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 1978), 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 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.
It was no accident that the ships immediately headed north. Nearly eighty years earlier Hernando Cortez had sailed up to the tip of Baja and had found that the large bay next to present-day La Paz was full of oyster beds. In Europe pearls were in great demand and at the time even more valuable than gold. But the natives around La Paz were very hostile and the Spanish had been unable to establish a settlement there.
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 sail their ships 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 men quickly filled their baskets. But upon their departure, Captain Rosales' boat struck a reef 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 north and load up with even more pearls? He chose the latter. For a week he sailed farther north until his ship entered a large shallow estuary. The men noticed ducks and other animals commonly seen around fresh water. Gradually the route became narrower and narrower and then opened up into what he described as a great "inland sea". This would have been the ancient Lake Cahuilla, (or today’s much smaller Salton Sea). The captain sailed along the eastern edge of the inland sea and continued up the (Colorado) river until they reached the 34th degree of latitude. The Spanish sailors had rowed north to the area where the City of Blythe is located today.
It was here that Captain Iturbe turned his ship around. He sailed back down the river and back into the inland sea. But in the weeks since their arrival the water level had fallen tremendously. A miles-long sand bar now completely blocked their exit to the Sea of Cortez. They were trapped. Iturbe and his men circled around the inland sea for three more days and then finally grounded their ship. The crew gathered as much of their precious cargo as they could and then they abandoned their ship.
Most of the men survived the long and miserable walk back to the Spanish settlement of Guaymas, and a few months later they were transported back to Acapulco on a Spanish galleon. But their ship and the majority of its precious cargo were to remain forever stuck on the edge of that great inland sea, and would eventually be covered by sand dunes.
Over the next two hundred years a variety of travelers passing between Yuma and Los Angeles reported seeing a large ship marooned on sand dunes. Three of these accounts were published in local newspapers. The native Americans in the region also had legends about a lost ship, which one old man described as a “huge white bird”, after seeing the sails flying in the wind.
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 we reached the petroglyphs they were not what we expected. There were no woolley 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 "could've spent time at Mission Alcala in San Diego and may have seen a Spanish supply ship sitting in the harbor".
When the folks at the Maritime Museum of San Diego read my article they were electrified. An woman named Maggie Platt called and asked if I would lead them back to the petroglyph so they could see it for themselves. A few days later I met Maggie and her husband Ted 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 objects in the petroglyphs are indeed Spanish ships 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 includes a replica of the petroglyph that I found in Pinto Canyon. Since the 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 galleon. However it’s much more likely that the petroglyph is a depiction of Juan Iturbe’s caravel - stuck in the sand just a few miles from Pinto Canyon. History is fraught with omission and conclusions not always supported by the most obvious factual evidence.
Researched and written by Robert Marcos
San Diego State University http://www.sci.sdsu.edu/salton/AncientLakeCahuilla.html
San Diego History Center http://www.sandiegohistory.org
Institute of Maritime http://www.maritimehistory.org/content/search-second-three-pearl-ships
edited by RobertMarcos on 7/4/2016
edited by RobertMarcos on 7/5/2016
edited by RobertMarcos on 7/5/2016