This story comes from an account of one year in the life of Senor Don Juan Obregon. Born at San Jose del Arroyo, Lower California, Mexico in 1798.
Written down by Antonio de Fierro Blanco in the book “Journey of the Flame.”
To be in camp meant more or less idleness, and that brought out stories of past adventures; for all of our men had spent their lives as guards or packers for Spanish explorers, and were full to their necks with truths, chismes, and imaginations.
One of them, Tiburcio Manquerna, took me apart with much secrecy to relate a tale concerning our celebrated pilot Iturbe, who was first to sail along our California Gulf Coast, fishing vast quantities of pearls; also buying many other bushels of these jewels from natives for old clothes and wormy ship’s biscuit. This hard bread was especially valued by the Indians, and brought a higher price in jewels if the biscuits were so full of maggots that they could run about the ship’s deck on their own legs; since it was esteemed as fresh meat.
Senor Iturbe, being explorer for our King and pearler on his own account, first loaded his fifty-ton ship with a sufficiently great fortune in pearls and then sailed past San Felipe; but found no Colorado River mouth, as later our padres, Kino and Ugarte, in their ship Triumph of the Cross, mapping this gulf. Instead of a river mouth, Iturbe saw a vast sea extending far inland, and with high mountains on each side. Iturbe was certain he had found the Straights of Anian, long sought, often found, and as often again lost, and by which he could pass his ship from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. Iturbe sailed on and on up this vast sea, but slowly, as there was little wind and intense heat. A month he spent aground on a sandbar, when a great cloudburst, rushing down from high mountains, filled a part of this inland sea with its debris and created such vast waves that his vessel became unmanageable. Two months he passed on land where the water ended, attempting to locate any continuation of this supposed Straits of Anian, and seeing from the highest mountain-top a vast body of water winding toward the northeast, but the entrance to which he could not find.
Then other weeks he occupied in drying flesh from antelope and wild sheep, since they were nearly out of provisions. Still dreaming that each of his crew would be ennobled (Hijosdalgos) by the King for his great discovery, and that he might ask what he would, since there was fame and fortune for any discoverer of these Straits, Senor Iturbe sailed south, only to find arid sand where he had entered this inland sea from the Gulf of Cortes, as now they call our Vermilion Sea.
Cursing the sorcerer who had lured then into his trap, he attempted again to sail around this landlocked ocean, looking for an entrance to the Vermilion Sea, or perhaps to that continuation of the Straits of Anian he had seen from a mountain-top. His voyage ended when his ship grounded, and the water, receding as if by enchantment, stranded them on soft and boggy ground from which with difficulty they escaped alive. They left their ship and its vast treasure of pearls upright as though it was sailing, but with its keel buried in sand.
All this Manquerna told me fluently, as of a story often heard or oft repeated, and later I learned from Don Firmin Sanhudo that in 1615, Iturbe had made such a pearling trip and lost his vessel. Now came Manquerna’s personal narrative, and he almost wept lest I doubt his truth.
“As a boy,” said Manquerna, “I went from Sinaloa to drive mules for Juan Bautista de Anza, whom the King had sent to discover a land route from Sonora to Alta California. After we had with difficulty traveled through Pimaria Alta, we came to sandy wastes and crossed a great river with still more sterile deserts beyond it. Being the lightest in weight, I was sent to the right of our course, on our best remaining mule, seeking a road to the ocean.
“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. Help me, or speak to Don Firmin Sanhudo, for me, and a half of what we find shall be yours.”
I was polite, and promised such aid as I could give, but warned Don Firmin: since a man is but a boy grown up. If he abandons his comrades in a pathless, waterless desert before his beard grows, he will do the same later when his hair is gray.