LOST SHIP OF THE DESERT
A Legend of the Southwest
By HAROLD O. WEIGHT
And: "A Ghost of the Vikings? by Paul Wilhelm — "Mystery of the Desert" by J.A. Guthrie — "The Lost Spanish Galleon" by L. Burr Belden — "The Quest for the Lost Ship" from the San Bernadino Guardian — "The Serpent-Necked 'Canoa'" by Ed Stevens — "Butcherknife Ike and the Lost Ship: by Adelaide Arnold — "Story of the Pearl Ship: by O.J. Fink
THE CALICO PRESSTWENTYNINE PALMS, CALIFORNIA
[images] There are those who will tell you the Lost Ship is only the triangular bulk of old Signal Mountain (above) distorted by heat waves intop the broken hulk and shattered spars of a phantom Spanish galleon. But the oldtimers swear that somewhere in the ancient sea-bed of the Salton Sink (shown below near the base of the Santa Rosas) the wreck of a centuries-old vessel lies buried . . . (Harold Weight Photos)
LOST SHIP OF THE DESERTSomewhere in the great Salton Basin, or the Laguna Salada or the delta of the Colorado River, lie the bones of an ancient ship stranded hundreds of years ago — seen now and again by desert wanderers or by Indians. That is one of the most persistent legends of the far Southwest — and there is every reason to believe that such a ship does or could exist.
That is not to say that the ship — be it Viking, or Spanish, or Chinese, or Russian, or even from Mu — sailed into what is now desert when the great California Gulf was open all the way to he slopes of San Gorgonio Pass. Neither does it follow, necessarily, that scientific doctrine is right, and that the Gulf and the Basin have not been joined by navigable water for numberless thousands of years.
During the centuries since man has been navigating the oceans of the world, the course of the mighty Colorado River has changed countless times. The great sink, whose lower levels are now occupied by the Salton Sea, forty-odd miles long and up to 12 miles wide, probably was filled and evaporated away and was refilled many and many a time. A huge fresh-waer lake — called both Lake Cahuilla and Blake Sea — is believed to have occupied a grea part of the sink, including present El Centro and many towns and rich farms of the Imperial Valley, the lower portions of Coachella Valley, and other parts of the Colorado Desert. The larger this lake, the narrower the barrier would have been between it and the head of tide water in the Gulf — and the greater the possibility that a ship, carried on some great equinoctial tide and meeting Colorado flood waters, might have been shunted into the lake.
There is no question that even in the early years of this century, a fairly large ship could have navigated the channel of Hardy's Colorado, at high tide, to the point where the tide and river current battled, then have gone with the river into Laguna Salada. As for the delta — many ships might have been carried well into its flats by the great tidal bore which, in the spring, sluices up the channels at the head of the Gulf. Difference beween high and low tide in this area has been recorded at more than 37 feet, and rises of up to 50 feet have been reported. During the days when there was heavy shipping on the Colorado, this rise and fall was used to drydock ships in a tidal basin at Puerta Isabel, once a shipyard.
With these conditions, why doubt that more than one ship was trapped in some areas of this strange old-sea-bed world? Starting in the middle 1500s, Spanish adventurers, explorers, missionaries, pearlers and smugglers dared the exceedingly frequent dreadful storms and the violent tides of the great Gulf. There was also a time when English and Dutch pirates harried the shipping even within the Gulf. Many ships disappeared. Some were destroyed by storms, driven hundreds of miles off their courses, beached and sunk. Some were captured by the pirates. The crews of some fell victims to savage natives when they landed. Mutinous crews sailed others away. Between the years of 1712 and 1717, the Jesuits alone lost a ship a year to storms. In the autumn of 1717, a tremendous three-day hurricane accompanied by continuous rain swept the peninsula of Lower California, destroying much of the work of the Jesuits. During it, two small pearling ships disappeared from La Paz and were never seen again.
