Spanish doubloons, sunken ships, the Lost Dutchman mine. For as long as recorded history Kings and common folk, rich and poor, have been infatuated with the dream of finding lost treasure.
Tales, lore and legends are numerous. Scuba divers the world over flock to the coasts of Mexico to scour the depths for sunken Spanish galleons, and many tales have been told of solitary desert prospectors who made their discoveries, spent lavishly, and died with the secret location of their treasure going with them to the grave.
Seldom, however, are there reports or legends of both desert treasure and sunken ships together. There is one place in the desert southwest where this phenomenon exists because of a combination of naturally occurring geologic features and a series of historical events.
The Salton Sea lies in a depression in the earth’s crust 227 feet below sea level. Marine fossils have been found that indicate the Sea was once a continuation of the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) extending through the Imperial Valley as far north as Palm Springs.
As the Colorado River, quite different now than it was hundreds of years ago, carved out the Grand Canyon, tons of silt and sediment were deposited at the mouth forming an enormous delta, which continued to increase in size until it separated the Imperial Valley from the Sea of Cortez. But, prior to closing off this sea route, it was possible for ships to sail north beyond where the Salton Sea is now.
Reports by emigrants, prospectors, and other travelers of an ancient ship lying in the desert sands, subsequently buried and uncovered by the blowing, shifting sands have persisted for many years. A story appeared in the Los Angeles Star in its November 12, 1870 edition that;
“Charley Clusker and a party started out again this morning to find the mythical ship upon the desert this side of Dos Palmas. Charley made the trip three or four weeks ago, but made the wrong chute and mired his wagon fifteen miles from Dos Palmas. He is satisfied from information he has received from the Indians that the ship is no myth….He is prepared with a good wagon, pack saddles, and planks to cross the sandy ground.”
The Star printed another story on December 1 that;
“Charley Clusker and party returned from the desert yesterday, just as we were going to press. They had a hard time of it, but they have succeeded in their effort. The ship has been found! Charley returns to the desert today, to reap the fruition of his labors. He was without food or water, under a hot broiling sun for over twenty-four hours, and came near perishing.”
Charley set out again for what he claimed was an ornately carved Spanish galleon, complete with crosses and broken masts, mostly buried in the sand several miles from the nearest water. He was never heard from again.
Is it really possible for a Spanish Galleon to be lost in the desert near the Salton Sea? Early history suggests that the formerly nomadic, native American stone-age hunters had probably settled into an agrarian life-style, and inter-tribal trading and commerce had become commonplace. When the Spaniards arrived, well known trade routes already existed and the natives served as guides for the early explorers.
One of the earliest explorers, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, may have been the first European to see Arizona and New Mexico in his expedition of 1536. Nunez’s tales, as well as stories told by the friendly Indians, of far-off peoples living in magnificent cities, the “Seven Cities of Cibola”, sparked continued Spanish exploration of the upper Sea of Cortez, or Vermilion Sea, as it was called then.
Another early tale was told by Antonio de Fierro Blanco in his historical book, The Journey of the Flame. He relates Juan Colorado’s story, told on his 104th birthday, of once being in the camp of Don Firmin Sanhudo where “all of our men had spent their lives as guards or packers for Spanish explorers”. One of the men, Tiburcio Manquerna, took Colorado aside and related the tale of Iturbe, the great coastal pilot, sailing along the California Gulf Coast in 1615 exploring for the king and fishing for pearls on his own account.
After filling his 50 ton ship with a sufficiently large fortune in pearls, Iturbe sailed on past San Felipe in search of the Colorado River mouth. Instead he found a “vast sea extending far inland” (presumably the Imperial Valley). Assuming he had found the long sought Straits of Anian, the fabled passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, he sailed on and eventually went aground on a sandbar in a vain attempt to locate a continuation of the Straits. From the highest mountain he saw a vast body of water winding toward the northeast (the Colorado River), but he could not find the entrance.
On his return voyage to the south he could not find the narrow opening to the Vermilion Sea and again went aground. “They left their ship and its vast treasure of pearls upright as though sailing, but with its keel buried in sand”, reports Fierro Blanco.
Manquerna then told of working as a mule driver for Juan Baptista de Anza who was searching for a land route from Sonora to Alta California. After much difficulty, Manquerna “was sent to the right of the course, seeking a road to the ocean”. He continues, “traveling by night because of the heat, I stumbled upon an ancient ship, and in its hold so many pearls as is beyond imagination. Fevered by this wealth, I abandoned my comrades, and, riding toward the ocean as far as my mule could carry me, I climbed the precipitous western mountains on foot. Fed by Indians, I at last reached San Luis Rey Mission. Since then I have spent my life searching for this ship”.
As a cryptic conclusion, Fierro Blanco states, “I have known, as a boy, natives from every tribe on the Peninsula, and they taught me much of great value but never did one lie to me. Some of their stories I did not then believe, but each as tested proved to be true in all parts”.
Are there lost ships in the desert? The great tidal bore of the upper Sea of Cortez and the Colorado River is a dangerous navigational hazard and an unsuspecting sailing ship, without aid of charts or navigational aids, may have been carried through a narrow opening into an inland sea and deposited on the shallow bars. Explorers, traders, pirates, and even pearling ships that do not return can tell no tales. The persistence of such legends in both Native American and frontier lore makes it hard to completely discount.
When the right conditions of wind and shifting sands combine, will a mast or ornately carved hull emerge from the grave? And will it just as quickly disappear again? Only the one who is in the right place at the right time–and sees it– will know for sure. And they may not tell. Would you?
This article first appeared at http://www.angelfire.com/journal/difleys/legend.htm