By Walter Chalfant
ccording to a persistent legend of the desert country there is somewhere among the dunes of southeastern California the decayed hulk of a ship, reputedly laden with treasure.
It is said that there are records to prove that in the year 1610 the King of Spain authorized a Captain Cordone to engage in a naval expedition and a pearl hunt for the crown. Three ships were built at Acapulco and sailed up the western coast of Mexico. In a battle with the Indians one of the ship captains was wounded, and turned back to Acapulco with his vessel.
The other captains Juan de Iturbe and Pedro de Rosales kept on with their pearl hunting. Their Negro divers were successful in securing quite a stock of the gems. The voyagers also made shrewd trades with the Indians, often exchanging old clothes and wormy ship's biscuits for pearls. At this point De Rosales drops out of the story.
Iturbe kept on a course up the Gulf of California, which narrowed as he progressed until it again opened out into a large inland sea. He believed he had found the long-sought connection between the two oceans, but when he was in 34° latitude he was forced to abandon that idea. When he turned south he was distressed to find that communication between the inland sea and the Gulf had been cut off. He sailed around until his vessel grounded. The water continued to recede, leaving his vessel high and dry; and there, the story goes, it was abandoned. All this was in latitude 34°, which is about the south line of San Bernardino County. To make this tale right, we must assume that the Colorado River was at a high stage and that the inland water he found was the predecessor of the Salton Sea, which was cut off at a time most inopportune for Senor Iturbe.
It is claimed that prospectors have seen the bones of the old ship, rotted in the sands. Such stories have been laid to the imaginative- visions of the desert-crazed. A writer asserts that an Indian woman told him that under a certain hill a ship was buried. She told him that many years ago there were some great floods on the desert.
Then the Indians would climb to high lands and live there until the water went away. Her grandfather – "him grandfather, him grandfather" probably - saw a great bird with white wings come floating from "down Mexico way." It came to the hill she pointed out, and stopped. The water went away and the bird was in the sand. Its white wings fell down, leaving tall bare trees sticking up. After a while the sand blew and blew, and the bird was all covered up.
A contemporary writer investigated the rumors as far as he could. A San Bernardino paper reported that a party headed by one Charley Clusker made a search of many days, during which Clusker nearly lost his life.
One of the party was a man named Talbot, who showed the same reluctance as others to talking about the trip. After some persuasion he said:
"In the year 1862 some of us had mining interests in La Paz, Arizona. We had a skiff built in Los Angeles. She was 21 feet long, rigged with a single mast for sailing, and mounted on wheels for the overland haul to the Colorado River. All went well until we had crossed the San Gorgonia pass and came to the lowest point in the desert. There the teams gave out and we were forced to abandon her. Mark my words: that was the origin of the ship of the desert. She had two wagon loads of provisions and groceries on board, and those who find her are welcome to all my treasures on that desert ship that sailed with neither sea nor breeze."
The writer continued: "Here, one might think, the story ends, but such is by no means the case. It was less than a year ago, while on a periodic tour of the Colorado desert, that I had the good fortune to make camp with an old habitue' of the wasteland. Inevitably the conversation turned to the subject of lost mines, of buried treasure, and finally to the desert ship.
"’I think I know where the old hulk lies,’ he said, in a confidential tone.
’Would you betray a vital secret if you told me?’ I asked.
’W-e-e-1-1, maybe not. You know the southeast corner of this county is covered with sandhills. Every time a big wind hits them they move - sometimes a foot or two, sometimes a rod or more. I got it figured out that those dunes have covered up the old ship. They’ll keep on moving, of course, and some day the old packet’ll be uncovered. The man who finds it will make the biggest strike in all history, and don't you forget it.’"
Old newspaper files contribute enough to prove that the ship was considerably discussed but without giving any more definite in information on.
The Sacramento Union of August 31, 1870, said: "The wreck of the vessel found in the upper end of the Colorado desert, south of the road from San Bernardino to Topaz, fully a hundred miles from the sea, as stated by telegraph from San Diego, was seen by Albert S. Evans in 1863, and described in an article published in the New York Galaxy last January."
