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Amazing Treasure Ship of the California Desert (Masters)

By Al Masters
From page 58 of the July 1977 issue of Lost Treasure magazine.
Copyright ©1977, 1999 Lost Treasure, Inc.

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Black pearls courtesy of pearl-guide.com

Somewhere in the rugged desert wasteland of Imperial County in Southern California lies the long-dead skeleton of an old Spanish galleon, its sun-bleached timbers jealously guarding its million dollar fortune in fabulous pearls.
For over three centuries this phantom of the sands has been talked about, written about, and searched for, all to no avail, for it is still there in its unknown hiding place, still as lost as ever.
Where is it located, you ask, and how did it get there, of all places–250 miles from the Gulf of California in a sea of sand?
Actually, no one knows for sure where the old ship lies hidden amongst the dunes or you can bet it wouldn’t stay hidden for long. However, the general area has been narrowed down somewhat, and it is easy to reach, so if you want to go look for yourself here is what you do:
Starting from Palm Springs which is a good place from which to start – you take California State Highway 111 southeast to Indio. Here State 111 makes a junction with Interstate 10. Go down 10 to Coachella, then pick up State 86 going south. Soon you’ll come to an area with the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park on your right and the Salton Sea on your left. The Salton Sea is a landmark in the case, but you won’t find any treasure if you linger at Salton Beach or any of the other popular recreational resorts in this area. Girls, maybe, but no treasure!
To interject a few words about the Salton Sea into the story, in 1853 Professor W. P. Blake, making the first governmental survey of California’s Imperial Valley, discovered a vast, sandy depression here in the desert. In 1905 the Colorado River overflowed into Imperial Valley and poured into this sink, filling it to a depth of 83 feet. Aptly named the Salton Sea, this saline body of water is about 235 feet below sea level. Shaped like a gourd, it is roughly 30 miles long and from 8 to 14 miles wide. It has no outlets, its present depth being maintained, despite evaporation, by water draining from irrigation ditches into the Alamo and New rivers, which empty into it.
Of importance to the story is the fact that when the events related herein took place, all of this sea area had been under the waters of the head of the Gulf of California. Centuries prior to Blake’s survey, however, these waters had dried up.
Once you’re safely past the resort centers, and one of the most popular fishing spots in California, continue down Highway 86 to Kane Springs, which has the distinction of being the oldest known waterhole on the California desert. In the days of the old prospectors it was a favorite camping ground, both for them and for passing bands of Indians.
To the south lie the mysterious and drab Superstition Hills, home of quicksand and a good place to avoid.
It is somewhere here, in the Kane Springs area, that the old Spanish treasure galleon lies.
As to the second question, how did it get there, 250 miles from the Gulf of California, the story of this is either fact, fiction, or a mixture of both. But pieced together from old records, it goes somewhat like this:
In the year 1610, when Henry Hudson was cruising around in the 55-ton ship Discovery, busily finding the Hudson Bay, and the Frenchman, Champlain, was discovering the lake bearing his name, thousands of miles away at Mexico City Captain Alvarez de Cordone was receiving from the Grand Viceroy a royal commission from the mother country – from Philip III, King of Spain – authorizing the good captain forthwith and as soon as possible to engage in outfitting a naval expedition for both exploration and a pearl hunt for the crown, but mostly for the latter.
Under terms of his commission Cordone was empowered to secure, or to have built, three suitable vessels and to recruit two subordinate but trustworthy sea captains who would serve under him and take charge of two of the ships. Cordone would command the third, the largest and so-called flagship of the little group.
The two captains chosen were Juan de Iturbe and Pedro de Rosales, neither of whom left any notable mark on history, unless it was Iturbe, of whom it may some day be said that he was short on brains.
With a sizable grant from the Spanish crown in their strongbox, the three Castilian captains proceeded to Acapulco, located in the Mexican state of Guerrero, 200 miles southwest of the Mexican capital. Acapulco was the principal Mexican seaport on the Pacific Ocean and here an order was let and the construction of three suitable galleons was begun.
While waiting for the ship construction to be finished, Cordone arranged for the recruitment of a large group of African pearl divers, numbering approximately 75 men. These were assigned in crews of 25 to each ship. An additional 75 apprentice divers were recruited and similarly assigned to serve as diver’s helpers. The divers themselves ranged in age from boys in their teens to men in their seventies, but all carrying qualifications as expert pearl divers.
Finally, in July of 1612, the ships were ready and outfitted, the crews aboard, and the little expedition set sail up the western coast of Mexico.
It was no secret that the waters of Mexico’s Pacific coast were the home of fat mollusks that yielded much-prized dark hued pearls with a metallic sheen, and that the Gulf of California, far to the northwest, was the breeding bed of the true pearl oyster. All this the Mexican rulers well knew because fine pearls represented good money and the pearls from these waters–some in rose, cream, bronze, brown, and additional pastel shades of lavender, blue, yellow, green and mauve were the same as gold and silver in the government’s already bulging coffers.


