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The Mysterious Lost Ship of the Desert (Bluhm)

The Mysterious Lost Ship of the Desert

by Erik R. Bluhm

-from Great God Pan #13, 1999

Of all the mysteries of old California, perhaps the most elusive is that of the Lost Ship of the Desert. Tales are told of men stumbling across the remains of a seagoing vessel stranded in the sand in the southeastern corner of the state. Some even camped in the lee of the rotting timbers, unaware of the great treasure that may or may not have been buried just a few feet away.
During the 1800s the main route into Southern California was the Yuma Trail. Across Arizona and the California deserts, thousands of gold seekers and emigrants faithfully trod on foot and bumped along on mules and oxen-led wagons. Many claimed to have seen the half-buried hull of an ancient ship out there. They told folks of their discovery in the towns where they settled, towns like San Bernardino and Pomona and Riverside. Many promised to return to the desert and search out the ship once more, maybe bring home its riches.

But the living was good in Southern California and for most the urge to bake under a desert sun in search of hidden treasure lost its appeal with each balmy day in the state’s beautiful western valleys. A few brave souls retraced their paths but could find nothing—the desert is tight-lipped and good at keeping secrets. Even today the mystery remains. What was this ship? A figment of a sun-baked imagination? Or an actual sea-going ship, somehow stranded in the dry sands, many miles from any body of water?


In the early 1900s a prospector by the name of Butcherknife Ike stumbled into the Arnold family ranch near Hemet with a tale of a strange occurrence on a recent outing. Returning in early July from the Laguna Salada in Baja California, the blonde, blue-eyed roamer had been scouting around Split Mountain Canyon near present day Borrego Springs when he came to a place where a large sand dune sat in the middle of an otherwise flat arroyo. Thinking the dune odd, Ike had set up camp in the dark on a small shelf just below its peak, a spot that afforded him some shelter from the wind. Building a small fire out of quail brush, Ike fixed some beans and coffee and soon fell asleep.

Sometime in the middle of the night he arose. Noticing a small flame flickering up from where he had built his fire, he began digging down into the sand. “I was kinda curious,” he related to the Arnolds. A couple feet down he came to a piece of wood that apparently was the fuel for the flame. The wood was worked, suggesting it not just a log, but part of some man-made object. Digging further he uncovered a curved beam encrusted with barnacles. Stepping back from the dune Ike surmised that the entire mound concealed a ship of sorts, probably an old sailing vessel from the gulf. The next day Butcherknife Ike headed back up Coyote Canyon and on to Reed’s Meadow where he stayed when not prospecting, promising to return one day to further excavate his find. But the mystery of Butcherknife Ike’s buried ship was lost with its discoverer’s own mysterious disappearance. In the summer of 1923 Ike was seen heading back down into Borrego Springs with his mules to survey some lucrative prospects in the badlands beyond. He was never heard from again.1

A frequent theme in the sightings is that of a Viking ship. Around 1930, Julian residents Louis and Myrtle Botts, camping at Agua Caliente, were joined by a lone prospector asking to share their fire for the night. The couple was entertained by the man’s tales of his quest for precious minerals in the area, and soon the fortune seeker produced some dog-eared photographs. The images were of a ”wreck of a ship of some kind” that he had stumbled upon while prospecting down near the Mexican border. Though the photographs were quite worn, Myrtle Botts was surprised to see that the “ship,” half-buried in the bank of a wash, appeared to be of Viking design, a long boat, complete with a carved serpent on the bow. In the morning the prospector had moved on, taking the exact location of his “lost ship” with him. 2 Desert writer Choral Pepper writes in her Mysterious West that the Botts actually located the wreck first hand from the prospector’s directions, only to find upon a return trip that the ship had been buried in a rockfall as a result of the destructive Long Beach earthquake of 1933.