The Lost Ship of the Desert might have been one of these. It might have been one of the ships of the pearl smugglers, who operated secretly after Viceroy Enriquez, about 1702, prohibited pearl fishing without a special licence from him. The next year, a terrible storm destroyed one smuggler ship, while the other two of the fleet which had been pearling among the islands of the Gulf, were beached at Loreto. If might even have been one of the pirate ships. According to the chronicles of Hakluyt, the Content, one of Thomas Cavendish's ships, loaded with gold and silver and silks and perfumes from captured Spanish galleons, was last seen by her companion ships in the mouth of the Gulf near Cape San Lucas. The other ship reach England safely. The Content was never heard from again, and Philip A. Bailey, who has a section on the Lost Ship in his book Golden Mirages, speculates that her captain might have thought that the Gulf was the long sought Straights of Anian, and attempted a short cut to the Atlantic.
But our choice for the Lost Ship — if it be a Spanish one — goes back before that. In his account of the conquest of Mexico, Captain Bernal Diaz del Castillo, bold companion of Cortez, relates: "In the month of May, 1532, the Marquis del Valle (Cortez) sent two ships from the port of Acapulco, to make discoveries in the South Seas. They were commanded by a captain named Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, who, without going far to sea, or doing anything worthy of relating, had the misfortune of a mutiny among the troops, in consequence whereof, one ship, of which the mutineers took possession, returned to New Spain to the great disappointment of Cortez. As for Hurtado, neigher he nor his vessel were ever more heard of."
If mutineers took over Mendoza's ship, the Iqueque, the Gulf would have been a logical hiding place for them. It was the spot that the mutineer Jiminez head for, a short time later, when he took over a ship which Cortez sent out to search for Mendoza. Jiminez was the first known to have discovered and landed on the peninsula of Lower California, and he and hiscompanions were killed by the natives there. The expedition of Francisco de Ulloa, which went to the head of the Gulf, was also searching for Mendoza, as well as exploring.
But there would seem to be an even stronger possibility that the ancient ship which has been seen by at least some desert people arrived five centuries before Cortez. Does it sound impossible that a Viking ship sailed our western coasts a thousand years ago? It seems even more impossible that Indians who had never seen the Vikings could have imagined a correct description for one of their ships. And it is possible that one or more of their ships could have traveled the true Northwest Passage, above Canada and Alaska, in a warmer epoch. That voyage has been made in modern times. And the Norsemen were colonizing Greenland and adventuring on to the shores of North America around the year 1000. A colony existed on the west coast of Greenland for hundreds of years — a Norse searching party being sent to discover what happened to it and rescue survivors in 1354. A sword, axhead and shield grip dating to about 1000 and declared authentic Norse work were found in western Ontario province, Canada.
Dane and Mary Coolidge, in their book The Last of the Seris, make the definite statement that blue-eyed, yellow haired Vikings did come to Tiburon Island in the Gulf long ago, and that members of the expedition became the founders of the blue-eyed fair-complexioned Mayo Indians on the Mayo River, Sonora. The Seri Indians of Tiburon have legends and songs of these early white giants, who came in a long boat driven by sweeps, who were whalers living in big houses by the sea, in their own land. Whose weapons were the bow and arrow and spear. With them, said the Seris, was a redhaired woman, wife fo the captain, who wore her in big braids down her back and was even fairer than the men, who dressed in heavy clothes and had a big cloak or mantle. (Freydis, daughter of Eric the Red, was in command of a Viking ship to the east coast of North America, in 1014, so Viking women did sail.)
The blonde strangers stayed on Tiburon Island a year and four months, and then they sailed away with four families of Seri, promising to bring them back when they returned. But they never did return to Tiburon. Perhaps their long boat was grounded and abandoned somewhere in the Salton Sink and they walked out — either to Arizona where there was an early legend of blonde and redheaded Indians — or even as far as the Mayo River.
