(reformatted from RV Journal)


The Lost Spanish Galleon
by L. Burr Belden, November 1953 - Calico Print

This story of the lost ship and the map appeared in the San Bernardino Sun-Telegram, February 15, 1953, and are reproduced through permission of L. Burr Belden.

O.J. Fisk, prominent San Bernardino pioneer, who in his younger years prospected and mined over much of the Southwest, believes he has a solution to the century old legend of a Spanish ship said buried under the bottom of the Salton Sea. An account of an early Spanish voyage, coupled with the testimony of a Cahuilla Indian and a Harquehala, Arizona, prospector has satisfied Fisk that a Spaniard sailed into what is now the Salton Sea centuries ago and walked away from his marooned craft. But for the fact that the Salton Sink of 50 years ago is now the Salton Sea, Fisk is confident he could locate the remains of the old ship without too much trouble.

In 1892, Jim Fisk was mining in the Julian-Banner district of San Diego County and doing some prospecting as well. He became acquainted with a Cahuilla Indian, an elderly man who had once lived in the almost forgotten village of Old Santa Rosa on the Imperial Valley side of the mountains.

The Indian, whose name is recalled by Fisk as Harra Chee, told Fisk about the location of some gold north of Banner. Fisk was interested, bought some grub, and the two set out. The Indian took him along the east face of the mountains until the two were about west of the present Borrego settlement.

There the Indian showed Fisk a hole. He found a show of color, but not enough gold to pay working. Following a day’s digging, Fisk and the Indian cooked their meal and then watched the shadows fall on the desert below.

Then the Indian told him a story. His grandfather had seen white men first come to this desert in a white bird. The white bird stayed a long time down there. The bird’s wings fell down and the sand covered it up.

The young prospector returned to Julian the next day and thought little of the Indian’s story until some years later over in Arizona he heard a prospector from the Vicksburg or Harequehala district tell of having stumbled on the remains of what appeared to be a Spanish ship in the Salton Sink, the shifting sand having uncovered part of it.

Fisk pressed the miner for more details, found the location would have been almost east of Kane Springs at the south end of the sink. The two planned to meet later and find the old ship but the Colorado River turned the Salton Sink into the Salton Sea and ended all such plans.

Now retired, Fisk has devoted much of his time to historical study. He learned that the tribe to which his guide of 1892 belonged had no word for ancestor more remote than grandfather and that the “grandfather” Harra Chee told of might well have been a remote ancestor, whose tale of the white man arriving in the big bird on the water was passed down from generation to generation.

Early Spanish writings have indicated a minor Colorado Desert flood early in the 16th century, a flood that abated before making any lake of great dimensions such as the present Salton Sea.

What Fisk believes clinches his theory is the account that in the early 17th century, when Spanish maps showed California as an island, five ships ascended the Gulf of California on a pearl fishing expedition. The ships became separated in a storm, and only four returned.

The fifth ship was captained by one Juan Iturbe who showed up later at Acapulco without his vessel but with a strange tale of having found a narrow passage north which ended in a lake around which he sailed several times, only to find the entry passage gone and no way out.

Fisk believes Iturbe’s ship was the Indian’s white bird and the same ship, buried in the sand noted by the Arizona prospector.

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Butcherknife Ike and the Lost Ship
by Adelaide Arnold, November 1953 - Calico Print

From before World War One into the early Twenties, Butcherknife Ike often stopped at our ranch, Morningside, when starting on or coming from prospecting expeditions in the southern desert. Morningside lay near the mouth of San Juan Bautista Canyon, southeast of Hemet, and the canyon eventually led up to Coahuila. From there the prospectors crossed over to Coyote Canyon and went down into the Borrego Desert.

Butcherknife Ike - I do not know how he came by the name - was very irregular in his appearances and he very rarely had any greeting when he arrived. He just appeared in the drive, with his burros tagging after him. He would take their leads off and they would immediately begin to get their meal off the lawn - and also off some of Mother’s roses. He would camp down in the eucalyptus grove.

Generally we had tea, late afternoons about five, on the lawn by the house. And if he was camped below, Butcherknife Ike would wander in and join us. Mother would get out a big cup and fill it with tea, hot and strong, the way he liked it. She would give him the cup and he would hold it and she would put one lump of sugar in. The cup was still stationary, so she would put in another lump. Finally there would be five or six lumps, and then he would take it over to the little flume which ran across the lawn, and sit down and hunch himself along until he could feel the flume against his back. There he would sit, perfectly silent, drinking his tea. He’d gulp down the tea and come back and have another cup - sometimes four or five cups.

In between cups, he’d sit and think a little, and then he’d put the cup up against his face - almost make a suction cup of it - and a long, sucking sound came as he got out the sugar in the bottom. When his cup was returned, it was just as clean as a whistle, though he never used a spoon.

I remember, mostly, the way he gestured with his long hands when he talked, and his faded blonde hair and the way it had a ripple down it and was quite long, falling on his neck. Of course he started on his trips with it clipped - almost what now we would call a crew cut. But when he appeared in summer, it was a page bob, almost. His eyes were very, very blue.

He was a strange man. He never talked to the other prospectors if they were there, and they said he always went out alone. When he first came, he rarely looked at us. He always looked at something on the horizon when he talked. If he talked. And he always looked at you sideways when you asked where he was going. He was so secretive always. If there was another prospector around you couldn’t drag out of him the exact place he was going.

The day that he told us about the ship, Father had asked him where he had been. For Father occasionally he would give some details. But as always, it was quite disconnected. All his talk was that way. He’d remove you suddenly to Death Valley, or into Arizona. Just jerk out a few adventures - and then he didn’t want to talk about it if you began to pin him down about the exact locations.

And he had apparently been thinking of the strangeness of this adventure. I fancy he wouldn’t have talked to us at all, if it hadn’t been on his mind.

He had been down by Laguna Salada, in Baja California, he said. He was returning from Laguna Salada. And he was going through by Split Mountain Canyon to look for some mineral he thought he had seen there before. It was about the Fourth of July, I believe - and hot. And he came in the dark to a place where there was a big sand dune. In telling it, he said over and over again, that it was no place for a big sand due to be. It was flat there. The arroyo was flat.

There was a bad wind blowing and he went over and took shelter in the lee of the big dune. On that big dune he discovered there was a sort of shelf of sand, below the highest point. That seemed to be the best place to camp, so he climbed up. There wasn’t much around there to make a fire, but he made one of quail brush. He explained that, so we would know how little the fire was and how quickly it would have burned out. He cooked his beans and made his coffee.

Sometime in the night he waked. There, where he had made his little fire, he saw a tongue of flame coming up through the sand. He had an expression he used when he was talking about anything unusual. He would drop his voice and say: “I was kinda curious.”

He was kind of curious about that flame where no flame should be. So he lighted his lantern and brought it over and he scooped and dug down through the sand. And presently - about two feet down, he said - he came to a heavy piece of wood. By the light of his lantern, he could see that it was worked wood.

In the morning, he dug some more, and he uncovered the beam and under it was another curved beam, attached to it. And on the beam underneath were barnacles. Old barnacles that crumbled.

“I scrabbled around a little bit,” he went on, “and I saw it was a ship. I walked down the dune and I saw where the sand had covered it. It was a big ship. An old ship from the Gulf.”

“Did you tell anyone about it?” Father asked. And Butcherknife Ike looked suddenly frightened, glancing sideways.

“No! No!” he said. “I’ll go back there.”

And when he learned that we had been as far down as Split Mountain Canyon and knew some of the country he had talked about, he seemed dismayed, as if afraid he had talked too much.

I last saw Butcherknife Ike about 1923. He had gone up San Juan Bautista Canyon, apparently heading for the desert. It was August and bitterly hot.