Other accounts indicate that the lost ship was of Spanish, rather than Nordic origin. In an interview in the Los Angeles Examiner in 1919, old timer W. W. McCoy related how friend Herman Ehrenberg had taken him to the Salton Sea where the two held audience with an old Indian, Big Chief Cabazon. The chief related a story that had been in his tribe for generations. Some three centuries earlier two wooden ships had sailed northward into the Salton Sea from the Gulf of California. The sailors had landed on the shore and ventured into the nearby mountains, returning with lumber. The Indians had watched this from hiding. Ehrenberg subsequently spent years researching the chief’s story. From old Spanish documents he found that there were actually three Spanish ships that had sailed up the Colorado River into the sea in one of its periodic floodings. Apparently, one of the vessels had been taken over by a hostile Arizona tribe, its crew slaughtered and the women taken captive. Ehrenberg also claims to have discovered a tribe in Arizona, some of whose members were red-haired and blue-eyed, perhaps descendants of the captured ship. 3

And there are more tales. The Examiner also published a story that year of a Spanish galleon half-buried in the sands near Indio, its hold bursting with a cargo of precious stones. In 1907 rancher Nels Jacobsen found some remains of an ancient ship near Imperial City, “thriftily salvag(ing) the lumber from it to build a pigpen.” 4 Indians in the area believe wreckage from another ancient ship can be found far up a sandy wash in the rugged Chocolate Mountains, stranded there when an ancient sea evaporated. 5 And an aged prospector once related to columnist Paul Wilhelm of The Indio Date Palm the unfathomable unearthing of a Chinese junk mired in the clay of the oyster beds at Willis Palms.

Northmen A Viking Saga courtesy of geektyrant.com

Northmen A Viking Saga courtesy of geektyrant.com


Oddly enough, there is actually some historical background that supports the photographs the Botts saw, and possibly even the red-haired Indians of Arizona.

Isla Tiburón is a San Diego-sized chunk of rock and sand thrusting up out of the Gulf of California southeast of Bahia de Los Angeles. A tribe of Indians known as the Seri have inhabited the island for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Upon researching the dwindling tribe for their book The Last of the Seri, Dane and Mary Coolidge discovered that the Indians had legends and stories describing a tribe of white “giants” that had once visited the island. Arriving there on a “long boat driven by sweeps,” the yellow-haired strangers wore heavy clothes, built houses by the sea and spent their days hunting whales with spears. They got along well with the Seri, whose ancient songs also tell of the beautiful wife of the captain—a fair woman with long, red braided hair. For a year and a half the visitors remained, eventually sailing off with a group of the Indians in tow. They never returned.

Could the Vikings’ longship be the one buried in the sands of California? Could the Tiburon Vikings have walked to Arizona, spurring the light-haired Indian myth? The Coolidges go on to suggest that that the mysterious tribe, after becoming stranded in the receding seas, marched southward to the Mayo River where they were integrated, either forcefully or peacefully, into the Indian community in the state of Sonora where, to this day, the Indians are blue-eyed and light-skinned. 6 The Indian tribes of this region were known to practice slavery. For instance, in 1781, Yuma Indians on the California/Arizona border rose up against Spanish settlers, killing nearly fifty and enslaving some 75 more, many women and children. 7 Perhaps the most famous story of enslavement by Indians is that of 17-year-old Olive and her younger sister Mary Ann Oatman of Fulton, Illinois, whose family was slaughtered by Yavapai warriors near Gila Bend, Arizona in 1851. The two were eventually traded to a friendlier Mohave tribe where Mary Ann died in captivity at age eight. Olive lived among the Mohave for five years before being released at Fort Yuma. 8

Columnist Ed Stevens recalled how one day in 1917 an elderly Santa Rosa Indian had chosen the Stevens’ Imperial Valley ranch to solicit some work. The old man, too blind to pick cotton, was put to work chopping wood. On a visit to the Indian’s reed ramada on the banks of the Alamo River, Stevens was told a strange tale. Some years back the Indian and a crew were employed chopping wood near the Laguna Salada, just south of the present border. On a trip across the dunes of the Yuha Badlands with a wagonful of wood, it began to rain hard. The team’s mules suddenly halted, startled by something. Off to the side the Indian was surprised to see a large “canoa,” or ship half-buried in the sand. He described it as having metal shields along its side and on its bow” the head of a beast.” 9 Regarding his find as a “bad sign,” he left the country immediately, never returning again.

