On the Trail & ‘Round the Campfire

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Lost Ship of Imperial Valley—Was It Seen?

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Since Dad was an avid prospector, legends and lore of lost gold mines and hidden treasure abounded in our house as I grew up. Legendary tales like that of Peg-Leg Pete and his crusty gold nuggets and three desert buttes. Dad absolutely believed some of the historical tales. To him, it was just a matter of finding what was lost.

For instance, he believed this legend about the "Lost Ship of Imperial Valley", buried in the desert sand, not far from El Centro, CA, USA. One story goes that blowing winds uncovered the ship on a ranch sometime before the turn of the twentieth century. In 1907, when yet a teen-age boy, an Elmer Carver was working for this rancher named Jacobson. He claimed to have seen the remains of the actual ship on his ranch.

Recounting the story in his later years, Elmer Carver said that Jacobson's wife told him in confidence the location of the ship's remains. She told him that, from within this mysterious boat, her husband recovered an iron chest containing a horde of jewels. History has it that they came to Imperial Valley poor as church mice, but left as wealthy folks. While their tale is generally known and even plausibly accepted by some of the old-timers, no one else claims to have seen the remains of the ship. They just knew that somehow the family left El Centro very well off.

Perhaps the most plausible tale of a ship lost in the desert involves the pearling expedition of Señor Juan de Iturbe in the year 1615. It is said that after a very successful pearling trip along the coastal waters of Baja California, he sailed up the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) to explore its northern end, which is the Colorado River delta. There, the gulf became a rather narrow channel between two mountains, but Iturbe was determined to navigate the waterway for quite some distance, until lo and behold, the waters opened up into vast sea that extended far and wide!

He had apparently sailed inland and drifted northwest over what is today the Imperial Valley and Salton Sea basin, toward Borrego Springs and then around the mountains, to the present Coachella Valley toward Palm Springs. Eventually, he realized that his inland sea was landlocked, so he determined to return south to the open gulf. But now, to his surprise, he noticed that the tidal waters were receding fast. He found himself the victim of unintended consequences—time and unforeseen occurrence—the wrong place at the right time. Like a fish caught in a tidal pool, in consternation he frantically sailed around looking for the narrow outlet back to the Sea of Cortez, but to no avail. He and his ship were trapped—up a creek without a paddle! He finally became stranded on a sandbar.

Maybe if he had found the entrance to the outlet channel, he could have calmly allowed the high tide to return and gone out with the low tide. But, for whatever reason, Iturbe felt forced to abandon ship with all its precious cargo of pearls and leave it high and dry. Apparently, according to early Mexican historical records, he found his way back to Mexico where he built another ship, never again to wander like a salamander into shallow waters!

Actually, this is true. From Anza-Borrego to the Salton Sea, sightings and tales of other ships, even of a Spanish Galleon, have persisted for over a 150 years. Off and on, since the time of Juan Iturbe, history records that Indians, travelers and crusty old prospectors have seen a ship exposed by the wind-blown desert sand. It is believed that a valuable cargo of pearls on a lost Mexican ship still awaits discovery by some lost soul, seeking lost treasure.

One of the earliest tales of finding the pearl ship is of an incident that apparently happened in 1775. A young pack mule driver, who was part of the De Anza expedition, stumbled upon the pearl ship two or three days out of Yuma. He filled his pockets with pearls and deserted the De Anza expedition and headed west to the Mission of San Diego. Later, befriending some Indians, he returned a number of times in search of his lost ship bonanza. He never found it again.

Think of it—the lost finding the lost—not gold but desert pearls! And thereby hangs a tale waiting for its final chapter. Interestingly, I had a brush with this history. I was personally involved in one of these reported sightings during my youth.

In the late 1940's, I recall Dad coming home once from one of his prospecting expeditions, probably in the Anza Borrego area. He described a ship's mast that he had seen sticking up out of the desert sand. He was more excited about that than any ledges of rosy quartz outcroppings, or looking for nuggets on three buttes. The oddity of it all made his story believable beyond question. Who goes out in the desert looking for gold and comes back with a lost ship story? He re-told that experience for years, and it weren't no desert mirage. To this day I have no doubt that he saw what he saw.

Since historic geographic records confirm that the Sea of Cortez once extended up in to the Imperial and Coachella Valleys, who knows? Maybe my Dad saw evidence of the fabled lost "Lost Ship of Imperial Valley"—a Mexican ship with a large cache of pearls that got land locked in the ancient Gulf of California back in the early 1600's. Dad never returned to find it again. So, it still awaits discovery by some lost treasure hunter.

Again, think of it—the lost finding the lost—not gold but desert pearls! Now every desert cowpoke or chuck wagon cook will laugh and tell you that any such pearls had to come from tasty "desert oysters" collected by castration during spring roundup!