For some reason Father was a little worried about him, and suggested we take a lunch and go up the canyon. We found Butcherknife Ike at what used to be called Reed’s Meadow, about eleven miles up from Morningside, on the bench before you climb into the high mountains. And he said that he was going through Coahuila and down Coyote Canyon and through Borrego Valley into the badlands. Someone had given him a book which told about the badlands being an unmined reservoir of rich minerals. So that’s where he set his mind on going - and he picked the hottest week of the year. I took a picture of him and his burros. He went on. He never came back.

In spite of his queerness, the other prospectors that came and went had a great kindness for him. They went down and searched for him and asked about him. He had been seen at Borrego. He had gone into the badlands from there. But that was the end of the trail.

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Phantom Ship of the Gran Desierto
by Harvey Gray, April 1974 - Desert Magazine

It had been several years since I’d seen my old friend, Michael Brewster, not since he was a mining engineer down in Bolivia. Mike was a character, one of the most likable sort. I waited while he settled himself into an easy chair and stoked up his old pipe, I think the same one he’d had the last time we were together shooting ducks on Lake Titicaca, and then I asked the inevitable question, “What have you been up to lately, Mike?” His deep tan showed he hadn’t been spending much time indoors, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the story he came up with.

We, my three partners and me, have been lookin’ for a sunken ship, full of Spanish treasures - we hope,” was his opener.

“I’ve read where quite a few people have been doing that sort of thing down along the Florida coast and Keys and in the Caribbean, and finding some old Spanish treasure ships, too. Is that where you’ve been?”

“Nope, we’ve been a long way from there. This ship is different, it’s English.”

“I thought you said a Spanish treasure ship.”

“Not quite what I said,” he replied. “It’s a Spanish treasure, but it’s an English ship.”

“I see, I think. When did you take up scuba diving? Is it in the Atlantic or the Pacific?”

“I didn’t, and it’s neither one. In fact, it isn’t even very wet where it lays a few feet below the surface.” Mike was up to his old tricks. He had a tantalizing way of saying things without coming right out and saying them.

“Yes, it’s a shipwreck, all right, an old sailing ship, and it’s buried beneath a big sand dune about 12 miles north of the Gulf of California.”

I must have look nonplused; it took a few moments for me to visualize that kind of shipwreck. “Now, how in the devil could a ship get that far out of water? She must have been making knots to skid so far after hitting the beach.”

“That weren’t quite the way it happened. But I’ll have to start at the beginning to convince you it’s no tall tale - of which you seem convinced already. You was always a skeptic.” Funny thing, though, most of Mike’s tall yarns in the past had turned out to be more fact than fancy. He was a pretty factual sort of an individual.

I loaded my pipe and sat back, preparing for the long session it was sure to be. Mike puffed on his pipe for a minute without saying anything, collecting his thoughts by all appearance. Finally, he began: “It’s hard to believe this weather-beaten old ghost could have haunted the Gran Desierto of Sonora for more than 300 years, jumpin’ up on rare occasions then fadin’ away like a puff of dust in the wind. It’s downright spooky!”

He continued, “It isn’t more’n 100 miles from Yuma, but it’s only been seen a few times by Indians over the centuries - accordin’ to their legends - and the last time was over 100 years ago.”

I thought maybe he was stretching a point there. “You mean it’s within 100 miles of a city the size of Yuma all that time and no one has come across it? Trail bikes and dune buggies are getting all over the desert these days.”

Mike wasn’t impressed by my comment. “Not this desert, they ain’t. In the first place, it’s in Mexico, and in the second place, you’d have to see it in the first place. Sand dunes up to 300 feet high in places, not a livin’ soul around for miles and miles, the place is lousy with rattlers and scorpions - there’s a lot of them, too,” he added as an afterthought - “and it’s a lot of miles to the nearest water hole, when there’s water in it. The Indians have steered clean of the whole area for the past century on account of there’s nothin’ to attract them any more. It’s no place for anyone primarily interested in survival. Only reason we went there was ‘cause it’s the only place the ship was - then, too, maybe we’d had a mite too much sun.”

“Now, that last remark isn’t too hard to believe,” I needled him.

He gave me a dirty look, “I’ll ignore that dumb crack. The old ghost appears in the form of a three-masted barkentine. It’s one that battled the seas for a time, battled the Spanish on occasion, and the elements for centuries. Its broken hulk carries the scars of all them battles, but mainly the last one when she came out second best.”

I said, “Such a ghost I’d like to see.”

He went on as though he hadn’t hear me. “We finally assembled all the known facts, threw in a bit of logic and calculations, then pieced it out with a mite of imagination and came up with the spot where it ended up, too. We know its name, where it sailed from and when, what it did, what it carried, when, why and how it arrived at its not-so-watery grave, and soon as we find it can probably tell you who was aboard.”

“This beings to sound intriguing,” I said, as he drew a heavy envelope from his pocket.

“Intriguin’ it is, amigo. But to give you the whole story, without missin’ some important details, better let me read my notes.”

He took a couple of pulls on his pipe and cleared his throat as though launching into a profound oration, and started reading:

“On July 31st of the year 1586, the small privateer fleet of Thomas Cavendish sailed from the port of Plymouth, England. The barkentines were the “Desire” of 120 tones, the “Content” of 60 tons, and a smaller bark, the “Hugh Gallant,” all heavily armed and carrying a total complement of 123 men.

Depending on whether it’s the Spanish or the English archives, Cavendish was either a pirate or a privateer. His mission was one of legitimate warfare, sailing under a letter of marque from Queen Elizabeth to harass and destroy any Spanish ships in American waters and sack their port towns.

His voyage down the west coast of Africa, across the south Atlantic, through the Straits of Magellan and on up the west coast was not an easy one. Scurvy had depleted his crews to the point where, off the coast of Ecuador, he scuttled the High Gallant in order to fill out the crews to 60 on the Desire, and 40 on the Content. They had raided the coastal towns of Chile and Peru as they worked their way north, obtaining little of value but causing much destruction.

By July 11th, 1587, they were off the coast of Central America making slow progress. On the 19th, they captured a Spanish ship of 120 tons off the port of Acajutla, on the coast of El Salvador. The ship was in ballast, carrying nothing of value. But one of the Manila pilots was aboard, a Frenchman who went under the Spanish name of Miguel Sanchez. He was taken prisoner and the ship burned. The English crew tortured the Frenchman until he revealed that two Manila galleons were due to arrive in Acapulco from the Orient within a month or so. Another Spanish ship was captured shortly after leaving Acajutla and given the same treatment as the first. This had proven a good hunting ground for the privateers, but word of the impending arrival of the Manila galleons, prizes well worth taking, sent them on to the northward.

The paused along the way long enough to capture and destroy the port of Guatulco on the southern coast of Mexico, and gathered enough silver and other valuables to make the raid worthwhile. They also took as prisoner the alcalde mayor, one Juan de Rengifo.

Leaving Guatulco on August 12th, they passed up Acapulco even though it was the destination of the galleons, and continued on to the port of Navidad, headquarters for the pearling ships that plied the Gulf of California. They gave it the same treatment Guatulco had received, except this time all the men were taken prisoners and then ransomed back to the women for food and supplies. They stopped at one of the islands north of Mazatlan long enough to careen and trim the ships before continuing on across the Gulf to San Lucas Bay at the southern tip of Baja California.

There they awaited the arrival of the galleons, one ship constantly patrolling off the coast, and the other keeping a lookout posted on the high ground maintaining a constant vigil.

The galleon Santa Ana was over five months out of Manila and nearing the American shores after plodding her cumbersome way across the Pacific. It was on November 14th when her lookout saw sails on the horizon. Captain Tomas de Alzola believed them to be Spanish pearlers bound for Mazatlan. On the following morning, he was startled to see two ships closing in on the Santa Ana, and recognized them as enemies.”