Perhaps the most stunning unearthing is that of a Mexican gentleman by the name of Santiago Socia. Socia was residing in Tecate, Mexico when he happened upon a map describing the location of some buried gold in the mountains just north of the border. Sure of his impending fortune, Socia traveled north, exploring several canyons before happening upon an ancient ship buried in the sand. Along its length were metal shields, and the ship’s bow was “curved and carved like the long neck of a bird.” Above the ship, carved into a sheer rock wall was an inscription in a language that the Mexican was not familiar with. But alas, there was no gold to be found and Socia returned to Mexico, dying soon thereafter and taking the location of the ship with him to the grave. 10

Is it possible that brave Norsemen actually surveyed the California coast hundreds of years before the Spanish? We do know that Vikings settled Newfoundland and left traces even on the North American continent. Could they have successfully navigated the Northwest Passage and sailed that far down the West Coast? The descriptions the Indians give of the supposed Viking ships are surprisingly accurate. How could they know of such a distant culture?

Courtesy of weaponsandwarfare.com

Courtesy of weaponsandwarfare.com


In 1610 King Philip III of Spain ordered naval captain Alvarez de Cordone on a mission to explore the western coast of Mexico and to bring back pearls. At the time, the Spanish considered pearls the most valuable of all gems. Cordone himself handpicked two brave sailors, Juan de Iturbe and Pedro de Rosales to accompany him. He ordered three ships built in Acapulco and a crew of experienced pearl divers to be brought over from Africa. Two years later the ships were completed and sailed up the coast, anchoring every so often to search for precious pearls. But the findings were slim, so the three ships continued northward into the Gulf of California where there were rumored to be rich oyster beds.

At one point the ships pulled into a bay where they witnessed a small number of Indians diving in the shallow waters. Ordering anchors dropped, Cordone went ashore with a few trusted men. On the beach they stumbled upon five “Christian” skulls and the remains of a galleon from an earlier expedition, 11 which ought to have made the Spanish wary. But their wariness turned to greed when they discovered that the Indians plucked the oysters only for food, and that the pearls were regarded merely as costume jewelry. The villagers held several large clay pots full of the shiny stones. Excited, Cordone inquired into whether the Indians would be willing to trade for some Western finery like the Spanish sailors were wearing. The Indians happily agreed. In the morning when the exchange was made, the Indians discovered that the clothes that had been delivered were nothing more than rags discarded by the Spanish. Angered by the trickery, they waded out to the ships and began hurling spears and insults. Cordone was struck in the chest but the ships were able to sail away safely.

Due to his injury, Cordone was forced to return to Acapulco, but he ordered Iturbe and Rosales to continue their voyage northward in search of more booty. The further the two went north, the richer the pearl beds became. Their holds were soon bulging with pearls. The Indians became friendlier the further north the men went, eagerly trading pearls for rotting sea biscuits from the ship’s hold. The wormy biscuits were “highly regarded by the Indians, bringing a correspondingly higher price if the biscuit was so maggoty that it was fairly able to stand on its own feet.” 12

Their luck changed however when Rosales’ ship struck a reef near the Isla Angel de Guardia and sank as the desperate men transferred the pots of pearls to Iturbe’s ship’s hold. Still, Iturbe decided to continue north. Upon reaching the mouth of the Colorado River and finding it wide and deep he continued upstream and into a great inland sea, probably the Laguna Salada, although others claim it was Blake’s Lake which once covered most of present-day Imperial Valley. When he realized that he had gone too far, Iturbe attempted to sail back down into the Gulf. But he could not locate its entrance! Historian W.C. Jameson surmises that an earthquake occurred while the ship was in the lake and the Colorado’s course changed, leaving the lake without a source, quickly to evaporate in the desert sun. More likely is that the men sailed in on a high tide when the river was flooding with runoff and by the time they decided to return the tide had receded. Regardless, the galleon was landlocked and soon stuck on the bottom as the lake dried up. Within days the ship was resting on a sandy dry lake bed, miles from the Gulf. The crew, carrying what they could on their backs, trudged southward across the desert for months until they were finally rescued by a Spanish ship near present-day Guayamas. Back in the desert, the abandoned ship listed on is side as tons of windblown sand slowly began covering it and its valuable treasure. 13

