Some urban legends never go away, especially when they include treasure ships. The Imperial Valley has its own desert lore, which involves a mysterious buried ship (Remnants of sunken pirate ship Content may lie beneath Laguna Salada,” Feature Stories, May 15). This story in its various incarnations goes back to at least 1907 when it was reported by a 17-year-old farmhand Elmer Carver, that the farmer’s wife, Mrs. Nels Jacobson, told him the large timbers that made up the hog pen were actually ship’s timbers found on a partially buried ship located behind the farmhouse. He reported that she also told him of a “iron chest filled with jewels” (Pepper 6-7). Different versions of this story and the search for this mysterious lost ship of the desert have popped up over the years. In 1968, the Imperial Valley Press ran a story about Morlin Childers who claimed to have found evidence of a sunken vessel found buried beneath the surface of Laguna Salada. Since then many others have run with the story.
Most recently, Robert Marcos wrote an article in the Reader titled “Remnants of sunken pirate ship Desire led by Thomas Cavendish now found at the Imperial Valley Museum in Ocotillo” dated Mary 15, 2019. This raises the question, has the mystery ship finally been discovered? Has history been unearthed, or is this still just desert lore? The original title of Robert Marcos’ article of May 15, 2019 was “Remnants of sunken pirate ship Desire led by Thomas Cavendish now found at the Imperial Valley Museum in Ocotillo”. There were so many inaccuracies in this title that it was later changed to “Remnants of sunken pirate ship Content may lie beneath Laguna Salada.” This change must have been due to the following: Thomas Cavendish’s ship Desire returned to England and made a subsequent voyage. It was the smaller second ship Content, that went missing and after speaking with Dr. David Breekner, Executive Director of the Imperial Valley Desert Museum, there is no evidence of any ship remnants in the Childers’ archives.
Unfortunately, there are many other inaccuracies in his article as well. The subtext for the title, which remains unchanged, reads, “Maps from that period prove that mariners considered California to be an island”. This is also incorrect. At the time of Cavendish’s voyage to Baja California in 1587, the majority of the maps showed Baja California as a peninsula. See Mercator map from 1569, Ortelius map 1570, and Fernao Vaz Dourado’s map of 1570. These are just a small sample easily located with a Google search. There are many more maps of the period that show Baja California as a peninsula. While there were a few maps that still showed California as an island, such as the one cherry picked for the article and the Briggs map of 1625, Robert Wagner in his book Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast agrees that it was common knowledge by the mid-1500s that California was not an island stating, “that opinion disappeared after the voyages of Ulloa and Alarcon and all the maps in circulation from about 1545 to 1625 display California in its true form as a peninsula.”(388)
That said, there was wishful thinking, especially by a Friar and chronicler aboard Vizcaino’s ship Father Antonio de la Ascension, that there was a river passage that led north and then east from the Gulf of California to the Atlantic. This idea of the mythical Strait of Anian appears in his writings and those of others as “a passage yet to be found”. It is possible, that the men aboard the Content, in hopes that they could escape the Desire with their part of the treasure went in search of this passage but we have no evidence to support this theory. Marcos states in the beginning of his article that “It had been sixty years since the natives who lived along San Diego Bay had seen Spanish ships. It was unlikely that anyone who’d witnessed Juan Cabrillo’s arrival in 1542 would’ve been around to see Sabastian Vizcaino’s ships when they landed in 1602.” I am not sure what information he is basing this statement on, but there is evidence in the primary source narratives of very old people who came in contact with Vizcaino and had seen or been in contact with other Europeans.
In the Diary of Sabastian Vizcaino, written by his chief scrivener Diego de Santiago, it is stated that when they arrived at San Diego Bay “a very old Indian woman who appeared to be more than one hundred and fifty years old and who approached weeping...This woman from extreme age had wrinkles on her belly which looked like a blacksmith’s bellows…” (81-82) While it is doubtful that she was one hundred and fifty years old and this does not prove that she had seen Cabrillo’s ship; it does show that she was probably old enough to have seen it. European contact with the Native Indians was not unusual, another passage from the Diary of Sebastian Vizcaino speaks of previous contact between the Indians and Europeans, noting, “ The general returned to the pueblo, and an Indian woman brought him two pieces of figured China silk, in fragments, telling him that they had got them from people like ourselves, who had negroes; that they had come on the ship which was driven by a strong wind to the coast and wrecked, and that was further on.” (85) While it would be tempting to use this as proof that the Indians had seen other Europeans on Baja, possibly even the men of the Content, it must be viewed in the context of the chronicle, which states that this conversation happened on the Island of Santa Catalina not on Baja California.