Mike looked up from his notes and said, “Now, here’s a fine study in futility. Alzola began preparing for battle. With his cannon useless below the waterline behind caulked ports, if indeed there were cannon aboard, the Captain issued small arms, lances, cutlass’, harquebusses and even stones to the crew and passengers, more than 300 in all. Barricades were hastily improvised from the deck cargo. It was a ship poorly prepared to battle an enemy as well armed as the privateers.

The Desire opened fire with a barrage from its heavy cannon and small arms. It came along the starboard side of the Santa Ana and a boarding party of 40 men swarmed over the railing amidships. In the melee that followed, two Englishmen were killed and several wounded, casualties among those of the Santa Ana heavy before the boarding party was forced to retreat.

The initial attack was followed by two more, inflicting heavy damage on the galleon, even though a second boarding party was repulsed. Cavendish then changed his tactics. Realizing he was outmanned by the Santa Ana, he stood off out of small arms range and bombarded the galleon with his heavy cannon, inflicting great damage. The masts and rigging were down on the decks and there were a number of holes on her waterline. Many more Spanish casualties were inflicted. Alzola, having no powder left and a near derelict on his hands, had no choice but to surrender, his position was untenable.”

“I wonder why Cavendish didn’t use his heavy cannon more in the first place?” I commented.

Mike didn’t even look up as he said, “I don’t know. Ask him if you ever run across him,” and went on reading.

“It took the Desire, with the aid of the Content, until the following afternoon to tow their prize into San Lucas Bay. There, they put the 190 survivors ashore with limited supplies and sail cloth for shelters, then went about taking inventory of the cargo. It consisted of the usual Chinese goods, ivory carvings, silks, perfumes, spices, wines, brandies, chinaware and provisions. Much to the delight of young Cavendish and his crew, they found a small fortune in the strong box; 120,000 pesos in gold and a quantity of fine black pearls.”

Mike paused for a moment to moisten his vocal cords and said, “Now, we’re gettin’ down to the interestin’ part, where the old ghost of the desert begins shapin’ up.”

“There was discontent among the crews, especially that of the Content, over the division of spoils and an incipient mutiny developed. Cavendish believed he had the matter settled when he divided the booty into three equal parts, one for himself, one part for the Queen, and the third to be divided equally among the crews.

Having thus smoothed over the unrest among the men - he thought - they proceeded to unmast and set fire to the Santa Ana, including some 500 tons of her cargo; taking with them 200 tons of the most valuable items aboard the Desire and Content, all they could carry.

On November 29th, 1587, the English privateers sailed from San Lucas Bay after firing a final salvo into the Santa Ana. The Content followed the wake of the Desire out into the Gulf.” Mike barely looked up as he said, “Now get this! She was seen to lag behind and after a time swing off to the north, as the Desire, under full sail, turned to the south to pick up the galleon route to the Orient and on around South Africa to England. They arrived in Plymouth on September 20th, 1588, with their treasures intact. Cavendish was subsequently knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

No such happy ending awaited the Content. She was never heard from, disappearing from the face of the earth as though some monster of the sea had seized her - as subsequent events seem to have proven.”

Mike folded up his notes. “All this early history of the Content we dug up from such sources as Gerhard and Martinez, both good reliable historians. Then we found some old archives here and there that confirmed what they’d written. Anyhow, it convinced us. Later, we picked up an old Papago Indian legend of a ship one of their ancestors had found partly protrudin’ from the sand there in the desert. He’d crawled through a hole in the hull and brought out some artifacts.

So far, that didn’t prove the ship was the Content but the things he took from the wreck just happened to be items from the Santa Ana loot. In the meantime, while we was rootin’ around down there, we found some Indian artifacts in a small cave not too far from where we think the Content lies. Among them were some items, such as a piece of sail cloth, a metal wash basin of antique construction, a part of a hoop from a wine or water cask, and some other stuff that had most probably come off a ship. No tellin’ how old they were but they’d been in that cave for a long time.”

“Pretty good circumstantial evidence,” I said, “but is it proof that ship is the Content?”

“Wait ‘til I tell you the rest!” Mike’s patience was always short when one of his yarns was questioned. “Now was when the real head-scratchin’ began. Just how did that ship get from San Lucas Bay to a place 12 miles north of the Gulf?

We figured that mutiny did take place on the Content just after she got under way and cleared the Bay. Why else would she turn north up the Gulf instead of followin’ the Desire like she’d been doin’ for over a year? Chances are the Captain and Mate went over the side with slit throats or a belly full of lead. The mutineers knew Cavendish would have them swingin’ from a yardarm if he ever laid hands on them, just like he’d done to that Padre he’d taken from the Santa Ana. As long as the Desire was goin’ south, they had an overwhelmin’ desire to go north.

Well, we figure one of the first things the top dogs did after takin’ over the ship was to start rummagin’ the Captain’s cabin. There they found his chart laid out on the table, just where he’d left it when the ruckus started. If you’ve ever seen any of the maps from them days, you’ll know cartography weren’t what you’d call an exact science - but they sure had an imagination for fillin’ in the blank spaces. This chart of the Captain’s showed Baja as a big island, with a broad channel out to the Pacific at the north end. That’s what I call a downright vivid imagination.”

While he stopped to fire up his pipe again, I got an atlas so I could follow his story better. He continued, “How they ever got from one end of the Gulf to the other I’ll never know. Only pure luck got them past all the islands, bars and reefs - couldn’t have been because they was livin’ right! With all that free-flowin’ brandy from the Santa Ana aboard, there must have been some dandy grudges comin’ out in the open and plenty of first class brawls resultin’. I imagine some of them got scratched and scraped a bit maybe. I’d sure like to have seen it all from some quiet corner.”

“Mike, your imagination is doing right well, almost sounds like logic. What happened after that? I shifted to a more comfortable position; this was getting good.

“Well, they finally got up to there they could see the north end of the Gulf and started lookin’ around for that wide channel out to the Pacific. Far as they could see ahead was a big flood plain with dunes beyond, back of them was mountains and more mountains with a high peak to the northeast. But between the surf and the mountains to the northeast, they spotted a break in the shoreline. They was probably sayin’ “Egad and gadzooks, we got ‘er made!’ or however they talked in them days. They headed for the break in the shore, but when they got close enough for a good look there was some first class cussin’ went on, I’ll bet. It was a muddy old river - a big one - but with all the sandbars that was showin’ up, they couldn’t have got the Content upstream with a shoe horn.

There was a mean lookin’ lava reef runnin’ out from the shore ahead, too. They figured if they could see one there must be plenty more around they couldn’t see. On account of they couldn’t think of nothin’ better to do, they dropped the bow anchor, figurin’ the best thing to do was a little drinkin’ and thinkin’. After a few dollops, they decided to stay put until high tide in the mornin’, whenever that would be, then head back south. Cavendish was now about 10 days ahead of ‘em, so they wouldn’t see him again.

With their leavin’ San Lucas Bay on November 29th, it would have been about the night of December 4th they was ridin’ there at anchor. We figured back in astronomical years and found out there was a full moon on that night of 1587. Now you know the full moon and maximum high tides goes hand in hand. As them tides come rollin’ up the Gulf, they was squeezed in between the taperin’ shorelines. The Gulf stretches about 45 miles wider at the north than it did in them days. So as the shores got closer and closer, the only place that tidewater could go was up and it got deeper and deeper, or higher and higher - dependin’ on whether you’re a fish or a duck. Tidal bores better’s 20 feet high, same as a tidal wave, are a matter of record in them days.