Probably there are ships of a later date in the desert. When the excitement about reported discovery of the Lost Ship was high in 1870, a Los Aneles newspaper explained that the ship undoubtedly was a 23-foot sloop, built in Los Angeles in 1862, for use on the Colorado River. Attempts had been made, for some reason, to transport the boat overland, and it had been abandoned in the desert when the mule-power broke down. Part of theis account was a tongue-in-cheek yarn by Major Horace Bell. Bell in his Reminiscences of a Ranger stated that the ship had been discovered by the great explorer Joshua Talbot. Talbot, was an editor of the San Bernadino Guardian, and he did go on an expedition to locate the ship, but did not see it and soon had enough of the quest.
But by the time a San Diego publication had garbled the story, Talbot became the original goldseeker who attempted to haul the boat across to the Colorado near La Paz. In this form, the yarn — becoming as fabulous as the Lost Ship legend could possibly be — has furnished much grist for the writers of "debunking" magazine articles. In the most recent one, the little sloop has grown to a scow 60 feet in length, drawn by oxen.
There are other ships and boats which have been lost — and in the case of Lieut. Ives' steamer Explorer, which he used in exploring the Colorado River in 1858, found. The nearly buried hull of the Explorer was found on the delta in 1928.
But these are not the Lost Ship. It was a legend and being sought at the time the little sloop was being build in Los Angeles; its description did not fit Ives' boat.
Following are a few of the stories and legends which surround the Lost Ship.
[image] The weird Yuha Badlands in Imperial County, all once part of the Gulf of California. Signal Mountain, left background, marks the Mexican border. To the right and beyond it is the basin of Laguna Salada in Baja California. Some oldtimers believed that the lost ship was only a mirage of Signal Mountain itself, caused by the distorting heat waves of the terrible midsummer temperature. Photo by Harold Weight.
By PAUL WILHELM
A GHOST OF THE VIKINGS?
[image] Fantastic, almost lunar, landscape in the Yuha. All this land was once under the Gulf of California, and oyster shells turned to stone are found on the very tops of these hills. Faint, shadowy lines, upper left, mark the Superstition Hills, where many believe the last ship grounded. Photo by Harold Weight.
By J. A. GUTHRIE
MYSTERY OF THE DESERT
By L. BURR BELDEN
The Lost Spanish Galleon
This story of the lost ship and the map (left) apperared in the San Bernadino Sun-Telegram, February 15, 1953, and are reproduced through permission of L. Burr Belden.
THE QUEST FOR THE LOST SHIP
San Bernadino Guardian, September 10, 1870 (Taken from the Los Angeles News:
INTERESTING DISCOVERY: By many it has been held as a theory that the Yuma Desert was once an ocean bed. At intervals, pools of salt water have stood for a while in the midst of the surrounding waste of sand, disappearing only to rise again in the same or other localities. A short time since, one of these saline lakes disappeared and a party of Indians reported the discovery of a ‘big ship’ left by the receding waters. A party of Americans at once proceeded to the spot and found embedded in the sands the wreck of a large vessel. Nearly one-third of the forward part of the ship, or barque, is plainly visible. The stump of the bowsprit remains and portions of the timbers of teak are perfect. The wreck is located 40 miles north of the San Bernardino and Fort Yuma Road and 30 miles west of Dos Palmas, a well-known watering place on the desert . . .
San Bernadino Guardian, December 31, 1870:
THE SEARCH FOR THE LOST SHIP: For years there have been rumors of a ship being found upon the desert from 40 to 50 miles in a southwest direction from Dos Palmos station, between San Bernadino and La Paz, and a few weeks ago Mssrs. Clusker, Caldwell and Johnson started from San Bernadino to verify the fact. Passing south of Martinez toward the Lake they found themselves in a morass and that it was impossible to proceed farther . . . Charley Clusker organized another party of himself and Mssrs. Hubble, Ferster and West, and with a four horse team came to Martinez and deflecting farther to the south crossed to within a short distance of the old Ft. Yuma road, but owing to the absence of fresh watefr were compelled to return — not however until Clusker became convinced that he saw the ship far out in the lake . . .
