Shipwreck, Cannibals, and the Island with the Long Tail
The bright half moon had just melted into the western mesa when we eased out of our mountain hideout. Again we were departing the tranquility of our rancho on the Rim. Every port of refuge has its price. The coolness of madrugada soothed us and the dawning light in the east heartened us. Al que madruga Dios lo ayuda. God blesses those who arise early. Once again we were running south, carrying all the emotions that blend together to create the euphoria of adventure, carrying dreams no one can steal.
We crossed the northern scar at Nogales and rolled into Old Mexico. Pools of brown leftover rain water from a winter storm puddled beside the black highway. Cruising into Caborca, we noticed that the agricultural community had grown a great deal since we had last visited eight years previous. At the green stucco Plaza Motel, we found rooms seven and nine, their spartan best. We ended our day of travel tasting spice and sipping from tall brown bottles while seated at La Cenadería Selene.
Caborca was bustling with activity on Saturday morning. We enjoyed huevos rancheros and café tinto in the Grano de Oro facing the plaza central. Afterwards we shopped for supplies in the big PH supermarket, as the mercado central had long been abandoned in modern Caborca.
Our compras complete, we departed the ranching town, heading into traffic composed of crowded buses, pickup beds spilling people, and board-walled trucks burdened with standing human cargo. The countryside was emptying as rurales headed to market in Caborca. At the brandy distillery we turned south, passing through tall saguasos. After thirty-five kilometers we reached the end of the pavement at a road fork. There stood a small sign supported by two rocks. It was made from a piece broken off a larger road sign encouraging drivers to dim their lights. The small sign, scrawled in black, read Bienvenidos Hermanos en Cristo. An arrow pointed toward a poor dirt trail. Written above the arrow was Puerto Libertad. We eased off the pavement and turned toward adventure.
Following the sandy road, we came to a ranchería, surrounded by a fence and hosting a sign reading se prohibe la entrada. Later we passed an isolated adobe ranchería with a wrecked truck in front of the house, and a skinny horse that spooked and ran when we passed, and a palm oasis with a tall wooden circular corral built at the water source. We crept southward through the desert. The road turned from sand to gravel, winding its way around tall greenish black saguaro cactus and fat white elephant trees. We were surprised to find a luxury hunting camp along the road, complete with power supply, fleet of jeeps, guest houses and guest tents. Evidence of people existed as the rancherías of Plometo, El Americano, Corpus y Christy, Carbón, Caracól, and Maravillas. At Rancho Plometo we visited with the resident vaquero. At Rancho Caracól we talked with viejo Alberto Méndez. At El Americano, we came upon a grader improving the dirt track. A few kilometers later, we saw a man living beside the road, squatting on the sand, cooking fish on a campfire.
The Cortés sparkling on the horizon welcomed us to Puerto Libertad. Creeping into the small fishing community, we turned onto a dusty street. We passed stores and beer depositos and a restaurante and a pool hall with a video shop next door. There was no litter in the street and only a few people lingered outside their squat houses. Acacias, oleanders, date palms, and mango trees provided the only green in the tan, sandy, desert village. No fiberglass skiffs, pangas, could be seen on the beach.
Beside the large icehouse, a Pemex station sat seemingly empty. We stopped at the green Magna pump and a tall man emerged from the shadows. He answered all our questions. The pangas are in Guaymas fishing shrimp. There are rooms behind the Restaurante Dos Rosas. The Pemex station is open all the time and there is always gasoline. The road to Caborca is always terrible. There have been no Gringos in the village in months, not since the last time the couple from Phoenix came. They are the only Gringos who ever come. The Pemex man told us these things.
Turning back toward the center of the village, we searched until finding the Dos Rosas. There we introduced ourselves to the mother and daughter causing the name of the establishment. The rooms were extremely clean and equally as tiny. They faced a splendid garden with a rock fountain trickling water into a round pool bearing goldfish. A big terrapin walked out to greet us and followed us into the rooms. Whale ribs and vertebrae decorated the rock paths around the garden. A green and red parrot talked to us from a cage. Sebastian the friendly dog smiled at us from the coolness of the shade by the two bathrooms. Mangos dripped from a green tree. The shade and the breeze produced comfort and pleasure and serenity, and we smiled at our hosts and thanked them for providing such an oasis for travelers.
After paying for two rooms, and because the young rodsmen wished to explore the beach, we loaded into our cruiser. With the sun hanging just above the golden Cortés, we drove south of Libertad and found the seashore palapas that Mama Rosa had recommended. We found ourselves completely alone. Coyote tracks decorated the beach and giant cactus loomed over our heads. Across the narrow sea on the Baja side, the sun sank behind the long, tall, gray island of Ángel de la Guarda. The moon was mostly full and the Camino de Santiago flowed through the tail of Scorpio. A soft humid breeze drifted off the ocean. The lapping of surf against the beach joined silence to sing the only song. The lights of La Libertad twinkled from around the bay. The serenity soothed us before we returned through the night to our tiny rooms at Dos Rosas.
Dawn found us rolling south. After a while, another Brothers in Christ sign reading Haxol Ihoon 20 KM welcomed us to a dirt track. We paused. Behind us to the north lay Libertad. Once Indians had lived there. They were the Tepoca, a branch of the Seri. All of them had disappeared. To our right twenty kilometers lay the village of Haxol Ihoon. There the Indians had survived, albeit arriving from another locale. We turned west and headed through the cactus forest toward the coast and the village of the Seri Indians. At Pozo Coyote we waved to ranchers at their freshly whitewashed adobe. A few minutes later we bounced into Haxol Ihoon, today known as Desemboque.
The villagers of Desemboque are all Seri Indians. The historical narrative concerning the Seri begins in 1709 when the Jesuit cargo vessel San Javier was forced by a storm to run aground north of the port of Guaymas. Padre Salvatierra traveled to the wreck in 1710. There he found camped Seri Indians, and he lived with them for two months while the wreck was being salvaged. The priest won the good will of the Seri.
Eleven years later, in 1721, Padre Ugarte arrived where camped the Seri. Ugarte named the spot Santa Sabina. Remembering Padre Salvatierra, Ugarte was well received by the Indians. While Ugarte was with the Seri, they asked him to sail to a place to bless some of their family. The Padre agreed, and, in his sloop named Triumph of the Cross, the Jesuit missionary departed the Seri camp one afternoon.
Dawn the next morning found the sloop in a very narrow torturous strait, full of shoals and danger. The currents and winds and strong tides greatly hampered Ugarte. The Padre expressed that the straits were like a little Hell, an infiernillo. Ugarte sailed for three days through the perilous strait until he reached the place for which he was looking. Fifty men on thirteen rafts paddled to the sloop to greet Ugarte. The Padre went ashore and was taken to a house made of branches and having a door at each end. The Indians would enter one door to be blessed by the Padre and then exit the other door. After a day of blessing, Ugarte returned to his ship and continued northward to the Río Colorado.
Exactly where Salvatierra and Ugarte landed is unidentified. Santa Sabina is not on any known maps. The strait which Ugarte reported is almost certainly the Canal de Infiernillo. It is most likely that Santa Sabina is south of Isla Tiburón, that Ugarte found the southern Seri tribe there, and was guided northward through the Canal to visit the northern tribe of the Seri. We hoped go to the site where Ugarte had performed his blessings.
Under the shade of the dripping salt cedar tree at the edge of the caleta, we parked our brown cruiser. The old rodsman strolled toward a group of pangeros on the beach. The young rodsmen stood in the shade and were soon surrounded by Seri women. The tall and elegant Indian women wore flounced shirtwaists and ground-dragging skirts. This style originated with the Yaqui. The cheeks of the Seri women and girls were painted to create a mode resembling a Moslem veil.
Around the pangas was born a conversation between the Seri fishermen and the Gringo. From the Gringo, intentions were stated and hopes were expressed. Each were received graciously by the fishermen. A captain came forward. For him, the negocio was new, as no Gringo had ever before come seeking a panga and pangero. The price was set, and, as always, the Gringo paga tocho morocho. He pays for everything. Sixty dollars to the Capitán, plus the cost of the gasoline. Also the Gringo is expected to bring the food and beverage. Capitán Gonzalo would be awaiting us the coming morning in the caleta.
We began to trade with the tall, graceful, elegant Seri women. Their shiny black trusses fall to their waists and some ladies curl designs into their hair. Their glistening skin is pure and clean. Their elegance is recognized when observing their refined response to an unexpected arrival of foreigners. We were offered handicrafts of necklaces, wood carvings, stone sculptures and baskets. For trade we offered children’s clothes and sunglasses.
After much friendly and humorous barter, a beautiful Seri woman, her glistening hair falling below her waist, offered a splendid basket woven of black and orange grasses in trade for all the clothes and the red sunglasses. Her offer was accepted and the barter ended, with everyone laughing and with requests to the Gringos to return soon with more trades.
The women said that they would trade for all sorts of clothing, for toys, sunglasses, shoes and electronics, and especially for reading glasses for old tired eyes. They told us that they never had a chance to go to any towns to shop. The colorfully dressed ladies were friendly, although none allowed her picture to be taken. They proudly announced that the Seri preferred to live only in the village of Desemboque and did not want to be carried away to El Norte confined in the camera of a Gringo.
From the Seri village, we traveled over the bumpy road to Punta Sargento. A magnificent blue bay encircled by a white beach and the dark shadow of Isla Tiburón welcomed us. We camped in the sand near the mangrove rimmed estuary. The tide was huge and the sand flats extended well out into the bay. At sunset the flats became golden glitter. Orion lay on his back that night, with his brilliant arrow tip sparkling midheaven.
