Did you find what you were looking for prospector?
The deserts of the American southwest have long been the discussion of lost mines and buried treasures. For hundreds of years, man has scoured the desert floor searching for any signs of the countless tales of lost riches. Some have claimed to have found the elusive treasures but only to be lost again, while others grew old or died trying. None the less, the legends live on as they are passed down from generation to generation. Maybe you will be the lucky one...
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Amazing Treasure Ship of the California Desert
By Al Masters
From page 58 of the July 1977 issue of Lost Treasure
Copyright ©1977, 1999 Lost Treasure, Inc.
Amazing Treasure Ship of the California Desert
Somewhere in the rugged desert wasteland of Imperial
County in Southern California lies the long-dead skeleton of an old
Spanish galleon, its sun-bleached timbers jealously guarding its million
dollar fortune in fabulous pearls.
For over three centuries this phantom of the sands
has been talked about, written about, and searched for, all to no
avail, for it is still there in its unknown hiding place, still as
lost as ever.
Where is it located, you ask, and how did it get there,
of all places--250 miles from the Gulf of California in a sea of sand?
Actually, no one knows for sure where the old ship
lies hidden amongst the dunes or you can bet it wouldn't stay hidden
for long. However, the general area has been narrowed down somewhat,
and it is easy to reach, so if you want to go look for yourself here
is what you do:
Starting from Palm Springs which is a good place from
which to start - you take California State Highway 111 southeast to
Indio. Here State 111 makes a junction with Interstate 10. Go down
10 to Coachella, then pick up State 86 going south. Soon you'll come
to an area with the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park on your right and
the Salton Sea on your left. The Salton Sea is a landmark in the case,
but you won't find any treasure if you linger at Salton Beach or any
of the other popular recreational resorts in this area. Girls, maybe,
but no treasure!
To interject a few words about the Salton Sea into
the story, in 1853 Professor W. P. Blake, making the first governmental
survey of California's Imperial Valley, discovered a vast, sandy depression
here in the desert. In 1905 the Colorado River overflowed into Imperial
Valley and poured into this sink, filling it to a depth of 83 feet.
Aptly named the Salton Sea, this saline body of water is about 235
feet below sea level. Shaped like a gourd, it is roughly 30 miles
long and from 8 to 14 miles wide. It has no outlets, its present depth
being maintained, despite evaporation, by water draining from irrigation
ditches into the Alamo and New rivers, which empty into it.
Of importance to the story is the fact that when the
events related herein took place, all of this sea area had been under
the waters of the head of the Gulf of California. Centuries prior
to Blake's survey, however, these waters had dried up.
Once you're safely past the resort centers, and one
of the most popular fishing spots in California, continue down Highway
86 to Kane Springs, which has the distinction of being the oldest
known waterhole on the California desert. In the days of the old prospectors
it was a favorite camping ground, both for them and for passing bands
To the south lie the mysterious and drab Superstition
Hills, home of quicksand and a good place to avoid.
It is somewhere here, in the Kane Springs area, that
the old Spanish treasure galleon lies.
As to the second question, how did it get there, 250
miles from the Gulf of California, the story of this is either fact,
fiction, or a mixture of both. But pieced together from old records,
it goes somewhat like this:
In the year 1610, when Henry Hudson was cruising around
in the 55-ton ship Discovery, busily finding the Hudson Bay, and the
Frenchman, Champlain, was discovering the lake bearing his name, thousands
of miles away at Mexico City Captain Alvarez de Cordone was receiving
from the Grand Viceroy a royal commission from the mother country
- from Philip III, King of Spain - authorizing the good captain forthwith
and as soon as possible to engage in outfitting a naval expedition
for both exploration and a pearl hunt for the crown, but mostly for
Under terms of his commission Cordone was empowered
to secure, or to have built, three suitable vessels and to recruit
two subordinate but trustworthy sea captains who would serve under
him and take charge of two of the ships. Cordone would command the
third, the largest and so-called flagship of the little group.
The two captains chosen were Juan de Iturbe and Pedro
de Rosales, neither of whom left any notable mark on history, unless
it was Iturbe, of whom it may some day be said that he was short on
With a sizeable grant from the Spanish crown in their
strongbox, the three Castilian captains proceeded to Acapulco, located
in the Mexican state of Guerrero, 200 miles southwest of the Mexican
capital. Acapulco was the principal Mexican seaport on the Pacific
Ocean and here an order was let and the construction of three suitable
galleons was begun.