In “The Lost Spanish Galleon” from the Calico Press, L. Burr Belden tells the story of O.J. Fisk who met an old Cahuilla Indian named Harra Chee while prospecting in 1892 near Borrego. Chee recalled that his ancestors had seen the first white men come into this valley “in a white bird.” Fisk probed the old man. “The white bird stayed a long time down there,” he continued. “The bird’s wings fell down and the sand covered it up.” Could this be a description of Iturbe’s capsizing? At the time, Fisk thought little of the story, but years later he overheard a prospector in Arizona describing a partially buried Spanish galleon he had seen recently in the Salton Sink. The man said the wreck was just east of Kane Springs, but before the two could get together and find the time to search it out, the levee broke and the Salton Sea was formed, concealing the location forever. 14

Harold Weight, editor of the Calico Press, relates in his article “Lost Ship of the Desert,” an even earlier Spanish voyage that could be responsible for the wreckage. In 1532 head conquistador Hernan Cortez sent out his trusted captain Diego Hurtado de Mendoza in command of two ships. Sailing out of Acapulco, they were to scout the South Seas, looking for potential plunder. Just days into their voyage however, Hurtado’s crew mutinied, taking over the Iqueque. While one ship sailed back to New Spain safely, the capitán and his ship were never seen again. Cortez was furious and sent another ship after the mutineers who he presumed were hiding in the shelter of the Gulf. Alas morale was at an all time low in the Spanish navy and this ship, too, was taken over by mutineers who landed on the Baja Peninsula—the first Spaniards to do so—and were slaughtered by Indians. 15

In 1539, Francisco de Ulloa, under orders from Cortez to locate the mutinous crews, sailed the entire Gulf of California, reaching its head but turning around before locating the opening of the Colorado River. A year later, Hernando de Alarcón became the first European to sail up the river. With three ships, Alarcón had sailed north from Acapulco, reaching the Colorado in August. His mission was to bring supplies to Coronado’s inland expedition currently searching for the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. Upon meeting the choppiness where the river met the sea, all three of Alarcón’s ships ran aground. When the tide again rose, he continued, anchoring his ships in a calm bay of the river. In two small launches Alarcón continued upriver. The hoped-for meeting with Coronado’s conquistadors was not to be however, for the two parties missed rendezvousing by nearly a month. 16

Perhaps the Lost Ship is the Iqueque, or one of those taken over by mutineers, ending up stranded in the sands of the desert by the unpredictable Colorado. Or perhaps it has a different heritage. Secretive pearling ships, whose captains refused to obtain restrictive licenses from the Viceroy of New Spain, also plied the waters of the Gulf. Dutch and English pirate ships were known to operate there as well. Spanish captain Sebastián Vizcaíno, a pioneer explorer of the western coast from Acapulco to Mendocino, spent his senior years in charge of policing New Spain’s shores from attacks by the Dutch pirate Joris van Spielbergen who was reportedly snooping around in the Pacific. 17 Some reports even have Spielbergen pursuing Iturbe to the head of the Gulf, with the intent of boarding and plundering the Spanish ship. In this scenario the pirates themselves would have been responsible for causing the Spaniards to become marooned in the desert. 18 English pirate Thomas Cavendish’s ship Content, her holds stuffed with plunder from Spanish galleons, was last seen heading north up into the Gulf in the early 1700s. It is speculated that her captain assumed the Gulf to be the long sought after Straights of Anian, a passage to the Pacific. 19