Now, as we figure it, the Content was layin’ there, fat, dumb and happy, like an old houn’ dog stretched out in front of a campfire. She was probably ridin’ on her bow anchor and swingin’ into a westerly wind when the tidal bore slapped her broadside. She rolled over on her beam ends, maybe all the way over, and righted herself as she floated back to the surface; draggin’ her bow anchor as the bore carried her along. Then like an old seagull droppin’ a clam on a rock, the bore plunked the Content down on the lava reef. She’s still sittin’ right there today, with a big hole in her bottom and a big sand dune on her top.”

I said, “Mike, you should have been a detective, the way you handle the clues.”

“Maybe so, but you’re about 40 years too late with your suggestion.”

He sat there for a few moments with a pensive look on his face, as though dwelling in the past. “you know something,” he said, “it seems to me the whole world turned its back on them cutthroats. The Gulf slowly crept away to the south and the river moved its delta miles to the west as the tidal sands gradually filled in the shoreline and choked off the river channels. The old ghost stays put there on its rock bier, but its spirit is still restless. Every once in a while she comes up for all the world to see - and nobody’s lookin’.”

By this time, both of us were having visions of ghost ships sailing across the billowing sands. “We’re goin’ back this fall when the weather cools off a bit and this time I’ll bet we find her if we get half a break from the wind uncoverin’ a bit of her poop deck cabin.”

“You’ve convinced me, Mike. How about signing on for your next expedition?”

He wasn’t paying any attention. My wife had just announced dinner and the old chow hound remembered her good cooking. He had something on his mind more important than ghost ships and Spanish treasures.

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Charley Clusker and the Lost Ship
by Harold O. Weight

Somewhere in the great Salton Basin, or the Laguna Salada or the delta of the Colorado River, lie the bones of an ancient ship stranded, abandoned and forgotten unknown centuries ago - the Lost Ship of the Desert. Now hidden, now exposed, subject to the sands and winds, the cloudbursts and the floods, it has been seen and reported by Indians and prospectors and travelers through more than 100 years. Seen - but almost always beyond reach. Reached - but only under circumstances that made investigation impossible. Found - but always lost again.

The legend seems immortal in the folklore of the far Southwest. But was there - is there - a Lost Desert Ship? You say yes? Prove it. You say no? Prove it. Impossible? Prove that!

One thing is certain: Through the long years there have been many and many a true believer. One of them, Charles Carroll Clusker, sought the Lost Ship so urgently that his name is now inseparable from its story.

Charley became involved in 1870, which turned out to be the Year of the Lost Ship. Much of the excitement and most of the ship’s wide fame evolved through newspaper stories published through the fall and winter of that year. Most of those stories dealt with Charley Clusker’s search for it.

The Los Angeles News printing the trigger story - or at least the first one widely circulated - in late August:

“INTERESTING DISCOVERY: By many it has been held as a theory that the Yuma Desert was once an ocean bed. At intervals, pools of salt water have stood for a while in the midst of the surrounding waste of sand, disappearing only to rise again in the same or other localities. A short time since, one of these saline lakes disappeared and a party of Indians reported the discovery of a ‘big ship’ left by the receding waters. A party of Americans at once proceeded to the spot and found embedded in the sands the wreck of a large vessel. Nearly one-third of the forward part of the ship, or barque, is plainly visible. The stump of the bowsprit remains and portions of the timbers of teak are perfect.

The wreck is located 40 miles north of the San Bernardino and Fort Yuma Road and 30 miles west of Dos Palmas, a well-known watering place on the desert. The road across the desert has been traveled for more than 100 years. The history of the ill-fated vessel can, of course, never be known, but the discovery of its decaying timbers in the midst of what has long been a desert will furnish savants the food for discussion and may perhaps furnish important aid in the elucidation of questions of science.”

There is detail in that story - teak timbers, broken bowsprit, a third of the ship showing. The reporter must have interviewed someone. Which makes it all the more curious that no member of that “party of Americans” was identified in the original story or, to my knowledge, in any that followed. But it was exactly the sort of story editors clip and reprint, and it spread swiftly from newspaper to newspaper. The San Bernardino Guardian carried it on September 10 and probably that is where Charley Clusker saw it. There is no indication that he was a member of that first Lost Ship expedition, but he led the second, third and fourth.

Clusker already had lived a life adventurous enough for a dozen men. He was born in Richmond, Kentucky March 10, 1810. In Cincinnati, when the Mexican War began, he enlisted in the First Regiment, Ohio Volunteers. Serving under General Zachery Taylor, he took part in the battles of Brownsville, Matamoras, Monterrey, Cerro Gordo, Vera Cruz and Buena Vista, and the storming of Chapultepec at Mexico City.

He had heard much about California in Mexico, and when mustered out proceeded, with five comrades, to visit it. Outfitting at Little Rock, they rode to Santa Fe and took the Gila Trail, which, in the time of the Gold Rush emigrants, would become famous as the dangerous Southern Route. Much of it threaded hot, thirsty and little known deserts. It crossed the heartland of the fierce Apaches. Along it there were no towns, no stations, no military posts. Charley and his small party crossed without mishap. Game was abundant, water sufficient, and though they saw many Indians, they were not challenged.

Clusker arrived in Los Angeles in the early spring of 1848, but apparently the easy-going little Mexician town was a disappointment. Two weeks later he was on the way back, safely recrossing the same dangerous wilderness - this time alone. When California gold started the East heading West, Charley followed the Overland Trail back to California, crossing the Sierra Nevada by the Truckee route. He staked his first claim at Coloma, where James Marshall had made the original strike. From there he worked his way through most of the Mother Lode camps and diggings, and for the rest of this life remained a prospector, miner, and seeker after lost mines.

Either the La Paz rush of 1862 or the Weaver-Walker discoveries the next year must have stampeded him to Southern California and on into Arizona, where he remained for years. In 1864 he was in Wickenburg milling the ore from the rich Vulture Mine, some dozen miles to the southwest, apparently first in an arrastra on the Hassayampa and later in the company’s 40-stamp mill.

In 1870, he was back in San Bernardino, and prospecting. In June that year, according to the Guardian, he rediscovered the “long-lost Jesuit mine,” a legendary bonanza from which “the old padres in times past” had extracted fabulous amounts of silver. Prospecting for the source of rich silver float, in the mountains some 40 miles easterly from San Bernardino, Clusker had struck a well-defined trail, followed it to a well graded road built of large stones and followed that to the remains of an old shaft. Clearing the debris from that half-filled shaft, the party found ore which, the newspaper said, assayed from $600 to $1,000 a ton.

There were, of course, no Jesuits in the California Missions. And, if old padres of any brotherhood possessed a mine with such rich ore, it must not have been the one Charley found. There is no further mention of his connection with it, and when the Lost Ship appeared upon the horizon only months later, Charley was ready to go. And what more ideal leader could there have been to track down a phantom ship in the desert sands than a seasoned and experienced visionary like Charles C. Clusker?

Charlie and two companions, men named Caldwell and Johnson, left San Bernardino on that quest about October 1, 1870. They following the old Bradshaw Road through San Gordonio Pass and down the Coachella Valley to Martinez, still a Desert Cahuilla Indian center today, south of Indio and west of Mecca. Here, since the ship was supposed to be stranded “just southward of the point of the mountain southeast of Martinez,” they left the only traveled road - that to Dos Palmas - and headed into the trackless Salton Sink.

At that time, the present Salton Sea, created by a breakthrough of the Colorado River early in this century, did not exist. Instead, the sink was an enormous playa, hard and smooth in some areas, vast quagmires with a thin salt crust in others. Here would be found great stretches of rough “self-rising” ground, there salt marshes or evanescent lakes, elsewhere boiling mudpots or shining salt beds.

With no roads or trails, Charley and his party headed directly across the playa toward their destination. But looking back, they suddenly decided that was not the way to do it. Behind them their footprints and the deep wagon tracks were already filled with water. Fighting the clutching clay, they hastily returned to a more firma terra.

