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The Story of the Pearl Ship (Fisk)

The Story of the Pearl Ship

By O J Fisk

In the year 1610 a contract was signed between the King of Spain and one Captain Thomas Cardona, whereby Cardona was authorized to engage in naval exploration and pearl hunting for the Crown, on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Francisco Basilio was placed in charge of the Pacific division of the enterprise, but it was his great misfortune to die before the project was more than started. In Basilio’s place, Cardona’s nephew, Nicolas Cardona was placed, to take joint command with Juan de Iturbe and Sgt. Pedro Alvarez Rosales. Three ships were constructed in Acapulco, and after some delay they set sail from that port on March 21, 1615. Voyaging north, it is recorded that they took note of the rich mineral prospects with an eye to future development. They landed at 27 degrees latitude, finding relics of the Viscaino expedition, in the form of five Christian skulls and the fragments of a boat. Here they were attacked by a large party of hostile Indians; and Cardona was seriously wounded. It was decided that he should take one of the ships and return to Acapulco.

After Cardona turned back, Juan de Iturbe and Rosales sailed on in the other two vessels in the face of bad weather and food shortage, for the negro divers were eminently successful in their pearling activities. Iturbe also found it profitable to trade with the natives for pearls, giving old clothes and wormy ship’s biscuit in return. The latter was 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, as it was then considered in the light of fresh meat.

From some unaccountable reason, our source of information at this point becomes rather vague as to just what happened to Rosales. We are able however to follow the activities of Iturbe. He sailed up the gulf, finding that it narrowed as he went, but finally opening up into what appeared to be a vast sea extending far inland. He was greatly excited, believing that he had found the fabled Straights of Anian, so long sought by the mariners of all countries, which would provide a passage between the two oceans.


“Acapulco,” Detail, Herman Moll, “Map of the South Sea Company” (ca. 1715) Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

However after many abortive attempts to find a way through he was at last forced to admit his defeat. He was however enabled to arrive at his approximate location, which was 34 degrees latitude (a fact which seems to me of very great significance, given that the present day Gulf of California does not extend above 32 degrees.) After many attempts to find a way out, he turned south once more only to find to his complete consternation that he was landlocked.

Frantically Iturbe sailed around the hemmed-in sea, seeking some exit. But his voyage came to an abrupt end when he grounded again and the water receding magically left him high and dry. He and his crew were forced to leave the ship with its vast treasure of pearls intact, realizing if they escaped with their lives alone they would be fortunate.

Iturbe’s actions at this stage of the account become shrouded in obscurity. It may be that he was able to contact Rosales’ ship. At any rate he next turned up at Sinaloa, where he build a new ship and made another pearling voyage.

Did Iturbe make an attempt to recover the vast cargo of pearls he was forced to leave with the abandoned ship? One chronicler, Ortega, records that only 14 marks of pearls were registered at the conclusion of the expedition, although Ortega states that he, personally, saw many times that number in Iturbe’s possession. However, it is extremely doubtful if Iturbe ever made any attempt to return to his ship. We may safely conclude that the brooding sand dunes of “the land of little shells” still retain that “king’s ransom” of pearls as well as the secret of the lost ship of the desert.

(From O.J. Fisk’s “Story of the Pearl Ship of the Desert,” Pioneer Cabin News, the San Bernadino Society of California Pioneers, Nov. 1951 to April 1952.)



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