Morning was clear and calm and the Cortés slept quietly. As the sun rose and heated the air, fog began to rise from the waters of the Canal de Infiernillo. Mystically, the Canal and Isla Tiburón quickly became obscured by thick fog. Everywhere else was clear and cloudless. As we departed our camp site, only the knowing would have suspected that a large island and a narrow strait lay hidden in the clouds.
Two hours after sunrise, the fishermen of Desemboque began to appear with their catch from the night netting. As pangas arrived intermittently, the village began to empty, as everyone headed to the cove. First appeared children, playing and skipping. The longskirts followed, carrying a sharp, long knife in each hand. Behind the Indians scurried multitudes of dogs. Many dogs were hairless due to mange, and many were hunkered skeletons more bone than flesh. Other dogs were healthier. Waiting at the water edge sat gulls and pelicans.
The fishermen threw flounder, sharks, rays, cabecucho, pargo, and corvina onto the beach. The longskirts seized the fish and expertly applied their long blades to produce the field-dressed fish, which was tossed into a plastic crate. The fish remains were tossed aside. Where it landed became the first dog fight. The second tossed remains produced a second dog fight. And so on until enough remains had been distributed to the dog population to satisfy the strong and hold off the weak. Then the dog fights stopped. Where the subsequent remains were tossed began a gull and dog fight. The stronger of the weaker dogs could drive most gulls away. The stronger gulls took remains from weaker dogs. These strong gulls flew the food out over the water and there began the gull fight. As a consequence of the fierce competition, some dogs managed almost nothing to eat. The morsels most favored by the dogs were the heads of rays.
The elegant longskirts grasping their long bloody blades and standing surrounded by dog fights and slaughtered fish provided a Darwinian reality with which to begin the day. To counter such grimness, humor appeared: across the adobe wall of an abandoned house was scrawled in rough black letters Se Vende Tacos de Perro.
Leaving the beach at Desemboque, we cruised over a glassy sea toward the south. Our plan was to work our way to the north end of Isla Tiburón. We wanted to see the place called Bahía Agua Dulce, as the Capitán had confirmed that it is where the northern Seri village had been. To starboard, the islands of La Baja appeared as gray ghosts on the silver horizon. Off our port lay the Sonoran coast. A sandy beach stretched south toward a black rocky mountain called Cerro Tepoca. Where the mountain touched the Cortés was Punta Tepoca. Beyond the point rose the mountains of Isla Tiburón. It was not apparent that the mountains of Tiburón are an island. To the west of the point, Isla Patos did appear as an island.
Eventually we rounded enough of Punta Tepoca to see that the Cortés entered the land to become Bahía Sargento. However, we could not see the straits called Canal de Infiernillo, the Canal of Little Hell. We still could not determine that Tiburón is an island, for to us it appeared as a headland on the south shore of Bahía Sargento.
We crossed the mouth of Bahía Sargento, represented by an open stretch between Punta Tepoca and Isla Tiburón. Isla Patos sits on the midpoint between Punta Tepoca and Tiburón. Passing by slowly, we could see Patos is a white rounded cone surrounded by flats of tidal pools. Atop the guano covered cone stands a shipping light.
Capitán Gonzalo throttled the Mariner 55 and we steadily moved away from Isla Patos and approached Isla Tiburón. Shark Island was discovered by Alarcón in 1540. This Spaniard saw many sharks around the island and so named it as such. The island is composed of several mountain ranges. The sea cliffs come to the blue Cortés as falling cascades of burgundies, tans, oranges and maroons. White sand sea bottom is patched by black rocky reefs covered by emerald water. Atop tall chimney rocks spread giant nests of sea eagles. A huge slice appears to have been cut from a strange colorful cliff.
After coasting awhile along the technicolor northwestern shore of Tiburón, Capitán Gonzalo turned the panga around and we skipped over the slick shimmering sea to a small indention on the north coast of Isla Tiburón called Bahía Agua Dulce. This is the site of the old Seri village. Capitán Gonzalo beached our panga on a seashore rich in seashells. We walked up a sandy arroyo toward a grove of eucalyptus and cedar trees. There we found a well encased in concrete. It is still a water supply, even though no village is present. Capitán Gonzalo used a bucket to gather water which he then poured around the eucalyptus trees.
From the well, we walked to the large flat meadow where the village of two hundred Seri had lived. We found potsherds and stone points and turtle bones. On the face of the satisfied old gringo beamed a smile of accomplishment as he imagined Ugarte blessing the Seri.
Then we sat in the shade of the eucalyptus and listened to the Capitán speak. Born on Isla Tiburón in 1952, he and the other 220 Seri lived in houses made of ocotillo. The village site lay near a natural spring that had been deepened by digging a well. The Seri cultivated no agricultural products, instead, they were totally carnivorous, as their restricted diet was seafood, sheep called cimarron, and deer called buro.
The Capitán explained that the Spanish place names for the area are recent, as these spots had Seri names prior to the arrival of the Jesuits. The Seri had not called their native soil Shark Island as had the Spanish. The Seri called it Taheojc. The meaning of this word has been lost in time. The Seri village on the north coast of Isla Tiburón at Bahía Agua Dulce was called Hajhax, and the bahía was called Tecomate. Punta Tepoca was called Xpajqueme, which means The Head of the Whale, an appropriate name because of the huge smooth sea cliffs look like a whale head.
The Seri called the Cortés the Big Sea. The straits the Spanish named the Canal of the Little Hell was known by the Seri as Xepe Coosot, the Place Where It Is Narrow. The island the Spaniards named Isla Patos was not called Duck Island by the Seri, rather was known as Hastotiipa, the Island with the Long Tail.
Capitán Gonzalo waxed sad and paused before continuing in a subdued voice. Cannibals and Seri were always synonymous in the minds of Mexicans. In 1956, two Mexican fisherman were reported missing on Isla Tiburón and the cannibal accusation was hurled at the Seri. As a result, the Mexican Government forced the 220 Indians to leave their village of Hajhax and move to the Mexican location known as Desemboque, the Arroyo Mouth. The Seri had always called that spot Haxol Ihoon, the Place of Many Clams. So Isla Tiburón became uninhabited by people, and, whereas the Seri once lived in stick houses and caves on Isla Tiburón, they were forced to occupy refugee camps and to live in Federale constructed cinder block houses in the two spots called Punta Chueca and Desemboque.
The Capitán sighed and pursed his lips for a long spell. Then he pointed to the cliffs on Tiburón. Legends abound in the world of the Seri. A deep slice cut into Taheojc is the site of one such legend. Capitán Gonzalo told that a powerful man and his family lived in a tall cave created by the slice. The family was bellicose and killed many other Seri. Everyone stayed away from the slice for fear of being killed. When the Federales evicted the Seri from Taheojc, the powerful family disappeared. Although no one ever saw them again, the Seri believe that the fierce man has returned to Taheojc in the form of a lobo blanco.
Excited by this revelation, the oldest Gringo added to the story. He told that legendary fisherman Ray Cannon, when writing of his explorations in the Cortés, mentioned trolling along the northwestern end of Isla Tiburón. Cannon claimed that at one point his boat came near a cave where many savage Seri made threatening gestures toward him. Capitán Gonzalo remarked that the fierce family must have been that of Lobo Blanco because no other Seri lived in those caves.
Leaving the old village site, we returned to Isla Patos. While slowly circling the island, we saw a strange and rare white sea lion, a lobo blanco. At one point we moved to a location southeast of Isla Patos and took bearings on several landmarks. Capitán Gonzalo told that the water depth at that location is nine brazas. Then, as we bobbed gently in the water, Capitán Gonzalo suddenly offered that below us lay a sunken ship. We asked him more about it. Unflinchingly, the Seri stated with assurance that the wreck was a wooden pirate ship, 300-years-old, and that the debris contained bronze and marble. Capitán Gonzalo proposed that we might someday like to scuba dive on the site, even though he knew of no one ever having done so.
Several Seri women welcomed us when we returned to the beach. Capitán Gonzalo touched hands with all the gringos. Nos vemos el próximo we promised. Les esperamos the Seri promised. And we loaded into our trusted brown cruiser and departed Haxol Ihoon.
We bounced along in silence. Our dreams had become golden. We had visited Isla Tiburón, Canal de Infiernillo and the village of Desemboque. We had found a Seri pangero and had traveled by panga to the northern end of Shark Island and had seen the old village and stood where had Ugarte. From the Seri to us had been gifted the windfall of the Seri culture and the promise of unfolding adventure. Yes, nos vemos el próximo, we’ll see you next time.
Outsiders Tell about the Seri
The Seri call themselves Comcaac. This means People. The tribe originally numbered about four thousand. The various Seri tribes were the Tepocas, Salineros, Tastiotenos, Tiburónes, and Seri. These independent and often adversarial groups lived in the Sonoran coastal desert between the modern towns of Puerto Libertad on the north and Guaymas on the south.
The written historical record of Seriland begins with the 1645 manuscript of Padre Andrés Pérez de Ribas. This Jesuit described the Heris based upon reports of them given him by his Christianized Yaqui Indians. The letter of Padre Adamo Gilig written in 1692 to a fellow Jesuit contains a description and a drawing of the Seri. Padre Salvatierra visited the Seri in the early 1700s and recorded an account of them. Between the Salvatierra visit and the century-later expulsion of the Spanish by the Mexicans, the Seri were not studied by objective witnesses.
