Sea basin near El Centro

I’m updating this post with graphics received from Stuart Lindsay. See below.

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.

Ghostship Mojave riverTwo 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.

Route of Ship in Cali. 304.94 milesAfter 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.

San Bernadino county CaliforniaThe 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.

Salton Sea BasinA 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.

Ships location as to the Ghost Town1After 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.

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17 Comments on Spanish treasure ship lost for four centuries in the California desert

  1. Morton G. says:

    This is a terrific story. Shades of Clive Cussler.

  2. ECR says:

    What a story Spittalstreet, Maybe find the Ark yet, Keep up the good work.

  3. Ellie says:

    Even if they had done right by the Indians, their fate was sealed.

  4. Jake says:

    Hi ECR, I thought they had found the Noah’s Ark in Turkey. And, Ellie,maybe they did think about what they had done when they were hot footing across the desert with nothing to drink and snakes to contend with.

  5. pancho says:

    Back in 1968 sittn in the back seat of my buudys Dads car ,

    w/ my Buddy , and his Dad driv’n and sitt’n next to him was -

    a Geologis/prospector Friend ,that spoke of finding the -

    Galleon in the Imperial Desert. He dug/drilled and they-

    almost lost their lives try’n to reach it.

    They even pulled Mediterranean wood with their drill bit.

    Im 62 and still am very interested in this story.

    I ran into him “in his 80′s” in a small town above Imperial-

    Valley and wanted to show me where “they dug”, when the -

    weather got cooler, but I could’nt get away” for a couple a -

    years ,because of my work. and he moved/retired to Alaska.

    I kick my self, for not ride’n out to see where “they dug”.

    All he said “then” that if I ever found it, I’d have to share-

    with him” no problem ” of course.

    Side-Note : about 15 years earlier i had a Customer that had-

    a Gem store and was a treasure-hunter and I mentioned to him -

    about “the ship in the Desert” and I found the Geologist -

    working with a mine co. in Montana and got them together.

    They signed a pact and rented an airplane w/ a magnetometer-

    and told me they found the “site”. BUT they got “argueing”-

    and “dissolved their partnership”, Damn , was look’n good-

    for a bit. But one thing the Gem Store owner told me was-

    the “site” was too-close to the Railroad Rails being used.

    I’ tried look’n my Amigo in Alaska but I believe he’s “passed”

    I found his name in that Town and it came out in the-

    Obituary Column and said he was 87 years old, so I think it-

    was him. He had some good stories of other “escapades” but-

    I believe the Galleon one “would have made headlines”.

    I think the phrase ” could’a-would’a-shud’a ” comes into -

    play here, but,,,,, If anyone out there has a familiar story,

    type it out, I’d like to see it , or “just your thoughts” ??

  6. Heard about the farmer who is also said to have used the wood from the ship to make pig pens. Unbelievable! One big part of history and just one idiot made pig pens out of a historic ship!!!

