Fabled ship of the Southern California desert! Is it pure myth, or is there a basis of fact for the oft-repeated story that somewhere beneath the shifting sands of the Cahuilla basin is buried an ancient hulk in which a rich treasure awaits the finder?
Many versions of the lost ship legend have been given. One of these is the story told by Fierro Blanco in his book “The Journey of the Flame.” Blanco’s novel is a strange mixture of fact and fiction. Historical records would indicate that his version of the lost pearl ship belongs in the category of fiction.
Another “lost ship” story was written by Florence Haines Apponyi and appeared in “The Golden Era” in San Diego, 1885. This appears to be an authentic record – but since the element of lost treasure is missing, it lacks the glamour of the Blanco legend.
These two versions are given on this page. A new lost ship story, printed for the first time in the Desert Magazine, appears on the next page. The reader will find all three stories interesting – and may draw his own conclusions as to their authenticity.
Pearl Ship – In the year 1615 Juan de Iturbe, after a successful season of pearl fishing and bartering with the Indians along the coast of the Gulf of California, sailed north in the hope of finding the fabled Straits of Anian through which he could pass to the Atlantic Ocean without the necessity of returning on the long route around the Horn. In the hold of his ship were many chests of pearls.
Reaching the head of the gulf he found a channel extending inland between two ranges of mountains. He passed through this channel without difficulty and entered an inland sea so vast that northern shore was not visible.
He sailed around the western shoreline but a day or two later, while his ship was anchored overnight near the entrance to a great arroyo, the waters subsided and the craft was grounded on a sandbar. Before the vessel could be released, a cloudburst came down from the western range and poured a flow of water and debris into the sea. While the debris made navigation difficult at first, the vessel floated clear and soon was out in deep water again.
Continuing his journey, Iturbe eventually came to the northwestern shore but could find no passage beyond. Several weeks were spent in seeking an outlet and also in hunting and fishing to supply provisions for the return trip to Spain.
Finally, he gave up the quest for a water route to the north and turned the ship southward again. There he discovered that the channel from which he had entered the sea had disappeared and sandbars blocked the way in every direction. He and his crew were trapped in a landlocked sea.
From a high mountain he had seen a wide channel of water some distance east of the sea and he sailed north along the eastern shore seeking a way into this channel but the waters were falling rapidly and it finally was necessary to abandon the vessel.
The sequel to this version of the loss of Iturbe’s ship is the story told in later years of a young muleteer who was a member of the Juan Bautista de Anza expedition across the Southern California desert in 1775. Two or three days after the Anza party crossed the river at Yuma, the young mule driver was sent out to scout the sandy wastes of the desert in search of water. He came one evening upon the decayed hulk of an ancient sailing vessel partially buried in the sand and when he went down into the hold to explore the interior of the ship he found many chests. Breaking one of them open he discovered that it was full of pearls. He filled his pockets with them and instead of rejoining the Anza party, headed for the Pacific Ocean which he knew was beyond the mountains to the west.
After many days of hardship he reached the mission settlement at San Diego and sought to enlist the interest of one of the Spanish soldiers stationed there. The soldier was willing enough to join him but while they were making secret preparations for their departure a revolt among the Indians and the killing of one of the padres upset their plans. Finally the young muleteer secured a horse and several days’ food and returned alone to the desert to recover the fortune he had discovered. He made friends with some of the mountain Indians and from their camp made many journeys down into the desert—but never could re-locate the old ship. Following his death in later years the story became another legend of lost treasure in the desert.
La Paz Ship – Briefly, the story is to the effect that in 1862 Joshua Talbot was one of a small party of gold seekers bound for the mines near La Paz, Arizona. The outfit ordered a small skiff built in Los Angeles. The boat was 21 feet long and rigged with a single mast for sailing. According to records brought to light by Arthur Woodward, curator of history in the Los Angeles museum, such a craft was turned out in the workshop of Perry & Woodworth late in May, 1862.
Commenting on the use of this craft, the Los Angeles Star of May 31, 1862 said: “It was built for one of the companies starting for the mines, to be used in crossing the river. The Colorado now is greatly swollen from the heavy rains in the mountains, and there is no ferry established at the mines; it is a provident forethought to go prepared to cross the stream without loss of time or obstruction.”
The boat was put on wheels and two wagon loads of provision were sent along with it. En-route across the desert the teams gave out and the men were forced to abandon the craft.
Within 10 years the ship had become a legend. In 1870 Indians reported having seen the boat and the location was given as 40 miles north of the San Bernardino-Yuma Road and about 30 miles west of Dos Palmas.
In 1870 a party of men headed by Charles Clusker went out to salvage the vessel and what valuables it contained. Local newspapers reported the men had found it 50 miles or more from Dos Palmas in a region of boiling mud springs. Clusker returned to secure equipment for reaching the boat – but none of the newspapers of the day contained any further reference to the expedition.