After sustaining discovery by the Spaniards, the Seri suffered a rush of zealous Jesuits intent on converting the Seri to Christianity. These Padres encouraged the Seri to move from their homeland on the coast to the valley of the Río San Miguel, north of modern Hermosillo, where farming was possible. About a thousand Seri attempted to move, but only 800 stayed and formed the village of Los Angeles on the bank of the Río San Miguel.
About 1760, suddenly arrived Spanish soldiers to snatch the Seri land along the Río San Miguel. Also the Spaniards seized the Seri women and deported them to Guatemala. The Seri men returned to their coastal homeland and rejoined the three thousand Seri who had not been converted by the Jesuits. Thereafter, the Seri, led by their two chiefs Becerro and Boquinete, fought the Spaniards for the next thirty years. Their base of resistance was Cerro Prieta, a black mountain between Pitic, now Hermosillo, and Guaymas.
Although valiant and tenacious, by 1790 the Seri began to starve and were forced to abandon their stronghold. The Spaniards moved the defeated Seri to a planned community near Pitic called Villa de Seri. The four thousand Seri had been reduced to only 1500. However, at Villa, the Spaniards did nothing to encourage nor assist the Seri, and three years later, no Seri remained in the community. All had drifted back to the coast.
The Spaniards continued to harass the Seri, wanting them to move away from the coast and into a farming valley. Spanish threats were activated in 1807 when Isla Tiburón was raided and many Seri families were seized and taken to Villa as slaves of the Spanish. Other raids followed whenever the Spanish needed more slaves.
The Mexicans finally revolted against the Spanish imperialists and the Mexican War of Independence began. The Seri were mostly exempt from any consequences of the actual fighting. Alas, when the Mexicans prevailed in 1821, the Seri found themselves no more secure than with the Spanish. Soon thereafter, the Mexicans adopted the Spanish custom of raiding Seri settlements to secure slaves.
Because of British assistance to Mexico during the fight against the Spanish, the Mexicans allowed British interests into Mexico. English naval officer Robert William Hale Hardy used two ships out of Guaymas to search the Sea of Cortés. In 1826, Hardy anchored just off the northwest corner of Isla Tiburón. He had already been warned about the Seri and his watch kept a sharp lookout for them. Somewhat to the apprehension of Hardy, a boat came toward him and eventually two men arrived to ask if he came in war or peace. The officer thought it a fair question as he was aware that Spaniards and then Mexicans had raided Isla Tiburón and carried away Seri as slaves. His peaceful answer allowed the two Seri men to ask if Hardy would return to the island with them so as to see if he could assist the sick wife of their chief. The Englishman decided to go to Tiburón, but he made the two Seri remain on board until he returned.
While ashore, Hardy relieved the pain of the Seri woman and then gave her tincture of senna. The treatment was successful and Hardy became a deity to the Seri. They escorted him around their homeland, and he later provided a solid account of how they lived. The Seri told him that a large vein of lodestone existed on the south end of the island, but Hardy never traveled there to see it. The story of Hardy’s adventure with the Seri is the first account written in English concerning the Indians.
The Mexicans continued to kidnap Seri families. In 1844, a raid on Tiburón collected over 500 Seri slaves for use by the municipality of Hermosillo. Concomitantly, Seri population continued to decline. By 1880, there were only 350 Seri on the coast and another 150 in Villa de Seri. In the span of a single century, the Seri tribe had been reduced from four thousand to only five hundred.
Mexico, like the United States, was cast into the cattle baron era beginning in 1880. While the Gringos shot and killed the American Indians, the Mexicans encroached on and enslaved the Seri. The population of the tribe continued to decline.
During this time, outsiders began to appear in Seriland. Smithsonian Institute scientist William John McGee arrived in November 1894 at Rancho Costa Rica. His host was Pascual Encinas who had founded the famous ranch in 1844. There McGee found sixty Seri and he interviewed them through a Spanish interpreter for a day and a half.
The following year in December, McGee returned to mount an expedition to study the Seri. Accompanying the ethnologist was Geological Survey topographer Willard Johnson. At Rancho Costa Rica, the scientists learned from Pascual Encinas that the Seri and the Mexicans were engaged in war and that it would be difficult to speak with any Seri. Undaunted, the scientists continued westward toward Isla Tiburón. Two weeks later they returned to Rancho Costa Rica. The expedition to study the Seri had not encountered a single Seri. The frustration felt by the leader McGee is evident when he writes in 1895 that “It has been a sorry Xmas.” His emotion is even more visible by his statement that “A jaded horse does not shy and fagged men forget fear.” It is no surprise that McGee penned his diary in an uncertain and nearly illegible script.
In 1898, McGee wrote the authoritative report on the Seri. The 344 pages he composed are the most often quoted of any source with respect to the Seri. However, this report is one of the great farces in scientific history. McGee never saw Seri in their homeland. McGee never visited an active Seri community. The only actual contact McGee had with the object of his expedition occurred during his first trip to Seriland when he interviewed members of a group of sixty Seri camped at Rancho Costa Rica.
Unfortunately for all, McGee provided nothing to the scientific record other than his often mistaken and usually sensationalist opinions. His official report to the US Bureau of American Ethnology was that the Seri Indians were a warlike and dangerous race of giants who inhabited Isla Tiburón, and that the Seri were rumored to be cannibals.
Geological Survey topographer Willard Johnson accompanied McGee on the debacle. Johnson was the man in charge of the small boat and was possibly a fair sailor. Otherwise he continually obstructed the progress of the expedition. Johnson was forgetful and left his rifle laying on the beach for days until he came upon it on the return. Johnson was careless and allowed the medicine chest to be ruined. Johnson was negligent and allowed the boat to wash upon rocks during the night. Johnson was inattentive and allowed the boat to crush his fingers.
Most obnoxious, however, is that Johnson used the expedition to glamorize his own name. The topographer chose to christen a point and a mountain after himself. Punta Willard is on the southwest corner of Isla Tiburón. Picacho Johnson is the tallest peak in the Sierra Seri. Willard Johnson earned no right to name these magnificent landforms for himself. Some claim that he never even visited either of the spots. These cynics argue that Johnson was a farce like McGee, that both were Government men who took more than their share and offered nothing in return.
The publication of the Smithsonian prompted other adventurers to travel to Seriland. Seven years after reading the work of McGee, a prominent man from the Presidio of Toison determined to seek the Golden Fleece. Tom Grindell from Tucson and his party of three left Bisbee on June first and headed south. By 15 June 1905 they had reached Caborca and by June 23 they were at Pozo Coyote after passing through Rancho León and Rancho de Plumas. The well was filled with insects and a dead coyote, and the Gringos had to clean it before using any water.
Grindell and his party were aware that the Seri were fighting with the Papago and they kept a watch for problems. When they continued south from Pozo Coyote to the present site of the village of Desemboque, they indeed stumbled upon a grim scene and a grave problem. The Gringos found a stone ring and severed white hands with reddish hair. They discovered that the hands were tied to the sticks with leather strips cut from a camera case. Printed letters of M, e and r on the leather strips provided the clues as to who had been the owner of the hands. Uranium prospectors Harry Miller and Gus Olander had departed Yuma by boat on 1 January 1905, bound for the north end of Isla Tiburón. Several pages from a navigation manual were tacked near the horrible hands. When Grindell reached Rancho Libertad and Rancho Costa Rica, he claimed that the Seri had eaten the prospectors.
During the time the Gringos were missing, Ed, the brother of Tom Grindell, set out to look for them. Ed Grindell also found the stone ring and the white hands. He incorrectly assumed his brother to have been one of the victims. Outraged, Ed Grindell wrote a deceptive story for a British adventure magazine in which he claimed that his brother had been eaten by Seri cannibals. It was, of course, pure fantasy. Nevertheless, it was this fictitious story which provided supposedly conclusive evidence to the gullible that the Seri were indeed cannibals. It mattered not that a member of the Tom Grindell expedition dismissed the story of Ed Grindell as the fabrication of a desperate and bitter man – everyone knew that the Seri were cannibals.
In December 1922, at the culmination of the Mexican Revolution, a Gringo hunter arrived at Rancho Costa Rica en route to the Sierra Seri. Engineer Charles Sheldon was 54-years-old and possessed both experience and wisdom of native cultures. Most importantly, the Yale man spoke Spanish.
When the hunter arrived at Costa Rica, he discovered that Gringo Jim Blevins had recently bought the rancho from the heirs of Pascual Encinas, who founded the historic homestead in 1844. This Gringo cattleman was sympathetic to the Seri and was alarmed at the decline in their numbers. Later, Blevins took two young Seri boys and began to educate them, hopeful he could prepare them to advance the tribe into more modern times and save it from extinction. The plan failed, as, in the end, one Seri boy returned to his old ways and the other became a Mexican.
The hunter traveled to Rancho Libertad, passing through the ranches of Santa Ana and San Isidor. Several families lived at Libertad. Seri often camped there and the hunter found four families of Seri upon his arrival. During the following several days, these Seri silently and from a distance accompanied the Gringo as he hunted the bighorn sheep they called Mo-kwet-mon. When the hunter did kill a bighorn, the Seri at once came forward and sang a moving song which the hunter called the Seri Sheep Song. And the hunter became almost a deity to the Seri, for none had ever seen a sheep killed.
The Gringo and the Seri became inseparable. As they camped on the high ridges of the Sierra Seri, the hunter would look across the Canal and always he would see smoke rising from the mysterious purple island. In a moment of unfathomable trust, the Seri invited the Gringo to come to Tiburón and kill deer for the starving Comcaac. Despite the warnings and the pleas of the Mexicans, the old hunter, wearing the spirit of the hunt, was helpless to resist the strange Indians. So he and the Seri dropped out of the sierra and twisted through the cactus forest toward the smoky sanctuary of the Old Americans.
