A Legend of the Southwest


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




[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)

Copyright 1953, by the Calico Press, Twentynine Palms, California


Somewhere 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.



  • From "Paul Wilhelm's Desert Column," The Indio Date Palm, Indio, California, October 4, 1951.

  • The desert is the haunt of mystery. Sometimes men hear whispers of its past. They go seeking beyond the shimmering mirage. Into the silence they plod. A few are lost. A few return from uncharted desolation bringing back strange tales. An Indian tribe that has never seen a white man. A mine with a door of iron. Or a lost ship half buried in the sandy bed of an old sea.
  • The tales of the lost ships of the Colorado Desert have gathered moss, they have been told so many times. Although logical explanation gives credence to a few tales, they've been more or less exploded. Yet the fascination persists. Here's why:
  • In the bottom of every old seabed throughout he world bones of adventurous men on argosies to unknown lands have been found sealed with the ooze of stratified muds; it would be strange then if this particular ancient sea bed in the Colorado Desert of California was the exception. True, it is eons since a genuine sea flooded this valley, yet men have sailed in ships longer than our knowledge of history penetrates.
  • So there seems nothing impossible in the stories one hears. There's the tale of a ship with hexagonal spars, its wreck found by Indians all but covered with sand far up the meanderings of a dry wash in the Chocolate Mountains. One story, published years ago in ther magazine supplement of the Los Angeles Examiner, told of a Spanish galleon loaded with a king's ransom in precious stones, its wreck sighted in sand dunes northwest of Indio. One old desert vagabond who visited my oasis at Thousand Palms years back told me he had once found parts of a Chinese junk sand-and-clay buried near the oyster beds at Willis Palms.
    [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.
  • And so the many stories are told and retold. They may all be true. For there probably were many ships. Wrecks of ships have come to light in the remotest parts of the earth.
  • But the story that seems most authentic is the one of the old Viking ship in the Colorado Desert. I've heard it a score of times and each time it seems more plausible. Here are the facts:
  • Down from the little mining town of Julian in the San Diego hinterland some years ago rode Mr. and Mrs. Louis Botts. That night they camped at Agua Caliente springs. In their first evening at the springs they had a visitor, a prospector who swapped them rarn for yarn — but all his stories centered on gold. . .
  • Until he drew from his wallet a few faded photographs of a "wreck of a ship of some kind" which he had found exploring for gold in the rough country down by the Mexican border.
  • Myrtle Botts, who is the librarian at Julian, studied the small worn prints. Then she exclaimed, "Why this is the skeleton of a very ancient ship! It's the type used in the period when Eric the Red made his voyages to America. Look, "she said, pointing to the picture of a ship half buried beside a rocky bank, "there's the high serpent bow, the curved ribs — an ancient long boat!"
  • But their visitor remained indifferent to the questions plied on him; his mind was intent on gold. "Can't see what's so strange about finding a boat in this desert. There used to be water here."
  • When Mrs. Botts asked, "Why did you take the photographs?" the prospector replied, "Seemed sorta funny finding a boat so far from water." He was a matter-of-fact fellow and had imagination only for gold. "Boats just ain't in my line," he said as he tired of the qestioning and eased off toward his camp.
  • In the morning the prospector had drifted on; the Botts never saw him again. Upon returning to Julian, Mrs. Botts thumbed through every book on early explorations. There was little to find of Norsemen voyaging towards "lands west." Nor did yearly searches that the Botts made uncover the ancient wreck.
  • But Myrtle Botts is positive the old serpent-prowed ship exists. And though the dust of centuries covers the hopes of dead voyagers on adventuresome argosies to unknown lands, she is certain that one day that lost ship of a vanished sea will be found!

  • By J. A. GUTHRIE


  • From an interview with W.W. McCoy in the Los Angeles Examiner, June 15, 1919

  • "What is the greatest unsolved mystery of the Southwest desert?" asked W.W. McCoy?
  • "It is whether 300 years ago three ships sailed up the Colorado River and into the Salton Sea," the old man of the Yuma Trail answered his own question.
  • "My old friend Herman Ehrenberg, of the Colorado River, found in Arizona an Indian tribe, members of which had blue eyes and red hair. He spent his life seeking to solve that mystery, for the Indians of red hair were born long before white men reached that region.
  • "Ehrenberg took me to the Salton Sea and there we talked to Big Cheif Cabazon. I was interpreter, and Cabazon told us of the history of his tribe as it was handed down to him by chiefs before him. To be a big chief, a man must be able to tell his tribe the stories of many big chiefs before him. These recitals may take days.
  • "Cabazon told us that as near as he could judge three hundred years before, two ships had sailed into the Salton Sea. The men had landed and taken timber out of the mountains. That was the story handed down to him.
  • "Ehrenberg spent many years investigating that story, and it was his conclusion that three ships loaded with exiles from some country in Europe — he knew all the historic facts about the sailing of the ships — had reached the Pacific and sailed up the Colorado. He believed that one of the ships had been captured by a tribe on the Arizona side and that the men had been killed and the women carried into captivity."
  • In the late sixties there were stories, even printed in the frontier newspapers, of the sighting of an ancient ship in the hills in the Salton Sea region, and expeditions were organized. The story vanished with the explanation it was a mirage and there are among the old desert travelers still alive men who actually saw the mirage of the desert ship.
  • "I have seen wonderful mirages from the Salton Sea Sink," said McCoy. "From one spot on the same day I saw in the early days, the city of Tucson; an emigrant party on the Gila River, and so complete was the detail that I could see the whip on the arm of the driver; and when that faded away I saw Fort Yuma and last the harbor of San Diego."
  • Whether the story of Big Chief Cabazon had in actual fact been based on a mirage seen by the Indians as the Spaniards were exploring the coast of the Pacific or whether the ships of ancient times actually sailed into the desert sink which in the centuries past has receded and risen again, the oldtimers on the Yuma Trail say will never be known.

