The Arkansas City Traveler
Plans for large-scale exploration outlined
By FOSS FARRAR
January 27, 2015
A community of Wichita tribe ancestors who settled between the two rivers that converge southeast of Arkansas City is one of the two largest prehistoric settlements of Native Americans in the United States, a Wichita State University archaeologist said Thursday night.
With an estimated population of 20,000 people and an area more than five miles long, the Ark City settlement is now thought to be the first or second largest Native American settlement, with the other large one in the St. Louis area, WSU professor Don Blakeslee said.
Blakeslee spoke to a classroom full of people attending a meeting of the Cowley Public Archaeology and History Group at Cowley College’s Webb-Brown Academic Building. He was introduced by group sponsor Chris Mayer, anthropology instructor at the college.
He outlined plans for a large-scale exploration of the Ark City area and other sites in Rice and McPherson counties where ancestors of the Wichita settled.
Blakeslee said he plans to lead the digs in late May and early June.
Sensitive equipment including ground-penetrating radar and a magnetometer is likely to be used for the explorations, he said. The magnetometer can be used to find burned remains of houses that have been buried by time.
“This summer we will start up in Rice and McPherson counties and spend the third week here,” he said. “These places between recorded sites — we want to know what’s there.”
Blakeslee encouraged people in Ark City to participate in the exploration. He suggested that, for example, students of local schools could “look in the dirt” in their home gardens to check for Native American artifacts.
“You’re sitting on this incredible archaeological site and where is your museum display?” he said. “Your kids ought to be familiar with this.”
Recent evidence has shown that the areas of Kansas settled by the ancestors of the Wichita were more extensive than previous archaeologists thought, Blakeslee said.
The evidence includes a new translation of a 1602 document detailing an expedition by Spanish explorers to this area during the previous year, and a map made of the expedition. The map and descriptions by men who were on the expedition reveal that there was a large Native American settlement around what is now Ark City.
“This past summer I ran across a new translation of old documents of the (Juan de) Onate expedition,” Blakeslee said. “The UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) linguists did brilliant interpretations — like native speakers.”
Three men on the expedition including a very observant sailor were quizzed on the Ark City site by the viceroy in Mexico City, he said.
“Balthazar (the sailor) was interested in what he saw and measured things,” he said. “He measured circular houses and gave the range of circumferences in paces.”
The sailor described the settlement as composed of clusters of large, beehive-shaped grass houses separated from one another, Blakeslee said. There were 30 to 40 houses per cluster. He also gave a range of distances between clusters and said that between them were corn fields.
‘Game-changer’ for archaeology
A tally of the houses counted by Balthazar (2,000) multiplied by the average number of people who occupied each house (10) shows that “the first census said there were 20,000 people in Ark City, and that doesn’t include (a) site up near Winfield,” Blakeslee said.
“This is a game-changer for archaeology,” he said. Previous studies had underestimated the size and importance of the Great Bend Aspect, he said.
Archaeologists have followed up on the work of Waldo Wedel, the “father of Kansas archaeology” who led expeditions in Rice and Cowley counties in the 1940s, Blakeslee said.
Wedel spent part of the summer of 1940 performing archeological investigations at the Arkansas City Country Club (now Great Life Golf and Fitness). The dig uncovered bits of evidence in what appears to have been a huge Indian village.
The Native Americans who lived along river banks in Kansas from 1450 to 1708 were referred to by Wedel as the Great Bend Aspect. “That’s fancy classification terminology for ancestors of the Wichita Indians,” Blakeslee said.
Clusters of habitations and camp sites of the Wichita tribes have been discovered all over eastern Kansas, into Oklahoma and over into Missouri, he said. They include sites in Marion County, Augusta, Winfield, Neodesha and Kay County.
Collectors have found Indian artifacts in other areas around Ark City and in Winfield that have not been mapped out, he said, including near the Spring Hill Golf course. They are northwest of the sites that Wedel examined.
“The Arkansas City cluster keeps growing,” he said. “Our understanding of sizes and numbers of sites is not quite accurate.”
Archaeological studies also have been performed on two sites just south of the Cowley County line in Kay County, known as the Deer Creek and Bryson-Paddock sites, Blakeslee said.
“This is where some of these people moved about 1718 — two fortified sites with lots of French trade goods,” Blakeslee said.
“The question is, is there more,” he said.
The ancestors of the Wichita used stone tools for various tasks, predominately related to skinning bison hides and processing bison meat, he said. But they used the tools to make musical instruments, pottery, paint brushes and painting materials.
Blakeslee showed slides of many of these types of artifacts found at archaeological sites in Kansas.
Blakeslee went to the Google Earth website and focused in on a large fairway at the the Great Life and Fitness golf course, projecting the image on a screen for the audience to see. Visible were faint circles on the ground along the fairway. “These are probably houses and storage pits,” he said.
Also visible near the fairway was a mysterious linear feature leading from bluff and into crops. And another outline looked like it could have been a building with one side convex.
Archaeologists would check with land owners before any study is conducted and would respect the owners’ wishes on what areas could be looked at, Blaskeslee said. They would not take any artifacts from the site unless the owner gives them permission.
In the 1990s, archaeologists attempting to study the country club area sought permission from owners of the land but were refused permission to do so, he said.
“I guess they thought we were going to dig up fairways, but we don’t just go in and do that sort of thing,” he said. “We talk to the land owners about what we’d like to do.”
Other areas that Blakeslee would like to explore during the first week in June when he plans to do the study here:
• An area southwest of the country club area — roughly midway to the river bluff at south end of town — where there is a cave with rock art.
• A field on the south side of the river bluff at the south end of town. According to a Spanish account, the Wichita ancestors had gone down the river and a hostile tribe from the south ran them off and one of their buildings got burned, Blakeslee said.