At the edge of the Canal El Infiernillo, known by the Seri as Xepe Coosot, the Gringo and the Comcaac ignited dead pitahaya to signal the islanders to send a boat. After awhile, a rotten old plank skiff arrived. For three and a half hours, the men paddled diagonally across the strait to the island. The Seri called the village to which they arrived Armen. A white flag flew above the ocotillo huts. The children were naked and everyone wore painted faces. As the hunter stood on the sand, the Comcaac villagers circled him and stared and felt his skin and hair. Then they made him welcome in the Comcaac village of Armen.
The Gringo stayed on Isla Tiburón for a week. He hunted with the men and he killed deer for the Comcaac. The hunter was amazed at the endurance and strength of the Seri. The Indians would run on the steep rocky trails of Tiburón. The more weight they carried, the faster they ran. The Seri thought nothing of running twenty kilometers for a drink of water. The Indians could go for two days without a drink and many days without food. When they did eat, it was with amazement that the hunter watched them eat like savages. The Comcaac barely cooked their meat, and usually they ate it raw. They craved fat and bone marrow. The hunter reckoned that the blood in the meat provided the Seri with liquid, and he knew that gorging amongst primitive people was not unusual. Nevertheless, the Yale engineer wrote that he had never seen humans that were so close to being animals.
The village of Armen supported lots of dogs. The hunter was surprised at how well behaved were the canines. Also he was amused that all the girls in the village would change their facial paint every little while so as to flirt with him. The Gringo liked the Seri, especially their singing and dancing with the deer mask. Also he enjoyed watching the women make their beautiful baskets. The Seri men gambled at cards while the women worked. On Christmas day, in sharp contrast to what Smithsonian McGee had written on the same holiday, the gentleman hunter from Yale penned that he had enjoyed “a great Christmas, while most of my thoughts are with my family at home.”
The Comcaac sang and danced all the night preceding the departure of the hunter. They gifted him a strange violin and some baskets. Most important to the hunter, however, was the gift from Chief Francisco Molina of the sacred chief stone. This smooth rock contained a crude painting showing the village Armen with lines indicating trials leading to it. All paths lead to Armen insisted the Chief.
After the hunter returned to Gringolandia, he praised the Comcaac in his writings and speeches. He declared that he had not seen one thing obscene while with the Seri. He contended that they were modest and thrifty. His most supportive statement consisted of “No civilized community could be more free of indecent behavior.”
The hunter wrote at night. His care for the Seri and his love of the moment is captured in his own words scattered throughout his journal. “I will sleep on a dirt floor tonight.” “It was a strange sight with the Mexicans sitting around the fire urging the Seri dancers on.” “Coyotes are yapping tonight.” “He at once sang the Seri sheep song, always sung after the killing of a sheep, and his voice sounded eerie and wild.” “From the ridge of the Sierra Seri I saw the sun cast a rosy glow on the sea and on all of Tiburón Island and the long line of ranges on the Baja coast and smoke rising on the shore and other smoke on Tiburón signified Seri camps.” “The moon is brilliant as I write these notes by firelight.” “It is seldom a Seri kills a deer, so it is a great event, and the whole Seri camp was there, little children naked in spite of the cold and an old woman lying by the fire, her back naked and only a slight muslin cloth held in front, and there had been enough meat for everyone.” “During the dance I sat at the edge of the circle with naked children sitting against me, their wild faces illuminated in the firelight.” “All the Seri came to my fire, bringing wood for the purpose of having a great dance because I was leaving and it was wonderful to observe the faces of these wild people by firelight, the children naked, the women and girls all painted.” “Everything I own has become filled with sand, food and all, and I grind the sand with my teeth the same as the Seri.”
The respect for the Comcaac by the hunter is also expressed in his words concerning the failed Smithsonian scientist. “Much of what McGee has written about the Seri regarding marriage, hunting methods and other customs seems inconsistent with what I observed or was told. He only visited with a group of them for a week at Rancho Costa Rica and it would seem difficult to amass the facts in such a short time. Possibly he obtained much of his information from the Mexican ranchers, whose animosity toward the Seri could make them unreliable informants.”
Following the hunter to Seriland came University of California anthropologist Kroeber. This academic employed the famous rancher Roberto Thompson as his guide. The two traveled to Kino and then on to Isla Tiburón for three days visit there. Kroeber spoke almost totally with Chico Romero, who he called the present chief and his principal informant. Most of the publication of Kroeber was a rebuttal of the publication of McGee.
In 1930, a few months after Kroeber left Seriland, a group of Arizona sportsmen arrived in Kino to build a lodge. This caused the Seri living in the area to move to the lodge site. By 1932, management of the meager lodge had been placed in the hands of a Greek fisherman. The Seri remained to sell their fish to him. It was into this setting that a grand couple appeared.
BigBeard & RedHat arrived in Seriland in 1932, just after the New Year. These scholars from California had studied other Southwestern Indians for twenty years and their final adventure together had brought them to the Seri. RedHat was 72-years-old. She was a professor of Sociology at Mills College in Oakland. BigBeard took pictures and told stories and knew all the legends. He was thirteen years younger than RedHat. They had been married twenty-six years when they arrived to camp on the sand dunes around Bahía Kino and to stare across the water at a rugged black form. BigBeard later told that “There is an island off the coast of Sonora which rises like the tip of a lost continent, saving from extinction a people from an earlier world, the Seri Indians.”
During the following two months, the couple observed the Seri and recorded their cultural aspects. They were aided in the translation by John Hampton, a Gringo who knew the Seri and the Mexican ranchers. Hampton could speak the peculiar broken Spanish by which Seri turn their verbs into gerunds. RedHat & BigBeard met many of the same people as had the great hunter Sheldon. They were able to conduct more extensive interviews with the Seri than had the hunter, most importantly that of Santo Blanco, spiritual leader of the Seri. RedHat & BigBeard had read the work of McKee and Kroeber, but not the work of the hunter Sheldon.
The Seri wore clothing made of manta by the time RedHat & BigBeard arrived. The pelican feather attire had been abandoned once the Seri women began to use needle and thread. Otherwise, not many changes had occurred since McGee had classified the Seri as Stone Age people. But while there, a great change impacted the Seri family.
During a drunken brawl referred to a barullo, the oldest chief of the Seri was trampled and injured and suddenly caught pneumonia. Within a few days, chief Juan Tomás, over a hundred-years-old, died in the night. His body was quickly secreted into the desert for burial. Shortly thereafter, RedHat & BigBeard broke their camp at Kino and returned to El Norte to write their account of the Comcaac.
BigBeard died eight years after his time with the Seri. Widow RedHat lived another five years before her death at age eighty-five. Their record of the Seri culture is the classic and can never be exceeded. For now the Seri culture has changed forever, and the Indians who carried the songs have mostly died. Truly this amazing couple, Dane and Mary Roberts Coolidge, recorded the voices of The Last of the Seri.
As Seri population declined, the retreating tribe centered on Isla Tiburón, their beloved homeland of Shark Island. Then came a sudden and unexpected change in the fortune of the Seri. In the early 1930s, vitamin companies began to expound the virtues of shark liver oil. Demand for this vitamin caused the Seri to begin to hunt sharks. From their Mexican neighbors, the Seri learned panga technology and modern fishing techniques. The opportunity created by the vitamin companies caused the Seri for the first time to harvest their most plentiful natural resource and to use the gain to preserve their culture. The Seri of Shark Island were saved by the sharks.
Shark fishing brought international exposure to the Seri. The most important consequence of this was not, however, the shark oil. Rather it was the appearance of Seri baskets in international folk art galleries. By the late 1940s, Seri baskets were recognized as unique and some of the best in the world.
Shark liver oil vitamins were replaced by synthetic vitamins in the 1950s. Shark fishing by the Seri was reduced to the minimal. The boom was over. However, the Seri had learned to fish and commercialize. So, although the boom for sharks was over, the Seri continued to prosper by shipping other seafood to the markets they had established with their shark products. The Seri had entered the modern world.
For nearly twenty years following the departure of the grand couple, few scholars entered Seriland. Auspiciously, in 1951, Ed and Becky Moser, missionaries and scholars, arrived to live in Desemboque. This signaled the beginning of a continuing romance with the Seri. The Moser effort produced a plethora of articles concerning every aspect of the life of the Comcaac. Each Moser spoke Seri and the couple had the best interests of the Comcaac at heart. Subsequent scholars visiting the Seri have been molded by the Moser system such that it is certain that all research since 1951 has been impacted by the two missionaries. Their legacy and influence is eternal because they have translated the New Testament into the Comcaac language and have so profoundly influenced the remaining Seri culture. No reporter who follows the Mosers can escape their influence on the Comcaac.
A few years after the Mosers arrived, the Mexican Government, under pressure by Mexicans who believed the 220 Seri to be cannibals, forced the Seri to move from Tiburón to the mainland. In 1956, two villages, each at old camp sites, were designated as town sites for the Seri. Isla Tiburón became uninhabited for the first time in recorded history.
Just before the exodus from Tiburón, the Seri population had begun to recover and to grow. Economic prosperity nurtured this happening. And with these better economic times arrived more time for handicrafts. During the 1960s, Seri José Astorga began to carve wildlife sculptures of ironwood. This Seri developed a market for his carvings by displaying them along with the already internationally recognized baskets. By 1970, the Seri handicraft industry had surpassed their fishing industry as the largest economic provider for the tribe.