While waiting for the ship construction to be finished,
Cordone arranged for the recruitment of a large group of African pearl
divers, numbering approximately 75 men. These were assigned in crews
of 25 to each ship. An additional 75 apprentice divers were recruited
and similarly assigned to serve as diver's helpers. The divers themselves
ranged in age from boys in their teens to men in their seventies,
but all carrying qualifications as expert pearl divers.
Finally, in July of 1612, the ships were ready and
outfitted, the crews aboard, and the little expedition set sail up
the western coast of Mexico.
It was no secret that the waters of Mexico's Pacific
coast were the home of fat mollusks that yielded much-prized dark
hued pearls with a metallic sheen, and that the Gulf of California,
far to the northwest, was the breeding bed of the true pearl oyster.
All this the Mexican rulers well knew because fine pearls represented
good money and the pearls from these waters--some in rose, cream,
bronze, brown, and additional pastel shades of lavender, blue, yellow,
green and mauve were the same as gold and silver in the government's
already bulging coffers.
As the galleons set sail the sea was blue and calm
and the weather warm, with only a faint breeze blowing, just enough
to keep them moving when need be. The divers worked in pairs, one
using an undersea line with a stone weighing about 50 pounds attached
to it. When the diver went overboard with this weight, he was carried
straight to the bottom. He carried with him a bag-shaped net basket
into which to put the oysters he gathered. The undersea line, running
to the surface to his helper, also served as a signal cord. The diver
remained below for 60 to 80 seconds before signalling to be pulled
up with his basket.
A diver could make 30 trips to the underwater oyster
beds; bringing a dozen shells to the surface on each trip. With 75
divers making 2,250 trips each day, 27,000 shells per day could be
realized. This sounds like a huge amount, and it is in numbers, but
every shell doesn't contain a pearl.
Along the way the Spaniards encountered bands of aboriginal
Indians who were likewise engaged in the process of bringing up oysters
from their sea beds. Whether this was for food purposes or otherwise,
Cordone didn't know and probably didn't care. But the thought occurred
to him that if the African divers were finding pearls in some of the
oysters, then so were the Indians. Messages were sent to Iturbe and
Rosales and at the next Indian Village on the shore, the three ships
put in and dropped anchor.
Once ashore, the Spaniards were received hospitably
enough. They were not the first white men to have come this way, other
Spaniards evidently having been there at some time before them.
Now, greed does strange things to people, some of the
noblest of men often falling victim to it. Such was the case when
the chief of the Indian village led the three Spanish sea captains
into the presence of dozens of reed baskets filled to overflowing
with the finest pearls imaginable. First the Spaniard's eyes turned
green with envy, then black with greed.
Here, before them, was a sizeable fortune in pearls
and they wanted them. These Indians certainly had no use for them.
They had no contact with civilization what did they know about the
fabulous sums that these little colored objects could bring in the
white man's world?
Somehow, Cordone got through to the chief that he wanted
to make a trade. The Spaniards would give the Indians clothing and
food in exchange for the things in the baskets. It was agreed. The
baskets of pearls were taken aboard Iturbe's ship and the bundles
of neatly tied clothing and the tins of ship's biscuits were taken
ashore and deposited in the chief's dwelling place. As soon as this
was accomplished, the Spaniards beat a hasty retreat toward the landing
where their long-boat lay.
They had no sooner taken to the oars when a band of
Indians, led by the irate chief, appeared on shore. In their hands
they held the articles of clothing - old trousers, shirts and jackets,
all threadbare and some even with holes. Some Indians held ship's
biscuits which they broke into pieces, looked at, then threw on the
ground, for they were worm-ridden.
The old chief had seen the look in the white men's
faces when he had showed them the pretty seastones and while to him
they meant nothing, he could tell that the white men looked upon them
as very precious. In exchange for something precious he had expected
to receive an equal trade, certainly not ragged clothing and worm-eaten
"Row faster," commanded Cordone, for he had noticed
that t he Indians were now armed, bows and arrows and spears being
evident. No sooner had he spoken, however, than the Indian bowmen
let loose a volley of arrows, one of which struck Cordone, piercing
his chest just under the collarbone. He slumped to the bottom of the
boat, while the Indians on shore set up unearthly screams of triumph.
This was the end of the expedition as far as Cardone
was concerned. One of the Spaniards aboard the flagship was a doctor,
and after a parley it was decided that since Cordone's injury appeared
serious, his galleon would put about and return with the wounded captain
to Acapulco, while Iturbe and Rosales would continue on.
Thus reduced, the little expedition sailed forward.
Days and weeks passed and the stock of pearls steadily increased.
Between those brought up by the divers and those swindled from the
Indians, quite a pile was accumulating.
