He was tired. It had been days since they started searching the area, but nothing significant had been found. And yet, his gut told him this was the place, and he wasn’t going to give up until he found proof. Then, a familiar sound. It was the sound of the metal detector. He rushed over to see what had been found. When they brushed off the dirt and realized what it was, his heart started pounding. Could this be what they’d been looking for all along?
It was a discovery many years in the making, and it seemed Donald Blakeslee had been born to do this. Ever since he was a kid, he’d been fascinated with things in the ground. His mother tried to keep a small garden, planting flowers and vegetables. But Donald, curious as ever, would dig them up and bury his own treasure in their place. His mother thought he’d grow out of it. It turned out to be the complete opposite.
As soon as he learned how to read, Donald buried his face in books. And they weren’t traditional children’s books, either. Every time his mother took him to the library, he always seemed to find the oldest and thickest book in the place -- usually something to do with history. He’d then find a nook in a corner and spend hours engrossed in his reading. Such interest and dedication followed him well into his school years.
From very early on, Donald proved to be a very good student. But he wasn’t as good in other aspects of his life, such as sports or making friends. This worried his mother, who wanted her child to have an enjoyable and balanced life. But Donald seemed to have no interest in any of it. He had a one-track mind. And that mind was going to lead him to great things in the years that followed.
Donald’s interest in history only grew, and he became almost an encyclopedia of facts and figures. Every once in a while, he’d tell his parents about an ancient civilization or heroic battle that they had never even heard of. Despite her fears, his mother realized this was where his passion lay. So she encouraged him to follow his interest wherever it may lead him. But neither of them knew the amazing things he would discover.
It didn’t take long for Donald’s teachers to take note of him and his academic excellence. Some of them even took him under their wing, making sure to provide him with enough resources to satisfy his thirst for knowledge. He graduated high school with the highest honors and was a shoe-in for many prestigious colleges. It seemed he had the world at his feet. But the true journey of his life was only just starting.
Donald decided to study anthropology and archaeology. None of this surprised anyone who knew him, as it was clear from the very beginning that this was his calling. And so he began his academic career, which led him to obtain a P.h.D. in archaeology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He became a very respected professor and researcher. And then he turned his focus on a topic he’d been interested in his whole life.
Donald became an expert on the protohistoric period -- a time of transition between prehistory and history when human civilizations were forming but hadn’t yet developed a form of writing. This led him to research early American settlements like Cahokia in Illinois, the biggest Native American urban complex ever built in the United States. That’s when he learned of a place called Etzanoa and became obsessed with finding it.
“The lost city of Etzanoa” was more of a myth than anything at this point. It was said that, at the turn of the 17th century, Spanish conquistadors found a large city inhabited by a Wichita tribe somewhere in the Great Plains. It was said to have housed 20,000 people and be more advanced than most settlements they’d encountered. But, less than a hundred years later, the city disappeared. Historians began to dispute its existence -- until Donald came along.
With the help of scholars from the University of California at Berkeley, Donald was able to obtain more refined translations of records from Spanish explorers who traveled the area during that time. The records revealed detailed descriptions of the landscape, the city itself, and their encounter with its inhabitants. Using that information, Donald followed a path that led him to Arkansas City, Kansas. Still, he had no idea what he would find.
Upon reaching Arkansas City, Donald discovered that the idea of an ancient native settlement was not a surprise to residents. According to a man named Hap McCleod, they had been finding tools and artifacts in the ground for generations. And the natural landscape resembled the explorers’ descriptions. Encouraged, Donald set up shop and gathered his team to survey the area around McCleod’s backyard. Then someone unexpected tagged along.
McCleod’s teenage grandson, Adam Ziegler, wanted to accompany the researchers. Donald agreed. After days of finding barely anything, they let Adam have a go with the metal detector. An hour or two later, the detector beeped. Adam reached down. “It just looked like a little ball of dirt, but for the size it was it felt heavy,” he said. They cleaned the dirt off and realized it was a Spanish cannonball. And it was the proof they needed.
The Spanish records detailed a battle between them and a tribe of Indians exactly in that location. This meant that they were standing over the lost city of Etzanoa. The team continued excavating, which led them to find more cannonballs as well as traces of houses and granaries. “I wanted to see if the archaeology fit the descriptions,” remembers Donald. “Every single detail matched this place.” The stories were true, making Etzanoa the second largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico, after Cahokia. But what happened to the city’s dwellers?
It remains unknown what exactly happened to the inhabitants of Etzanoa between their initial encounter with Europeans in 1601 and the French exploration that found the area unoccupied. But academics believe they probably succumbed to foreign diseases, and the rest fled and joined other tribes. Today, there are around 3,000 Wichita left in the United States. But this discovery adds to their legacy.
To Gary McAdams, leader of a Wichita tribe, the findings did not come as a surprise. “It's not actually a new discovery. You know, it's a validation,” he said. “Validation that a tribe now reduced to about 3,000 members was once a major power at the center of the continent.” And it was all thanks to the tenacity of Donald Blakeslee and his love for the past.