The possibility a centuries-old ship could be buried somewhere in the southwestern desert — not far from Yuma — is a legend treasure hunters have been pondering for many years.
Could a Spanish galleon, perhaps carrying a cache of pearls, have sailed up into the Imperial Valley during flood waters, only to get stuck, forcing captain and crew to abandon ship and cargo? And could the remains of such a ship actually be buried in the desert or under the waters of the Salton Sea?
Today, discussions of this legend in prospecting magazines and blogs by treasure hunting enthusiasts continue to keep this story alive.
Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, reports the “pearl ship” and “lost galleon” may be one and the same, but the tales always put it somewhere near the “sand hills west of El Centro, Calif.”
One version of the legend claims Spanish explorer Juan de Iturbe and his crew, sailing up from the Gulf of California, left behind a small ship containing a cargo of black pearls after it became stuck in shallow waters.
Apparently, one of the first written accounts of such a lost ship was written by journalist Albert S. Evans, who, in 1863, discovered what he thought was a “gallant” ship. The story appears in Chapter 9 of his book “A la California, Sketches of Life in the Golden State.”
In the book, Evans writes that after his horse died from eating a poisonous weed, he had to make his way across the desert, alone and on foot. All was silent but for the ticking of his watch.
“It was two a.m. when I wearily climbed the summit of the divide between Dos Palmas and the Palma Seca, and looked down into the great plain below,” he wrote of his location.
“Across this vast white plain, as across the waters of a placid lake, the moon threw a track of shimmering light so bright as to almost dazzle the eyes of the beholder. Right in this glowing pathway of light, far out in the centre of this ghostly sea, where foot of man hath never trod, lay what appeared in the dim distance the wreck of a gallant ship, which may have gone down there centuries ago ...”
Weary and thirsty, Evans walked on and eventually made his way back to civilization. Neither Evans, nor presumably anyone else, was able to find the ship again.
Dan Rasp, a Foothills resident who has spent many years looking into stories of lost treasure (he once found the buried plunder from a stagecoach robbery), said the desert ship story is likely an offshoot of mystery ship fables.
Though some local legends are viable, this one is “totally impossible,” he said. Earlier sailing ships required 12 to 15 feet of draft to keep from getting stuck, said Rasp, a retired civil engineer.
While researching Melchor Diaz's trip to this area in 1540, Rasp found the crew used skiffs to explore further inland and still got bogged down in sand.
Even in flood conditions, “the river is just too shallow,” he said. Waters may have been high enough 3,500 to 5,000 years ago, before sea levels receded, yet that was long before explorers ever set sail.
Talk of Spanish sailing archives could lend some credit to the story, but Rasp said he knows of no official record citing a lost ship anywhere near the desert.
Decades ago, while near Borrego Springs, Calif., Rasp found the rotting wood from a ship, but he believes it was the remnants of a beached Civil War-era ferry, not a mighty galleon.
Though likely more fable than fact, the desert ship tale has inspired treasure hunters to keep adding more color to an already vibrant story.
For example, several years ago a man reportedly was metal detecting in the San Felipe area when he found a 15th century Spanish sword hilt. Also, there is the claim a petroglyph of a Spanish galleon exists in a canyon between the Imperial Valley and Laguna Mountains.
The idea of uncovering a lost ship in the desert sands is an appealing one, and it may mean we have something in common with the explorers who boarded those galleons centuries ago.
“I think we have a certain amount of hard wire in our brains that gives us a desire to find something, to make a great discovery,” Rasp said.