I enjoy reading books about treasure, especially ones well researched. One such book in my opinion was written by W. C. Jameson called Lost Treasures of American History. It was a good read and I deliberately took my time over several days in order to reflect on some of the stories before moving on to the next. One treasure tale that really intrigued me took place in the California desert.
Sounds like it would be buried treasure and although that is what it is today, that is not the way the story began. The name of the chapter was “Lost Spanish Treasure Ship in the California Desert.” I thought it would be about gold and silver, but instead it was about pearls. That’s right,……. pearls. “Pearls?” I asked myself. I was not aware of any pearl exploration in the New World. Besides, what is a Spanish ship doing in the desert?
This was a tale I thought seemed farfetched, but in reality makes a lot of sense. We often overlook the fact that the Spanish were roaming around the New World over a century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1619. They would remain another 200 years before Anglos began entering Texas and California. We are all well aware of the search for gold and silver but I never realized they also sought pearls.
In 1612 the king of Spain sent an expedition north out of Mexico City up the Pacific coastline. The Spanish were well aware of large mollusks found on the Pacific coast that produced dark pearls, something wealthy Europeans desired. The three ship expedition eventually encountered a tribe of Indians that were pearl diving, and many of them wore pearl necklaces and bracelets. The Indians were friendly at first and agreed to trade pearls for some of the uniforms and clothing of the Spaniards. Unfortunately, after the actual trade took place the Indians realized the Spanish had left them with moldy, worn, almost useless clothing. The Indians quickly pursued the Spanish who had boarded their ships and were trying to get away fast. The Indians in their canoes managed to throw their spears and shoot their arrows, one of which hit the captain of the expedition. He ordered two of the ships to continue north while he would return home for medical care. The two remaining vessels continued north and eventually entered the Gulf of California. Here they found rich oyster beds. Weeks passed as they continued north often finding other oyster beds while enriching their cargo. They were determined to travel as far north as they could.
One ship hit a reef and was lost. Fortunately, they were able to transfer the pearls to the remaining boat. When they reached where the Colorado River empties into the Gulf they continued on into what was then an inland sea. The Colorado River had a much greater flow of water at that point hundreds of years ago than it does today. The ship sailed in the shallow waters of the river and inland sea for several weeks. When they tried to navigate out they found the water level had dropped thus trapping them. After searching in vain for a way out, and the water level dropping, the ship soon found itself stuck on a sand bar. In order to survive the men only carried with them essentials, leaving a cargo hull of chests stuffed with pearls. After traveling south by foot for four months along the coast line the remaining survivors were rescued by a Spanish galleon.
The Colorado River at that time changed course as many rivers do. In time the Spanish ship was resting on a dry sea bed that is now part of the Colorado Desert in Southern California. Fast forward over 250 years into the 19th century. Gold prospectors reported seeing the remains of a ship out in the desert. In the late 1800’s some gold seekers said they found a ship’s mast but were unable to find any ship. In the early 20th century, an old Yuma Indian traded shinny rocks for goods, perhaps not realizing they were pearls. Upon questioning where he found them, he said they came from a “wooden house “ buried in the desert. Even as late as 1999 some hikers in the desert supposedly reported seeing the bow or stern of a sailing ship in the desert. Once they learned the story of the Spanish pearl ship they have been unable to relocate it. Perhaps someday someone will find the remains of a ship of pearls. I doubt it, but it is one very interesting treasure tale.
The way nature creates a pearl is fascinating to me. I remember first learning about pearls one summer while swimming as a young child. My family spent a week visiting a lake cabin in central Texas. Sometimes we would water ski, or at least I tried to do so,and sometimes we would spend hours just swimming on the lakeshore beside the cabin. We loved jumping on and off the boat dock into the cool water as we tried to evade the Texas heat. Sometimes we would hide from each other swimming underneath the dock.
I recall one time when my oldest brother surfaced from going below the water up with what looked like a huge oyster. I thought oysters were in the ocean, not lakes, so that surprised me. At the time I thought it was an oyster, but I now realize it was not. It sure looked like one. I believe it must have been just one big mussel. He yelled with excitement, “Look what I found, maybe it has a pearl in it.” I did not know what he was talking about. “What do you mean I asked?” He placed the oyster on the dock as my brothers and a cousin gathered around. “Pearls come from oysters,” he said. “What?” I asked. He responded, “If a piece of sand gets inside the oyster it forms a pearl, that’s how pearls are made. Let’s pry him open and find out.” We tried to squeeze the thing open with no success. My cousin headed for the lake house and returned with a knife. The oyster was eventually pried open and sure enough…………there was no pearl. I felt sorry for the oyster. He must have lived a long time and was now penalized for being big.
I have never looked at pearls the same. I could have cared less about pearls before that, but since that time have been intrigued when I see a pearl necklace. I enjoyed reading John Steinbeck’s The Pearl for English class in high school. The pearl fisherman found his once in a lifetime find of the perfect large pearl, only too lose it all to soon when he gave it to a doctor who was trying to save his son’s life from an unfortunate poisonous insect bite. I often thought of my older brother’s oyster find asI read the novel. I had heard that most pearls came from the Far East. I envisioned Japanese divers swimming to great depth to search for big oysters. I also surmised that pearls probably came from the Persian Gulf. That would make sense, and to a certain extent it was true. The fact is that for centuries the finest pearls came from the Persian Gulf. Today some of the largest pearls are found off the shores of Indonesia. Additionally, as you know, most pearls today are artificially produced. Most do not come from actual oysters.
All religions of the world use gold, silver and diamonds to convey images of beauty and value. King Solomon described wisdom as being more valuable than gold and silver. The book of Revelation in the New Testament describes heaven as a place of beautify with gold abundant. The Koran describes those who enter paradise will be crowned with pearls of beautiful luster.
On the board game TreasureTrove I placed a Crown of Pearls where the Persian Gulf is located. The footnote section of the game instructional booklet mentions that pearl diving has been going on in the Persian Gulf for over 4,000 years, and that to the Islamic people a pearl symbolizes completeness and perfection. The world we live in values things of beauty such as a single pearl, as well as things we hope for such as a Crown of Pearls.
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