The Mysterious Lost Ghost Ships of the Desert

By Brent Swancer February 28, 2021

There have been many ghost ships throughout history, those vessels that just seem to sail on unmanned and unknown, and there are plenty of mysterious shipwrecks out there as well, skirting our efforts to find them. One place one might not expect to find such lost ships is in the middle of a desert wasteland, yet for centuries there have been reports of people finding just that. Here we look into the fantastical tales of lost ships that have somehow managed to find their way into the middle of the most improbable of places.

Since at least the 18th century, there have been numerous legends throughout the American Southwest of people finding mysterious ships improbably out in the middle of the desert, as if dropped there from the sky, and these stories take many forms. Many of the tales come from the Colorado Desert of California, around the Salton Sea and Imperial Valley, and all around the vast Sonora Desert, which covers large parts of the Southwestern United States in Arizona and California and of Northwestern Mexico in Sonora, Baja California, and Baja California Sur. Explorers and Native tribes in these regions would often bring back tales of these ships half buried in the arid wastelands, sometimes described as a Spanish galleon, at other times more like a Viking ship, and there are varying accounts from these regions, sometimes including lost treasure, and at other times hauntings.

While most of the stories have the feel of campfire lore with little detail, there are some notable accounts. One early account of a lot ship of the desert supposedly comes from all the way back to 1775, when a young mule driver by the name of Tiburcio Manquerna, who at the time was with the expedition of Juan Baptista de Anza in his search of a land route from Sonora to Alta California. One day Manaquerna claims that as he was scouting about in the desert alone when he came across a Spanish Galleon just sitting out on the sands, with no apparent clue as to how it had gotten there. Not only did he see the ship, but according to Mnaquerna he actually entered it and found it to be laden with treasure such as pearls and gold coins. He would say of his discovery:

“I was sent to the right of the course, seeking a road to the ocean. Traveling by night because of the heat, I stumbled upon an ancient ship and in its hold were so many pearls as is beyond imagination. Fevered by this wealth, I took what I could carry, abandoned my comrades, and riding toward the ocean as far as my mule could carry me, I climbed the precipitous western mountains on foot. Fed by Indians, I at last reached San Luis Rey Mission. Since then I have spent my life searching for this ship”.

Unfortunately, try as he might, he supposedly never was able to relocate that mysterious ship. In 1862, it was reported that a flood along the Colorado River had uncovered a Spanish galleon out in the desert, which was said to be half buried in the earth at a location west of Dos Palmas, California, and 40 miles north of Yuma, Arizona. Apparently is was able to be seen by many witnesses from a nearby mesa, but by the time an expedition was organized to reach it, the mysterious ship seemed to have disappeared into the earth once more. The site of the alleged ship is now said to lie beneath the waters of the Salton Sea.

A rather notable account comes from November of 1870, when a man named Charley Clusker and his party heard from the local Natives of a galleon in the desert at a place called Dos Palmas, on the northeast side of the Salton Sea Basin. They organized several expeditions to the region in order to locate it, and finally claimed that they had been successful, describing the ship as “ornately carved Spanish galleon,” and they immediately mounted a larger expedition in order to haul back whatever they could find aboard it. An article in the Los Angeles Star at the time said of this:

“Charley Clusker and party returned from the desert yesterday, just as we were going to press. They had a hard time of it, but they have succeeded in their effort. The ship has been found! He was without food or water, under a hot broiling sun for over twenty-four hours, and came near perishing. Charley returns to the desert today, to reap the fruition of his labors. He is prepared with a good wagon, pack saddles, and planks to cross the sandy ground”.

It is unfortunately unknown what happened to this expedition, and there is no more word of it after this, no way to know if he ever found it or not, or if he simply disappeared without a trace into the badlands during his obsessive quest. A few years later, in 1878, a similar ship was allegedly seen about 120 miles northwest of Yuma and 40 miles east of Indio, California, by three German prospectors.

One of the prospectors allegedly became so excited that he ran out into the desert in a frenzy to reach it and never returned. Oddly, when the others searched the area they could find no sign of either their comrade or the ship, as if the desert had just swallowed them up. It would only be later when an official search party scoured the area that they would find the man dead and naked in the desert, with no sign of his clothes or the ship.

Sightings continued up into the 1900s as well. Once tale is that a Native man came into the dusty remote town of Borrego Springs, California, paying for everything with pearls, which seemed odd for a desert tribe member far from the sea to be doing. When asked where he had gotten the pearls, he explained that there was a strange wooden structure half-buried in the sand full of them. An expedition to locate what was thought to be one of the lost ships of the desert turned up nothing, and the Native man disappeared after that, leaving us to wonder just what was going on here.

In 1907, there is another report from a farmer named Niles Jacobsen, who claimed that a windstorm had unearthed the remains of a ship near his property in Imperial, California, which he then used wood from to fashion fence posts. He also claimed that he had found gems on the ship, but that he had sold them off. In 1933 there was also the well-publicized story of a Myrtle Botts, who was out hiking in the Anza-Borrego desert with her husband when they came across a prospector who told them he had found a ship out in the desert upon a rocky cliff at Canebrake Canyon and said, “The vessel was made of wood, and there was a serpentine figure carved into its prow.” The Botts went to investigate for themselves and found what looked like the stern of a ship protruding from the canyon wall, but they were unable to climb up to reach it, and before they could go back for another try an earthquake apparently swept the region, burying it in rubble and rendering them unable to relocate it.

Even more recently was the case of three UCLA students who went out looking for the lost ship in 1949. They had heard from a Cahuilla Indian of a serpent shaped canoe he had seen in the area in 1917, which the students thought may be a “Viking ship” blown off course. The students were well prepared, with irrigation maps from 1910 and various published accounts from the 1800s, and they departed on their quest from Laguna Salada in Baja California. It is unknown what ultimately became of this expedition or if they ever found what they were looking for.

The lost ships of the desert have been seen as recently as the 1970s, and we are left to wonder how this could possibly be. How could a ship end up in the middle of nowhere in a desert? Theories have run the range from a ship that had gotten stranded after travelling up a now extinct river, to having been deposited there after being carried inland by a massive storm, flood, or tidal bore, or even a ship that might have been hauled across the desert by horses or mules. The origins of the alleged ship or ships have also been debated and discussed, alternatively attributed to a Spanish galleon that had traveled up a river in a misguided attempt to sail around California, which was once thought to be an island, as well as Viking explorers, pirates, and even a craft from the navy of King Solomon, or the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

Whatever the case may be, tales of lost ships in the desert have become deeply ingrained in the lore of their respective areas. Is there anything to this, or is it all legends and myths? So far there had been no credible physical evidence brought into the light, and we won’t know until some comes forward. For now, these ships possibly lie out there forgotten and abandoned to the desert sands.

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