We’ve all seen images of ships moored in strange places after a tsunami, but what about a Spanish galleon lost in the desert? One of the Mojave’s most mysterious legends is built around just this idea…
In the 16th century, Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés was one of the most important figures in what is now known as Mexico. After capturing the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán (what is now Mexico City), Cortés came to govern the region, and sent ships to explore the Gulf of California.
During these explorations, the Spanish were met with heavy resistance from the Native American people. Some men reported seeing Native people wearing pearls, which inspired many more expeditions with the goal of searching for these gems of the sea.
As the legend goes, after a failed expedition of diving for pearls in the Gulf, a group of Spanish explorers stumbled across a Native American village, where they were not only wearing pearls, but had baskets full of hundreds and hundreds of them. Excited at the idea of striking it rich, the Spanish explorers struck a deal with the villagers to trade expensive European garments for heaps of pearls.
Not actually having any expensive garments aboard their ships, the proposed deal was a scam. When the villagers discovered the Spanish men had traded rags for the pearls, they pursued and attacked their ships. When one of the Spanish galleons was damaged and began to sink, they rushed to transfer all of the swindled pearls onto one ship, which made its escape north, up the Colorado river, and was never heard from again.
As so many ships disappeared and sank without evidence, the lost ship of pearls was forgotten for hundreds of years. But in the early 1800s, people began to hear stories about a ghost ship, partially buried in the desert sand. To most, these were just tall tales told by attention seekers, or the confused sights of people who had become deliriously dehydrated in the desert heat, but miraculously survived to tell the story of their hallucinations.
When a few keen observers noticed that different accounts of the desert ship described it as an ornately carved Spanish galleon, the story of the ship full of pearls began to resurface.
Inspired by these stories, a man named Charley Clusker set out in 1870 to find the mythical ship. He had researched many reports, and became convinced the ship did exist when Native American people confirmed seeing it.
After weeks in the desert, Clusker and his group returned to report they had found the Spanish galleon, chock full of pearls and other valuable treasures. Out of supplies and on the verge of starvation, Clusker and his crew had returned without the haul of treasure, but planned to gather up strength and returned to the ship as soon as possible. When they left for the desert a few weeks later, it was the last they were ever seen…
The legend of the lost ship of the Mojave is full of many mysteries. If the Spanish galleon really did escape, laden with pearls, how did it come to be beached in the desert?
One theory is that the Spanish explorers, unfamiliar with the Colorado river, mistakenly steered into shallow water, and were unable to get their ship afloat again. Others suggest it’s just as likely the Spanish were pursued by the Native Americans they had cheated, and that the conflict caused the galleon to sink in a section of lake or river. When the water dried up years later, the ship was exposed, and sightings began to occur.
The location of the lost ship of the Mojave could have disappeared along with Charley Clusker, but this is one desert legend that may never die.