On their return to San Bernardino, the Guardian of October 15 reported: “All the members of the expedition are highly pleased with the result. Though they found no ship nor any sign thereof, yet they seem fully persuaded of the existence of some vessel. That it will finally be found and the whole mystery solved admits of no doubt whatever. It is only a question of time, and a portion of the same party will start out in a few days to make another effort.

The Guardian speculated on whether the vessel would prove to be a buccaneer ship (in which case there would be rich booty aboard) or perhaps one sent out exploring by a Viceroy of Mexico (in which case pickings would probably be poor). “But after all,” it concluded, “it may be that what we call a ship may be a corral, as it has borne the appearance of one to one of the only two white men who have ever seen it.”

It might seem that a corral in the soggy midst of a great salt marsh which had once been a lake would be harder to explain than a wrecked ship in the same spot. But most interesting is that the Guardian, speaking apparently from unpublished information, says that only two white men had ever seen the ship. What has happened to that “party of Americans’ in the News, a story the Guardian had published without question? And who were the fortunate two?

Charley calculated he had been within 10 or 15 miles of the ship on his first search, when he “made the wrong chute and got mired.” So on his second expedition, starting November 5, he took along a good wagon and pack saddles, and planks to cross any miry ground. He also had new partners: KD.S. Ferster, F.J. West, and a man named Hubble.

“RETURN OF THE SHIP PROSPECTORS!!! Charley Clusker and his party returned from the desert just as we were going to press. They had a hard time of it but they have succeeded in their efforts. THE SHIP HAS BEEN FOUND! Charley returns to the desert today to reap the fruition of his efforts. He was without food or water, under a hot broiling sun for over 24 hours, and came near perishing. We have not space to report in full the adventures of the party, but are promised a full account in our next.”

A news dispatch put on the wire from Los Angeles next day was briefer, but much more exciting: “Clusker reports he has found the desert ship 45 miles southwest of Dos Palmas station in the Cavassone (Cabezon) Lake. He described her at 200 feet long, bow, bowsprit and stern above the sand. Clusker returns today to the ship to take possession.”

Two hundred feet! That’s a lot of ship. It’s long enough, in fact, to stretch the Lost Ship legend beyond the breaking point. But where did the figure come from? Not from the Guardian, so probably not from Charley. It may be the wire reporter talked to an expedition member who went directly to Los Angeles, or that he picked up an embroidered rumor, or that he adds the embroidery himself.

Possibly the source was the same as that for a November 29 story in the Los Angeles News, which declared the wreck lay in the midst of boiling springs, where the animals sunk to their knees in alkaline mud, which removed the hair from their legs. That story reported the ship to be of some 200 tons burthen. Maybe tons were switched to feet.

Reporters were still embroidering Charley’s story 50 years later. A San Diego newspaper in 1937 said: “According to Charley, he had found a great Spanish galleon, ornate crosses and even broken masts.”

I have found no evidence Charley ever said he had found a Spanish galleon, or claimed his ship was 200 feet long. But then, neither have I found evidence that Charley ever found a ship, or even actually saw one.

The complete account of Charley’s discovery was not, as promised, in the December 3 issue of the Guardian. “It is now a fixed fact,” the paper said, “for there can be no doubt that the ship is there lying high and dry, 100 or 200 miles from water.”

Then it went on with the details of the new expedition. This time, in addition to Ferster and West, Josh Talbott, one of the Guardian editors, was going along.

“They are well fitted out with all the necessary tools and implements for thoroughly exploring the vessel, such as shovels, picks, block, chains, rope, and 300 or 400 feet of boards. At Carrizo Creek Station, on the San Diego road, they intend making a depot for supplies. We expect to receive some interesting news from the party, for publication, in a week or two.”

But for almost a month, the Guardian made no mention of the ship or its seekers. The break is so long that later writers about the Lost Ship commonly assert that no report on the expedition was ever made, and that the ship hunters sneaked back into San Bernardino, unwilling to talk.

Talbott’s report – the most complete account of Charley’s operations ever published – did finally appear in the Guardian on December 31. In it, Talbott first summarized the earlier searches, and explained what had caused the excitement on the one before. The party, he said, had gone again to Martinez; and then more to the south, crossing almost to the Fort Yuma road. Their animals having gone without water for 48 hours, they were compelled to turn back – but not before Charley “became convinced” that he saw the ship far out in the dry lake.

Of his own experiences Talbott wrote, in part: “We had water capacity for 108 gallons, provisions for two months and four good horses and wagon. We left San Bernardino on November 30th, and barring three severe nights rain, our trip was without incident. We came this time by a difficult route – that of the old Fort Yuma road via Warner’s Ranch and Carrizo Creek station. On the route we discovered a rich tin mine, about 30 feet wide, which will deserve our attention hereafter. Here (Carrizo Creek), filling up our casks with water we boldly plunged out into the desert, intending to go as far as our water would permit and sending the wagon back for a fresh supply if we failed to find it. Passing out upon the desert about 18 miles we made cap and the next day commenced to prospect for the ship.

“Carrizo Creek becomes dry about a mile from the station, and is a hard, firm wash except in places for at least 40 miles, where it empties into the lake. The next day, Charley, Ferster and West went across a low ridge of sand hills to a mountain far out into the desert – the only one near the lake for miles – and returned without success. The ground near the lake is covered with shells and exhibits every evidence of being at one time an inland sea. The next day we took another course, going more in a northeasterly direction. On this trip we found a laguna covered with young cane. The water was brackish, but we thought good enough for horses, so sending the wagon for fresh water we continued our explorations, edging nearer each day to Dos Palmas, evidently some 70 or 80 miles distant.

“On the return of the wagon we started for the laguna, and as we went further into the desert roads become terrible – the ground filled with rabbit holes and the soil loose and porous, the walkers plunging over shoe tops at every step. A little after dark we arrived at the laguna, the horses completely fagged out. Next day we resumed our explorations. We were not yet within 30 or 40 miles of where the ship is said to be but Charley was determined to thoroughly prospect the lake as he went. The boys were out two or three days more, surmounting obstacles that would deter most men, but the weather being clear and cold they wandered over a vast expanse of ground – on foot, as we had to spare our animals as much as possible.”

After 20 days, Josh decided business required his return to San Bernardino. With Ferster he rode northerly a distance he estimated at about 60 miles, to Martinez station. Ferster returned to the prospectors with the horses. Talbott came home to San Bernardino in one of station Keeper Gus Knight’s wagons. He had left the boys in good spirits, he said, confident they would yet find their ship. But as for himself:

“We have not lost any ships, we do not feel inclined to undertake another expedition to find one.”

Clusker had told Talbott that he would prospect another month, but he was back in San Bernardino two weeks later. As usual, he headed for the Guardian office. The January 14, 1871 issued updated the Lost Ship saga:

“RETURN OF THE SHIP PROSPECTORS. On Tuesday evening last, Charley Clusker and party returned to town, we are sorry to say, unsuccessful. Their animals were completely worn out – scarcely able to bring the wagon home. The indomitable Charley is not discouraged, and will make another effort to find the ship, this time via Dos Palmas.”

In from Dos Palmas was about the only direction that Charley, the indomitable and indefatigable, had not tried. It also was the logical route to have been tried in the first place, considering the supposed position of the ship. But if Charles did make the effort, I have been unable to find any record of it.

If Charley Clusker did abandon his quest for the Lost Ship, I suspect the reason was not any weakening of his enthusiasm but a shortage of proper expedition members. Members, that is, who would foot the bill for food, tools, supplies and animals necessary. Through some experience with the old prospector breed, I even have a suspicion as to why each of Charley’s expeditions took a different direction and covered different country. Why, particularly after he claimed to have sighted the ship on one try, his next search took an enormous detour to approach the area from much farther off and an almost opposite compass direction.