© 2013 Ed Keenan

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  • Guest
    Aaron Cathcart Monday, 30 December 2013

    lost ship

    Great article! I love this story. I've been living in San Diego my whole life, and heard many an old timer talk about the old spanish ship in the desert. Any details as to the exact whereabouts? My dad, who died a few weeks ago, was a believer, and I have decided to go looking for this thing in his memory. Any feedback would be much appreciated. Thanks!

  • Guest
    andrmrtz Friday, 24 October 2014

    In memory of

    The story tells that the Indian traveled 2 days ,and if he has mules the where abouts would be close to a small town of Holtville

  • Guest
    Raguilar Saturday, 13 February 2016


    HI ALLOW ME TO GIVE YOU FEEDBACK ON SOME INFO I WAS ABOUT 12 yrs old working in a area ? .... I use to pick lots of fruits ... IN 1977 .'...."cantaloupes ". I am from porterville ca . CONTACT ME I MYSELF WILL BE GOING TO THE LOCATION THIS IS REAL !!!

  • Guest
    john Tuesday, 04 October 2016


    I've been doing some research. Could you kindlt give me some feedback?

  • Guest
    John Grasson Tuesday, 31 January 2017

    Lost Ship of the desert: More Info

    Love the story and if you are looking for more info check out http://lostshipofthedesert.com

  • Guest
    martin obergfell Wednesday, 20 September 2017

    wallace kane

    in the late sixties ,i lived in seeley and el centro , my father was a liutenant on the sheriff dept, he patrolled alot of area , he came home from imperial area and told the family of a man who had dug up timbers in a large was and was using them as fence posts, while cutting them he fell into the body of a long ship, his wife had reported him missing ,because he did not come home at the normal time. my father received the call and him and his deputies found the guy and helped him out of his dilemma. my father said there was alot of old stuff inside, but when he touched it it broke apart due to rot. this was in between imperial and the salton sea. at the time he was also transporting a local indian whom my father stated , broke the handcuffs and got out of his cruiser , but my father and his partner joh lemmon caught the guy and re handcuffed him, the indian seen the ship also

  • Guest
    John Grasson Wednesday, 20 September 2017

    RE:wallace kane

    Hi Wallace,
    I have heard a similar story for years and would love to hear more if you're willing. You can reach me via the contact page at lostshipofthedesert.com. I have been trying to pin down this stories location for some time and I am hoping you would be willing to help... Please let me know and thank you for your time...

    John Grasson

  • Guest
    Student Help Wednesday, 25 July 2018

    I am glad to read the information you shared [url=http://www.fosfo.com/]Arshad Cheena[/url]

    I am glad to read the information you shared Arshad Cheena

  • Guest
    Joseph Cook Wednesday, 26 June 2019

    Long time desert resident.

    My family lived in Imperial Valley for about 90 years starting around 1915. The "Lost Galleon" story was not a story shared by my father. There has been some talk about this alleged craft that was stuck in the sand and also a picture of the mast of some ship (I suppose the picture was taken in the 1920's). The ships mast was found in the Mexicali valley. This my take. A small ship with a shallow draft could have been pushed up the Colorado river during a bore tide in the sea of Cortez. Bear in mind that a bore tide lasts about an hour and could not move a ship very far. The bore tide however has produced five foot waves and somewhere I have moving pictures of the bore tide taken in the 1950's (where did I store that). The bottom of the Colorado river becomes very shallow and spread out. This will quickly dissipate the energy of the bore tide. I am not exactly sure of the elevation of the land bridge near the California-Mexico border but I would put it at about 25 feet above sea level. I can't imagine a ship crossing over this land bridge some 60 miles north of the Sea of Cortez and perhaps 25 feet higher. I am relatively confident (I am not sure) that the Imperial Valley was dry desert at the time of Spanish exploration. Might I say that I am a retired engineer specializing in the water sciences. None of this proves that my opinion is correct but I want to say that the whole story has too many holes in it and I would not collaborate with the lost ship in Imperial Valley. I regard that a lost ship in the Rio Harde river delta (part of the Colorado River) is probable. That however would put the ship some 70 miles south of the location that some of these stories place the ship.

  • Guest
    john grasson Thursday, 27 June 2019

    RE:Long time desert resident.

    I agree Joseph, I do not think any ship may have entered and traveled and substantial distance on the Colorado. As for the Hardy river, the only type of ship that may have made into the El Centro area could have been a Vikings Knarr. The timeline would have been 10th or 11th century, which means water was in the area and the rivers may have been deeper then. But this story does need one to take a "leap of faith," to believe that Viking may have been in the Sea of Cortez. But during this time the Northwest Passage was going through what was called the "Medieval Warming Period." Another clue is the story of the "Come From Afar" men of Tiburon Island. And then there's that petroglyph of a Viking ship in Baja. This is all spelled out at


    Pesonally I think the Laguna Salada story is the most probable....

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