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Lost Ship of the Spaniards (Grasson)

Ancient Lake Cahuilla Shoreline, courtesy of John Grasson

Ancient Lake Cahuilla Shoreline, courtesy of John Grasson

According to the legend, Captain Iturbe’s Spanish galleon was loaded with an eminence amount of gold, silver, gems and especially  black pearls, and still lies buried somewhere within the Salton Sea area. It has been spotted from the Algodones Dunes, to the Superstition Mountains, and all the way up near Travertine Point. It’s a great story, but sometimes the facts can put a serious damper on what a legend says. That’s not to say a Spanish ship isn’t laying in wait under tons of sand, or that there is some sort of treasure buried there as well. It’s just that it might not be from whom you think, then again all legends are based in some truth, and here is truth that I found….

Captain Juan de Iturbe, was a real man and he did command a ship, in fact at times in his life, he commanded fleets of ships, but our story starts way before him. In 1585 the initial Royal license for pearl fishing was granted to Antonio del Castillo, Pedro Lobato de Cantos and Hernando de Santotis. This gave them exclusive rights for trading and pearl fishing, as long as they were able to build a ship and start conducting business within five years. But just two years later the English pirate Thomas Cavendish attacked the city of Navidad, and burned down the town and it’s shipyard, which included the Castillo ship. They would never be able to recover from this loss. By 1592 the Royal license was then granted to Melchor de las Roelas, Sebastian Vizcaino and nine other partners after a ruling was made at the Real Audencia of Mexico, which was the highest court in New Spain. One difference between the two licenses was that Vizcaino was given a twenty year term.

In the early part of 1595 Vizcaino prepared his three ships, and by June he set sail for the Sea of Cortez. He set up a base camp at La Paz on the lower eastern end of Baja, and although Vizcaino was able to explore the Sea, he experienced an immense amount of bad luck.  Which included a mutiny, bad storms, hostile natives and horrible conditions of his ships, eventually he was forced to sail back to New Spain (Mexico) . By 1597 he was finished and in 1600 Graviel Maldonado petitioned for his license, but was denied. It “may” appear that Vizcaino was doing something that the Royalty didn’t approve of, because by 1602 Vizcaino was prohibited from entering the sea of Cortez,”under penalty of death.”

Two pearls in hand, courtesy of kojimapearl.com

Two black pearls in hand, courtesy of kojimapearl.com

This means that from 1597 to 1611 there was no legal license for pearl fishing, which doesn’t mean pearls weren’t being harvested, it just wasn’t be done legally. On August 13th 1611, Tomas Cardona along with Sancho de Mares, and Francisco de la Paraya, were granted Vizcaino’s license from Spain. Tomas then handed the command of the whole operation to his nephew Nicolas de Cardona. Nicolas had been to New Spain, just the year before under the command of General Juan Gutierrez de Garibay. From the shipyards of Palos de Moguer six ships were built and Cardona along with Captain Francisco Basilio began their long and treacherous voyage to New Spain via the Caribbean. However, by the time the fleet arrived in Barbados there were only three ships left. Nicolas then spent about a year exploring the islands of Saint Vincent, Grenada, Saint Lucia, as well as Cuba, Jamaica, Santo Domingo, and Campeche, eventually landing at Veracruz in 1614 with a compliment of Negro divers.

From there the expedition would travel overland to Mexico City, but during the trip Basilio had become ill and died. So before he continued to Acapulco, Cardona hired Juan de Iturbe to replace Basilio and Pedro Alvarez de Rosales as his military commander. I often wondered why a pearl fishing adventure would need a military commander? Since this was a commercial and not a governmental adventure. Continuing on to Acapulco in late 1614, Cardona ordered three ships to be built, the San Antonio, San Francisco and the San Diego. And here is the first point of contention, because the legend has stated that the ships were caravels but according to noted historian/librarian Dr Michael Mathes, the ships built at Acapulco for Cardona were in fact frigates:

Proceeding to Acapulco, Cardona (Nicolas) began construction of the three frigates, the San Antonio, San Francisco, and the San Diego in late 1614. (pg 15 of Geographic and hydrographic descriptions of many northern and southern lands and seas in the Indies, specifically the discovery of the kingdom of California-Nicolas Cardona.)

The ships were ready to sail by January 1615, but because the famed Dutch pirate Joris Spilbergen was prowling the area, Cardona and his men were ordered to stay and protect the harbor under the command of Lieutenant General Melchor Fernandez de Cordoba…. Again, not sure how much protection a caravel would be, but a fleet of frigates would surely be of great help.. By March 21st Cardona’s fleet acquired two Franciscan priests was allowed to leave and begin the pearl fishing expedition.