    [image: map of region]


    The Lost Spanish Galleon

  • O.J. Fisk, prominent San Bernardino pioneer, who in his younger years prospected and mined over much of the Southwest, believes he has a solution to the century old legend of a Spanish ship said buried under the bottom of the Salton Sea. An account of an early Spanish voyage, coupled with the testimony of a Cahuilla Indian and a Harquehala, Arizona, prospector has satisfied Fisk that a Spaniard sailed into what is now the Salton Sea centuries ago and walked away from his marooned craft. But for the fact that the Salton Sink of 50 years ago is now the Salton Sea, Fisk is confident he could locate the remains of the old ship without too much trouble.
  • In 1892, Jim Fisk was mining in the Julian-Banner district of San Diego County and doing some prospecting as well. He became acquainted with a Cahuilla Indian, an elderly man who had once lived in the almost forgotten village of Old Santa Rosa on the Imperial Valley side of the mountains.
  • The Indian, whose name is recalled by Fisk as Harra Chee, told Fisk about the location of some gold north of Banner. Fisk was interested, bought some grub, and the two set out. The Indian took him along the east face of the mountains until the two were about west of the present Borrego settlement.
  • There the Indian showed Fisk a hole. He found a show of color, but not enough gold to pay working. Following a day’s digging, Fisk and the Indian cooked their meal and then watched the shadows fall on the desert below.
  • Then the Indian told him a story. His grandfather had seen white men first come to this desert in a white bird. The white bird stayed a long time down there. The bird’s wings fell down and the sand covered it up.
    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 young prospector returned to Julian the next day and thought little of the Indian’s story until some years later over in Arizona he heard a prospector from the Vicksburg or Harequehala district tell of having stumbled on the remains of what appeared to be a Spanish ship in the Salton Sink, the shifting sand having uncovered part of it.
  • Fisk pressed the miner for more details, found the location would have been almost east of Kane Springs at the south end of the sink. The two planned to meet later and find the old ship but the Colorado River turned the Salton Sink into the Salton Sea and ended all such plans.
  • Now retired, Fisk has devoted much of his time to historical study. He learned that the tribe to which his guide of 1892 belonged had no word for ancestor more remote than grandfather and that the "grandfather" Harra Chee told of might well have been a remote ancestor, whose tale of the white man arriving in the big bird on the water was passed down from generation to generation.
  • Early Spanish writings have indicated a minor Colorado Desert flood early in the 16th century, a flood that abated before making any lake of great dimensions such as the present Salton Sea.
  • What Fisk believes clinches his theory is the account that in the early 17th century, when Spanish maps showed California as an island, five ships ascended the Gulf of California on a pearl fishing expedition. The ships became separated in a storm, and only four returned.
  • The fifth ship was captained by one Juan Iturbe who showed up later at Acapulco without his vessel but with a strange tale of having found a narrow passage north which ended in a lake around which he sailed several times, only to find the entry passage gone and no way out.
  • Fisk believes Iturbe’s ship was the Indian’s white bird and the same ship, buried in the sand noted by the Arizona prospector.


    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. . . .


    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.



