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Lost Treasure : Mystery of Explorer Ulloa’s Spanish Galleon Still Unsolved

North County Focus today introduces history columnist Richard Crawford, archivist and historian for the San Diego Historical Society. He studied history in both the undergraduate and graduate programs at San Diego State University and has worked for the historical society since 1981. His column will appear when there is a fifth Thursday in the month.

It happens every six months or so. An eager visitor to the library of the San Diego Historical Society will ask the harried archivists for material on the Spanish galleon Trinidad, flagship of explorer Francisco de Ulloa, believed wrecked off the coast of Oceanside in 1540 with millions in Aztec gold.

For centuries the story of the Trinidad and the fate of its master, Ulloa, mystified historians. Sailing from Acapulco in July, 1539, Ulloa commanded a fleet of three ships: the Santa Agueda, the Santo Tomas, and the Trinidad. Ulloa carried instructions from the conquistador Hernan Cortes to explore the coast to the north and pursue the endless rumors of gold and the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola.

Ulloa found neither. The Santo Tomas sank soon after the voyage began. The explorer sailed on, charting the Gulf of California and venturing up the western coast of Baja California. With supplies dwindling, the Santa Agueda returned to Mexico. Ulloa decided to continue “with the ship Trinidad and these few supplies and men, to go on, if God grant me the weather, as far as I can . . . “

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The Trinidad was never heard from again. Lost at sea, wrecked on an unknown coast, or attacked by Indians--for centuries chroniclers had no idea.

In 1952, an Oceanside physician, Joseph J. Markey, proclaimed the mystery solved. Using maps and documents uncovered in a Spanish archive, Markey located the skeletal remains of 22 Europeans buried in a cave in the San Luis Rey Valley, on the outskirts of Camp Pendleton. The skeletons, along with weapons and gold coins, all dated from the era of the Spanish conquest, according to Markey.

In a speech before the San Diego Historical Society on Jan. 25, 1952, Markey presented a detailed account of the last days of Francisco Ulloa and his men. Based upon his archeological evidence and Spanish documents--including a mysterious diary written by a Trinidad survivor--Markey described how Ulloa had anchored the galleon in the mouth of the San Luis Rey River on Aug. 21, 1540. Ill with scurvy, most of the crew abandoned the ship and camped inland near an Indian village by a freshwater lake. Soon the Spaniards, “lacking the immunity built up over the centuries by the Indians,” succumbed to dysentery contracted from the polluted waters of the lake. Ulloa himself died on Sept. 5.

Three crewmen from the Trinidad, including the diarist, Pablo Salvador Hernandez, escaped by rowing the ship’s longboat to Acapulco. Abandoned, the Trinidad sank somewhere near Oceanside.

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Did Francisco de Ulloa actually arrive in California in 1540, predating Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo by two years? Could the wreck of the Trinidad be found, and would it contain, as Markey believed, several million dollars worth of gold?

The public and news media greeted the story with enthusiasm. Trumpeted by Markey, the story reached a wide audience.

Less vocal than Markey were a few skeptics. In a letter to the San Diego Historical Society that year, Museum of Man Curator Spencer L. Rogers told Curator John Davidson that Markey’s theories were at “sharp variance with known scientific facts,” and warned, “I look with alarm upon the fact that your institution and society would seem to be giving implied support to this gentleman’s theories.”

A more specific challenge to Markey’s theory came in 1971 from a professor of history, David Weber of San Diego State University. Weber pointed out that Spanish manuscripts interpreted in the 1930s clearly placed the explorer Ulloa in Mexico one year after his alleged death at San Luis Rey. Spanish court records also show Ulloa testifying in a trial in Valladolid, Spain, in 1542.

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If Ulloa and the Trinidad had returned safely to Mexico, what had Markey actually found in his cave at San Luis Rey? Ralph Heiser, former museum curator at Mission San Luis Rey suggested the skeletal remains were ape skulls and the gold coins “common Spanish coins . . . made of copper and tin.”

Markey’s archival evidence--the Hernandez maps and diary--were unavailable for examination. In response to his critics, the doctor explained that a forthcoming book would include photographs of the documents.

Suspicions of Markey’s theory failed to discourage seekers of the lost Trinidad. Markey himself ignored the doubters and turned treasure hunter. Believing the galleon must have sunk somewhere near the San Luis Rey River, he began launching rafts in the river loaded with tons of scrap iron. By noting where the rafts sank, Markey hoped to locate the logical burial spot of the Trinidad. Unfortunately, the rafts foundered erratically in a wide area. After three years of raft building, Markey gave up.

More determined treasure seekers joined the hunt. A group of professional divers called “Aztec Six” searched without success for several months in 1968. The next year, diver Bill Takasato claimed to have found a wreck buried in sand only a few hundred hards from shore. Bad weather and equipment failures forced Takasato to abandon the search.

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In 1973, salvagers financed by a Wilmington yacht broker claimed discovery of the wreck. Again, equipment problems were blamed for stopping the work. Treasure hunters were back in 1976. A nightclub singer named Bill Warren found “a couple of cannons down there” with the aid of a $7,000 metal detector. As late as 1987, Warren was still trying to get adequate financing to continue his quest.

Markey died in 1985. His promised book documenting the famous Hernandez diary and maps never appeared. No one ever saw his documents or the skeletons he found to study them.

For all the thousands of dollars and immeasurable hours spent searching for the treasure of the Trinidad, perhaps the most remarkable fact of all is that Markey’s theories have been so widely believed in the first place. An “artfully contrived hoax,” concluded curator Ralph Heiser. A hoax, it might be added, that has captivated the public for more than four decades.


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