The Lost Ship of the Desert
The facts behind tall tales from the American southwest of ships found in the middle of the desert.
by Brian Dunning
June 8, 2010
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It was 1933, and Myrtle Botts was traveling with her husband, enjoying the famous annual wildflower bloom in what's now Anza-Borrego State Park, in the Colorado Desert of inland southern California. They met an old prospector who swore he'd seen the remains of a Viking longship protruding from the side of an arroyo, well enough preserved that the distinctive round shields were still mounted along its sides. He wrote directions for Myrtle on how to find it. A paper, purporting to be those original directions, is preserved at the Julian Pioneer Museum in Julian, California.
Following the directions, Myrtle went and found the ship. She returned to fetch her husband along, but before they could get there, an earthquake brought down the wall of the arroyo, access was blocked, and the ship has not been seen since. Erosion in the arroyo has since washed away whatever the directions may once have led to.
How could a Viking ship end up in the deserts of the American southwest? Coastal mountain ranges eliminate the possibility that it came from the Pacific ocean. There is, however, one route into the desert, via the Colorado River, which feeds into the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, between Baja California and Mexico. Historically, this was largely a navigable river for shallow-draft boats, and it would have been possible to sail from the ocean up through what's now Yuma, AZ right on the border with California. Today, however, that river no longer exists, at least not in a very meaningful way. By the time the river gets to Yuma, it's gone through a number of dams and been channeled into numerous agricultural canals. Feeding the dry southwest leaves little water in the Colorado's bed, and in most places between Yuma and the Gulf, the bed is dry.
But before agriculture, it was a mighty channel, so big that it occasionally overflowed its banks and flooded the desert. Most notably, this happened in 1905 when the river burst its banks in Mexico, and flowed northwards in two separate channels for more than two years. The entire Colorado River poured into the Salton Sink in California, filling it to become what's now called the Salton Sea. These two rivers still run today, draining the town of Mexicali into the Salton Sea.
Myrtle Botts' prospector told her the Viking ship was in the badlands west of Mexicali. The land about there is either flat desert or hard rock mountain ranges, except for the Carrizo Badlands. If the Viking ship was in the Carrizo Badlands, it would have had to climb at least 200 meters in elevation. The arroyos, or canyons, in the Carrizo Badlands don't flow toward Mexicali, however. On the rare events when they contain water, they flow north as well, downhill into the Salton Sink.
So it appears that the Salton Sea is the key to any ancient ship traffic that may have left a shipwreck in the southwest. But even this is problematic. We do have good paleohydrology on the Salton Sink. Many times, since about the year 700, the Salton Sink has filled when the Colorado River overflowed into it. The largest was in about 1500, when Lake Cahuilla (as it was then called) was 26 times the size of today's Salton Sea, and its shoreline is still visible on the surrounding hillsides. These overflows happened when the Colorado River silted up its normal path to the Gulf, and naturally diverted itself. At its highest, Lake Cahuilla actually covered what's now Indio, California to Yuma, Arizona, and was contiguous with the Gulf of California. During these events, shallow-draft ships could indeed have traveled inland as far as the outskirts of the Carrizo Badlands.
But historically, this was quite rare, and was unknown to any Europeans who left records. The first known Europeans to the region were led by Melchior Diaz in 1540. He traveled upriver from the Gulf, and then sent expeditions overland to Lake Cahuilla, so we know there was no water connection. By 1604, New Mexico had a Spanish governor, Don Juan de Ornate, and we know from his explorations of the Colorado River that it was not connected to Lake Cahuilla at that time either. 100 years later, the Colorado silted up again, blocking access from the sea, and refilling Lake Cahuilla. But by 1774, the diversion had corrected itself and Lake Cahuilla was dry again, as reported by explorer Juan Bautista de Anza.
This casts doubt on stories of Spanish galleons found high and dry in the desert, but it does leave the door open to other earlier explorers who did not necessarily leave records. Candidates we have for this are the Chinese and the Vikings. In the 1400's, Chinese explorer Zheng He traveled west from China to Africa, but no reliable accounts show him ever venturing east across the Pacific toward America. One map turned up several years ago, purporting to show that Zheng He had visited and mapped America, but it's been shown to be a fake.