As the galleons set sail the sea was blue and calm and the weather warm, with only a faint breeze blowing, just enough to keep them moving when need be. The divers worked in pairs, one using an undersea line with a stone weighing about 50 pounds attached to it. When the diver went overboard with this weight, he was carried straight to the bottom. He carried with him a bag-shaped net basket into which to put the oysters he gathered. The undersea line, running to the surface to his helper, also served as a signal cord. The diver remained below for 60 to 80 seconds before signalling to be pulled up with his basket.
A diver could make 30 trips to the underwater oyster beds; bringing a dozen shells to the surface on each trip. With 75 divers making 2,250 trips each day, 27,000 shells per day could be realized. This sounds like a huge amount, and it is in numbers, but every shell doesn’t contain a pearl.
Along the way the Spaniards encountered bands of aboriginal Indians who were likewise engaged in the process of bringing up oysters from their sea beds. Whether this was for food purposes or otherwise, Cordone didn’t know and probably didn’t care. But the thought occurred to him that if the African divers were finding pearls in some of the oysters, then so were the Indians. Messages were sent to Iturbe and Rosales and at the next Indian Village on the shore, the three ships put in and dropped anchor.
Once ashore, the Spaniards were received hospitably enough. They were not the first white men to have come this way, other Spaniards evidently having been there at some time before them.
Now, greed does strange things to people, some of the noblest of men often falling victim to it. Such was the case when the chief of the Indian village led the three Spanish sea captains into the presence of dozens of reed baskets filled to overflowing with the finest pearls imaginable. First the Spaniard’s eyes turned green with envy, then black with greed.
Here, before them, was a sizable fortune in pearls and they wanted them. These Indians certainly had no use for them. They had no contact with civilization what did they know about the fabulous sums that these little colored objects could bring in the white man’s world?
Somehow, Cordone got through to the chief that he wanted to make a trade. The Spaniards would give the Indians clothing and food in exchange for the things in the baskets. It was agreed. The baskets of pearls were taken aboard Iturbe’s ship and the bundles of neatly tied clothing and the tins of ship’s biscuits were taken ashore and deposited in the chief’s dwelling place. As soon as this was accomplished, the Spaniards beat a hasty retreat toward the landing where their long-boat lay.
They had no sooner taken to the oars when a band of Indians, led by the irate chief, appeared on shore. In their hands they held the articles of clothing – old trousers, shirts and jackets, all threadbare and some even with holes. Some Indians held ship’s biscuits which they broke into pieces, looked at, then threw on the ground, for they were worm-ridden.
The old chief had seen the look in the white men’s faces when he had showed them the pretty seastones and while to him they meant nothing, he could tell that the white men looked upon them as very precious. In exchange for something precious he had expected to receive an equal trade, certainly not ragged clothing and worm-eaten biscuits.
“Row faster,” commanded Cordone, for he had noticed that t he Indians were now armed, bows and arrows and spears being evident. No sooner had he spoken, however, than the Indian bowmen let loose a volley of arrows, one of which struck Cordone, piercing his chest just under the collarbone. He slumped to the bottom of the boat, while the Indians on shore set up unearthly screams of triumph.
This was the end of the expedition as far as Cardone was concerned. One of the Spaniards aboard the flagship was a doctor, and after a parley it was decided that since Cordone’s injury appeared serious, his galleon would put about and return with the wounded captain to Acapulco, while Iturbe and Rosales would continue on.