Russian traders sailed the waters off of California throughout the 18th century and there are those who suggest that the curious Siberians explored the Gulf area as well. As far as Chinese junks are concerned, there is evidence of their visits to Southern California, so a more southerly excursion is not out of the question. Even the Mormons are suspect. Transporting their adherants around the tip of South America and up the West Coast, the Mormons apparently used the Colorado River as a waterbourne route to their settlements in Utah, Arizona and California. 20 But everyone is at a loss to explain one sighting of a fleet of foreign vessels probing the Gulf in the 16th century. According to legal records, the Spanish court in Guadalajara instigated an investigation in 1574 into the witnessing by several Spanish soldiers and friars, as well as Indians, of five strange ships “resembling Galician caravels with pelican figureheads” in the Sea of Cortez. 21


Before the advent of modern highways and automobiles, the muddy waters of the Colorado River were the easiest route through the arid desert country. But the river’s currents and tidal shifts were often treacherous, and it is no doubt that scores of ships ran aground at one time or another. Many of the the latter day disappearances and discoveries are well documented. In July of 1826, British Lieutenant R.W.H. Hardy sailed his ship Bruja up the Colorado and into the Rio Hardy for a few miles before becoming stuck in the mud. The river was named in honor of his exploration. In 1858, Lieutenant J.C. Ives, on a government-sponsored mission to explore the Colorado River above its confluence with the Gila River sailed nearly 350 miles upriver to Black Canyon. His goal was to scout the waterway and keep an eye out for Mormon soldiers who were venturing out from their settlement at Las Vegas Springs. Upon his return to Fort Yuma, Ives lost his steamer, The Explorer, which turned up seventy years later, half-buried in the silt of the delta. 22

Throughout the second half of the 1800s, the river was busy with steamers plying their trade. Major Horace Bell, in his bawdy Reminisces of a Ranger—which as the first book published in Los Angeles in 1881, ended California’s claim as a “literary wasteland” 23—included an account of a 23-foot sloop that, during its overland transfer from a Los Angeles shipbuilding yard to the Colorado River, was abandoned in the desert when the mules refused to tow the beast any further. Its rotting hull provided “lost ship” fodder for years afterward. In the 1870s, when “Lost Ship”-mania was at its peak, scores of curious parties and eager “discoverers” scoured the desert regions in search of a shipful of Spanish treasure. The San Bernardino Guardian was so sure of the existence of the ship that it published directions on how to get there! (“The wreck is located 40 miles north of the San Bernardino and Ft. Yuma road, and 30 miles west of Dos Palmos. . .”) and also reported this eyewitness account. “Nearly one-third of the forward part of the ship, or barque, is plainly visible. The stump of the bowsprite remains and portions of the timbers of teak are perfect.” Guardian Editor J.A. Talbott took part in such a foray. However, after twenty days of searching, the eager newspaperman and his colleagues came up empty-handed. The mystery of the ship would remain that way.

Ancient Lake Cahuilla shoreline

Ancient Lake Cahuilla shoreline


The mighty Colorado is one of the largest rivers in the United States, draining some 242,000 square miles in this country and another 3,000 in Mexico. In its lower section, the the river separates two great deserts, the Mojave to the west and the Sonoran to the east. South of the Mojave Desert is the lower Colorado Desert, where Ocotillos and the occasional Saguro cactus replace the familiar Joshua Trees of the north. It is here we find the Salton Basin, some 235 feet below sea level and extending 150 miles northwest from the delta where the Colorado meets the Gulf. In 1905 a levee broke on the Colorado River near Yuma and the Colorado’s waters rushed into the Salton Basin, creating the Salton Sea. It took two years for crews to repair the levee and stem the flow. Today the Salton Sea is about 70 feet deep, 50 miles long, and 15 miles wide, with a total water area of some 300 square miles.

Before the construction of a number of dams along its route, the Colorado flowed nearly one hundred miles from the U.S./Mexico border to the Gulf of California. Steamers plied its waters, bringing supplies and augmenting the railroads for both transportation of freight and passengers in the region.