Vikings were well known for their wide-ranging exploits launched from Scandinavia, even going so far as northern Africa. They also made several attempts to colonize North America along its eastern coast, but they never ventured anywhere near the Pacific Ocean, so far as we know. Stories have persisted for almost two centuries of blond eskimos, generally thought to be the descendants of Inuit who intermarried with Vikings along Canada's northern coast. If Vikings had made it that far, we might hypothesize that they could have continued south through the Bering Strait and eventually reached Mexico. But we strike at least two stumbling blocks. First, there is no archaelogical evidence of Vikings anywhere along the American west coast, which would necessarily exist; and second, DNA testing of the European-looking Cambridge Bay Inuit with Norse descendants from Iceland proved no genetic link. These combine to make the story of a Viking longship in the Colorado Desert highly unlikely.
But of course, it could be some other kind of boat that Myrtle Botts' prospector mistook for a Viking longship. There are other stories of ships in the desert. One holds that a Spanish galleon was washed out of the river during a flood in 1862 where it became beached some 60 kilometers north of Yuma, but this is probably just a tall tale. It's unlikely that anything as large as a galleon was ever able to navigate up the Colorado. If it was a smaller boat, it's a perfectly reasonable story, as there are floodplains in that part of the river where a boat could quite easily get stuck at high water. But it would not be a terribly remarkable event, and there isn't anywhere around there where a boat could be washed more than a couple hundred meters from the channel.
In the V formed by the south-flowing Colorado and the north-flowing channels into which the Colorado has spilled into the Salton Sink is some high ground with sand dunes called the Sand Hills, and somewhere in these dunes has been reported a Spanish pearl ship. The story goes that a tidal bore pushed the small ship over the shallow delta in 1615, when Lake Cahuilla was so high that the whole area was underwater and the lake was contiguous with the Gulf. It's reasonably plausible that a small ship could have made it there and become stranded, but the Sand Hills are too high and too far from Lake Cahuilla's maximum level. Once the water receded the ship would have been well out in the open and easily found.
That's the case with the plausible version of all these stories. If boats did indeed get stuck in what's now desert, they would have been on the surface, out on the flats, and quite obvious. We can say with pretty good certainty that no ship within the past few thousand years could have become buried in such a way that a more recent canyon could have exposed them. We have a thorough understanding of the geological history of the Carrizo Badlands. The top layers, where any embedded boats might be found, consist of layers of alluvium, from several different formations, laid down during the Pliocene and Miocene epochs. The newest deposits are at least 2.5 million years old, and they get much older from there. So there's really no chance that any kind of boat or other human construction might be found protruding from the wall of a canyon in this region.
We should also keep in mind that the southwest is traveled today much heavier than it was in the 1800's, plus we have the benefit of two centuries of exploration since then. In all that time, we've never had anything better than tall tales; nobody's yet presented evidence of a Viking ship, Spanish galleon, or any other unexpected ancient boats turning up in the southwest where they shouldn't be. If they do, it's likely going to be from a small boat where we would expect such a craft to have been stranded or abandoned in a place where high water is known to have been. Paleohydrology shows us that may indeed be a great distance from any existing shoreline. What will get me excited will be a Viking ship, anything galleon sized, or anything where it shouldn't be. That will be a great day to in search of the lost ship of the desert.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Lost Ship of the Desert." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
8 Jun 2010. Web.
23 Jul 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4209>
References & Further Reading
American Geographical Society: Approximate Status of 1933. "Map of the Colorado Delta Region." SDSU Center for Inland Waters. San Diego State University, 1 Jan. 1936. Web. 4 Jun. 2010. <http://www.sci.sdsu.edu/salton/CoRDeltaFull.JPEG>
Bishop, G., Marinacci, M., Oesterle, J., Moran, M. Weird California: Your Travel Guide to California's Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 2009. 64.
CBC. "DNA tests debunk blond Inuit legend." CBC News. CBC/Radio-Canada, 28 Oct. 2003. Web. 3 Jun. 2010. <http://www.cbc.ca/news/story/2003/10/28/inuit_blond031028.html>
Lovgren, S. "'Chinese Columbus' Map Likely Fake, Experts Say." National Geographic News. National Geographic Society, 23 Jan. 2006. Web. 3 Jun. 2010. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/01/0123_060123_chinese_map.html>
Reheis, M., Hershler, R., Miller, D. Late Cenozoic Drainage History of the Southwestern Great Basin and Lower Colorado River Region: Geologic and Biotic Perspectives. Boulder: The Geological Society of America, 2008. 368.
SSA. "Historical Chronology." Salton Sea Restoration: 13 Years of Progress. Salton Sea Authority, 1 Jan. 2000. Web. 2 Jun. 2010. <http://www.saltonsea.ca.gov/histchron.htm>
Weight, H. Lost Ship of the Desert: A Legend of the Southwest. Twentynine Palms: The Calico Press, 1959.
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