Talbott’s account makes it clear that Charley was not simply hunting a stranded ship, which in that dry lake sink could have been seen from afar. He was prospecting the country. To put it bluntly, it appears that Charley Clusker found the story of the Lost Ship the most superb bait for catching grubstakers that he had ever encountered. He would probably have keep looking for it as long as he could raise a grubstake for the purpose.

That is not to doubt that Charley believed in the Lost Ship and really hunted for it. He just didn’t hunt it exclusively. He wanted to make certain that he didn’t miss anything good enroute. And the fact that he did not find the ship on the arduous expeditions, or any ledge, vein or placer either, in no way shook his prospector’s optimism.

The next year he was up in Death Valley, hunting the Lost Gunsight mine with companions Frink and Curtis. He didn’t find that either, and the reason, explained in the March 9, 1872 Guardian, was that they had started too early. Caught in the mountains in a snow storm, they had been forced to retreat. But come spring, they were going back again.

Early in 1873 there was an excitement in the Ord Mountains, and Charley was leading a party of prospectors there. Later the same year he had something big “beyond the mountains” in the Twentynine Palms region. In 1879 he was amalgamator in the mill at Resting Springs, “one of the best skilled mining men on the Slope.” In 1880, the San Bernardino Daily Times, identifying him as “the veteran prospector of the country,” reported that Charley was in town “with new visions of wealth floating before his eyes.”

Charley finally did give up prospecting. At age 81, in 1891, he opened and successfully operated a store in San Timoteo Canyon, which is just northwest of San Gorgonio Pass, beside the old road he had followed so often into the desert. In 1904, age 94, he was living in San Bernardino, “with health and mental faculties unimpaired.”

The biographer who recorded these facts for Ingersoll’s Century Annals of San Bernardino County, did not even mention his most famous adventure – the quest for the Lost Ship.

But he did sum Charley up rather well: “For 30 years Mr. Clusker was a typical prospector and miner. He made fortunes – and lost them with equal fortitude. Sometimes he had wealth in hand, always he possessed wealth in prospect.

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Lost Ship … Fact or Fiction!
Editorial, January 1939 - Desert Magazine

Fabled ship of the Southern California desert! Is it pure myth, or is there a basis of fact for the oft-repeated story that somewhere beneath the shifting sands of the Cahuilla basin is buried an ancient hulk in which a rich treasure awaits the finder?

Many versions of the lost ship legend have been given. One of these is the story told by Fierro Blanco in his book “The Journey of the Flame.” Blanco’s novel is a strange mixture of fact and fiction. Historical records would indicate that his version of the lost pearl ship belongs in the category of fiction.

Another “lost ship” story was written by Florence Haines Apponyi and appeared in “The Golden Era” in San Diego, 1885. This appears to be an authentic record - but since the element of lost treasure is missing, it lacks the glamour of the Blanco legend.

These two versions are given on this page. A new lost ship story, printed for the first time in the Desert Magazine, appears on the next page. The reader will find all three stories interesting - and may draw his own conclusions as to their authenticity.

Pearl Ship - In the year 1615 Juan De Iturbe, after a successful season of pearl fishing and bartering with the Indians along the coast of the Gulf of California, sailed north in the hope of finding the fabled Straits of Anian through which he could pass to the Atlantic Ocean without the necessity of returning on the long route around the Horn. In the hold of his ship were many chests of pearls.

Reaching the head of the gulf he found a channel extending inland between two ranges of mountains. He passed through this channel without difficulty and entered an inland sea so vast that northern shore was not visible.

He sailed around the western shoreline but a day or two later, while his ship was anchored overnight near the entrance to a great arroyo, the waters subsided and the craft was grounded on a sandbar. Before the vessel could be released, a cloudburst came down from the western range and poured a flow of water and debris into the sea. While the debris made navigation difficult at first, the vessel floated clear and soon was out in deep water again.

Continuing his journey, Iturbe eventually came to the northwestern shore but could find no passage beyond. Several weeks were spent in seeking an outlet and also in hunting and fishing to supply provisions for the return trip to Spain.

Finally, he gave up the quest for a water route to the north and turned the ship southward again. There he discovered that the channel from which he had entered the sea had disappeared and sandbars blocked the way in every direction. He and his crew were trapped in a landlocked sea.

From a high mountain he had seen a wide channel of water some distance east of the sea and he sailed north along the eastern shore seeking a way into this channel but the waters were falling rapidly and it finally was necessary to abandon the vessel.

The sequel to this version of the loss of Iturbe’s ship is the story told in later years of a young muleteer who was a member of the Juan Bautista de Anza expedition across the Southern California desert in 1775. Two or three days after the Anza party crossed the river at Yuma, the young mule driver was sent out to scout the sandy wastes of the desert in search of water. He came one evening upon the decayed hulk of an ancient sailing vessel partially buried in the sand and when he went down into the hold to explore the interior of the ship he found many chests. Breaking one of them open he discovered that it was full of pearls. He filled his pockets with them and instead of rejoining the Anza party, headed for the Pacific Ocean which he knew was beyond the mountains to the west.

After many days of hardship he reached the mission settlement at San Diego and sought to enlist the interest of one of the Spanish soldiers stationed there. The soldier was willing enough to join him but while they were making secret preparations for their departure a revolt among the Indians and the killing of one of the padres upset their plans. Finally the young muleteer secured a horse and several days’ food and returned alone to the desert to recover the fortune he had discovered. He made friends with some of the mountain Indians and from their camp made many journeys down into the desert—but never could re-locate the old ship. Following his death in later years the story became another legend of lost treasure in the desert.

La Paz Ship - Briefly, the story is to the effect that in 1862 Joshua Talbot was one of a small party of gold seekers bound for the mines near La Paz, Arizona. The outfit ordered a small skiff built in Los Angeles. The boat was 21 feet long and rigged with a single mast for sailing. According to records brought to light by Arthur Woodward, curator of history in the Los Angeles museum, such a craft was turned out in the workshop of Perry & Woodworth late in May, 1862.

Commenting on the use of this craft, the Los Angeles Star of May 31, 1862 said: “It was built for one of the companies starting for the mines, to be used in crossing the river. The Colorado now is greatly swollen from the heavy rains in the mountains, and there is no ferry established at the mines; it is a provident forethought to go prepared to cross the stream without loss of time or obstruction.”

The boat was put on wheels and two wagonloads of provision were sent along with it. Enroute across the desert the teams gave out and the men were forced to abandon the craft.

Within 10 years the ship had become a legend. In 1870 Indians reported having seen the boat and the location was given as 40 miles north of the San Bernardino-Yuma Road and about 30 miles west of Dos Palmas.

In 1870 a party of men headed by Charles Clusker went out to salvage the vessel and what valuables it contained. Local newspapers reported the men had found it 50 miles or more from Dos Palmas in a region of boiling mud springs. Clusker returned to secure equipment for reaching the boat - but none of the newspapers of the day contained any further reference to the expedition.

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Lost Ship of the Desert
by Charles C. Niehuis

The legend of the lost ship of the Colorado desert persists. Here is a new version from an unexpected source. When this manuscript reached the office of the Desert Magazine a note of inquiry was sent to Mr. Niehuis, the author, to learn whether the story was pure fiction, based on the old legend of the lost pearl ship, or an authentic report from living characters. He replied that while Jim Tucker recently passed away, his wife Petra was still living at the time this story was written and would vouch for its truth.

Jim Tucker has gone now. He went on his last “prospecting trip” over on the other side of the Great Divide. He left here his wife Petra, a Mexican woman who had been his companion on trips into the mountains and over the desert for nearly 40 years.

