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-water 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 between 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 dry dock 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 license 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, neigh 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 his companions 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 red-haired woman, wife of the captain, who wore her hair 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 Angeles 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 this 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 gold seeker 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.