know they’re not extinct, but my question is about the Wichita as they must have been before the settlers came. The current Wichita tribal government requires a 1/32 blood quantum for citizenship and they have about 2,500 enrolled citizens with less than 2,000 living in and around their tribal community.
Before the settlers came, the beehive shaped houses of Wichita Indians could be found in substantial parts of three states. Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas are states with the western United States understanding of distance.
Just counting the houses observed by explorers and noted at the time suggests a very large population to just disappear. European diseases cut swaths though the Wichita population on several occasions in historical times, but there must have been similar events that were even worse.
The Spanish, like all humans at the time innocent of germ theory, could not have known that by their mere presence they were killing people they had never even seen. The DeSoto entrada in the Southeastern United States is noted in tribal stories to this day not for the trivial fights with the Spanish but rather for whole villages dying.
The contagion swept cities easily, while the stereotypical hunter-gatherers were less likely to carry disease. They had little contact with the Europeans beyond what was necessary for trade. The Wichita, having similar towns full of people speaking similar languages and a robust trading relationship to New Mexico, imported Spanish diseases with Spanish goods.
That’s the dominant narrative on how they disappeared, but if it’s correct then we still don’t know exactly where they were when the European diseases hit.
Blakeslee did not just pull the Walnut River site out of his hat.
Waldo R. Wedel, working for the Smithsonian, collected known studies of the Walnut River area in 1959, and concluded there was evidence of extensive occupation before the settlers came. He published his results in the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Human Ethnology.
In 1986, Susan C. Vehik compared the extant studies of the route of the Oñate expedition and concluded there were two most likely sites for Etzanoa. There was more evidence for one of the two, and that was the Walnut River site, but the comparison was complicated by a dam inundating the other site and preventing equally thorough study.
Marlin F. Hawley found artifacts near Arkansas City that indicated trade with peoples to the southwest and that the occupants of the sites were acquiring trade goods from Europeans, directly or indirectly. Hawley published his findings in Plains Anthropologist back in 2000, and another article with Martin Stein adding subsequently found data published in the same journal in 2005.
It was with substantial evidence already pointing to the Walnut River site that Blakeslee did his investigation. He found copious artifacts, as he expected, but the “smoking gun” was Spanish cannonballs from a skirmish with another tribe—thought by some scholars to be Pawnees—on the return from Etzanoa and noted in Oñate’s reports.
Blakeslee still has a lot of digging to do—or, as it really works, his students do—but the odds are good that he has found evidence of still yet another major city on this supposedly empty continent.