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The Lost Ships of the Desert (Harris)

by S. Harris

Is there an ancient sailing craft lying concealed in the sands of the Colorado Desert? This question has been asked many times by those who live near the desert’s margin. The ship has often been reported during the past seventy-five years by emigrants and prospectors, who claim that she lies with her bow buried deep and her richly carved stern raised high above the sands.

The usual theory advanced is that it is a mirage. Those hold to the theory as the only solution of the mystery insist that almost all the exciting tales that come out of the desert are due to mirages. They also claim that every sun-locoed prospector who crosses the desert believes he would lose caste in the yarnster clan if he did not have some remarkable experience to talk about when he came “inside.” He takes the first mirage that floats on the sand and molds it into a Spanish galleon or a phantom stagecoach.

The most common form of mirage is the glittering lake lying in a sandy plain, always a few miles away. But when the mirage really gets down to business, the results are startling.

Ken Stott and I once met a desert-rat prospector on the north ramp of Signal Mountain. We were talking about the desert when the old man said:

“Mirages ain’t human. They does as they dang pleases, and they don’t give a hoot what us folks thinks of them!”

To prove his point, he insisted that we climb out on a slippery shoulder of the mountain that he called “Sentinel,” so he could show us a mirage lake lying near the Superstitions. When we got to the place, there was the mirage just where he said it would be; but it wasn’t a lake. It was a ship, with her bow stuck into the ancient beach line that skirts the eastern front of the Superstitions. The curve of her beam showed plainly, and a stubby mizzen mast could be seen near the poop. I saw it myself.

Our guide stood still for a long time, shading his eyes, with his hands at the side of his head as desert men have the habit of placing them. Then he turned to us, but not with the glow of satisfaction a man has when he has proved a point; instead, he looked very serious.

“Thought I’d show you a mirage,” he said; “but that ain’t no mirage. It’s real! It’s the old galleon herself. She’s riz up again! Thought there was too much bullion in her hulk fer that. Last time I see her was in the Black Hills of the Palo Verdes. Golly, how she can travel!”

We asked a lot of questions but received few answers, and it was plain that we were not wanted on a treasure hunt. He left with scant ceremony; and the last we saw of him he was headed towards Seeley, probably with the idea of getting organized for a try at the ancient craft.

The old prospector known as Mac, who has staked more claims in the hills than he is years old, once said of the galleon:

“I saw her, and she ain’t no mirage. I know mirages when I see them, and I wasn’t drunk, neither. Whiskey and deserts don’t mix! It was like this. Quite a few years ago, I don’t recollect just how many, Shorty McGaffer and I were on a pasear [stroll] down south of the Yuha Plain, heading for the Cocopahs. It was so all-fired hot that we made up our minds to hole in till the sun got a little lower and the evening blow wiped out some of the heat.

“We were plodding along, hoping to find enough brush to make a shelter, when all of a sudden, straight before us and not more than five miles away down the range, I saw a ship riding up the sands. She was rocking in a crazy fashion, with bare yards; and it seemed like she was kind of trying to beat off the rocky foothills of the Cocopahs. I nudged Shorty and pointed her out, and he just stood and gasped. Finally he said, with a little awe in his voice:

“Maybe I’m sun hit! I’ve saw funny things out here, but by the lord Harry, that’s real! It’s the old Spanish galleon!”

“Shorty and I studied her for awhile, and then we could see that she wasn’t rocking or pitching at all. It was the heat waves was doing that. She was lying partly on one side with her nose buried in the sand, her three-decked stern sticking up in the air, and a bare mast raking dangerously from the deck-a craft whose keel was laid on a foreign shore.”

Old Mac stopped to work over his “makin’s,” and went on after a moment or two:

“Well, we studied her till our eyes was tired, and darned if I don’t believe I saw a tall, bearded man in a fancy coat walk down her sloping deck and peer over the side. I may be wrong about him, but the ship was there. Early the next morning Shorty and I started out to find her, but darned if she hadn’t vanished like she’d never been there! There wasn’t a cussed thing between us and Black Butte.

“ While we was tramping along, Shorty told me what he knew of the ship. He’d heard the story three or four times from different wanders, but the one he had the most faith in came from an Indian who insisted it wasn’t just a heat picture. It seems that hundreds of years ago, when the waters of the Gulf came up into the desert, a pirate ship sailed up the Gulf. It got caught in some cross-currents and went aground on a sand bar. The crew were supposed to have died, and the ship was left stranded there with almost a million doubloons and pieces of eight in her hulk. It’s only when the wind blows the sand clear that you can get a good look at her, and then the same wind comes along and covers her up again.”

This yarn has been told many times, with variations and gesters. Sometimes it is a pirate ship, and sometimes it is a Manila galleon. It is all over the desert from the Gulf of California to the Salton Sea; and near the latter it was reported to have been seen with its masts sticking up out of the water, a hundred yards from shore, at the southern end.

Immigrants crossing the desert in gold-rush days came in with the first story of the ship, but it was not until 1870 that the tale gained newspaper prominence. In October of that year the Los Angeles Star reported a wrecked ship on the Colorado Desert, and stated that it was ten miles from Dos Palmas. The paper described at length the history and geography of the region and showed how the Gulf had occupied the entire valley in ancient times and had connected with the Pacific Ocean through San Gorgonio Pass and Los Angeles. Later in October the Star printed a burlesque on the “Fossil Desert Ship,” which gravely attacked the idea the ship was one of the units of King Solomon’s navy or the craft that carried the ten lost tribes of Israel to America; and for the latter offered proof that the tribes never reached America but died of diphtheria in the Sandwich Islands! The travesty continues with:

Once upon a time there was a warlike people who lived on the Indian Sea. They were the Penang nation and were continually at war with the Shoo-fly tribe. They built a great man-of-war which they named Bully-Boy, and it came to pass that in a great fight the Shoo-flys captured the ship. Feeling that if the war should continue indefinitely they would eventually lose, the entire tribe climbed aboard and took a ten yea tempestuous voyage to the Gulf of California. Here the Bully-Boy sank in the treacherous quicksand’s. Her hull was made of teakwood, and did not rot. The Digger Indians of California are descendants of the Shoo-fly tribe!

Another item in the Los Angeles Star – this one of November 2, 1870 – reads:

“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 the information he has received from the Indians that the ship is no myth, and determined to probe the story to the bottom. He is prepared with a good wagon, pack saddles, and planks to cross sandy ground.”

The Star of December 1 of that year quoted the following from the San Bernardino Guardian:

“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 hot boiling sun for over twenty-four hours, and came near perishing.”

According to Charley, he found a great Spanish galleon, with ornate carvings, crosses and broken masts, sunk in the desert sands several miles from water, the nearest being the Salton Sea. But the Star readers waited in vain for further news of the galleon. The party returned very quietly and nothing was said of their experiences.

Yet the “Fossil Ship” was still attracting attention, according to the Star of November 15, 1870, and treasure seekers were still expecting their fondest dreams to come true: the old ship would really turn out to be a pirate craft or a galleon or a pearling ship that had been carried inland by a terrific storm and tidal wave.


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