I can still see Jim as he sat on the edge of his bed at the Arizona Pioneers’ Home near Prescott and told me the strange story which I am going to repeat as accurately as memory will permit.

A grizzled beard of a week’s growth was on his face. He sat erect – broad shoulders and straight back that the weight of 79 years could not bend. Blue eyes twinkled under shaggy eyebrows. His voice boomed and rumbled in his massive chest like the distant blast of dynamite in a prospector’s hole.

“Charlie, I’ll tell you a good one. You won’t believe it, but it’s the truth anyway.” Then he hesitated.

“Shall I tell him about the ship, Petra?” he asked the small dark woman with snow white hair, who rocked steadily in the corner.

“Si, no le hace,” she murmured, then turned to flash, “But, don’t tell him where, Jim!”

I sat silent, neither urging nor discouraging them.

“I’m Petra’s second husband,” Jim continued, after he had shifted his chew into his cheek.

“Her first husband was Santiago Socia, a high class Mexican from Los Angeles. He killed a man there, and had to leave in a hurry – afraid they’d lynch him, because it was an American he shot. He hid in the hills, and finally worked his way down into Mexico. Petra followed him as soon as she found out where he was hiding. So they lived in Tecate, Baja California, and Santiago was working in a field, harvesting grain. One day a peon came up to him, looking for work.” Jim’s rumbling voice ceased a moment as the old man shifted his suspenders off his shoulders, dropping them to his waist.

“Santiago had almost finished, and told the beggar – what was his name?” Jim asked, turning to Petra.

The dark woman ceased her rocking, put down a bit of embroidery, pressed finger tips to the bridge of her nose, thinking, searching that age-dimmed page of memory.

“Yo pienso – Leonardo, Jim. Si, it was Leonardo.”

“Well, Charlie, you know how Mexicans are – they rolled ‘cigareets’, and sat on their heels in the shade of a mesquite tree and talked it over.”

The mention of cigarettes started a chain of reflexes in Jim, and he fished in his breast pocket for papers and his sack of “smoking”. The brown paper ‘cigareet’ was soon rolled, and Jim lit it without removing the chew of tobacco he already had in his mouth.

Petra laughed when she saw my look of astonishment.

“Jim, he likes the tobacco, no?”

Then with cigarette between thumb and finger, Jim leaned forward and put his elbow on his knee.

Santiago Makes a Journey

“Well, the beggar told Santiago he had a map from a padre in California that showed where Indians had hid some ollas filled with gold dust when the Spanish stampeded them. The ollas was supposed to be hidden in the mountains just across the line north from Tecate.”

“Santiago was like Jim,” Petra interrupted, “you say, ‘Come, Santiago, I know where there is gold,’ and he go, right now.”

“The peon, he tell Santiago he have to take two other men along, who he live with.”

She paused, and finger tips went to her forehead again.

“Ah, I remember, the peon, he was Leonardo, and the two men who go along, was Loreto Alvarez, who had the horses, and Juan Morales and his little boy, about 12, I think – and his name was Juan, too.”

I was astounded at the old lady’s memory, and prodded further, “How long ago was all this?”

She turned to Jim, and they spoke in Spanish, and I caught only words that meant years, towns, people; then at length:

“It was 1892,” Jim boomed through a cloud of smoke.

“Santiago, he furnish the money,” she continued, “and one day they go, and I not see Santiago for almost two months. It was late one night when he come back and come into the tent. He say nothing to me, but go to sleep right away.”

“I get up early and was making tortillas on a comal; what you call ‘comal’ in English, Jim?”

Tucker paused in the rolling of his third cigarette, and turned to me.

“A ‘comal’ is an iron, or a flat stone that Mexicans bake tortillas on. It is flat and big around.” Jim circled his arms to illustrate.

Petra continued, not looking at Jim or me, as she spoke of Santiago, her first husband.

“Santiago he finally get up, and come outside the tent. I have a fire under a cottonwood tree, and was baking the tortillas on the comal.”

“He not say anything at first, then he say, ‘Petra, if I had a chisel on our trip, I could get a nice comal for you – better one than that one.’”

“I laugh, and say to him, ‘Ah Santiago, where you find iron for comal in the mountains?’”

“He say, ‘I tell you something strange. You will say I am crazy, that I lose my water and get thirsty, and see dreams, but it is the truth.’

We was looking for the ollas of gold in every canyon where the map show, but we could not find them. Then – one day – in one canyon, we find – a ship! A big boat, in the sand!’”

“Then I say, ‘Santiago, you tease me!’” He say, ‘No Petra, it is the truth of God. I find a ship and stand on the front. It is ten feet high, and the back it is buried in the sand!’”

“But, the comal,” I say.

“The comals was big round iron things on the sides. Bright and not rusted; not like any metal I have seen before.”

Petra paused, then extended her arm. Her other hand measured it at the shoulder, and she said, “Santiago, he do this, and say, ‘This big, Petra.’”

She again described the sight as Santiago saw it. A narrow box canyon with high sheer walls, and a sandy bottom; and, partially buried there, a boat of ancient appearance – an open boat but big, with round metal disks on its sides.

I was bursting with questions, and Jim laughed when he saw me jerk forward with eagerness.

“It’s a good story, eh?” he roared with a grin.

“You bet it is! But why didn’t they report it, or claim the ship?”

“Well, Charlie, Petra’s told me the story many times, and I asked all those questions, too. Santiago was the only one of the men who realized he had found something. The others were only interested in the gold in the ollas, which they didn’t find. Santiago couldn’t go back to claim the find, because the ship was in the United States, and he’d have had to file in Los Angeles – and he was still steering clear of that place.”

“Didn’t any of them ever go back?”

“Petra claims they all died, of one thing or another, and none of them ever got back.”

Here Petra began speaking swiftly in Spanish. Jim started translating, for my benefit, so Petra changed to English again.

“One time, my husband, Santiago was riding in the mountains in the Estados, and I was with him. We was up high, and could see more mountains, 15, maybe 20 miles away, and he stop and say, “Petra, I am a poor man, now, and maybe some time I die before you, and leave you nothing. You get a good man, and come back here. You go to those mountains,’ and he point, ‘the ship, it is there. It is worth more than the gold in the ollas!’”

“The sand is blowing in there, Petra, and will cover the ship soon, in few years. So, look for writing on the wall of the canyon – high up. Too high to reach from the ground, and too far down to reach from the top! It is not Indian writing, nor English, but some strange writing which must be made by the man of the strange ship. Look for it.”

“So, when Santiago is gone, after some time I do get a good man,” here she turned and looked at Jim a moment, with her hands folded in her lap.

“But, he don’t believe my story for long time. Now it is too late, we are too old.”

I, too, looked at Jim. He lit his brown paper cigarette, and drew deeply. Words came out with the pale smoke.

“We went to San Diego once, Charlie, and I stopped in a station to get gas, and got to talking. I asked the fellow if he knew if there was much placer gold in the hills. He said, I don’t know if there is any gold up there, but there’s supposed to be a ship up there in some canyon.’”

“We were in the right place too. Just north of Tecate.”

“Did anyone else ever find it?” I asked.

“A fellow in Phoenix told me he saw a newspaper account in a coast paper, where a prospector, who had been in the hills had come to town. The first place he hit was a bootleggin’ joint, and he got drunk. He told a story about finding a ship in the mountains, and of course got laughed at. Then as he was on his way to the courthouse to file a claim he got hit by a street car, and killed instantly. They always get killed, or die some way, don’t they, Charlie? Kinda queer, in a way, ain’t it?”

I could feel a spell of mental indigestion coming on, and I must have shown it.

Don’t believe it, do you, eh?” Jim queried, leaning toward me. “Well, neither do I sometimes! Then, again – but, say, Charlie, I told this story to a prospector once. Was trying to get him interested enough to go with me to look for it. And, you know what he told me? He said, ‘Jim, if you ever tell that story to a burro, he’ll kick your brains out!’”