Christina Pearling lugger (ship) in the Torres Strait -Australia

Christina Pearling lugger (ship) in the Torres Strait at Australia. Courtesy of blogs.slq.qld.gov.au/

Thus reduced, the little expedition sailed forward. Days and weeks passed and the stock of pearls steadily increased. Between those brought up by the divers and those swindled from the Indians, quite a pile was accumulating.
Then, one morning, the watch reported to Iturbe that land was coming up on the port side, so the captain came on deck. It was true. The galleon was approaching a place where land would soon be on both sides. Iturbe checked his maps.
They were right on course – entering the Gulf of California.
But here, in the Gulf, ill fate stepped in again. Somewhere at a point near what is now Isla Angel de la Guarda, the galleon of Pedro de Rosales ran into an unseen underwater obstruction, tore a hole in her hull, and began to sink. With feverish haste the pearls on the ship were transferred to Iturbe’s vessel along with provisions and the crew.
Again a parley was held, and again it was decided that the one remaining galleon would continue on alone. Although beautiful pearl specimens had been brought up off of La Paz, the two Spaniards believed that beds of magnificent pearls lay ahead in the Gulf where the lands came together, and although bushels of pearls had already been collected, those waiting beauties would be too good and too valuable to be passed up.
This didn’t prove to be exactly true, but when the Spaniards reached the point where the Colorado River now empties into the Gulf of California, Iturbe decided they should keep going to see what lay beyond. He knew that the Francisco Coronado expedition had seen the wonders of the world ahead in its search for gold and the Seven Cities of Cibola in the year 1540, and that Hernando Alarcon, commander of the marine division, had discovered the mouth of the Colorado River and ascended in small boats to about the 34th parallel. But still he wanted to see for himself what lay ahead.
What happened next would be an aquatically impossibility today. At that time, however, the waters of the Gulf of California flowed on into the California desert to the extreme south central part of California and here an open inland sea was formed.
When Iturbe’s galleon sailed out of the narrowing Gulf waters and into this open inland sea, he was jubilant. At last, the long-sought connection between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans had been found. For a time he fully believed that he was actually in the Atlantic Ocean until suddenly it dawned on him that he was in 33 degrees latitude, then he was crestfallen. His predecessors hadn’t discovered a passage to the Atlantic Ocean and neither had he.
But if this wasn’t an ocean connection, then what was it? He would find out, so the galleon sailed on until finally the water’s depth was too shallow for it to continue safely. In the distance could be seen great sand dunes and nothing else. It was decided that someone should take a look, so Rosales selected a party, outfitted a boat, and rowed to land.
Two days later, he returned.
“There is nothing out there,” he reported to Capt. Iturbe, “but sand and dried salt beds. “The sparse vegetation he described must have been sagebrush, creosote, the grayish-green greasewood, and bamboo grass.
At this point an alarming discovery was made. In the two days time that Rosales had been gone, the water depth on the sounding line had receded sharply. The level of the water was going down – and fast. But how? And why? There was no time to consider the strange phenomenon that was taking place-they had better get out of there!
The galleon hurriedly set’ sail, turning south again. But when it neared the point where the narrow Gulf had turned into the inland sea, there were only rapidly evaporating pools to be seen. Dumbfounded, Iturbe realized that all water communication between the Gulf and the inland sea had been cut off by some strange freak of nature.
The Spaniards did not know what to do, so they simply sailed around and around. All this time the water level was receding more and more, until finally, the vessel just ran aground. At last there was no water at all and the once-proud sailing ship sat high and dry amidst the steaming sand hills of the California desert.
This was a hell of a note, and surely something which had never happened to a sea captain before, Spanish or otherwise. Nevertheless, they couldn’t just sit there, so taking what food and water they could carry, the men of the expedition set out on foot, retracing their way along the path of the former waterway. Behind them in the dunes sat the ill-fated galleon – alone, abandoned, its billowing sails standing out against the sky, and its hold crammed to the top with a great fortune in fabulously beautiful pearls. . .
So this is the story of the Spanish sea captain, Juan de Iturbe, who blundered ever onward, probably to his doom. And this is the story of the Spanish treasure galleon which, like the Ark in the Bible, was left high and dry on its own peculiar Ararat.
It has been over 75 years now since anyone has seen the remnants of the old galleon. In 1890, an old desert rat arrived at Kans Springs and stated that he had found the ship close by in the desert, half-covered by shifting sands. He needed some help in digging it out, he said, and all could then share in the wonderful pearl treasure. He readily got all the help he needed, but when the searchers arrived in the area, the old man could not find the place again.
