THE GHOST SHIP OF THE DESERT
Written and researched by Robert Marcos. Sources listed at end of article.
THE SPANISH SHIP WAS LOADED WITH PEARLS when it ran aground in the spring of 1615. According to two witnesses, (off-roaders who’d seen the skeletal remains of the ship as recently as 1975), the shipwreck lies sixteen miles northwest of El Centro, in dunes on the southeastern edge of the Superstition Mountains. Most-often buried under the sand, the vessel has remained there for over four hundred years. How did it get there?
In 1610 King Phillip III of Spain ordered the construction of three ships to be built in Acapulco. They were to be used for the harvesting of pearls along the Pacific coast of Mexico. These vessels, called caravels, were much smaller than the 200-ton galleons which had transported the first conquistadors from Cuba to Veracruz. The caravels would have a shallow-draft, square-sails, and thirteen-rows of oars on each side - allowing them to manuever in shallow water.
The ships were completed in 1612 and they immediately set sail under the command of Captains Alvarez de Cordone, Pedro de Rosales, and Juan de Iturbe. Between them they had sixty experienced pearl divers, who were slaves brought over from the Portuguese colony of Sierra Leone.
The three ships sailed out of Acapulco and headed north. Nearly eighty years earlier Hernando Cortez had sailed from Navidad, (360 miles north of Acapulco), to the tip of Baja. Cortez was thrilled to find rich beds of oysters in La Paz.. In Europe pearls were in great demand and at the time and even more valuable than gold. But Cortez was unable to establish a settlement in La Paz due to a extremely hostile native population, and an insufficient supply of fresh water.
So Captain Cordone’s floatilla bypassed La Paz but traded for pearls at other coastal villages on their way north. But at one village things went awry. When Captain Cordone promised to trade a basket of their (Spanish style) clothing for a basket of pearls, the native chief was surprised to find his basket filled with worm-eaten cloth. The chief had expected clothing like that worn by the officers. The angered chief shot Cordone in the chest with an arrow. While he wasn’t killed, the captain was forced to return to Acapulco for medical treatment. He ordered his two fellow captains to continue on their own further up the Sea of Cortez.
At present-day Mulege the men hit the jackpot. A big storm had washed thousands of oysters up onto the beach and the men quickly filled their baskets. But upon their departure, Captain Rosales' boat struck a submerged oyster bed and began to take on water. Captain Iturbe’s pulled up next to the sinking ship and quickly moved its cargo and crew into his ship.
Now Iturbe had a decision to make. Return to Acapulco early, or continue to explore farther north? He chose the latter. For a week the men continued sailing until their ship entered a large shallow estuary. The men saw ducks, cat tails, and other features which they associated with freshwater. Gradually the route became narrower and narrower and then opened into what Uturbe described as a calm "inland sea". This may have been the last remnant of Ancient Lake Cahuilla, which was at one time was six times larger than today's Salton Sea. The men sailed or rowed along the eastern edge of that sea and then continued up the (now Colorado) river until they reached the 34th degree of latitude. The Spanish sailors had reached the area where the City of Blythe exists today.
It was here that Captain Iturbe turned his ship around. They sailed back down the river and into the calm inland sea. But in the weeks since their arrival the water level had fallen. This might have occurred if the river had been flooding when they arrived, and then had receded by the time they returned. Now the men's exit to the Sea of Cortez was blocked by a miles-long sand bar. They were trapped. In desperation the men sailed around the inland sea for three more days until they finally grounded their vessel on a sandy shore. The crew gathered as much of their precious cargo as they could then set off on foot.
Most of the crew survived the long and miserable trek south to the Jesuit Mission at Guaymas. A few months later they were transported back to Acapulco on a Spanish galleon. Iturbe was unable to raise the money necessary to return to his ship, and so the majority of his precious cargo was left forever on the sandy shore of that great inland sea and would eventually be covered by drifting sand. By 1800 the entire inland sea had once again evaporated, as it had countless times before.
Over the next two hundred years a variety of travelers passing between Yuma and Los Angeles reported seeing a large ship marooned in the sand dunes. Three of these accounts were published in local newspapers. The native Americans in the region had a legend about a ship, which one elder described as a “white bird”, after seeing the ship's sails flapping in the wind. And one industrious native even carved the ship, (or one similiar to it), on a rock face in a remote canyon, some miles away in Pinto Canyon.
In June of 2009 the San Diego Reader published a story I wrote titled, "Stay Away From Pinto Canyon". The story was about a dangerous trek a friend and I made to a remote canyon in order to photograph petroglyphs - prehistoric rock art. When my hiking partner and I reached the petroglyphs they were not what we expected. There were no woolly mammoths or sabre-toothed cats. Instead we found a crude collection of anthropomorphic stick figures, next to what looked like a large sailing vessel with square sails and oars protruding from it. In the article I surmised that the artist "may have seen a Spanish supply ship in San Diego harbor".
When the folks at the Maritime Museum of San Diego read my article they were electrified. An administrator called and asked if I would lead them back to the petroglyph site so they could see it for themselves. A few days later we met at the Texaco gas station in Ocotillo, about a hundred miles east of San Diego. Using an old map I'd found a jeep road that would take us from Ocotillo into to Davies Valley, and bring us within two miles of Pinto Canyon. We set off confidently in a pair of off-road vehicles but in less than an hour we had to stop. The Bureau of Land Management had erected a big steel barrier across the dirt road to stop drug runners who'd been using the same route. We had no choice but to turn around and go home.
But a steel barrier was not going to deter the folks at the Maritime Museum. Through proper channels they requested and obtained the combined assistance of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, and the National Park Service. Using their resources, Ray Ashley, the museum's president, assembled a crack team of archaeologists, historians, historic site managers, and photographers. Just a few weeks later this team of experts returned to Pinto Canyon - with the protection of federal agents armed with automatic weapons.
After viewing the petroglyphs in person and analyzing their data afterward, the experts presented their findings. They said while there was no solid proof, the ships depicted in the rock carvings could be from "the expedition of Francisco Ulloa in 1539, the expedition of Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602, or the expedition of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542." They followed with a sensational propostion: "If the object in the petroglyph is indeed a Spanish ship from one of the earlier expeditions, then it constitutes the earliest primary-source graphic representation of a historic event in American history. (Or you might say, the first record of Europeans landing in what is now the United States Of America).
At San Diego's Spanish Landing volunteers were putting the final touches on a replica of the San Salvador, the 200-ton galleon which Juan Cabrillo sailed into San Diego harbor in 1542. The harbor side installation also included a replica of the petroglyph that I found in Pinto Canyon. Since the life-sized replica of the ship and the replica of the petroglyph are sitting next to each other you could assume that the petroglyph is a depiction of the original galleon. However it’s much more likely that the petroglyph is a depiction of Juan de Iturbe’s caravel - stuck in the sand just a few miles from Pinto Canyon.
San Diego State University http://www.sci.sdsu.edu/salton/AncientLakeCahuilla.html
SD Maritime Museum https://sdmaritime.org/publications/mainsl-haul/
San Diego History Center http://www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/1965/january/discovery-2/
Wikipedia - Hernan Cortez https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hern%C3%A1n_Cort%C3%A9s
Black Pearls http://www.brilliantearth.com/black-pearls/