Father Antonio de la Ascension’s account of Vizcaino’s voyage describes contact with Indians at Cabo San Lucas. The Indians there had memory of the Spanish who were put ashore by Cavendish after the sacking of the Santa Ana. Fr. Antonio states, “ It was in this bay or near it that the Englishman in years past captured the Santa Ana coming from China.” He later notes that the Spaniards who had been aboard the Santa Ana and subsequently left on shore by Cavendish came in contact with the Indians, capturing an Indian man and woman and taking them aboard the repaired ship with them when they left. “They also remembered the bad treatment they received from the Spanairds who went with the Marques del Valle, Don Fernando Cortes. When these were in country, they treated them very badly, killing many of them and setting furious dogs on them.” (Wagner 194) It is clear from this account that the Indians in the vicinity of Cabo San Lucas had seen and heard of Europeans going back to the arrival of Hernan Cortez. It is in no way clear whether or not they saw the men of the Content. Other than the fact that Marcos keeps confusing the Content with the Desire as previously discussed, the author provides a fairly accurate description of the events related to Cavendish’s sacking of the Spanish galleon Santa Ana. He states that the smaller ship vanished and was never seen again. This is accurate according to the available first hand narratives.
Master Francis Pretty, who was aboard the Desire wrote, “we left the Content a sterne of us, which was not as yet come out of the road. And here thinking she would have overtaken us, we lost her companie and never her saw her after.” (Mathes 31) Historians have speculated the direction and reason for the disappearance, Peter Gerhard states in Pirates of the Pacific (1990), “The Content fell behind, heading in a more northerly direction, and was never heard from again.” (94) In an earlier book, Pirates on the West Coast of New Spain (1960), Gerhard noted that the men of the Content were mutinous “complaining loudly over the division of spoils, but were soon pacified.” (93) This claim is confirmed by the narrative of Tomas de Alzola, Captain of the Santa Ana, who stated in his testimony, “The following day, the nineteenth, the said General and his men again gathered, and because they had differences among themselves over the division of the gold and fearing the possible consequences, they put all of the people from the said Santa Ana ashore.” (Mathes 49) Alzola states that he showed them three boxes, which: Contained all of the gold, pearls, and other things as well as the dispatches of His Majesty. They took these boxes out on the quarterdeck and then, in the presence of the English General and officers, broke open the said boxes. From them they took out all of the gold and treasure therein and divided it there in three parts with a balance. The English General took two parts and the men of the said fleet took the other.” (49-50)
There is nothing else noted about the state of mind of the men aboard the Content and unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence that tells us where the Content went. Did it go north from Cabo San Lucas into the Gulf of California in search of the Strait of Anian as Marcos would have us believe? Did they head in another direction hoping to disappear with their share of the booty? Or were they lost at sea due to a multitude of other possibilities? This is a bigger question. Marcos is obviously hoping that the Childers’ archive, which is now located at the Imperial Valley Desert Museum, will prove that Morlin Childers actually found the Lost Ship of the Desert back in 1968 and that there might even be remnants of this lost ship in the archive. At this point, this is all wishful thinking and until all of the archives are catalogued we will not know exactly what is there. I have no quarrel Mr. Marcos' optimism; however, I have a problem with bad history being reported and published as fact. In the end, until further tangible evidence is found, the Lost Ship of the Desert remains nothing more than persistent desert lore.
- Mary Ellen Stout
- Instructor of History
- San Diego State University
I came across this article and truth be told, I was pretty upset. The information for this article was taken from my website (http://www.lostshipofthedesert.com) and there is no mention of my site as the source, or myself as the original writer. Please understand I’m not trying to make a big deal out of this, but I do think it’s important that you know where this is coming from and that proper credit is given to the source. This was not an original idea thought of by Mr. Marcos. I’m not sure who you use for your fact checking, but this whole article is wrong. I can go into more detail if you like, but you should be aware. If I were you, I would also back check his other stories because I am sure you will find more discrepancies as well. When articles appear with a large amount of issues in them, this directly reflects on the San Diego Reader and you should be aware.
Robert Marcos responds:
We have changed the story to reflect that it was theContent and not the Desire whose remnants may lie beneath the Laguna Salida.
I obtained 100% of my facts from sources outside of your website. I am also a member of the Imperial Valley Desert Museum and have participated in the examination of the Morning Childers collection.
Regarding the article (“Whether to kill San Diego mountain lions,” City Lights, June 12) you could have titled it “To Co-exist with a Cougar.” I support the Fish and Wildlife’s decision to kill this lion as it had attacked the child who was accompanied by many adults as well as his father. However, if this were the only circumstance under which we killed the lion, and we only hiked with others[and] we kept our domestic animals safely sheltered, the lions would very quickly learn not to harm us. Hunting is for food, it is not a sport to be misused. The Mountain Lion Foundation will teach and help residents who have animals to build lion-proof fencing so that their animals can be kept safely. We need our wildlife and biodiversity. Let’s learn how to live safely among them.
Are you aware that Campland on the Bay and DeAnza Mobile home park, were owned by the same group previously? (Campland gives big to Campbell, News Ticker, June 10) So the city leasing the DeAnza Cove RV Park to Campland would be just like giving it back to the company they took it from.....