  7. Stu Lindsay says:

    On Oct 1,2008 I read a story about this Ship written by Ken Wienman . In this story Ken and a friend Gil Riggs went to the Salton Sea area at the San Felipe Wash and Gil had found a 16th century Spanish sword handle w/broken blade on the North bank of the wash next to the high way . The story talked about three ships sailing north from Alcapuco on a pearl expo. and about them trading with the indain’s for 24 large baskets of pearls and that when the indain’s found they had be had that they fired a volley of arrow at the Spanish it hit Capt. Cordon in the chest. The Spanish got away and all the pearls where but on Iturbe’s and that Cordones ship went back to Alcapuco for medical treatment.Later in the story Rosales ship hit an under water obstruction and all treasure was transferred to Juan Iturbe’s Ship . Sailing onward north the ship got into an area where they couldn’t continue north, so they got in there long boat and went ashore embarking on a two day land expo. when they got back to there ship it was to late they where trapped. They could not make it back to the place they where before, sounds like a Ghost story Hotel California !!! After reading this i put all the clues together and came up with 4 clues from the story then in a miners guide came up with another and then i found the ship on google earth !!!! Here are the clues, Gil Riggs 16th century sword handle at the San Felipe wash , a prospector in 1890 said that he had found a old ship near Kane Springs but then they couldn’t find it again, that in 1612 it was flooded,and they were heading North !!! Then i found another clue in another book that some people had found 16 century Spanish Armour,cooking utensils,weapons,and coins in Boron near the old Borax wagon trail. I thought this is were they dropped there stuff at after leaving the Ship high and dry. Know if you are in the Desert in these areas just east of present day Edward’s air base, the shortest way out is west to the coast so i looked east and found the Mojave River at the top on the same Latitude as Armour sets the Ghost of a Ship an is in a dry lake bed below Calico Ghost Town pointed south in full turn ,set’s the Ship of Juan de Iturbe 1612 a 160 foot Manila Galleon and 66 ft. wide 1.3 mile from the Ghost Town and 2.8 miles from The Mojave River !!! From my research i figure a time line , satilite came out in 1958 with only one satilte. In 1961 they came out with 115 more satilites so i dated that image 1961 even though it said 2006 on the Google Earth date bar , it had three images so i said 1958 , 1960, and 1961. Then i found out that the Ghost Town was donated to San Bernadino County in 1966 by Walter Knott , Knott’s Berry Farms , so i backed tracked from that date and found that in 1964 August that a Ship dedicated to passed Explore Juan Rodrigeus Cabrillo . Making the name of the ship The San Diego , a GhostShip in a Ghost Town. P.S. The Ship is right next to Treasure Ave. ,and now there are 4 images so you have to back the date up one to see it the current image is bull!!!!

  8. Sandy says:

    Stu, This is interesting. I’ll look for the book.

  9. Stu Lindsay says:

    Sandy, In Oct.1,2008 I joined the G.P.A.A. with that membership irecevied a Bi-monthly subcription to there magizine , a miners guide as thick as a phone book w/state by state divided up by county of lost treasures stories and gem finds,and a gold pan for panning gold and more such as dvd’s . The thing is because of when i jioned it was a month before the next magizine came out they sent to me a whole month early on Oct.1 i recevied the NOV.-DEC. issue of 2008 i reapete a whole month early !!! OH the long boat they had was the ledgenary Serpent Necked Canoe which is about 35 ft. long , i found that the whole route was 1,625 miles from Alcapuco to Calico the Ghost Town is on the Mountain the Ship is at the bottom of that mountain. The Ship has a fan that is the stearn it is at 45 degree angle one side is about 142 ft. to front of ship the other side is 162 ft. a 20 ft. difference !!! Thats why i say its in full turn !!!! in the center its 155 ft. that why i say the ship is 160 ft . long. by my figures on reading a 160 ft. ship would be about 500,000 pounds about 250 tons made from teak wood !!!! there are faces beside the ship on canvas which are perfectly square with the image at straight up NORTH, what i’m saying is if the image on google is north up south is down its a perfect picture !!! Its had to get a story noticed i’ve tried its like a fantasy when you talk about Kings and Queens being beside the ship and a baby king felipe the 4th in the queens lap you lose people , they don’t want to hear it. I have forensic proof no dought in my mind , that it is the ship of Juan de Iturbe 1612 it is about 212 miles straight west to coast on same latatude and another 35 up north east was the Spanish mission were Juan shows up after he leaves that ship !!!! A TOTAL OF ABOUT 242 miles are so. In old almanac’s Calico is on that list of Spanish Galleon trade routes and i think that Walter Knott when he donated Calico some 70 acear’s to San Bernadino he also did a Historical marker to the Alcapuco Manila Galleon trade route from 1565 t0 1815 because at the time they knew that it was after 1542 finding of San Diego.

  10. Sandy says:

    Stu,
    It’s all fascinating. I’m planning on looking into joining G.P.A.A. Thanks a lot for your input.

