COLD CASE

The Lost Galleon of the California Desert

ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN MATTOS
A 17th-century Spanish ship and a fortune in pearls are rumored to be buried in the sand of the Colorado Desert.

On the morning of November 12, 1870, Charley Clusker set out from San Bernardino, California, looking for a 255-year-old Spanish ship loaded with pearls and other treasures. A veteran of the Mexican-American War, Clusker, then 60, was a lifelong adventurer who had come to California years earlier in search of gold. According to newspaper reports, he discovered a Spanish galleon in the Colorado Desert, in the southeastern corner of the state, but had been forced to return to civilization after running out of water and nearly dying of dehydration.

The Daily Alta California, a newspaper that published from 1849 to 1891, noted, “Mr. Clusker stands high in this community for veracity and sense. He certainly believes he has found the SHIP, and every one here believes him. He starts to-morrow again, taking several barrels for water.”

Alas, when Clusker returned to what he believed was the site of the ship, he couldn’t find it, and he never did.

In the ensuing century and a half, other sightings have been reported—all unfounded, like grainy black-and-white photographs of UFOs or the Loch Ness Monster. No one has ever been able to establish definitively that there is an abandoned centuries-old ship lying somewhere within California’s millions of acres of desert. Yet the quest to find it has morphed into a mystery to solve, one conjuring powerful memories and fantasies of the American Southwest.

According to legend, King Philip III of Spain commissioned the galleon in 1610. It was built in what is now the Mexican city of Acapulco and took two years to complete. Captain Juan de Iturbe is said to have sailed the vessel up the Gulf of California on a pearl-hunting trip. There are differing accounts of what happened next. Iturbe may have stopped briefly near present-day Mulegé, on the eastern coast of Baja California, to help a sinking ship—and take on its cargo. He may have also duped some Native Americans into giving him their pearls.

Whatever the case, the galleon eventually arrived at the top of the gulf, continued northwest up the Colorado River, and followed the river to one of its much shallower straits—deep into what is now California. Iturbe, it is believed, hoped to find the long-imagined sea passage connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Instead, the galleon was swept up by a fast-moving tidal bore—a wave formed by water funneled through a narrow passageway—and carried over the shallow desert and all the way to Lake Cahuilla, just northwest of the Salton Sea. At this point, somewhere around the 34th parallel, the galleon was apparently deposited on a sandbank. Stranded in the middle of the California lowlands, Iturbe deserted his ship—and his loot—and disappeared into the desert forever.

In 1933, librarian Myrtle Botts, like Clusker about 60 years earlier, found the galleon—once. Botts was hiking with her husband in the Anza-Borrego Desert, near Mexico. After learning from a prospector about a ship jutting from the side of a nearby canyon called Canebrake, she managed to get a glimpse from a distance, she later claimed. Also much like Clusker, Botts and her husband were ill-equipped for the hike and decided they would return later to see the ship up close. However, they too were unable to find it when they went back. (Botts insisted that an earthquake centered in Huntington Beach was responsible.)

Other notable attempts to find the galleon include a 1949 expedition led by three UCLA students and an ongoing effort spearheaded by one John Grasson, a former editor of Dezert Magazine.

It’s worth noting that Botts, like the UCLA students, believed the ship was Viking, not Spanish. (Grasson’s working hypothesis is that it’s English.) It’s also worth noting that there is zero evidence for this proposition—much like the proposition of a Spanish galleon being carried across the California desert by a magical wave.

But that’s immaterial. The mystery of the galleon (or Viking or English ship) persists not because there is proof but because there is not—because Clusker, Botts, Grasson, and everyone else who has gone looking want to believe that the desert is a magical and unknowable place. They want to believe that the ship is there and cannot be found—and, whether they realize it or not, it’s what their faith requires. Every so often, one of them sees or stumbles across something or someone concrete or credible enough to nourish the myth.

That is why Clusker and his copycats thrill us—they feed us just enough detail, just enough fact, to make us wonder if maybe, just maybe, they are not so wild-eyed as we thought. Maybe they’re onto something.

Peter Savodnik is a writer in L.A. who covers the intersection of Hollywood and politics for Vanity Fair. He’s fascinated by the power of myth, and he has plans to go looking for the galleon one of these days.