Then, one morning, the watch reported to Iturbe that
land was coming up on the port side, so the captain came on deck.
It was true. The galleon was approaching a place where land would
soon be on both sides. Iturbe checked his maps.
They were right on course - entering the Gulf of California.
But here, in the Gulf, ill fate stepped in again. Somewhere
at a point near what is now Isla Angel de la Guarda, the galleon of
Pedro de Rosales ran into an unseen underwater obstruction, tore a
hole in her hull, and began to sink. With feverish haste the pearls
on the ship were transferred to Iturbe's vessel along with provisions
and the crew.
Again a parley was held, and again it was decided that
the one remaining galleon would continue on alone. Although beautiful
pearl specimens had been brought up off of La Paz, the two Spaniards
believed that beds of magnificent pearls lay ahead in the Gulf where
the lands came together, and although bushels of pearls had already
been collected, those waiting beauties would be too good and too valuable
to be passed up.
This didn't prove to be exactly true, but when the
Spaniards reached the point where the Colorado River now empties into
the Gulf of California, Iturbe decided they should keep going to see
what lay beyond. He knew that the Francisco Coronado expedition had
seen the wonders of the world ahead in its search for gold and the
Seven Cities of Cibola in the year 1540, and that Hernando Alarcon,
commander of the marine division, had discovered the mouth of the
Colorado River and ascended in small boats to about the 34th parallel.
But still he wanted to see for himself what lay ahead.
What happened next would be an aquatical impossibility
today. At that time, however, the waters of the Gulf of California
flowed on into the California desert to the extreme south central
part of California and here an open inland sea was formed.
When Iturbe's galleon sailed out of the narrowing Gulf
waters and into this open inland sea, he was jubilant. At last, the
long-sought connection between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans
had been found. For a time he fully believed that he was actually
in the Atlantic Ocean until suddenly it dawned on him that he was
in 33 degrees latitude, then he was crestfallen. His predecessors
hadn't discovered a passage to the Atlantic Ocean and neither had
But if this wasn't an ocean connection, then what was
it? He would find out, so the galleon sailed on until finally the
water's depth was too shallow for it to continue safely. In the distance
could be seen great sand dunes and nothing else. It was decided that
someone should take a look, so Rosales selected a party, outfitted
a boat, and rowed to land.
Two days later, he returned.
"There is nothing out there," he reported to Capt.
Iturbe, "but sand and dried salt beds. "The sparse vegetation he described
must have been sagebrush, creosote, the grayish-green greasewood,
and bamboo grass.
At this point an alarming discovery was made. In the
two days time that Rosales had been gone, the water depth on the sounding
line had receded sharply. The level of the water was going down -
and fast. But how? And why? There was no time to consider the strange
phenomenon that was taking place-they had better get out of there!
The galleon hurriedly set' sail, turning south again.
But when it neared the point where the narrow Gulf had turned into
the inland sea, there were only rapidly evaporating pools to be seen.
Dumbfounded, Iturbe realized that all water communication between
the Gulf and the inland sea had been cut off by some strange freak
The Spaniards did not know what to do, so they simply
sailed around and around. All this time the water level was receding
more and more, until finally, the vessel just ran aground. At last
there was no water at all and the once-proud sailing ship sat high
and dry amidst the steaming sand hills of the California desert.
This was a hell of a note, and surely something which
had never happened to a sea captain before, Spanish or otherwise.
Nevertheless, they couldn't just sit there, so taking what food and
water they could carry, the men of the expedition set out on foot,
retracing their way along the path of the former waterway. Behind
them in the dunes sat the ill-fated galleon - alone, abandoned, its
billowing sails standing out against the sky, and its hold crammed
to the top with a great fortune in fabulously beautiful pearls. . .
So this is the story of the Spanish sea captain, Juan
de Iturbe, who blundered ever onward, probably to his doom. And this
is the story of the Spanish treasure galleon which, like the Ark in
the Bible, was left high and dry on its own peculiar Ararat.
It has been over 75 years now since anyone has seen
the remnants of the old galleon. In 1890, an old desert rat arrived
at Kans Springs and stated that he had found the ship close by in
the desert, half-covered by shifting sands. He needed some help in
digging it out, he said, and all could then share in the wonderful
pearl treasure. He readily got all the help he needed, but when the
searchers arrived in the area, the old man could not find the place
Only 20 years previously, numerous searches for the
old ship had been made and they were recorded to some extent in the
newspapers of the day. On October 6, 1870, for instance, a Sacramento
newspaper, Sacramento Union, carried an article which stated: "An
advance party of four, from San Bernardino, have left to visit the
famous wrecked ship in the California desert. The ship, which must
have lain a wreck for over 250 Years, is built of teakwood, and is
perfectly sound. The bow and stern are plainly visible, and she is
240 miles from the Gulf of California.