    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."
  • From before World War One into the early Twenties, Butcherknife Ike often stopped at our ranch, Morningside, when starting on or coming from prospecting expeditions in the southern desert. Morningside lay near the mouth of San Juan Bautista Canyon, southeast of Hemet, and the canyon eventually led up to Coahuila. From there the prospectors crossed over to Coyote Canyon and went down into the Borrego Desert.
  • Butcherknife Ike - I do not know how he came by the name - was very irregular in his appearances and he very rarely had any greeting when he arrived. He just appeared in the drive, with his burros tagging after him. He would take their leads off and they would immediately begin to get their meal off the lawn - and also off some of Mother’s roses. He would camp down in the eucalyptus grove.
  • Generally we had tea, late afternoons about five, on the lawn by the house. And if he was camped below, Butcherknife Ike would wander in and join us. Mother would get out a big cup and fill it with tea, hot and strong, the way he liked it. She would give him the cup and he would hold it and she would put one lump of sugar in. The cup was still stationary, so she would put in another lump. Finally there would be five or six lumps, and then he would take it over to the little flume which ran across the lawn, and sit down and hunch himself along until he could feel the flume against his back. There he would sit, perfectly silent, drinking his tea. He’d gulp down the tea and come back and have another cup - sometimes four or five cups.
  • In between cups, he’d sit and think a little, and then he’d put the cup up against his face - almost make a suction cup of it - and a long, sucking sound came as he got out the sugar in the bottom. When his cup was returned, it was just as clean as a whistle, though he never used a spoon.
  • I remember, mostly, the way he gestured with his long hands when he talked, and his faded blonde hair and the way it had a ripple down it and was quite long, falling on his neck. Of course he started on his trips with it clipped - almost what now we would call a crew cut. But when he appeared in summer, it was a page bob, almost. His eyes were very, very blue.
  • He was a strange man. He never talked to the other prospectors if they were there, and they said he always went out alone. When he first came, he rarely looked at us. He always looked at something on the horizon when he talked. If he talked. And he always looked at you sideways when you asked where he was going. He was so secretive always. If there was another prospector around you couldn’t drag out of him the exact place he was going.
  • The day that he told us about the ship, Father had asked him where he had been. For Father occasionally he would give some details. But as always, it was quite disconnected. All his talk was that way. He’d remove you suddenly to Death Valley, or into Arizona. Just jerk out a few adventures - and then he didn’t want to talk about it if you began to pin him down about the exact locations.
  • And he had apparently been thinking of the strangeness of this adventure. I fancy he wouldn’t have talked to us at all, if it hadn’t been on his mind.
  • He had been down by Laguna Salada, in Baja California, he said. He was returning from Laguna Salada. And he was going through by Split Mountain Canyon to look for some mineral he thought he had seen there before. It was about the Fourth of July, I believe - and hot. And he came in the dark to a place where there was a big sand dune. In telling it, he said over and over again, that it was no place for a big sand due to be. It was flat there. The arroyo was flat.
  • There was a bad wind blowing and he went over and took shelter in the lee of the big dune. On that big dune he discovered there was a sort of shelf of sand, below the highest point. That seemed to be the best place to camp, so he climbed up. There wasn’t much around there to make a fire, but he made one of quail brush. He explained that, so we would know how little the fire was and how quickly it would have burned out. He cooked his beans and made his coffee.
  • Sometime in the night he waked. There, where he had made his little fire, he saw a tongue of flame coming up through the sand. He had an expression he used when he was talking about anything unusual. He would drop his voice and say: "I was kinda curious."
  • He was kind of curious about that flame where no flame should be. So he lighted his lantern and brought it over and he scooped and dug down through the sand. And presently - about two feet down, he said - he came to a heavy piece of wood. By the light of his lantern, he could see that it was worked wood.
  • In the morning, he dug some more, and he uncovered the beam and under it was another curved beam, attached to it. And on the beam underneath were barnacles. Old barnacles that crumbled.
  • "I scrabbled around a little bit," he went on, "and I saw it was a ship. I walked down the dune and I saw where the sand had covered it. It was a big ship. An old ship from the Gulf."
  • "Did you tell anyone about it?" Father asked. And Butcherknife Ike looked suddenly frightened, glancing sideways.
  • "No! No!" he said. "I’ll go back there."
  • And when he learned that we had been as far down as Split Mountain Canyon and knew some of the country he had talked about, he seemed dismayed, as if afraid he had talked too much.
  • I last saw Butcherknife Ike about 1923. He had gone up San Juan Bautista Canyon, apparently heading for the desert. It was August and bitterly hot.
  • For some reason Father was a little worried about him, and suggested we take a lunch and go up the canyon. We found Butcherknife Ike at what used to be called Reed’s Meadow, about eleven miles up from Morningside, on the bench before you climb into the high mountains. And he said that he was going through Coahuila and down Coyote Canyon and through Borrego Valley into the badlands. Someone had given him a book which told about the badlands being an unmined reservoir of rich minerals. So that’s where he set his mind on going - and he picked the hottest week of the year. I took a picture of him and his burros. He went on. He never came back.
  • In spite of his queerness, the other prospectors that came and went had a great kindness for him. They went down and searched for him and asked about him. He had been seen at Borrego. He had gone into the badlands from there. But that was the end of the trail.

    [image] Butcherknife Ike, who built a fire on a sand dune in the desert, and found timbers of an old ship. Photo by Adelaide Arnold, at Reed's Meadow about 1923, just before he disappeared in the Borrego Badlands.

  • By O. J. Fisk


    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.)


    From the San Bernadino Guardian, October 15, 1870

    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.

    From the San Bernadino Guardian, December 3, 1870

    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.

    For more or Charley Clusker's expeditions see Quest For The Lost Ship

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