  11. Stu Lindsay says:

    how do you post pic on here is this yur site

  12. Stu Lindsay says:

    I actually drove to Cali when i found the image to the exact shot were she had once been , the first thing i thought was they found a long time ago !!! because there were houses near by and you would walk there. There was a 120 ft oval of mounded sand but smooth over a bit. 1200 miles one way from Texas, when we got there our brake started grinding so had to do a brake job in the parking lot of auto parts store. It took me 6 months and 1 day to find the image found it on 4/2/2009 the 5th clue got from the miners guide . Read Walter Knotts had it hard and noted that thing got better after that , pollatition Barry Gold Water made a comment about Walter Knott ,said that he thought that Walter got rich off Big Gov. !!! Maybe toghter they sold the ship for a bill and ship on a tug to Walt Disney !!! 500 mill each
    maybe less plus pearls

  13. Stu Lindsay says:

    Not Barry an Walter together ,but Walter an another pollatition from Cali. On the Serpent Necked canoe looks like the sail is still flying in the image white sail w/Big Black Phoenix. I read in a forum that Iturbe had two Giant Mastives Dogs to keep the slave divers in check and that when the Indians were fighting w/them that they had helped them get away ,bet a few jumped ship if they could !!! Some look like giant pitts !!!! So much about this story and was so knowlegable an hauting , i have songs that go with this story Hotel Cali. the when hell freezes over virsion sound Spanish , South Bound by Thin Lizzy got to live this ghost town and his ghost sound in the song an the fact that the ships facing south not north,My Maria by Brooks and Dunn because King Felipe lll wife Margarita nick name could be Maria , i know one !!! King Felipes wife died the year before the Ship sailed , he never remarried . People around me don’t like to hear about the Ship , when i was looking for it my brother said why are you wasting your time on looking your not going to find it . Now more determind too and mad that my own blood had no faith in me , so i made a dvd about the ship story i had read with the scan pages of it and the Title was Just A LITTLE FAITH him and his friend watch it the whole 2 hour a few days later was when i found it . Another song Ghost Town Train by Tim McGraw i am haunted in more ways that one by this story, in one of Walters family photos theres a dog laying on the ground its also south bound 1910 . I am 52 years old, wish i had funding to go treasure hunting an taking photos, that would be the life . P.S. i feel i have some good ideas about what i could do nexted one more go around , still feel fit 6 ft. 203 pounds for my height i should way in at 193 so 10 lbs over . Tomorrow save the Salton Sea 50 miles from Colorado River all you need is like it to a water steedy trickle how hard is that !!!! And the the new polluted Mexico River treat it an use for the Cali. Agraculture an make that area more alive in steed of died !!! Peace and Prayers to all !!!!

  14. Sandy says:

    Hi Stu, From one Scot to another, if you’d like to write an article with some photos I’d be happy to check it out and post it on Spittal Street with photos. So far you are only on the comments section. If you click on the link Contact Sandy you could send it to me.

  15. In June of 2009 the San Diego Reader published an article I’d written about a series of hikes that my friends and I made in the Jacumba Mountains, east of San Diego. After several practice runs we finally made it to Pinto Canyon, where we photographed the rock art that Native Americans had carved into the cliffs. Central in this collection of ancient rock art is the depiction of a sailing vessel. I am now quite certain that this single-masted ship, with oars sticking out, is a graphic representation of Juan De Iture’s lost ship. It’s also worth mentioning that Pinto Canyon is less than twenty miles west of present-day El Centro. I’d like to attach a picture of the petroglyph, if someone will tell me how to do it? Thanks

  16. Hello again. I’ve been asked to write a follow-up to my article about the Pinto Canyon petroglyphs. May I have permission to quote some of the stories printed here, with credit given?

    Thank you – Robert
    robertmarcos2@gmail.com

  17. Sandy says:

    Robert, Please feel free to quote some of the stories printed.

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