Finally, in an event which appeared to the Seri to be a prize for their efforts, the Mexicans rewarded the recovering tribe of 350 Seri with the return to them in 1972 of their beloved homeland Isla Tiburón.
The Seri circle had come full round. The culture had risen and then fallen and had almost vanished. But, like the phoenix, the Seri had risen from the ashes of Tiburón. And now this grand tribe of Old Americans once again controls their own destiny.
During the weekend of Valentine’s Day, the young rodsmen and the old fisherman traveled again to Seriland. Our route composed a circle beginning in Pitic and rounding through Kino, Punta Chueca, Desemboque and Libertad before returning to Hermosillo. The quick rumbo was intended to solidify our growing relationship with the Seri in Haxol Ihoom and our intentions were successful.
Our reception in the village was warm. Standing on the beach surrounded by longskirts, we learned that Gonzalo had received our letter mailed to Dos Rosas and given by her to Adolfo Burgos Felix to carry to Gonzalo. Dos Rosas later assured me that she had opened the letter and read it thoroughly before forwarding it on to Gonzalo, this action taken in case Rosa needed also to send the message by voice.
While awaiting Gonzalo to return from offshore, we brought out the book written by the Grand Couple and we showed the photographs to the longskirts surrounding us. Laughter erupted and smiles spread to all. The Seri enjoyed seeing old faces now dead and young faces now old. The longskirts identified many of the Seri pictured and we printed their names beside their photos.
A great gasp burst forth suddenly when a fresh page was turned and the next photo was exposed, and the book was quickly passed through several hands to an ancient longskirt who stared silently at the photo. Seconds later the wrinkled Seri woman began to laugh and she called out to an old man standing in the back of the Seri ringing us. As he pushed through the longskirts to reach us, we peeked over to see the photo. The caption read Seri Boy Meets Seri Girl and described a photo of a young Seri couple dressed traditionally. The old woman lovingly cradled the book in her hands as she and the old man stared at the photo. Eyes moistened and Seri smiles widened and the melody of Seri approval rang from the circle of lookers.
Amalia and Adolfo had never seen their picture. It had been taken decades before. When their gush of wonder had expired and a hush had arrived to cover us all, the bronzed Seri vieja looked up and held with trembling hands the book for us to see. And with her eyes sparkling and her face beaming and her head nodding and her shoulder touching that of the old man, Amalia whispered that the photo was that of she and husband Adolfo on their wedding day.
After looking at all the pictures, the Seri ladies asked what we had brought to trade. We answered that we had clothes and that we would like a basket. Shaking heads indicated that no baskets were available. Solomente hay figuras. There were only ironwood carvings, called figuras by the Seri. As we contemplated this, several Seri women began to toy with the long blond hair of the old rodsman. He appeared to ignore them, asking again about baskets. Suddenly a longskirt stepped forward. She was Carolina Felix, the sister of the woman who had made the basket we had received in trade our previous time at Haxol Ihoon. You are a Seri she told the rodsman. He assumed her remarks to be prompted because of his long hair worn like a Seri man and he touched his hair to indicate such to her. Carolina shook her head firmly and stuttered no no no. She smiled at the rodsman and bent her arm to point her elbow at him. She tapped it and taunted him with laughter. Codo, codo. Anda muy codo. All the Seri laughed and nodded. Long hair will not make a man a Comcaac, but being a tightwad with his money guarantees that he is Seri.
Afternoon shadows lengthened as we awaited Capitán Gonzalo. He was late and concern spread like the incoming tide. All of his family was on the beach. Sister Olga suddenly straightened to attention and declared that she could hear him. A long sigh announced relief. All stared offshore, but nothing blemished the blue horizon. Gulls squawking and dogs barking and Seri children laughing and surf swishing prevented the Gringos from hearing anything but the village. For an hour more we stood staring out over the Cortés. Finally Olga said she could see him. Still we Gringos could neither see nor hear the supposed approaching panga. A half hour later a speck of black appeared on the horizon and we spied Capitán Gonzalo creeping toward shore.
It was dark when the Seri fisherman poled his long panga onto the beach. As we touched hands, we learned that Capitán Gonzalo had suffered the loss of compression in his engine and had limped in from far south of Isla Patos. His family quickly unloaded the fish from the panga and field dressed them on the beach, throwing the scraps to the growling dogs. In the darkness, Capitán Gonzalo and we planned our trip for the coming day, the Capitán insisting that he would have a new motor on the panga even before we arrived the coming morning. Thereby, with our trip secure, we departed for Libertad to pass the night with Dos Rosas. Under twinkling stars, we bounced out of Haxol Ihoon, creeping through the tall black saguaro soldiers guarding the pathway into Seriland.
Capitán Gonzalo was out in the bay testing his new outboard when we arrived just after dawn. A few pangas had arrived with their catch of mostly rays, plus a few flounder and pargo, and a single green parrot fish for which the Seri had no name. The catch was smaller than a month previous. This complication intensified the dogfights, as there was less to toss out as scraps. One of the perros más bravo was a tall skinny cur, hairless except for a fluffy fur ball on the tip of his tail, reminding the Gringos of a barber’s brush, and thereby causing the dog to be anointed as Sweeny Todd.
While we awaited the coming of Capitán Gonzalo, we began to photograph the surroundings. Sister Olga quickly stopped us, insisting that photos on Sunday dar enojado al Dios. We apologized, declaring that we did not know that taking photos on Sunday would give God the anger. Olga also stated that her brother Gonzalo would not return for us until after the noon hour. These twin admonitions sobered us and we pondered what to do, speculating that something must have happened during the night to change the plans of Capitán Gonzalo.
After a suitable quiet period, Olga suddenly jumped up and pointed to a panga racing toward us. “Here comes Gonzalo. Right on time for your trip. Why don’t you take some pictures of him!” Then all the Seri laughed and tossed rocks at the gulls. The joke was on the Gringos.
The Cortés lay still and slick and she breathed softly. Her friend Wind had gone to visit neighbors in the north. We skimmed smoothly over the mirror, powered by a new 75 Endura that Capitán Gonzalo had installed on his panga. There were mats of sargasso and strings of golden fish eggs atop the blue water. We ran offshore toward the distant jagged silhouette of La Baja. Capitán Gonzalo revealed that we would first try the cabrilla at the seamounts offshore Punta Tepoca.
Several kilometers off the beach, the Capitán slowed his panga and we began to circle for position. The Seri fisherman lined up three points to locate the seamounts. One bearing placed Isla Patos against a sharp slope in the range on Isla Tiburón. Another bearing placed Mancha Blanca on Tepoca against a flat mesa of the Sierra Seri. The final bearing aligned a gap in Cerro Tepoca with a distant cinder cone on the Sierra Seri. This bearing was like a gunsight, and it put us directly atop the submerged mountain top. Without hesitation, Capitán Gonzalo tossed piola con carnada into the sea and watched it sink forty brazas to the bottom. Instantly he had a hookup and began to pull his line up. The catch was on.
The young rodsmen had not previously bottom-fished at such depths. Forty brazas, correctly forty brazadas, forty arms, or armeds, is about seventy meters, as an armed is a little over five feet. The fish they caught carried a strange appearance. By the time that the spunky cabrilla had been brought to the surface, their stomachs seemed as orange balloons sticking out their mouths. Decompression was mentioned and the thirteen-year-old diver reflected on his charts and speculated that the cabrilla could never have enough time to decompress from those depths.
Capitán Gonzalo caught a stonefish, also called a scorpionfish. He calls it lupón. The mouth is huge and oversized and the spines sting with venom. We wondered the derivation of the name, as words ending in on mean big something. Don means big man. Capitán Gonzalo told that on the seamounts are huge huachinango. These red snapper will strike only sardinas de Guaymas. Also on the rocks are cabecucho, mero, totuava, and cabrilla tan grande swears Capitán Gonzalo. He encouraged us to bring heavy bottom-fishing gear on our next arrival.
Aquí todos los animales el mes de marzo. In March all the animals are here. Capitán Gonzalo swept his hand across the horizon. Manta. Ballena. Cabecucho. Jurel. Dorado. Todo. He named all the beasts that would arrive and be abundant. All the animals will be here he insisted. We promised that we would also come, that we would come to the animal fair.
While the young rodsmen and Capitán Gonzalo fished, the old Gringo fisherman prodded the Seri to tell more about the sunken ship. Unexpectedly, the Capitán acknowledged that he himself had dived upon the wreck. He used a hookah air mask. From the bottom he dug pieces of bronze and bottles. He has them in his house. He advised us to be ready to dig on the wreck, as everything is covered with sand. The wreck site is not large. Sometimes one can see it from the surface. Sharks are not a problem. Lobos are, but there are none there that bother. Capitán Gonzalo confessed that he would be interested to see the video we will take of the sunken wreck, as he believes more treasures await discovery.
Capitán Gonzalo enjoys a funny story and has a good sense of humor. We learned that a botete is the name applied to the boyfriend of a wife. Botete is a pufferfish with spines that stimulate. Capitán Gonzalo laughed at the sexual overtone of the modismo.
The old Gringo fisherman tugged on his long hair and suggested that Capitán Gonzalo was not a Seri because his short haircut was that of a Mexican. The Capitán laughed and remarked that long hair did not make a Seri. The Gringo laughed back and recalled that being muy codo did and that even Gringos could be Seri. The Seri laughed even louder and suggested that he Capitán Gonzalo was then the greatest Seri. When the Gringo asked why, the Seri told that his nickname was Bolsa de Fierro. Puzzled, the Gringo asked what that meant. Grinning, Capitán Gonzalo explained that it is a person whose pockets are full of unspent money because the person is such a tightwad. The Gringo and the Seri laughed together. And how do you say this in English asked the Capitán. The Gringo answered Ironpockets. Capitán Ironpockets. The panga shook as we all laughed.