Although historians agree that the Gulf of California and the Salton Sink area were not part of a navigable body of water in the last millennium, we do know that the “sea” has appeared, disappeared and reappeared many times since then, due to rainfall and flooding. We also know that the Colorado’s course has changed drastically, several times in our recorded history. Of course the Salton Sea is a new name and the large, seasonal freshwater body of water that once occupied the sink was even bigger, reaching all the way down to Calexico and as far north as Palm Springs. This great inland sea was known as Blake Sea or Lake Cahuilla. Harold Weight suggests in his essay “Lost Ship of the Desert” that “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.” 24

Ed Stevens notes that on a 1910 irrigation map, the water of the Gulf reached almost up to Volcano Lake at high tide (Like the Laguna Salada, Volcano Lake is now dry but once existed just south of Cerro Prieto on Mexico Hwy 5. Both bodies of water evaporated when the last of the Colorado River water was diverted by the Morelos Dam near Yuma to supply water for Tijuana and Mexicali). Looking at maps of the region, it is easy to see how Stevens explains “a boat could have come up the channel on the tide until it met the river current, then turned back and followed the river to Laguna Salada, where it became stranded as the flood receded.” 25

And many accounts have the ship stranded not in the Salton Sea, but in the Laguna Salada, which is many miles closer to the Gulf. On a map it becomes evident how a ship could sail up the Colorado and the Rio Hardy on a high tide and then accidentally veer into the Salada during a high water year. And there are wet years, even in the desert. A 1717 hurricane decimated much of Lower California with three days of unending rain. A tempest such as this would no doubt fill low-lying areas with several feet of water, surely enough to make the desert seem like a sea. As an example, O.J Fisk notes that Spanish captain Iturbe described the entrance to his inland sea at 34 degrees latitude, the precise location of the present day Salton Sea. The latitude at the top of the Gulf is only at 32 degrees, so barring a misreading, Iturbe was definitely well above the known sea of the time. 26

Courtesy of roy-and-marilyn.blogspot.com

Courtesy of roy-and-marilyn.blogspot.com


The trek to Lost Ship territory is not a difficult one today. Modern highways like Interstate 10 provide an easy escape for Angelenos on long weekends. Past the outlet malls at Cabazon, where an unfortunately placed Burger King all but obscures the once-postcard magnificence of the roadside diner’s giant dinosaurs, the freeway begins its gradual descent into the Imperial Valley. Downtown Palm Springs is a maze of cactus gardens and stucco walls, each hiding its own enclave of air-conditioned mobile homes and trellis-slung retirement villas. There is the constant hum of gardening equipment and the bratatatat of sprinklers orbiting overly-greened lawns. Here we veer to the south through the farm communities of Indio and Mecca where date palms and roadside carnicerías create an ambience of exotica, a lush jungle on the California desert. At the edge of this ancient seabed, the warm waters of Lake Cahuilla once lapped upon these sands.

Descendants of the Indians that lived around the Salton Basin remember stories their ancestors told of a great freshwater sea that once covered the region (geographers claim remnants of Lake Cahuilla existed until some 500 years ago). Its shores were populated with lush palm groves where beasts and birds flocked. Its waters teemed with fish and beautiful coral deposits. But the sea evaporated and the land turned to barren sand the way it is today. Legend has it that a warring tribe from the nearby mountains raided the lakeside Indians once a year, demanding a virgin from their tribe to be sacrificed. One year the Cahuilla Indians refused. The raiders were furious and called upon their gods for revenge. The gods apparently obliged, retaliating with a great deluge of violent weather that wiped out the warm paradise.

In the 1890s a plan arose to return the dry basin to its original splendor. No Indian prayers or dances were needed, claimed Dr. J.P. Widney, the plan’s originator. By diverting the Colorado River into the Salton Sink Widney hoped to turn the area into a new Eden. His creation would be called Widney Sea and it would stretch from the Delta all the way to Palm Springs, just as Lake Cahuilla once had. The huge body of water would create drastic changes in the climate of Southern California, making it “similar to that of the Hawaiian or Bahamian Islands.” His plan was cause for great excitement in the press and General John C. Fremont, then governor of the Arizona Territory, traveled to Washington to convince Congress of the project’s potential, its only drawback being that “Boa constrictors and alligators would find haven in California, posing a constant danger to the safety of women and children.” 27 But nature and human error was to steal Widney’s glory. In 1906 the All American canal jumped its levees and spilled into the lowlands, its flow unstoppable.