[image] Strange Salton Sea, below sea level in the great Salton SInk, seen from Mullet Island. Did an ancient Viking or Spanish ship sail this sea long ago, at one of its periodic fillings? Photo by Harold Weight.
The indefatigable Charley rested a day or two in San Bernadino and organized another expedition composed of J.A. Talbott, one of the editors of this paper, D.S. Ferster and F.J. West. We had water capacity for 108 gallons, provisions for two months and four good horses and wagon . . . We came his time by a difficult route — that of the old Ft. Yuma road via Warner's Ranch and Cariso Creek station . . . here filling up our casks with water we boldly plunged out into the desert, intending to go as far as our water would permit and sending the wagon back for a fresh supply if we failed to find it . . . Charley was determined to thoroughly prospect as he went. After about 20 days my business required my return, and taking two of the horses, with Ferster we crossed the intervening space between the Laguna and Martinez station, a distance of about 60 miles. The next day Ferster returned to the wagon, and we came home on one of Gus Knight's wagons, glad to see San Bernadino once more. We left the boys in good spirits, confident they will yet find the ship, but as for ourselves, as we have not lost any ships, we do not feel inclined to undertake another expedition to find one.
* * *
San Bernadino Guardian, January 14, 1871:
RETURN OF THE SHIP PROSPECTORS. On Tuesday evening last, Charley Clusker and party returned to town, we are sorry to say, unsuccessful. . . .
By ED STEVENS
The Serpent-Necked "Canoa"
In 1917, an old Indian rode into the yard of our ranch in Imperial Valley. He was looking for work, he said, He had come into the Valley to pick coton, but his eyes bothered him and he could not see well enough to pick. He came from the Juarez Mountains of Lower California and gave the name of Jesús Almanerez. I think he was a Santa Rosa Indian.
I told him that I had a lot of mesquite wood to chop, and that suited him. But he refused to stay in the bunkhouse up by the ranch. He went down to the Alamo River and built an arrowweed ramada.
He was a very quiet and polite old man, with never much to say. He was with me three years and was always reliable.
When the first Christmas came, we had a big dinner. Then I loaded up a big platter with food and took it down to old Jesús' camp. He was greatly pleased that we would remember him on Christmas Day. So after filling up with all the food he could hold, he becdame rather talkative. I asked him what he had worked at in his younger days. He said he had worked in the timber and mines and as a woodchopper. Then I asked him if he had ever found any gold or treasure of any kind.
This is the story he told me:
"I was chopping wood with a crew of wood choppers just off the Laguna Salada. We were packing it on mule back up to the end of the sand hills where a wagon loaded it and hauled it to the Yuha Oil Well, which was then being drilled. (Ed. Note: In the Yuha Badlands, a few miles southeast of Coyote Wells, and south of U.S. Highway 80.) I think about 1898.
"It waqs late summer and the west winds wedre beginning to blow. For twelve days it blew, and then followed a big rain. We were about out of provisions so I loaded up a ten-mule train of wood and started out. The trail led along the foothills. I soon found the going too slippery for the loaded mules. So I turned off into the sand hills, which were wet and easier going.
"I had only gone a few miles when my lead mule stopped and pointed his ears. Looking that way I saw half buried in the side of a big sand hill a sarge canoa. (He meant a large canoe or ship. E.S.) It had a long neck and the head of a beast, and copper plates along the sides."
Since his boyhood spent with the Santa Ysabel Indians, Ed Stevens has been a life-long friend of the Indian people of the Imperial Valley and the San Diego mountains. From them he has learned many stories not usually told except among themselves.
"I got out of there as fast as my mules could travel. I unloaded the wood, got our provisions, and went back along the foothill trail. When I got back to camp, I drew my pay and left for the mountains, never to go back there again.