Later we laughed about the phrase gaso lente que. While discussing how much gasoline to bring, Capitán Gonzalo had often remarked gaso lente que. The Gringos had heard “gasoline slowly that” and interpreted the phrase to mean that not much fuel would be burned. Only when the Gringos pointed to the gasoline tank and referred to the tambulaca did the meaning of the phrase become clear. Capitán Gonzalo also motioned to the tambulaca gasoline tank and repeated the phrase. Gaso lente que. Gasoline tank. Spoken in perfect Seri English. With a chuckle, Capitán Gonzalo promised to apprise us before any future employment of the English language as spoken by the Seri.
During our platica, the Capitán and we spoke of Seri history and custom. We prodded him to tell and he did. Yes, some still know of the old ways. Sister María Luisa knows the most. Also a few others. Yes, there are caves. These are where one goes to receive the power through visions. There is a cave currently in use at Cerro Pelon. The caves on Isla Tiburón are not in use. There are those who know where the caves are. Yes, we can go there if you like.
After the young rodsmen had enjoyed the feisty cabrilla and the old fisherman had saturated himself with Seri stories, Gonzalo turned the bow of the panga southward and we hunted for whales. The previous day Capitán Gonzalo had been fishing amongst dozens of them. However, we managed to find only a single male, even though we ran well south of Patos. On our way back to Haxol Ihoon, we cruised around the Island with the Long Tail and peered down into the sea where below lay the wreck of the ancient ship. Con el tiempo y un ganchito.
Capitán Gonzalo invited us to his house after we had unloaded the panga on the beach. There he introduced us to his wife and his three-year-old son. In the shade of their tree we visited and exchanged gifts. Childrens clothes and necklaces. Capitán Gonzalo would like a generator and some seed that will grow animal fodder. Ropa segunda is always welcome and needed by all Seri. We asked about communication by radio dos metros and Capitán Gonzalo gave us the name Maik in Libertad. Maik the Yori can get a telephone message from Dos Rosas through to Haxol Ihoon.
Capitán Gonzalo stepped into the casa and returned bearing two items. A long black wine bottle with a strange bottom was offered to us for examination. It had come from the wreck. A heavy bronze oarlock was offered. Also from the wreck. Again Capitán Gonzalo emphasized that he had dug on the wreck, that the treasures had been covered. We held the treasures in our hands. There is more he said softly. And then he ceased to speak, and we all stood still, for rushed into our circle then a Spirit that promised us the end of the rainbow.
Haxol Ihoon disappeared in the rear view mirror and we were surrounded by the cactus forest. The bumpy road caused us to bounce and leave a dust trail and to reflect. We are lucky to have a Seri friend. Just as we are lucky to have a Mexican friend. Capitán Gonzalo, Capitán Jorge and we Gringos all share the same values. We believe in the work ethic and marriage and we accept our responsibility to our community and family. We all believe that it takes the entire village to raise the children. We all live in villages. We all speak different tongues yet our dearly held values transcend language and fronteras and cultural identities. This treasure is the end of yet another rainbow.
As we sped over the black highway toward Pitic, the thirteen-year-old sat behind the wheel. Suddenly we came upon a roadblock of Federales. It was dark, but a flashlight destroyed any cover inside our cruiser. The driver was exposed. However, the Federale looked past the youngster to the old rodsman in the passenger seat. Did you see all the cars? Yes, they sped by us kilometers back. Are you a part of them? No. They are Gringos and we have them in the shadows over there. What did they do? We do not know because they will not talk to us. Where are you going? Hermosillo. Where are you coming from? Desemboque and Libertad. Were those other Gringos there? We did not see them. Very well. Pass yourselves on through and enjoy your stay in Mexico. With a sigh of relief, the young driver pressed down the accelerator and eased on through his first roadblock. Otro primero vez. El rumbo sigue.
Easter at the Shipwreck
Our dive on the shipwreck occurred during Semana Santa, Holy Week. New gear arrived before departure, unpacked by the three divers. A few days later, the first members of the expedition left the Rim – one vehicle carried rodsmen and the blue diver, the other carried Loro and Tonya, members of the support team. The red and green divers and a support team member would travel the next day.
We voyagers arrived in Desemboque in the middle afternoon. At the casa of Capitán Gonzalo we spoke with esposa María Dolores and son Fabio. The Capitán would not arrive until late and María Dolores instructed us to go to the casa of María Luisa Astorga, sister of Gonzalo, daughter of José Astorga, now matriarch of the Seri. We found the tall elegant Seri elder crafting a basket the size of an oil barrel. She declared that most all the larger baskets are now prepared only for museums, and that such was the case with the one she was roping. Saying that she wished to rest her hands, she suggested we go to the cove, where she would tell us about her fellow Seri.
The caleta sparkled in the afternoon sunshine. At first we had quietly strolled the beach and listened to her slow clear voice. After awhile we had found an old wooden panga and there we sat on the rotten planks amongst whale bones and shark skins and pelican feathers. Four skinny hairless dogs lay on the sand nearby. At the seashore strutted several gaviotas searching for scraps. Down the coastline to the south, Punta Tepoca jutted into the Cortés and beyond the point rose the high jagged purple range of Isla Tiburón. The Island with the Long Tail appeared as a white cone sitting atop the blue sea. Kissed by a soft breeze off the Cortés, we listened while María Luisa told.
Comcaac stories begin in the years that already have passed long ago. He Who Made The Land created the sea and earth. He Who Hardens The Land made the ground solid. He Who Made The Land created a man and a woman. These first people were giants. Their giant children populated the earth until a great flood swept over them and changed them into plants and animals. Some giants were changed into boojum trees. Land Ramada then appeared on Taheojc and caused the first Seri to be formed. Land Ramada is of the family of the Sun, which is the eye of The One Who Is Seated In The Sky.
Our villages were all located on Taheojc, the island you Gringos call Tiburón. On the mainland were only isolated huts used periodically. Our houses were made of ocotillo branches bent and covered with vegetation and sea turtle shells. The roof stood about a braza off the ground. We dug a hole and built our fires in it. Some of our houses were built of cane. We always built houses in groups for the protection it afforded. Only a few village sites had water nearby. Some villages were located more than twenty kilometers from a tinaja.
We had many sorts of household items. We made our own pottery, even painting some of it. Some ceramics had handles and others had convenient perforations. Of course we had baskets. These were constructed of torote called matacora and made by women who tore strips with their teeth and then created coils composed of several strands of matacora bound together. A bone awl was used in fastening the coils. Old baskets were repaired with lobo skin. We used seashells for cups and beach pebbles for tools. Each family had a large flat meat stone and a pounding rock. Only a few Comcaac used mortars or metates, as there were no seeds available except during very unusual times or when the seagrass seeded.
Comcaac men hunted with bow and arrows. They made stone points, but later made points of copper and metal. Some men carried a war club called a macana. Turtles were hunted with a spear five meters long having a stone or iron spike tip. A forked gig was used for fishing. The successful hunter brought his game to camp by suspending it on each end of a bar that was then carried over a shoulder.
Our boats were called balsas. These were made of three long cane bundles tied together and ending in a point. We paddled with a five meter length of mesquite root, which was very flexible.
María Luisa paused here. The sudden absence of her voice brought silence in a rush and our ears rang loudly. A gull argument finally broke the spell. A Gringo offered that the Indians around Lake Titicaca even today use cane or reed balsas that have pointed ends. Then silence swept in again before being chased away by María Luisa.
We Comcaac were stout and tall and well proportioned. Of course we were hairless except for our heads. Our teeth were set in a straight line in front like an ape and our teeth were worn down from our continual meat eating and the grinding of sandy meat. We had widespread toes and most all went barefoot.
Comcaac men wore hats of torote ornamented by seashells and feathers. They wore a thin cloth around their legs. This was where they carried their knives, as they had no sheath. They also carried rawhide strips around their waists. The upper body was usually naked. If the men were leaving the island, we women would braid their hair for them. Otherwise the men never attended their hair. During these trips away, the men carried turtle shell and baskets as their wealth. Deer skin was also wealth, but this was not common. Many men wore huaraches when they traveled. It was custom to place gravel between the inner sole of the huarache and the foot of the Comcaac man.
Comcaac women were modest and covered their lower bodies. Their upper bodies were often naked, although many women wore pelican skin blouses. The feathers were worn against the body. We painted our faces everyday. Also did the men. Necklaces were commonly worn by all. Women wore their hair dressed atop their heads in knots. All of us had lice.
No Comcaac had a blanket. We slept beside small fires. The men would use their thin waistcloth to cover their side which was away from the fire. Every Comcaac arose before dawn to sit silently beside the warm fire. We say that no Comcaac fails to see the sunrise every day of his life. No blanket is worth missing a sunrise.
Comcaac men often sat in a blank stare. On Taheojc this was especially common. Each man had his circle of stones in which to sit. Some men visited powerful caves where spirits communicated with the Comcaac. The sitting would occur over a four-day period after a preparation that also required four days. The preparation included fasting and silence. Following the sitting, the men would reveal to us what they had experienced when they had received the power of force through visions. These visions were oftentimes replicated on painted faces and by painting sea turtle shells. Sitting allowed the power of force to bring the visions.