The Evans’ article in the Galaxy, in January 1870, read in part: "By two o'’clock I had reached the summit of the divide between Dos Palmas and the Palma Seca and looked in the plain . . . . . Southward to the very horizon stretched a great plain of snowy salt, the white ghost of a dead sea which once covered all this accursed land but has passed away forever. Across this white plain, as across the waters of a placid lake, the moon threw a track of shimmering light, so bright as almost to dazzle the eye of the beholder. Right in this burning pathway of light, far out in the center of the ghostly sea, where foot of man hath never trod, lay what appeared in the distance the wreck of a gallant ship, which might have gone down there centuries ago, when the bold Spanish adventurers, bearing the cross and sword in either hand, were pushing their way to the northwest in search of the fountain of youth, the famed Kingdom of Cibola."
And the Sacramento Union of October 6, 1870, had this: "A dispatch dated at Los Angeles October 4th says: An advance party of four, from San Bernardino, have left to visit the famous wrecked ship in the Colorado desert near Dos Palmas station. The ship, which must have lain a wreck for over two hundred and fifty years, is built of teak wood, and is perfectly sound. The bow and stern are plainly visible, and she is 240 miles from the Gulf of California."
This account was continued on October 13, 1870, under the date line of Los Angeles, October 12: "The ship hunting party in Colorado desert returned to San Bernardino."
Again, on November 16, 1870: "Another search is to be made for the fossil ship in the Colorado desert by the men who went for it before but did not find the prize."
And as late as September 30, 1872: "The ship on the Arizona desert proves to be a ferryboat mired there while the owner was endeavoring to transport it to the Colorado."
Similarly the Inyo Independent, September 27, 1873, said: "The ship in the desert story, which has heretofore been attributed to a writer’s lively imagination, is verified by the James expedition explorers. In the Colorado desert, fully twenty miles from the Gulf of California, they found the mast of a vessel, doubtless cast there by some terrible storm."
Excerpt taken from Gold, Guns & Ghost Towns
© 1947 by Walter A. Chalfant
Local Indians, from the coast to the Rockies, rarely considered gold precious enough to covet. After all, they reasoned, there is so much of it in the hills, that there was more than enough for anyone, even if it was worth something. When the Spaniards arrived to the deserts of the west in the 16th century, they’re passion for the stuff was the amazed wonderment of Native Americans. Unfortunately, the invaders tortured the Indians and stole from them whatever gold they had. Tribes tried to tell these bearded people that it was easier to go into the mountains and playas and pick up the gold rather than extract it from the Indians.
But the Spaniards were not always hostile. Many Spanish captains engaged in trade with Indians along the Baja California shores. In 1615, a captain by the name of Juan DeIturbe had just enjoyed a lucrative bartering mission along the western coast (of what is now Mexico). For explorers of the day, finding a secret passageway to and from the Atlantic from the Pacific (other than sailing around the world, or south around Tierra del Fuego), represented an enticing challenge. The ship sailed north into the Gulf of California, through a narrow, mountainous strait, then into a vast inland sea. His crew sailed around the sea, but found no waterway to the east.
Meanwhile, a flash flood had apparently choked their entrance, and for weeks DeIturbe desperately tried to find the entrance in which they came, but never relocated it. The ship was abandoned (along with its loot) somewhere on the shores of this body of water. The party hiked south into Mexico proper until they reached a Spanish settlement, after agreeing to eventually return to the site to recover their goods. A return expidition waws never planned, however, as DeIturbe apparently was unable to raise funds for another caravel.
The body of water in question, is likely the recurring natural lake that forms in the Salton Sink. It is thought that DeIturbe had sailed up the delta of the Colorado River, and sailed into a spillway that lies below sea level, known as "Lake Cahuilla", which was once much larger than the present-day Salton Sea. The shoreline extent of Lake Cahuilla is not known, making the exact location of the shipwreck rather nebulous.
The only addendum to this lost treasure story comes from a 1775 story of a DeAnza expedition herder on his way to the mission at San Diego. After trekking out of Yuma for several days, he encountered the ruins, and pocketed as many pearls as he could carry. Over the years, he and his Indian guides made many returns to the desert to locate the decaying caravel (and its remaining treasure), but with no success.
Where the ship lies today is thought to be a vast area extending north-south from the Santa Rosa Mountains to the Cocopah Mountains, and east-west from the Anza-Borrego highlands to the Chocolate Mountains. The geographic expanse of the lost ship’s location is the largest extent of all but one lost treasure story in Southern California -- the Legend of Pegleg’s Gold.
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