In 1917, an old Indian rode into the yard of our ranch in Imperial Valley. He was looking for work, he said, He had come into the Valley to pick cotton, but his eyes bothered him and he could not see well enough to pick. He came from the Juarez Mountains of Lower California and gave the name of Jesús Almanerez. I think he was a Santa Rosa Indian.
I told him that I had a lot of mesquite wood to chop, and that suited him. But he refused to stay in the bunkhouse up by the ranch. He went down to the Alamo River and built an arrowweed ramada.
He was a very quiet and polite old man, with never much to say. He was with me three years and was always reliable.
When the first Christmas came, we had a big dinner. Then I loaded up a big platter with food and took it down to old Jesús’ camp. He was greatly pleased that we would remember him on Christmas Day. So after filling up with all the food he could hold, he became rather talkative. I asked him what he had worked at in his younger days. He said he had worked in the timber and mines and as a woodchopper. Then I asked him if he had ever found any gold or treasure of any kind.
This is the story he told me:
“I was chopping wood with a crew of wood choppers just off the Laguna Salada. We were packing it on mule back up to the end of the sand hills where a wagon loaded it and hauled it to the Yuha Oil Well, which was then being drilled. (Ed. Note: In the Yuha Badlands, a few miles southeast of Coyote Wells, and south of U.S. Highway 80.) I think about 1898.
“It was late summer and the west winds were beginning to blow. For twelve days it blew, and then followed a big rain. We were about out of provisions so I loaded up a ten-mule train of wood and started out. The trail led along the foothills. I soon found the going too slippery for the loaded mules. So I turned off into the sand hills, which were wet and easier going.
“I had only gone a few miles when my lead mule stopped and pointed his ears. Looking that way I saw half buried in the side of a big sand hill a sarge canoa. (He meant a large canoe or ship. E.S.) It had a long neck and the head of a beast, and copper plates along the sides.”
Since his boyhood spent with the Santa Ysabel Indians, Ed Stevens has been a life-long friend of the Indian people of the Imperial Valley and the San Diego mountains. From them he has learned many stories not usually told except among themselves.
“I got out of there as fast as my mules could travel. I unloaded the wood, got our provisions, and went back along the foothill trail. When I got back to camp, I drew my pay and left for the mountains, never to go back there again.
He told me that seeing tat canoa was a bad sign, and to save himself he had to leave immediately. I believe there must have been some legend about that ship among the Indians down there. Probably others had seen it, and unable to explain its strange appearance had regarded it as a “bad sign.”
I was busy farming at the time, and did not have the time to pay much attention to the story. But it continued to bother me, and a few years later, I went to the Irrigation District office and asked for an old map of the area in Old Mexico. They gave me one of a survey of 1910.
As soon as I looked it over, I could see that it would have been very easy, even then, for a boat to get into the Laguna Salada in late spring when the Colorado would be in flood and meeting a high tide. The tide water went almost to Volcanic Lake. 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.
I traced out and followed the old wagon road from the Yuha well drill hole to the head of the Laguna Salada in 1930, and I believe traces of that road would be visible yet. But I never had time to search the sand hills for a ship.