He told me that seeing tat canoa was a bad sign, and to save himself he had to leave immediately. I believe there must have been some legend about that ship among the Indians down there. Probably others had seen it, and unable to explain its strange appearance had regarded it as a "bad sign."
I was busy farming at the time, and did not have the time to pay much attention to the story. But it continued to bother me, and a few years later, I went to the Irrigation District office and asked for an old map of the area in Old Mexico. They gave me one of a survey of 1910.
As soon as I looked it over, I could see that it would have been very easy, even then, for a boat to get into the Laguna Salada in late spring when the Colorado would be in flood and meeting a high tide. The tide water went almost to Volcanic Lake. A boat could have come up the channel on the tide until it met the river current, then turned back and followed the river to Laguna Salada, where it became stranded as the flood receded.
I traced out and followed the old wagon road from the Yuha well drill hole to the head of the Laguna Salada in 1930, and I believe traces of that road would be visible yet. But I never had time to search the sand hills for a ship.
[image: area map] From this 1910 survey of the Irrigation District of the Imperial Valley, it is easy to see how a ship could have gone up Hardy's Colorado, from the Gulf, then been deflected into Laguna Salada.
By ADELAIDE ARNOLD
BUTCHERKNIFE IKE AND THE LOST SHIP
When she was a girl at Morningside Ranch, near Hemet, Adelaide Arnold came to know many of the desert prospectors. Butcherknife Ike was one of the strangest. Adelaide, noted writer, is just completing her new book, "Traveler's Moon," sequel to "Son of the First People."
By O. J. Fisk
THE STORY OF THE PEARL SHIP
In the year 1610 a contract was signed between the Kig of Spain and one Captain Thomas Cardona, whereby Cardona was authorized to engage in naval exploration and pearl hunting for the Crown, on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Francisco Basilio was placed in charge of the Pacific division of the enterprise, but it was his great misfortune to die before the project was more than started. In Basilio's place, Cardona's nephew, Nicolas Cardona was placed, to take joint command wih Juan de Iturbe and Sgt. Pedro Alvarez Rosales. Three ships were constructed in Acapulco, and after some delay they set sail from that port on March 21, 1615. Voyaging north, it is recorded that they took note of the rich mineral prospects with an eye to future development. They landed at 27 degrees latitude, finding relics of the Viscaino expedition, in the form of five Christian skulls and the fragments of a boat. Here they were attacked by a large party of hostile Indians; and Cardona was seriously wounded. It was decided that he should take one of the ships and return to Acapulco.
After Cardona turned back, Juan de Iturbe and Rosales sailed on in the other two vessels in the face of bad weather and food shortage, for the negro divers were eminently successful in their pearling activities. Iturbe also found it profitable to trade with the natives for pearls, giving old clothes and wormy ship's biscuit in return. The latter was highly regarded by the Indians, bringing a correspondingly higher price if the biscuit was so magotty that it was fairly able to stand on its own feet, as it was then considered in the light of fresh meat.
From some unaccountable reason, our source of information at this point becomes rather vague as to just what happened to Rosales. We are able however to follow the activities of Iturbe. He sailed up the gulf, finding that it narrowed as he went, but finally opening up into what appeared to be a vast sea extending far inland. He was greatly excited, believing that he had found the fabled Straights of Anian, so long sought by the mariners of all countries, which would provide a passage between the two oceans.
However after many abortive attempts to find a way through he was at last forced to admit his defeat. He was however enabled to arrive at his approximate location, which was 34 degrees latitude (a fact which seems to me of very great significance, given that the present day Gulf of California does not extend above 32 degrees.) After many attempts to find a way out, he turned south once more only to find to his complete consternation that he was landlocked.
Frantically Iturbe sailed around the hemmed-in sea, seeking some exit. But his voyage came to an abrupt end when he grounded again and the water receding magically left him hih and dry. He and his crew were forced to leave the ship with its vast treasure of pearls intact, realizing if they excaped with their lives alone they would be fortunate.