María Luisa became quiet after she told of the spiritual seekers. Alertly, the gaviotas noticed the pause and quickly glanced about to make certain no danger approached. A hush covered all the caleta. Gringo ears heard nothing. Suddenly María Luisa turned her head toward Tepoca and stared across the still Cortés to the distant purple punta. Several of the hairless dogs raised their heads to look too. Gringo eyes saw nothing. María Luisa sat still as a cardón. Only the knowing felt the mystic sigh. After a long moment of reflection the Seri woman continued her tell.
We Comcaac had an elaborate means of communication. Smoke signals were the most common. As it is not always possible to see everywhere, we knew where to best ignite fires so that they could be observed by others of us. When traveling, the men would ignite dead cactus along their routes so as to mark their journey. Also the men had signatures. They would scratch these in the sand to let others know their presence or their trail. Almost all the signatures utilized straight lines. Only a few utilized curves.
The heavens were well known by we Comcaac. We had names for the stars and the planets and we knew the difference. We believed that the heavens all move around the North Star. Although we had no calendar, we knew about time and tides through our observations of the sun, moon and Pleiades. Of course, we did not have a word for time, nor for any other abstract thing. Nor did we have any formal organization within the community.
Food was always a problem and concern for us. We had to live close to the seashore for food, even if this meant having to travel great distances for water. Hunting was a major event in our lives, as it produced food. Before each hunt all would gather around the fire and the hunters would toss torote leaves into the flames. Each toss was followed by the command Come. This was to bring good luck to the hunters.
Singing and dancing were very important to us. We had dances for sheep, deer and turtle, as well as the seagrass. It was important to dance for the grass because the turtles foraged on it and more grass meant more turtles and more food. Also we used the seeds of the seagrass.
Our dances would begin with the playing of our single string violin and the tapping of a makeshift drum. Sometimes we made a violin by stretching a bow across two baskets. The musicians also sang. Our singing was a chant in cadence of fours. Much of your Gringo music has this same cadence. Our songs were all different and each actually sounded different. All our songs had rhythm and rhyme.
Comcaac chiefs taught the young boys to dance. Each of the dancers wore rattles on their ankles. Each would hold a staff to the ground while they raised their feet and shook them in time with the strumming and tapping. Each dancer would wear the sacred deer mask. As we danced, everyone became excited and happy and everyone chanted in unison. Dances lasted most of the night and always were performed in front of a bright fire.
Usually a single dancer performed and then gave the mask to the next dancer. However, many of our dances involved a ring of boys around a line of five girls who danced in precision while locking arms. The sheep, deer and turtle dances all had special songs that were sung as we danced. These songs were to seek good luck or to give praise to the already slain animal. It was very rare for us to kill a deer or a sheep, so these dances were the most special of all.
There was a ceremonial site near what you call Punta San Miguel. A large stone cairn still marks the spot. About a dozen houses were there, but were occupied only during the ceremony. The Comcaac elders would sit on seats of whale vertebrae and watch the dancers. These ceremonies lasted many days and were often associated with our wars against the Tepocas or our sorrows brought by the Spaniards and Mexicans.
Once the cruel Spaniards had been pushed outside by the Mexicans, we Comcaac hoped that our torment and our fear of raids could cease. As was the custom when not threatened by the Spaniards, we fought and won a friendly war with our tribesmen the Tepocas who once lived where now is Puerto Libertad. It was at the conclusion of this war that the Curved Hat arrived at Hajhax. We were convinced that this person was a sign of good luck because our curanderas with their feather wind readers had long predicted his coming.
Casually María Luisa turned and lifted her long arm to point across the village at a pile of brush. In the center of the low heap stood a tall wooden pole. At the top of the pole was tied a short rope that was attached to a small round rock. From the rock dangled a long cord. At intervals along the cord were tied pieces of light driftwood and into the wood were stuck feathers. The cord floated in the breeze. It was a feather wind reader. María Luisa allowed us moments to contemplate before she continued.
When the Curved Hat arrived, the wife of our chief was near death. Our curanderas had attempted cure through a charm, but the malo was stronger than the rattle. The Curved Hat cut open our villager and then gave her a bitter reddish liquid to drink. This Devine pointed to the sun to indicate the time that our villager would be cured. Then he and we sat to await the sinking sun.
Suddenly our villager began to moan and move about. This was the first movement she had made in several days and it seemed as though she had come to life. She vomited several times and had many bowel movements. Her urine was slightly red. She became stronger as the sun set, and when Sol was directly where had pointed the Curved Hat, the wife of our chief sat up.
María Luisa paused to stare silently at a niño strolling alone near the tree that drips water. One of the scrawny dogs laying near the panga suddenly rose and stretched and ambled over to sniff before returning to the panga. Once her inspector had returned to the circle the teller continued.
The Curved Hat was only the first of several foreigners to come to Taheojc. During the time that Mexicans were raiding our island to steal Comcaac for slaves in Villa de Seri, several foreigners arrived from the south. We watched them as they searched the old rancherias and shell mounds near what you call Kino. Then these foreigners used a boat to travel up the coast to Socaaix, what you call Punta Chueca. The same boat was used to cross Xepe Coosot to Taheojc. All we Comcaac were fearful, as we believed that the foreigners worked with the Mexicans.
As María Luisa paused to watch a gull float up and then walk onto the beach, one of the Gringos recollected a failed Smithsonian adventure and chuckled. The scientists sent to study the Seri had themselves been studied by the hidden Indians. María Luisa continued.
Two groups of foreigners came from north of Tepoca during our time of war with the Papago. There was a pair of foreigners in the first group and four in the second. We Comcaac believed them to be Papago spies, especially the first group, which carried items in their boat that we knew to be from Papago and Yuma villages.
The pair of foreigners in the boat arrived near Haxol Ihoom during a great storm. We Comcaac watched the boat pass by and disappear at Punta Tepoca. The next day we found pieces of the dead foreigners and their belongings scattered along the rocks near Mancha Blanca. The rough seas and currents around the point had swamped the boat and sharks had ravaged the hapless foreigners. We Comcaac mourned for the foreigners who could not be returned to their homeland for burial. We carried their remains to our dance ring near Haxol Ihoom and presented them to Hant Hasooma for safe passage back to their foreign land.
To ensure safe passage, we danced in a special way for four days. There were two dance rings, one inside the other, the outer being twelve meters in diameter. At the head of the ring a tall plank from the wrecked boat of the foreigners was driven into the sand. A cross plank was nailed so as to create a cross. Not a Christian cross but a Seri cross. All four hands of the foreigners had been recovered. On three ends of the Seri cross were attached a human hand by pieces of leather strips the foreigners had carried. The fourth hand was tied around the base of the cross. There were cuatro manos. The other belongings and remains of the foreigners were placed behind the Seri cross. We danced around the rings for four days to ensure safe passage.
Shortly thereafter arrived by land a group of four foreigners. Believing them spies of the Papago, we hid near Cerro Pelon and watched them. The foreigners passed our dance ring and then continued on toward Xepe Coosot. We Comcaac thought them unwise to travel to the canal during the months the mosquitoes are there. We followed them and saw that they traveled all the way to Punta Chueca where they attempted to wade across to Taheojc. This failed of course and they argued. One then departed into the desert toward Pitic. Several days later the others also started toward Pitic.
Soon thereafter we Comcaac that traveled to Rancho Libertad and Rancho Costa Rica learned that the Yoris were again accusing we Comcaac of being cannibals. A Yori is a Mexican. The four foreigners had told of the dance ring and four hands. The Yori already thought we Comcaac to be cannibals because we Comcaac eat our meat raw or slightly cooked. Afterwards, all Yori said that this was more evidence of the Comcaac being cannibals. We were greatly tormented by the Mexican Yori because of what happened.
The Comcaac tell a story about a great hunter who came to Taheojc. This was during the period when the Mexicans were killing themselves. At that time there were twenty-seven families on the island. We numbered about 200. There were almost no unmarried men. Eleven girls over the age of twelve were unmarried. Courtship for we Comcaac began when a man mentioned to a girl that he wanted to marry her. From that time until marriage, the two could not see each other. The man was expected to pay a handsome price to the father of the bride. We Comcaac respect women and know that they are valuable. Some foreigners mistakenly believe that Comcaac men have multiple wives. The Comcaac men have always had only one wife. The wedding ceremony occurred after payment and was a big feast attended by all.
When the great hunter came, two of our chiefs were Buro Alesan and Francisco Molina. Our singer was Santo Blanco. All Comcaac recall the names of these leaders. All the Comcaac men had small figures carved from torote. These figures represented animals and were carried to secret caves and used in prayer. Sometimes flower powder was spread to bring rain. At the time that the great hunter visited, we Comcaac women were just beginning to use the needle and thread. We were dressed in crude cloth clothes then, but later our clothing became better. The men still used pitahaya torches at night to hunt pelicans. The pitahaya season was eagerly awaited for the drink we would make from the fruit. Buro and Francisco took the great hunter into the mountains on Taheojc. There he killed many deer and many of the Comcaac ate venison for the first time.
Unexpectedly, María Luisa asked if we recalled the story Capitán Gonzalo had told us about Lobo Blanco, reminding us that it concerned a human becoming an animal. We nodded our recollection. Then María Luisa spoke again. The happy times brought by the hunter ended a few years later when we Comcaac suffered again the sickness you Gringos call smallpox. This plague came several times, always after outsiders had come and gone. One of our stories concerns a Comcaac who visited the rancherías on the mainland and contacted smallpox. To protect us from him, the sick Comcaac went to Estakoo to live in isolation. You Gringos call this mountain Picacho Johnson. The Comcaac was never seen again. But he is still alive because he can possess the body of a deer. And when a deer coughs, it is the sick Comcaac.