Alta11291870Only 20 years previously, numerous searches for the old ship had been made and they were recorded to some extent in the newspapers of the day. On October 6, 1870, for instance, a Sacramento newspaper, Sacramento Union, carried an article which stated: “An advance party of four, from San Bernardino, have left to visit the famous wrecked ship in the California desert. The ship, which must have lain a wreck for over 250 Years, is built of teakwood, and is perfectly sound. The bow and stern are plainly visible, and she is 240 miles from the Gulf of California.
On October 13, 1870, the paper reported: “The ship hunting party in the California desert has returned to San Bernardino.”
That the searching party was unsuccessful was made known in the following item by the paper in November 16, 1870: “Another search is to be made for the fossil ship in the California desert by the men who went for it before but did not find the prize.”
On September 27, 1873, another California paper, the Inyo Independent, carried this: “The ship in the desert story, which has heretofore been attributed to a writer’s lively imagination, is verified by the Tames expedition explorers. In the California desert, over 200 miles from the Gulf of California, they found the mast of a vessel.
By “a writer s lively imagination,” the paper probably meant an article appearing in a San Bernardino paper telling the story of the Clusker party’s search for the phantom ship. According to the writer, a party led by a Charlie Clusker had searched for many days for the strange vessel with no reward other than that Clusker had almost lost his life. Just how, Clusker was reluctant to say.
That there was such a ship, the writer well knew, as he went on to tell the following experience: “It was less than a year ago, while on a periodic tour of the California 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.
“‘Well, maybe not. You know the southeast corner of this county is covered with sand hills. 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 pocket’ll be uncovered. The man who finds it will make the biggest strike in all history, and don’t you forget it.'”
Needless to say, this old desert rat didn’t make “the biggest strike in all history,” mainly because “the southeast corner of this county” encompassed an awful lot of searching territory.
Another story has it that an old Indian woman knew the exact location of the lost galleon. According to the teller of this tale the old woman had shown him a certain sand hill and told him that under it a ship was buried.
How did she know? Many moons ago when great waters came flooding over the desert, the Indians had moved to higher land to live until the waters went away. During this time her great great great grandfather had seen a great bird with white wings coming from Mexico. It had floated to a hill she pointed out and there, even when the waters went away, it stayed, nesting in the sand. Soon its white wings fell off, leaving only tall wooden limbs pointing to the skies. It did not move any more and the sand kept blowing around it until the great bird was all covered up, and then all the old Indians said it was surely dead, but everyone was scared to go and see.
Apparently no one bothered to ask this story-teller why he did not recover the million-dollar pearl hoard since he knew exactly where to look.
In January, 1870, Albert S. Evans had an article published in the New York Galaxy in which he told of having seen the old ship in 1863, south of the road from San Bernardino. Said Evans: “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 has never trod, lay what appeared in the distance to be the wreck of a gallant ship, which might have gone down there centuries ago, when the bold Spanish adventurers, bearing the cross and the sword in either hand, were pushing their way to the northwest in search of the fountain of youth, the famed Kingdom of Cibola.”
What did Evans do about it? Apparently nothing. If he found any pearls, the fact was never reported by anyone.
As with all things, the discussion and searching died down. But since no one has ever found the lost pearls, they are still there, just begging to be brought to light. If you have the time and the patience, then, here is a lost treasure worth millions. And the great thing about it is that it is not in gold ore that has to be laboriously mined to amount to anything before conversion at $35.00 per troy ounce, nor m coral encrusted old coins that take scientific know-how and hours of painstaking time to restore to originality. No, this treasure is in pure unadulterated form that has only to be gathered up and taken to market.
Furthermore, you don’t have to go crawling around on dangerous ocean bottoms in expensive SCUBA gear, or dangle yourself down frightening cavern holes to look for it. Not only that, when you do get tired of looking, breathers can be taken at some of California’s most popular fun spots.
So whether you uncover anything or not, you’ve got to admit — you just can’t hardly find that kind of treasure hunting anymore!
–Al Masters

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