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The Mysterious Petroglyph of Pinto Canyon (Grasson)

Situated in one of the most remote areas of the Southern California back country is an incredible treasure, an artifact so rare and so hidden, it makes me wonder, what is this treasure and who was the first to find it?

Pinto Canyon is considered one of the worst drug and immigrant trails known to the Border Patrol and BLM. A foreboding landscape, dry and barren, it’s a place that no one in their right mind would ever want to just go and visit. Even though I just stated that one shouldn’t go to this area, there is always someone who will say that no matter what, they would be willing to risk the chance of being shot and killed. All due to the magic of being able to see an ancient Native American village site and some petroglyphs, one carving in particular lets your imagination run rampant. Within its scattered valley is a petroglyph that could possibly change history, or at least promote a discussion about who truly discovered the inland area of Southern California.

Ship Petroglyph Photo enhanced for clarity Courtesy of anzaborrego.org & sddarkman619

The petroglyph in question appears to be a ship, the type of ship that was used during what was called the Age of Exploration. This was a time when European countries were trying to gain a foothold in a new land, mainly from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Spain, being the first, had the upper hand as it had already settled on most of the coastal lands, but the English and Dutch were testing them at ever corner. Spanish ships were being attacked and looted, crew members were killed and the ships were either sunk or commandeered. Does the petroglyph in Pinto canyon look like one of these ships, in a word, yes.

The earliest history of exploration in Southern California starts when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who sailed along the coast in 1542, could the petroglyph be celebrating his landing? Maybe, but then we could also ask if it could be Francis Drakes ship or maybe still some unknown vessel……

We know one thing for sure, after Cabrillo, noted explorer Sebastian Vizcaino along with his padre, Fray Antonio de la Ascension landed in what Sebastian would call San Diego in 1602. When they disembarked they noticed that the local Native Peoples did not shy or hide away in fear, in fact they were pretty friendly.  When Fray Ascension began talking with the locals, they said they were aware of men like the Spaniards and that they were living inland about 100 miles away and even offered to take Fray Ascension to see them. Since there were no known inland exploration from Spain, Fray Ascension deducted that they must have been Dutch or English.


"The Indians paint themselves white, and black, and dark London blue. This color 
comes from certain very heavy blue stones, which they grind very fine, and,  
dissolving the powder in water, make a stain, with which they daub the face and 
make on it lines which glisten like silver ribbons. These stones seem to be of 
rich silver ore, and the Indians told us by signs that from similar stones a 
people living inland, of form and figure like  our Spaniards,2 bearded, and 
wearing collars and breeches, and other fine garments like ours, secured silver 
in abundance, and that they had a name for it in their own language." 

 The people of whom the Indians told us might have been foreigners, Hollanders 
or English, who had made their voyage by the Strait of Anian and might be settled 
on the other coast of this land, facing the Mediterranean Sea of California. 
Since the realm is narrow, as has been said, it may be that the other sea is 
near that place; for the Indians offered to guide and take us to the place where 
they say the people are settled." 
(Courtesy of "A Brief Report of the Discovery in the South sea, by Fray Antonio 
de la Ascension 1602-1603 pg 117/118)

Possible Cross? Courtesy of anzaborrego.org & sddarkman619

In 1587 the Santa Anna, a 700 ton Manila galleon on its way back to Acapulco from China was loaded to the gills with treasure. So loaded, that the ship did not carry any of its cannons on this voyage, they assumed the route was safe. As the ship sailed towards the tip of the Baja peninsula, she was attacked by two smaller ships, the 120 ton flagship named the Desire and a second 60 ton ship named the Content, commanded by Thomas Cavendish, an English privateer.  The battle lasted over 6 hours but in the end the English prevailed, the galleon was then escorted near modern day Cabo San Lucas and among her crew was none other than Sebastian Vizcaino.

The Spaniards were put ashore, the ship pillaged and burned and Cavendish sailed away, leaving a signed ledger for all that he commandeered. But Cavendish was tough on his men, so much so that the crew of the second ship may have finally had enough and simply sailed away, with their portion of the treasure. As the Desire came around the peninsula the Content was never seen again. Most likely she headed north thinking they could find the Straight of Anian. But instead possibly found Laguna Salada, a inland lake that was near the top of the Gulf of California.  Could this be the ship on the petroglyph, perhaps? The site of the petroglyph is less than 15 miles away from the northern end of Laguna Salada.

Can we collaborate anything with the local Native Kumeyaay Peoples that had inhabited this general area for centuries and are still the same Peoples that inhabit the area today. Unfortunately, the US/Mexico border slices right through their middle of their land. This makes it a bit more difficult when researching the petroglyph’s origin. Because, even though the petroglyph is located near the border, it may be more of a Mexican Kumeyaay then an Californian Kumeyaay historical spot. In either case not much is known to each tribe, they are aware of its existence, but the meaning may have been lost over time. Archaeologists will tell us that this was a “roadway” for the Native Peoples and that there are other petroglyphs nearby, not just the ship. However if the Native Peoples carved this in the 16th or 17th century, then why was it not known until Robert Marcos found it?

Condorman or Angel Courtesy of anzaborrego.org & sddarkman619

It seems to me that organizations like the Sierra Club or local hiking groups would have known, but maybe it was considered a ship back then. In the February 1968 issue of Desert magazine there is an article about Davies Valley and Pinto Canyon by Ted Haney, he has a picture of a petroglyph, just not the one of the ship and he even includes directions to the sites. This article was in response to an earlier story in the June 1967 issue about the same site. Robert also states in his article (San Diego Reader June 3rd 2009) that Sierra club member Frank Johnson gave him some general directions to the petroglyphs;

 “There’s some petroglyphs over in Pinto Canyon,” Frank said as he passed me on the trail. Frank Johnson, a handsome 75-year-old man, with flowing white hair and a superb knowledge of hiking trails, is something of a Sierra Club celebrity, and he was leading our hike into Fossil Canyon — just south of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.   

        “Get yourself a USGS map for In-Koh-Pah Gorge,” he said. “Then follow the international border east from Jacumba until you reach Pinto Canyon. The pictographs are located directly under the letter P, where the word Pinto is printed on the map.”

This is not to discredit the Robert Marcos find, I think he deserves to be known as the person who may have understood what the petroglyph meant and he brought to everyone’s attention. I just think there were a lot of people who saw the petroglyph much earlier, but did not make the ship connection, I mean why would they? There is absolutely no reason for ship art this far inland, unless an English crew was landlocked in Laguna Salada and the Native Peoples were drawing something new to them.

We may never know the truth, but you just gotta love the story…




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