On October 13, 1870, the paper reported: "The ship
hunting party in the California desert has returned to San Bernardino."
That the searching party was unsuccessful was made
known in the following item by the paper in November 16, 1870: "Another
search is to be made for the fossil ship in the California desert
by the men who went for it before but did not find the prize."
On September 27, 1873, another California paper, the
Inyo Independent, carried this: "The ship in the desert story, which
has heretofore been attributed to a writer's lively imagination, is
verified by the Tames expedition explorers. In the California desert,
over 200 miles from the Gulf of California, they found the mast of
By "a writer s lively imagination," the paper probably
meant an article appearing in a San Bernardino paper telling the story
of the Clusker party's search for the phantom ship. According to the
writer, a party led by a Charlie Clusker had searched for many days
for the strange vessel with no reward other than that Clusker had
almost lost his life. Just how, Clusker was reluctant to say.
That there was such a ship, the writer well knew, as
he went on to tell the following experience: "It was less than a year
ago, while on a periodic tour of the California desert, that I had
the good fortune to make camp with an old habitue of the wasteland.
Inevitably the conversation turned to the subject of lost mines, of
buried treasure, and finally to the desert ship.
"'I think I know where the old hulk lies,' he said,
in a confidential tone.
Would you betray a vital secret if you told me?" I
"'Well, maybe not. You know the southeast corner of
this county is covered with sand hills. Every time a big wind hits
them they move sometimes a foot or two, sometimes a rod or more. I
got it figured out that those dunes have covered up the old ship.
They'll keep on moving, of course, and some day the old pocket'll
be uncovered. The man who finds it will make the biggest strike in
all history, and don't you forget it.'"
Needless to say, this old desert rat didn't make "the
biggest strike in all history," mainly because "the southeast corner
of this county" encompassed an awful lot of searching territory.
Another story has it that an old Indian woman knew
the exact location of the lost galleon. According to the teller of
this tale the old woman had shown him a certain sand hill and told
him that under it a ship was buried.
How did she know? Many moons ago when great waters
came flooding over the desert, the Indians had moved to higher land
to live until the waters went away. During this time her great great
great grandfather had seen a great bird with white wings coming from
Mexico. It had floated to a hill she pointed out and there, even when
the waters went away, it stayed, nesting in the sand. Soon its white
wings fell off, leaving only tall wooden limbs pointing to the skies.
It did not move any more and the sand kept blowing around it until
the great bird was all covered up, and then all the old Indians said
it was surely dead, but everyone was scared to go and see.
Apparently no one bothered to ask this story-teller
why he did not recover the million-dollar pearl hoard since he knew
exactly where to look.
In January, 1870, Albert S. Evans had an article published
in the New York Galaxy in which he told of having seen the old ship
in 1863, south of the road from San Bernardino. Said Evans: "Southward
to the very horizon stretched a great plain of snowy salt, the white
ghost of a dead sea which once covered all this accursed land but
has passed away forever. Across this white plain, as across the waters
of a placid lake, the moon threw a track of shimmering light, so bright
as almost to dazzle the eye of the beholder. Right in this burning
pathway of light, far out in the center of the ghostly sea, where
foot of man has never trod, lay what appeared in the distance to be
the wreck of a gallant ship, which might have gone down there centuries
ago, when the bold Spanish adventurers, bearing the cross and the
sword in either hand, were pushing their way to the northwest in search
of the fountain of youth, the famed Kingdom of Cibola."
What did Evans do about it? Apparently nothing. If
he found any pearls, the fact was never reported by anyone.
As with all things, the discussion and searching died
down. But since no one has ever found the lost pearls, they are still
there, just begging to be brought to light. If you have the time and
the patience, then, here is a lost treasure worth millions. And the
great thing about it is that it is not in gold ore that has to be
laboriously mined to amount to anything before conversion at $35.00
per troy ounce, nor m coral encrusted old coins that take scientific
know-how and hours of painstaking time to restore to originality.
No, this treasure is in pure unadulterated form that has only to be
gathered up and taken to market.
Furthermore, you don't have to go crawling around on
dangerous ocean bottoms in expensive SCUBA gear, or dangle yourself
down frightening cavern holes to look for it. Not only that, when
you do get tired of looking, breathers can be taken at some of California's
most popular fun spots.
So whether you uncover anything or not, you've got
to admit -- you just can't hardly find that kind of treasure hunting