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Lost Ships of the Desert
photo by Bill Boyd

“…A short time since, one of these saline lakes disappeared, and a party of Indians reported the discovery of a ‘big ship,’ left by the receding waters. A party of Americans at once proceeded to the spot, and found imbedded in the sands the wreck of a large vessel. Nearly one-third of the forward part of the ship, or bark, is plainly visible. The stump of the bowsprit remains, and portions of the timbers of teak are perfect. The wreck is located forty miles north of the San Bernardino and Fort Yuma road, and thirty miles west of Dos Palmos (probably should read Dos Palmas), a well-known watering place in the desert…”

The hulk of this mysterious vessel rested at a prominent point where it could be viewed by travelers “on the high mesa between Dos Palmas and Bitter Springs.” Unfortunately no details were given concerning the name of the boat, its type, size or make, or its exact location. While we must wonder how big a “big boat” might be, we can assume that it would certainly be larger than any small craft, such as a canoe or rowboat. Dos Palmas and Bitter Springs cannot be pinpointed precisely. Six miles east of Salton, a point on the Southern Pacific Transcontinental Line, Dos Palmas was a well-known watering point for early travelers. Old maps locate another Dos Palmas 14 miles southwest of Indio, but the only Bitter Springs mentioned is in San Bernardino County, several miles north of Afton, and apparently too far north.

Now that we can verify that a boat existed on the desert, we can consider how it got there and why. It is only natural to assume that it once sailed the ancient Lake Cahuilla, which once filled the Coachella and Imperial valleys. The name for this ancient body of water was proposed by Prof. William P. Blake, after his visit in 1853 when he described the past and then-present conditions of that region.

Blake learned that the Indians of the Coachella Valley had a distinct legend concerning a great body of water. This lake teemed with fish which formed a substantial portion of the Cahuilla Indians diet. Asked when this lake existed, the Indians put the event “as far back as the lives of four or five very old men,” say four or five centuries prior to 1853. While the time element of the Indian’s tradition might be questioned, we can find no fault with the legend itself. That ancient shoreline has been preserved in many places, rimming the desert from Indio to Cerro Prieto. At numerous spots, ancient beaches and wave-cut cliffs remain as clear-cut evidence.

Cahuilla was a fresh-water lake, although at times its waters may have been brackish. Myriads of shells can be found on the fossil beaches and over the floor of the desert, once overlain by the lake. These shells are fresh-or brackish-water mollusks, which are definitely associated with those living in permanent streams in the desert region.

Blake and subsequent geologists have agreed that the water for the ancient lake came from the Colorado River. Walter Mendenhall described the events in U.S. Geological Survey Water Supply Paper 225. In times past, the mouth of the Colorado was at Yuma, about 60 miles north of its present site. Tremendous quantities of material carried by the stream built up a wide-spread delta and, during flood periods, the Colorado would occasionally “jump” its regular channel, wandering here and there in a haphazard, braided pattern. At certain times the stream channel would be built up until it was actually higher than the land adjacent to it. In this manner the delta gradually grew to a positive area. During years of heavy floods, Big Red would alternately dump its waters into the Gulf of California and the Salton Sink. Filling of the sink and evaporation probably went through numerous cycles, for numerous shorelines can be observed.

But water running into the Salton Sink isn’t entirely ancient history. Several bad floods between 1904 and 1907 defied control and on occasions the Colorado dumped its entire load into the Salton Sink via two old channels, the Alamo and New rivers. The Southern Pacific Co. expended nearly $3,000,000 in bringing the river under control. During this episode, the lake in the Salton depression grew rapidly and the S.P. had to build a succession of “shoo-fly” tracks, each higher than the last, in order to stay above the encroaching waters and prevent the interruption of traffic on its main line.

A river raging unchecked is a fearsome monster. The Colorado rampaged often, carving great channels in the land. It undercut great cliffs, dropping infinite tons of rock in its path. In its fury it carried house-sized boulders toward the sea and giant trees bobbing like corks on its surface.

We can easily picture Big Red jerking some boat free of its moorings, washing it downstream. If the fickle river suddenly changed its course and flowed into the Salton Sink, it would finally deposit the craft, partially filled with mud and debris, along some ancient beach. Here the boat might remain submerged for centuries, or until evaporation finally exposed it to view. Dozens of steamboats and ferry boats operated along the Colorado.

By stretching one’s imagination, it is conceivable that an unknown ship, in the past, sailed up the Colorado and into the Gila. Possibly waiting out a flood period on the Colorado, the boat then starts down the Colorado only to find it entirely diverted into the Salton Sink. Before the boat could retreat toward the Gila, Big Red may have again changed its course, running into the gulf, leaving the boat landlocked. You may not believe that, yet you’ll have to admit that a boat got out into the desert of California somehow.

All attempts to track down the legendary lost ship have failed, except that a second ship turned up, and it is a greater mystery than the first. This story appeared in the Golden Globe of August 18, 1894, sandwiched in between articles on cranberry crops, female suffrage, a man falling off his horse, the horrors of women wearing slacks, and the formation of a weed-extermination society to stamp out the Russian thistle. The story is related by E.C. Traver, supposedly a well-known prospector and civil engineer.

“One of the queerest and most surprising sights I ever saw in all my wanderings over the wilds of this country,” Traver said, “was a newly constructed brig lying on the floor of Death Valley. And it is there yet, so that anybody can see it.”

Traver had been prospecting on the eastern side of the “Ground-on-Fire” Valley for several weeks without success. He decided to move to the vicinity of Mount Darwin, crossing the valley at the upper end, at a point about 200 feet below sea level. Suddenly he came upon a boat. He didn’t quite believe what he saw. A boat? Out there in the middle of the desert? Great balls of mud, he thought, surely I’ve been sunstruck. He couldn’t believe it, yet there it sat, high and dry, all ready for a shakedown cruise.

Somewhat of a sailor himself, Traver knew something of boats, or so he said. This boat was constructed along modern lines, and the timbers looked fresh. Travers estimated it to be a brig of about 400 tons. He climbed aboard and found everything shipshape.

With night coming on, the prospector decided to make camp near the boat. As he prepared his meal, a man came up and hello-ed him, introducing himself as Frederick Evans. Traver invited him to eat. He described Evans as “good looking with gray hair and beard.” The fellow seemed sane enough. Evans lived in a cave nearby. Naturally they talked about the ship, which, as anyone can understand, would make a dandy conversation piece, situated, as it was, out there in the middle of the desert.

Evans, he said, was a shipbuilder by trade, and a California ‘49er. He had given up his trade to prospect, lured on by the fabulous tales of yellow metal. Some years before, possibly in the ‘80s, he was prospecting in the mountains of the desert, when the Salton Sea began to rise, undoubtedly one of the times when the Colorado changed its course. Fred had heard the stories about the large inland lake, and he decided the waters would eventually reach Death Valley.

Since he had resources, he hired two men to help in building the boat. When the waters in the Salton Sea began to recede again, he worked alone. Year after year, he stayed in the vicinity, prospecting, waiting for the water to reach him.

When Traver left, Evans said, “When the water rises I will be ready for it.”

It would seem that either Evans was ready for the booby hatch, or that Traver, in his stint on the desert, spent a heat-struck afternoon out there and the shimmering heat waves got to him.

In trying to solve the mystery of the lost ship of the desert, I find that every year or so, like flat worms, new lost ship legends spring from old and always new testimony is turning up. Probably if anyone did find it, they’d keep both the news and the loot to themselves, but if ever one is found, there will still be the others to stimulate the never-ending search.

DRSB ! Bisbee ! Elvis !!

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