In the 1800s, many stories began circulating throughout Southern California and beyond about a spectral ship lying half-buried in the desert sands. Around that time, many migrants after the Civil War passed through the desert on their way to California. Many reported that they saw a multi mast Spanish galleon. Multiple expeditions left looking for the ship, but none found it. Some claimed it was Noah’s Ark. Many more claimed that it was loaded with pearls, a fortune’s worth, millions of dollars worth of exquisite pearls.
In 1610, King Phillip III of Spain ordered Alvarez de Cordone to search the Western coast of Mexico and recover the pearls residing there. Cordone hired two other captains, Juan de Iturbe and Pedro de Rosales. He also hired sixty pearl divers and began having three ships build. By July 1612 they set sail to plunder the west coast of its precious oysters.
Over and over again the ship would pause in its travels so the pearl divers could jump off the ship and return with the oysters they discovered on the ocean floor. But the going was slow. Eventually, they discovered a Native American village and stopped, meeting with the village leaders. They discovered that the Native Americans had baskets of the pearls just lying about and they formulated a trade of their rich fancy European clothing for the pearls. However, the Spanish swindled the Native Americans and traded them only rags and dirty clothes. The Native Americans outraged attacked the ship as it was trying to set sail. Cordone was hit by an arrow and lay ill. His ship was forced to turn around, but he ordered the other two on in search of more pearls, commanding them to look up the Gulf of California.
As they journeyed up the Gulf, Rosales’s ship struck a reef. The cargo was rapidly transferred to Iturbe’s ship and they continued on. One story says that Rosales’s ship was sunk in a terrible storm. With one ship remaining they sailed up the Gulf and eventually up the Colorado River and into the Salton Sea (or the Blake Sea or Lake Cahuilla as it may have been called long ago).
Here there are some slight departures in the story. Some stories claim that Iturbe (or another Spanish ship) sailed into the Salton Sea to find the legendary Straits of Anian, an all-water route from the Gulf of California to the Gulf of Mexico. Some stories claim that the Salton Sea and the Colorado River were higher and filled with water at the time. Supposedly this was during an unusual flooding season.
Others claim that after Iturbe had sailed from the Gulf of California and into the Salton Sea, an earthquake happened, closing off what remained of the Salton Sea from the ocean. Regardless, when Iturbe or whatever Spanish ship had sailed into the Salton Sea, turned around to try and head back home, they were dismayed to find that it was closed off. In fact, with the outlet to the ocean blocked, the water their ship was currently in was rapidly evaporating.
The water slowly receded and eventually, the ship was beached on the California desert, many many miles from the ocean. The ship was abandoned, the crew grabbing what few supplies they could carry and they trudged west towards the water. Supposedly four months later the survivors were finally picked up
Other versions of the tale, involve a pirate ship loaded down with almost a million doubloons. Another story states that the ship is one of the ships from King Solomon’s navy, carrying the ten lost tribes of Israel to North America. Yet another claims the ship to be from a warlike tribe formerly located in the Indian Ocean.
Another puts the Spanish galleon on Lake Cahuilla, supposedly another name for the large inland sea that eventually became the Salton Sea. Lake Cahuilla existed in the 16th century and had a tribe of Native Americans living in the area at the time. Knowing that the Spanish were coming to take their treasures and probably hurt the tribe, the Cahuilla Indians instead ambushed the Spanish party that came ashore from the ship. Then the tribe mounted a full attack on the galleon and after a fierce battle, annihilated all the crew on board claiming the ship for the tribe.
The Cahuillas began looting the ship of the clothes, foods, and exotic items that the Spanish had brought with them, but they could not move nor break into the heavy large iron chests that were in the hold. While they were debating what to do with the treasure chests a storm brewed up and began attacking the galleon. The Native Americans were forced to desert the ship which broke from its anchor, drifted off into the storm, overturned and soon sunk into the sea taking its precious cargo with it. By the time the lake supposedly dried up, the ship had been long buried under tons of dirt, sand, and silt.