Iturbe's actions at this stage of the account become shrouded in obscurity. It may be that he was able to contact Rosales' ship. At any rate he next turned up at Sinaloa, where he build a new ship and made another pearling voyage.
Did Iturbe make an attempt to recover the vast cargo of pearls he was forced to leave with the abandoned ship? One chronicler, Ortega, records that only 14 marks of pearls were registered at the conclusion of the expedition, although Ortega states that he, personally, saw many times that number in Iturbe's possession. However, it is extremely doubtful if Iturbe ever made any attempt to return to his ship. We may safely conclude that the brooding sand dunes of "the land of little shells" still retain that "king's ransom" of pearls as well as the secret of the lost ship of the desert.
(From O.J. Fisk's "Story of the Pearl Ship of the Desert," Pioneer Cabin News, the San Bernadino Society of California Pioneers, Nov. 1951 to April 1952.)
THE DESERT SHIP
The exploring party which left town some two seeks since for the purpose of examining the hull of a vessel said to be stranded in the Colorado Desert, has returned. All the members of the expedition are highly pleased with the result. Though they found no ship nor any sign thereof, yet they seem fully persuaded of the existence of some vessel.
Leaving Martinez, our friends plunged into the desert by the 'old road', abandoning the only traveled road, that of Dos Palmas, which deflects to the left. After thus leaving the road, the party traveled as far as possible. Indeed, they went until a glance backward showed them their footprints and the tracks of the wagon-wheels filled with water. Then they very naturally took fright and returned. As to the existence of a ship or something bearing a strong likeness to a ship, there can be no doubt. It is supposed to be stranded just southward of the point of the mountain southeast of Martinez.
That it will be found and the whole mystery solved admits of no doubt whatever. It is only a question of time, as a portion of the same party will start out in a few days to make another effort.
It is known that several vessels engaged in the expeditions to the Gulf of California have been lost; it is most likely that the hull now sought was one of these. Were it certain that the buccaneers had lost the vessel there would be an almost absolute certainty of rich booty, but the vessels sent out on voyages of discovery by the Viceroy of Mexico were generally very poorly freighted, yet they make up almost entirely the number of lost ships. A theory is maintained that the proper way to reach the ship is by way of the New River Station on the Ft. Yuma road, and this seems very probable. Turning north from New River Station, and passing the mud volcanoes, one would reach a point corresponding with that where the wreck must be situated. But after all, there is much that is visionary connected with the whole theory. It may be that what we call a ship may be a coral, as it has borne the appearance of one to one of the only two white men who have ever seen it. Yet let us hope that our desert holds some relic of the past history which may reveal to our enquiring eyes some lost mystery.
In our last week's paper we chronicled the return of Charlie Clusker and poarty from a three to four week's 'cruise' in search of the desert ship, also the fact of his having been successful in finding it after days of faithful perseverance, and undergoing many severe hardships, in which he came near to losing his life, by perishing on the desert. But for all the hardships he endured he was repaid at last by finding the 'long lost' and much talked of vessel. It is now a fixed fact, for there can be no doubt but that the ship is lying high and dry, a hundred or two hundred miles from water, and the mystery which now hangs arounds it, will soon doubtless be cleared away.
On Wednesday morning last Mr. Clusker and party (four in all) started out to return to the ship. They are well fited out with all necessary tools and implements, for thoroughly exploring the vessel, such as shovels, picks, blocks, chains, rope, and three or four hundred feet of boards. From this place they go to Warner's Ranch, and from that point direct for the ship. At Cariso Creek station, on the San Diego road, they intend making a depot for supplies, which will preclude the possibility of their suffering for food or water. We expect to receive some interesting news, from the party, in a week or two; may not however until their return to San Bernadino, when the mystery concerning the desert ship will be revealed. To those who are overanxious and curiuous to know how she came there and where she was going, we say, keep quiet and don't become excited, our associate in the Guardian, Mr. J.A. Talbott, is one of the party, and on his return will give no doubt an interesting description of the trip and the ship.
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