Nicolas Cardona's map of Acapulco 1632

Nicolas Cardona’s map of Acapulco 1632

The first place Cardona sailed to was La Paz apparently to reclaim the area for the King, again not something a pearlman would do, but maybe this was a secret condition of the Royal license? From there he sailed north along the eastern coast of Baja stopping at Bahia San Carlos, Tiburon Island and rounding the top of the Sea. As he sailed south along the western coast of Sonora he stopped at the Mayo River and helped out Jesuit Pedro Mendez and the local Mayo Indians of his mission. After he reached Mazatlan, he sent Iturbe with two ships back to Acapulco. But unbeknownst to Cardona, the Dutch pirate Spilbergen, who had been raiding the entire west coast of Peru and Chile, had entered Acapulco. Spilbergen continued north after be supplied, and to me, it seems odd that if Iturbe was headed south, and Spilbergen north, that is no mention of them spotting each other along the way. On the night of October 25th, Spilbergen spotted the San Francisco along the coast, and by morning the ship was his. Spilbergen didn’t get a great booty out of the capture, in fact he stated:

This vessel was laden only with a few pieces of furniture of little importance, and with some provisions, which were dealt out amongst our ships. She had been out fishing for pearls, but had caught nothing; was well equipped with four metal guns and two small mortars, some hooks and other arms and ammunition, so that she seemed to have been fitted out for war rather than for fishing. (East and West Indian Mirror by Joris Van Spilbergen page 110)

But he did take Rosales, the pilot Aguirre, two Franciscan priests and seven other crew members. Cardona and twelve members of the crew were able to escape and reach the beach safely. Spilbergen meanwhile brought the San Francisco into his fleet and renamed it “The Perel,” which means pearl in Dutch, fitting name.

Once on land Cardona met up with Sebastian Vizcaino who was patrolling the coast with two hundred soldiers. And on November 11th they ambushed Spilbergen at Salagua and the Dutch were forced to retreat. But before they left Spilbergen did release his Spanish prisoners, Rosales, Aguirre and the rest of the crew. When Cardona returned to Acapulco, the threat of Spilbergen was still on the fore front of the townspeople, so he was ordered to help construct the fort of San Diego. Of the two remaining ships, one was placed under Bartolome Juarez de Villalba and was sent to warn the Manila galleons about the pirate presence. Iturbe was sent back to the northern end of the sea to look for pearls, and this is where the legend more or less begins.

Ship Petroglyph courtesy of Robert Marcos

Ship Petroglyph courtesy of Robert Marcos

While Iturbe was searching for pearls on the north end of the Sea, he supposedly spotted a waterway heading north, which he thought was the entrance way to the Straits of Anian. At this particular time the Colorado River may have been experiencing one of her many tidal bores. This massive water placement, which according to the 1540 Alarcon expedition that placement was 48 feet deep at high tide and 24 feet at low tide. Francisco Ulloa, who was the first explorer to see the Colorado River in 1539 states that there were two waves every 24 hours, an ebb and flow. This would have allowed for Iturbe to enter a waterway which eventually led to Lake Cahuilla. Iturbe thinking he had found the pathway through the fabled Straits of Anian, had thoughts of being known as a great sailor and explorer, the finder of the Straits. This huge lake measuring nearly thirty five miles wide, and almost a hundred and five miles long, had to be part of the Pacific Ocean, could have been what Iturbe was thinking. In today’s terms, that would make Lake Cahuilla three times longer and wider than present day Salton Sea.

But once Iturbe sailed to the most northern end of the lake, it was obvious that this extremely large body of water did not go through. Heartbroken and dismayed, he headed back to the entry way only to find, that the water level had dropped to a point where he could not leave. The realization that his ship was now land locked began to settle in, and the only thing to do was to collect as much as one could carry, and start the long walk back to the Sea of Cortez.

So somewhere buried deep in the burning sands of our vast desert is either a caravel or frigate, loaded with the infamous black pearls from the the Sea of Cortez… Or is there???

Well, if it is, it was not Iturbe’s, as per a written Spanish report, in November of 1616 he returned to Acapulco with his ship, and about 14 to 15 ounces of pearls. Clearly not enough to make the trip worthwhile. The following year Iturbe’s ship, Cardona’s last, was commandeered and used to convoy with the Manila galleon of 1617. Shortly afterwards Cardona disbanded his crew and returned to Spain…

When this information came to light, it was clearly something I did not want to hear. After all, like many others I followed and believed that Iturbe and his ship, may have been THE lost ship and studied this angle for years. Then to find a report that states he returned, well I can’t tell you just how angry I was…. For days I walked around frustrated and upset, but then it dawned on me. Here I am believing in a report, that was surely sent to Cardona’s supervisors and or most likely the King and Queen, that states that Iturbe returned, but the ship never made it back to Spain?!?! Remember, these are the same Spaniards that hugely overloaded galleons back to Spain, without informing the Crown, so that people would not have to pay the Crowns taxes ( 20%). The people in power, those that held key government positions and especially ship captains, lied on an enormous amount of paperwork, would Cardona do the same? Of course he would, after all he commanded a fleet of pearls ships and had to some way explain why he wasn’t bringing in the wealth of pearls that the crown imagined was there.

It’s not like Iturbe was the only one who may have sailed his ship into Lake Cahuilla, there are many other “candidates” as well. There is also an earlier Spaniard tale as well, respected writers Harold and Lucille Weight didn’t necessarily believe the Iturbe story, their thought was about an earlier ship and crew:

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.” (Calico Print Nov. 1953 pg. 32)

However, in 1953 there wasn’t as many informational outlets as there are today, and this ship also returned to port.

My personal belief is that the lost ship in question might be from the noted English pirate Thomas Cavendish and his ship the Content, which supposedly sailed north and was never seen again… There are quite a few other candidates for being the fabled Lost Ship, and one should not stop believing it’s out there, I still hold fast to my belief…


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