With the forming of the Salton Sea, visionaries were quick to cash in. Hotels and resorts sprang up around its shores and the lake quickly became a playground for water skiers and sportsmen. But as years went by, the pleasure-filled waters stagnated and the snowbirds scattered. Today, at once bustling “seaside” resort communities like Bombay Beach on the east shore and Salton Beach on the west, not much remains but boarded up storefronts and rows of mobile homes in various states of disrepair. The folks that still live out there are easy to spot, theirs are the plots kept watered and landscaped, their trailers freshly painted.

On the other side of the border, Mexican Highway 2 leads southeast from Tecate atop a dry and prosaic plateau. At La Rumorosa, where roadside businesses tempt travelers, the two-lane highway suddenly twists around itself as it descends into a great dry basin. Looking down, the area around the Laguna Salada is a land of arid white dust, though at times it is filled with water. From these heights we can imagine incredulous Indians hundreds of years ago watching lost Spanish galleons circling in the shallows, trying to navigate a way back to the Gulf.

Somewhere between these two worlds lies the wreckage of an ancient sailing ship, be it of Spanish, Scandinavian or some other descent. The eyewitness accounts and historical documents touching on this subject are too numerous to accredit this mystery to the mere imagination of desert roamers. The vessels’ elusiveness suggest that the quarry may be secreted beneath the waters of the Salton Sea or buried deep beneath some remote canyon rockfall or the desert’s shifting sands. The fact that the Lost Ship of the Desert has not been found, even in these days of treasure hunters armed with hi-tech metal detectors, only alludes to the vastness of the region in which it is hidden, a rugged and desolate triangle formed by Tecate, Palm Springs, Blythe and San Felipe. Somewhere within this vast wasteland rests our quarry, and treasure or no treasure, someday it will be exhumed and its secrets revealed.


1Arnold, Adelaide, “Butcherknife Ike and the Lost Ship,” Calico Print, November, 1953.

2 Wilheim, Paul, “Paul Wilhelm Desert Column,” The Indio Date Palm, Indio, California, October 4, 1951.

3 ibid.

4 Pepper, Choral and Williams, Brad, The Mysterious West, World Publishing Company, 1967.

5 Wilheim, Paul.

6 Weight, Harold, “Lost Ship of the Desert,” Calico Print, November, 1953.

7 Wharfield, Colonel H.B., USAF, Retired, Fort Yuma on the Colorado River, privately published, 1968.

8 Galvin, Lynn “Cloudwoman: The Life of Olive Oatman, An Old California Indian Captive” The Californians, Volume 13, No. 2, April 1996.

9 Stevens, Ed, “The Serpent-necked ‘Canoa,’” Calico Print, November, 1953.

10 Pepper, Choral and Williams, Brad.

11 Belden, L. Burr, “The Lost Spanish Galleon,” Calico Print, November, 1953.

12 Fisk, O.J., “Story of the Pearl Ship of the Desert,” Pioneer Cabin News, the San Bernardino Society of California Pioneers, Nov. 1951 to April 1952.

13 Jameson, W.C., Buried Treasures of California, August House, 1995.

14 Belden, L. Burr.

15 Weight, Harold.

16 Wharfield, Colonel H.B., USAF, Retired.

17 Cutter, Donald C., The California Coast-Documents from the Sutro Collection, University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.

18 Pepper, Choral and Williams, Brad.

19 Weight, Harold.

20 Pepper, Choral and Williams, Brad.

21 Ibid.

22 Wharfield, Colonel H.B., USAF, Retired.

23 Starr, Kevin, Inventing The Dream-California Through the Progressive Area, Oxford University Press, 1985.
24 Weight, Harold.

25 Stevens, Ed.

26 Fisk, O.J.

27 Pepper, Choral and Williams, Brad.


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Comments (1)

  1. steve clark says:

    I have a friend,dead now,that told me about seeing the remains of a large ship half buried in the sand in that area.that was almost 50 years ago on the way to Baja. he was over 60 at that time.Keith knew a lot,hard to believe some of stories, but over the years I,ve found them all to be true.

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