This article is the story of a lost treasure of pearls that took place in the California desert 400 years ago.
When mulling over the idea of a ship lost in the desert, it’s hard to believe the discussion is not about camels (often referred to as the ship of the desert), but an actual ship.
In 1610, king Philip III of Spain issued orders to Captain Alvarez de Cordone to take charge of the construction of three ships, which were to be used in a pearl harvesting expedition along the western coast of Mexico. Around this time, pearls were considered more valuable than gold.
To ensure success, Cordone asked for two additional captains, Juan de Iturbe and Pedro de Rosales, to be assigned to the expedition. The three men traveled to the village of Acapulco, on the west coast of Mexico, to oversee the building of the vessels and, at the same time, hire and transport 60 experienced pearl divers from the east coast of Africa.
Two years later, in 1612, the vessels were declared sea-worthy and the expedition set out with Cordone in charge. The ships sailed in a northwesterly course close the Mexican coast, an area that was reported by Spanish explorers to be home to a large oyster that produced a rare and beautiful black pearl.
Stops were made along the way to harvest pearls, but the real treasure lay farther north and deeper into the Gulf of California. After a few weeks, the trio of ships reached an Indian village where some of the natives were sighted diving for pearls.
The Spaniards were the first Europeans the Indians had seen and Cordone and his men were surprised to be given a warm welcome and an invitation to share a meal.
After a while, Cordone broached the subject of pearls and the Indian chief informed the crew that the oysters were gathered for food and the pearls were used to make jewelry and other artifacts. They were shown a large number of pots overflowing with the finest pearls ever seen.
This is where the story starts to get ugly. Cordone asked the chief if he would like to barter for the pearls and offered clothes in exchange. The chief agreed in anticipation of his tribe wearing the fine clothes worn by the Spanish officers.
The following morning several neatly tied bundles were exchanged for the pearls. The clothes were soon discovered to be an assortment of rags. We are once again reminded that egregious exploitation of the innocent is not new.
The pearls were loaded on the ship captained by Iturbe and the ships sailed watched by justifiably angry Indians who piled into canoes and went after the ships.
As Cordone stood on deck of his ship watching the Indians giving chase in their canoes, he was struck in the chest by an arrow. He wasn’t mortally wounded, but suffered from an infection, which forced him to return to Acapulco. He ordered Rosales and Iturbe to continue the journey up the coast to harvest more pearls.
The two ships finally reached the Gulf of California and the rich oyster beds, where they found large quantities of gleaming black pearls. In spite of the bounty, which weighted the ship to an almost critical water level, the decision was made to continue north.
It was on a balmy afternoon, as the vessels were sailing northward in calm waters, that the vessel weighted down with pearls struck a reef that tore a large hole in the hull. The pearls were hastily transferred to the one remaining ship and Iturbe and Rosales continued northward for more pearls. Increased wealth for the Spanish crown meant greater rewards for the two captains.
A couple of weeks later, Iturbe’s ship sailed into the opaque and roiling estuary waters where the Colorado River entered the Gulf of California. About 60 miles upstream the river spilled over its natural channel to form a large basin-like inland sea. Needless to say, the ship sailed into the basin in hopes of finding more treasure, but without success.
Iturbe abandoned the search and sailed back to where they entered only to discover a ridge of land had formed between the basin and the river. The vessel was totally landlocked in a rapidly shrinking body of water. After a three-day journey circumnavigating the area, they realized that they were trapped, with no chance of reaching the Gulf of Mexico.
It took only a few days more for the hull of the ship to settle on the sandy bottom of the lake and list to one side. They had no choice but to gather what they could and abandon the stranded vessel, along with the pearls, and make their way toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Four months later, those who survived the perilous journey were picked up by a Spanish Galleon near what we know today as Guaymas in the Mexican state of Sonora. All the while, their ship was being covered by the now dry and shifting sands of the desert, with the clay pots filled with pearls still resting in the hold.
After the end of the Civil war in 1865, many people made their way west to make a better life, some traversing the Colorado Desert in southern California. Many of the travelers reported seeing what looked like a ship resting on the floor of the desert.
Their journey was a hazardous challenge and it’s likely that they weren’t inclined to investigate the wreck while attempting to
survive their current circumstances. The fact is that there were hundreds of sightings during the last 35 years of the 19th century.
There have been many expeditions to find the lost treasure, all apparently unsuccessful. As recently as 1999 people participating in various recreational activities in the area have reported seeing what looked like a ship in the desert—all evidently unaware of the history.
Although the ship has been seen and lost many times, there are also stories of looting. Around 1917, an El Centro farmer was said to have found a small chest of jewels and quietly sold them in Los Angeles. He is also said to have used the wood from the ship to make pig pens.