Lastly, one story discusses a viking ship that could be found sticking out of the side of a mountain in the Tierra Blanco Canyon near Agua Caliente Springs. Legends of Native Americans speak of the arrival of the visitors that supposedly had a boat with the head of a snake on it. Sightings of the mysterious viking ship apparently ended after a 1933 earthquake. (see sidebar)
How true could this story be? It is surprisingly possible that a flood occurred connecting the Salton Sea to the Gulf of California. Supposedly in the past the two were connected at one time. The area between the desert and the gulf has the potential to be hit with massive flooding. And it would have been plausible for a ship to get carried in on the waves and the stranded afterwards as the water receded. Additionally the waters there have been known in the past to have strange tidal bores that would sweep waves in land. A ship could have been carried inland by one of those. However, it must be from the sheer number of stories and legends told by both Native Americans and frontiersmen, that makes this story quite possibly true.
In the 1800s the legends, stories, and failed expeditions began. Some claimed that the ship seen in the desert was haunted and could only be found at certain times of the year. Native Americans told tales about it, which was apparently good enough to confirm its existence. One group claimed that the ship came from 1862 when several people built a twenty-one foot single mast skiff mounted on wheels to transport themselves across the desert. Sadly when they reached the lowest point in the desert, they were forced to abandon the ship and continue on without it. They claim that the ship people saw in the desert was their abandoned wheel mounted skiff.
In 1870 several Indians reported seeing the ship, supplying a location of approximately 30 miles west of Dos Palmas and 40 miles north of the then San Bernardino – Yuma road.
1870 continued to bring attention to the ship in the form of a series of stories in the Los Angeles Star on November 12th and December 1st of 1870. The stories spoke of a man named Charley Clusker who claimed to have located the ship and was organizing several expeditions to return to it and bring back the missing ship which he claimed was filled with crosses and had broken masts. It was reportedly fifty miles or more from Dos Palmas in a region of boiling mud springs. Sadly there was nothing afterwards, and Mr. Clusker appears to have simply disappeared much like the elusive ship.
In 1878, three German prospectors saw the ship around sundown about 120 miles northwest of Yuma and 40 miles east of Indio. The two survivors reported seeing an immense ship under full sail, floating over the desert, sailing like a cloud into the sunset. One of the three prospectors went after it the next morning, but never returned. A rescue party eventually found him dead from lack of water and strangely naked. Later one old timer, reportedly spent several days camping inside the slowly rotting hull of the old galleon, completely unaware of the pearls and immense wealth that lay buried under the sand beneath him. Obviously, he was never able to relocated the derelict ship.
In 1905, a prospector named Butcherknife Ike, claimed to have discovered a fossil ship buried in the sand dunes of Borrego Springs. And in 1915, a Yuma Indian arrived in one town paying for his merchandise with pearls. After being questioned, he claimed to have spent the night in a strangely shaped wooden house that was partially covered by sand. The people he spoke to offered him several hundreds of dollars plus a place to sleep for the night if he would take them back there in the morning. He agreed, collected his pay, agreed to be lodged for the night, and was no where to be seen come morning, having completely vanished.
In 1933, Antonio de Fierro Blanco wrote a book that discussed the story of Tiburcio Manquerna, a young mule driver who had apparently come across the lost Spanish Galleon. At the time Tiburcio was operating as a mule driver for Juan Baptista de Anza who was searching for a land route from Sonora to Alta California. He even went into the hold of the ship, saw the pearls, but was never able to relocate the evasive ship. These events occurred around 1775.
Even as early as 1949, three UCLA students, armed with old newspaper accounts, 1910 Imperial Irrigation District Maps, and old stories from Cahuilla Indians, went out to search for a Viking ship. The Los Angeles Times reported the undertaking, but sadly never told the results of the expedition, which leads me to believe that like so many others before, it too met in failure. Many treasure hunters have gone after the missing treasure of pearls. None has brought back evidence of finding it. One of the presumed reasons for this, is that the sands of the desert shift sometimes moving or obscuring or revealing the lost ship.
And of course a ghost story has sprung up around the incident. According to story tellers, the ship itself, now bleached white and desiccated by the whipping sands blown by the desert winds, has become a ghost. With an eerie other-world glow and singing dead sailors, the skeleton of a ghost ship sails the desert. often being seen sailing into the sunset or along the moonlight. Of course, ghost stories are often in dispute, as another ghost tale places the phantom ship near Kane Springs, and the ship doesn’t make a sound as it glides silently pass. Nor are any sailors in view.
Does the mysterious ship laden with a fortune in pearls still reside in the desert? Or is it simply a strange story that has been passed down through the decades? Does it still sail spectrally over the sands, heading off into the sunset? Perhaps one day, when the sands blow the correct way, we’ll be lucky enough to find out.
Map showing the location of the Salton Sea – taken from Wikipedia