Talk of gold strikes, the Lost Dutchman Mine, and ghosts of prospectors are whispered in hushed tones around campfires in the Superstition Mountains in the desert east of Phoenix. And divers still scour the rocks on Mexico’s reef-protected coasts seeking sunken treasure from the Spanish galleons that had looted pre-historic empires and then were torn apart and sunk on the jagged reefs, taking their treasure with them.
Seldom, however, do reports and legends include the combination of desert treasure and sunken ships, as do persistent tales told by Native Americans of the Southwest and early travelers that have passed through the lower Mojave Desert. These accounts have produced one of the Southwest’s most intriguing legends.
Southern California’s Salton Sea lies in a depression in the earth’s crust 227 feet below sea level. Marine fossils discovered in the lakebed indicate that the sea was once a continuation of the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California), extending through the Imperial Valley as far north as Palm Springs, and possibly through the San Gorgonio Pass to the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles.
The Colorado River flowed into this enormous sea, and in its role of carving the Grand Canyon, carried tons of rock and debris in a raging torrent, which it deposited at its mouth forming an enormous delta. Eventually this delta completely cut off the inland waters from the Sea of Cortez, severing the sea route that once enabled ships to sail north well beyond the sea’s current boundaries.
Reports from emigrants, prospectors, and Native Americans tell of an ancient ship lying buried far from current navigable waters. In previous times the whimsical desert wind briefly exposed her, allowing just an ephemeral glimpse of her fine lines, then as quickly and efficiently buried her again beneath the continually shifting sands.
Written history contains no records of those adventurous sailors, the war-like people from the Indian Sea or one of the units of King Solomon’s navy for instance, that could have ventured into and been lost in this once far reaching sea.
An article appeared in the Los Angeles Star in its November 12, 1870, edition, saying that “Charley Clusker and a party started out again this morning to find the mythical ship upon the desert this side of Dos Palmas. Charley made the trip three or four weeks ago, but made the wrong chute (sic) and mired his wagon fifteen miles from Dos Palmas. He is satisfied from information he has received from the Indians that the ship is no myth…He is prepared with a good wagon, pack saddles, and planks to cross the sandy ground.”
The Star printed another story on December 1 that “Charley Clusker and party returned from the desert yesterday, just as we were going to press. They had a hard time of it, but they have succeeded in their effort. The ship has been found! Charley returns to the desert today, to reap the fruition of his labors. He was without food or water, under a hot broiling sun for over twenty-four hours, and came near perishing.”
Charley set out again for what he described as an ornately carved Spanish galleon, complete with crosses and broken masts, mostly buried in the sand several miles from the nearest water. He was never heard from again.
Antonio de Fierro Blanco in his historical book, The Journey of the Flame, told another early tale. He relates the story told by Juan Colorado on his 104th birthday of once being in the camp of don Firmin Sanhudo, where “all of our men had spent their lives as guards or packers for Spanish explorers.” One of the men, Tiburcio Manquerna, had taken Colorado aside and told the tale of Iturbe, the great Spanish coastal pilot, who had sailed along the Gulf of California coast in 1615 exploring for the king and fishing for pearls.
Homeward bound after filling his 50-ton ship with a sufficiently large fortune, Iturbe “saw a vast sea extending far inland” (possibly the Salton Sea) and was certain that he had found the fabled Straits of Anian connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. More than three months he searched for a continuation of the straits, seeing from the highest mountain top “a vast body of water winding toward the northeast” (the Colorado River?) but he could not find an entrance. In despair he sailed south but could not find his way back to the Vermilion Sea when the water mysteriously receded, stranding them on a sandbar. ‘They left their ship and its vast treasure of pearls,” reports Fierro Blanco, “upright as though sailing, but with its keel buried in sand.”
Manquerna continued his tale of working as a mule driver for Juan Baptista de Anza in his search of a land route from Sonora to Alta California in the 1770s. After much difficulty, Manquerna says, “I was sent to the right of the course, seeking a road to the ocean. Traveling by night because of the heat, I stumbled upon an ancient ship and in its hold so many pearls as is beyond imagination. Fevered by this wealth, I took what I could carry, abandoned my comrades, and riding toward the ocean as far as my mule could carry me, I climbed the precipitous western mountains on foot. Fed by Indians, I at last reached San Luis Rey Mission. Since then I have spent my life searching for this ship.”
As a cryptic conclusion, Fierro Blanco states, “I have known, as a boy, natives from every tribe on the peninsula, and they taught me much of great value but never did one lie to me. Some of their stories I did not then believe, but each as tested proved to be true in all parts.”
Are there lost ships in the desert? The great tidal bore where the upper Sea of Cortez met the voluminous flow of the Colorado River presented a dangerous navigational hazard and an unsuspecting sailing ship, without aid of charts or navigational aids, could have been carried through a narrow opening into an inland sea and deposited on the shallow bars. Explorers, traders, pirates, and even pearling ships that do not return can tell no tales. The persistence of such legends in both Native American and frontier lore is hard to completely discount.
When the right conditions of wind and shifting sands combine, will a mast or ornately carved hull emerge from its tomb? And will it just as quickly disappear again? Only one who is in the right place at the right time will know for sure.
Bob Difley is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in many publications.