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Forget the Bermuda Triangle—legends speak of a lost ship in the California desert

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This week’s entry: Lost Ship of the desert

What it’s about: Certain places on the high seas have a reputation for swallowing ships whole. The Bermuda Triangle. The treacherous Arctic Sea. The Colorado Desert. Yes, despite the lack of shipping lanes through the American Southwest, legends have persisted for nearly 150 years of a lost ship in the sands of one of America’s biggest deserts.

Biggest controversy: If there ever was a ship, it may be impossible to find because of man’s impact on the environment. The most consistent story of a lost ship is that of a Spanish galleon that sailed rivers inland to the Salton Sea, exploring what’s now Southeastern California. The ship ran into either shallow water or marshland, depending on the story, which then dried up, leaving the ship in the desert. But even if the story’s true, there are two obstacles to finding it.


One’s the Salton Sea. In 1500, it was 26 times its present size. In the intervening centuries, it’s gone through cycles, sometimes drying up entirely and then flooding again. In 1900, it was a dry bed, when water from the Colorado River was diverted, re-creating the lake. But things quickly went bad, as the lake filled up with silt, salt, and pollutants, meaning the Lost Ship could be lost under the sea’s brackish water.

Alternately, the ship could be lost to the desert sands. The Salton Sea isn’t the only time the Colorado River was diverted; in fact, that river has been diverted so many times to feed the thirsty Southwest that what was once the Colorado Delta is now desert, with sand dunes piling high, and potentially burying a lost ship.


Thing we were happiest to learn: The story might be true. In 1609, King Philip III of Spain commissioned three caravels in Acupolco “for the sole purpose of charting, navigation, and merchant exchange.” (Those are three sole purposes, your majesty.) Under the command of retired conquistador Alvarez de Cordone, they were sent to explore inland waterways in Southern California’s Cahuilla and Coachella valleys. As the story goes, Cordone traded with the locals as he went, but when he tried ripping them off, his unhappy customers fought back, burning at least one of his ships. The crew carried off what it could, but—again, according to legend—left behind a fortune in black pearls and gold.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Some of the other Lost Ship stories suggest that the legend may be less than entirely accurate. Around 1900, there were stories from just across the border, near Mexicali, of a Viking-style ship with round metal shields lining each side. Thirty-some years later, a librarian from Julian, California claimed an old prospector showed her photos of the Viking ship and directions to find it. She said an earthquake prevented her and her husband from following the trail, and while the Julian Pioneer Museum inherited the librarian’s papers, which included the directions, there were no photos and nothing confirming the existence of the ship.

Also noteworthy: The Lost Ship story is more durable than the story of Batman’s parents being killed. From an 1870 article in New York newspaper The Galaxy to Robert Marcos’ 2014 book Pearls, Petroglyphs, And Desert Shipwrecks, there have been well over a hundred retellings of the Lost Ship legend, including everything from scholarly articles to ripped-from-the-19th-century-headlines episodes of Bat Masterson and Uncle Scrooge comics.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: A bit more likely than a lost ship in the desert is a lost mine. There have been loads of stories of someone discovering gold or other valuable minerals, and then dying before getting rich from their find, sending countless credulous folks in search of lost treasure.


Further down the Wormhole: Another theory is that the Lost Ship is the Content, which belonged to English privateer Thomas Cavendish. Cavendish sailed to Baja California with two ships, the Content and the Desire, with the intent of following Sir Francis Drake’s example, and raiding Spanish possessions in the Pacific and then return to Britain by circumnavigating the globe. After a successful series of raids, Cavendish sailed from Mexico with an alleged two million pesos worth of booty. But while he and the Desire returned safely to England, the Content was never seen again. Sailing inland instead of a planned trip across the Pacific Ocean seems unlikely, but so goes the theory.

While the Desire’s raids make Cavendish one of the Pacific’s more successful pirates, he doesn’t hold a candle to the most successful pirate in history, Ching Shih, a 19th-century buccaneer who at one point had 300 ships under her command. We’ll shiver her timbers next week.