A sudden shout of laughter erupted from under the tree that drips water. Several startled gulls skipped twice before aborting their takeoff. Two Seri men laughed and gestured and muttered about botetes. María Luisa patiently awaited the recovery of silence before telling us more.
My great grandfather Manuel Encinas was the brother of Santo Blanco. Two foreigners came to where you call Kino and recorded on paper the songs of Santo Blanco. Our chief was Juan Tomás. It was during this time that Juan Tomás was killed in a village fight provoked by the debate concerning a man having more than one wife. The fight had been severe because of the liquor brought by the outsiders that had built a fishing lodge at Kino. After the pair of foreigners chronicling Santo Blanco left, no others came for a long time. We Comcaac heard from the Yori that a great war was raging.
During the time when no foreigners came, we Comcaac began to fish for sharks. The Yori taught us to make wooden boats and they taught us to fish like a Yori. Every shark we caught was bought by the Yori. More and more Yori began to come to our coast. This was the beginning of we Comcaac becoming Yoris.
Turtlehead and WomanWhoSings arrived a few years before we Comcaac were forced off Taheojc. These missionaries were the first foreigners to stay since the old couple left. At that time the Yori were seizing our fishing grounds and telling everyone we Comcaac were cannibals. Because of these lies, we Comcaac were forced off our homeland Taheojc. At the same time the shark fishing ended and the Yori began to drift away. We Comcaac moved into two villages and began to seek a new way of life. Turtlehead and WomanWhoSings commenced to teach the religion.
During those years my father José Astorga began to carve figures from the ironwood tree. The sculptures became popular and all of us in the family began to carve. We supplied traders like Crazy Jim and The Father of the Black Dog. Gradually the ironwood figures came to consume almost all our lives. Si pues. Toda la vida. Asi es. Asi es.
María Luisa paused for a long while and the soft swish of the surf brushed the sand on the beach. The knowing felt something leave. From the distance arrived the faint hum of an outboard. María Luisa lifted her eyes to scan the horizon and focus on a tiny black speck and declare that the panga was not that of Capitán Gonzalo. Then the tall Seri stood and immediately so did all the hairless curs and Gringos. With a long arm she pointed north toward a huge sand dune. Gonzalo had prepared us a campsite there. Go and reflect on what I have told you, she said. I will tell Gonzalo that you are here.
Our caravan followed a sandy trail through the forest of saguasos and osprey nests to the caleta beside the sparkling Cortés. A wide clean flat spot welcomed us. A whale vertebrae offered us a stool. As we set camp, the sky above black Baja across the water stained itself orange and spilled golden droplets onto the ebony sea. The rounded pebbles below the tide limit glistened. Pelicans sat as silhouettes in the still sea. Dinner consisted of silence and rapture. Then night smothered us.
Staring toward Haxol Ihoon, we saw a sudden headlamp appear briefly before being swallowed by the darkness. Otherwise, there was not a light in the village. The power plant that the Federales had provided the village upon moving from Taheojc to Haxol Ihoon had broken in the late 1970s and had never been repaired. The Place of Many Clams had been in the dark for almost twenty years.
Orion stood over La Baja across the water. His red giant shoulder Betelgeuse and his brilliant knee Rigel and his sparkling sash exposed him to us. His red arrow tip Aldebaran pointed at the seven daughters of Atlas transformed into the Pleiades of the constellation Taurus. The new moon hung just under Aldebaran.
The heavens are as one sees them. They are mystical. Stargazers often call Aldebaran the eye of Taurus, others the arrow tip of Orion. Some call Rigel the foot of Orion, others the knee. Some see Orion carrying a club, others drawing his long bow. All stargazers see the same stars, but each paints their own picture. The truth is forever changing.
Mars radiated in the sky over the Sierra Seri. Defiantly he stood in opposition to the Sun. Mars ruled the night. He rose at dusk and set at dawn and so became the surrogate Sun. Just before dawn, as he sunk toward the silhouette of La Baja, he hurled a spark at the Sun approaching from the east. The cinderball raced toward the dawn, his longhair streaking away from Mars, and he disappeared into the sunshine. The Greeks called these sparks longhairs, for which their word was comet. The longhair that dawn was named HaleBopp. Hail Bop. The comet had been seen first from Earth two years previous by professional scientists playing with the toy telescope of their children. The longhair was returning for another rumbo round the sun, having last passed this way at the time the Babylonians of AD 500 were studying the five planets of their solar system. The truth is forever changing.
Capitán Gonzalo was on the beach gathering clams when we arrived beside the cove that harbors the pangas of the Seri fishermen. We refreshed our friendship. The Capitán was about to revisar his chinchorros, so four of us accompanied him and his ayudante from Obregón. First we traveled north along the coast, running into swells stained with windchop. A plume of yellow from Libertad proved that a strong north breeze had arrived during the night. It took over an hour to run the first net. The two kilometers of pink monofilament yielded big pargo and cabrilla. Despite these fine fish, the Obregón ayudante remarked that the fishing was puro colar agua, purely straining water, finding nothing in the nets.
It took another hour to run south past the big sardinero boats toward Tepoca to the place where the net was reset. As we worked we visited and told personal stories about our lives. The Obregón ayudante referred to one Gringo as Aventurero Viejo. He called the two youngest rodsmen Tuco y Tico, these sobrenombres derived from cartoon characters. Afterwards we returned to the beach and unloaded the catch. All the while the Cortés had further wrinkled from the stiff breeze.
At the casa of Capitán Gonzalo we shared gifts. Gringos gifted clothes and seeds and toys. Seris gifted woodcarvings and stone sculptures. The moment gifted un calor tan bello.
The longskirts arrived unexpectedly at our camp to visit during the late afternoon. Their color and smiles brought laughter. The platica informed us that three days previous a fierce wind had swamped a panga after it lost power. The three Seri from Haxol Ihoon swam to Tiburón. Seri from Bahía Sargento rescued them off the island. Pieces of the panga were found on the beach the next day. The motor was lost on the bottom. Olga cried that her husband had been lost at sea just a week after her father José Astorga had died. She asked that we bring salvavidas for her three sons. We recalled that Capitán Gonzalo had also asked for a life jacket for himself and his ayudante. After asking, he had paused and then added that the salvavida was not to save his life, rather it was to keep him afloat so that his body could be returned to Haxol Ihoon for burial.
The platica with the longskirts continued after a period of reflection upon the deaths and the misfortune of the Seri men. Additional misfortune had occurred just a few weeks before we had arrived. Two people had been kidnapped along the road and taken away. The village had mourned for three days when suddenly the two missing friends were returned to Haxol Ihoon by Seri from Punta Chueca. The abducted ones had no explanation for their sequestration. The Seri had sang and danced all night once the pair had been returned safely.
The kidnapping had prompted the Seri to direct us to a specific campsite protected from the outside world. María Luisa had told us that our campsite would be away from the bad people not from the village who sometimes pass through. She meant the drug smugglers who haul mota in their trucks or in their pangas. Isla Patos is a stop on the drug route between Sinaloa and El Norte. The Uniformes patrol in trucks to fight the smugglers. The constant surveillance makes the Seri feel as though they are under siege. They fear the kidnapping was a warning. The Seri call these times el tiempo de los narcos.
Just after the sun had inserted himself into La Baja, our third cruiser appeared in Seriland. Tío Buck, Gringa Roja y Frijolfrío arrived to share dinner. Shortly thereafter appeared Capitán Gonzalo. In the glow of the lantern, our circle spun stories. We told the Capitán of El Norte and he divulged more local secrets to us. Lore was shared in the flame.
Blue, Green, and Red Divers
Madrugada on the day of the dive. The panga was filled with gear and Gringos and Gonzalo when we pushed off the sandy beach at Haxol Ihoon. Esperanza jumped aboard when the Seri Capitán pulled fire in the outboard. She joined Anticipation seated on the bow banco. Then we ran south toward the glowing white cinder cone that is the Island with the Long Tail. The wind over the bow sang to us. Hold on tight to your dreams. When you see a panga runnin, you gotta hold on tight to your dreams.
Our crossing to the island was smooth and pleasant. We unloaded some of the gear and Gringos on the south end of the lava field at an abandoned fishing camp. Certain gulls and pelicans squawked and laughed at us. Others flew away in a huff and still others ignored us altogether. Then the panga bearing the divers crept out into the water southeast of the island. Capitán Gonzalo located the wrecked ship by using landmarks and soon we had snagged our grapnel and our panga had drifted back to snug the anchor line.
Now atop the water hiding the shipwreck, three divers dressed in blue, green and red flipped off the sides of the panga into the green water. Capitán Gonzalo handed a video camera to the red diver. She pointed the lens downward and the other two divers responded with fin kicks and disappeared into the fading greenness. Then too Gringa Roja sank out of sight. Se bajaron cazadores todos. Empezar la corrida.
Capitán Gonzalo and the old rodsman watched the air bubbles burst on the surface of the still sea. The Capitán began to describe what the divers were seeing. He told that he and his brothers had found the ship in 1965 while fishing for octopus. They made many dives to it by using an air mask. It was during these first dives that Capitán Gonzalo had found wine bottles and bronze relics. Later he had brought a Mexican scientist to the site. Always the Capitán had wanted video to show his fellow Seri. He chuckled as we watched the bubbles rise through the seawater above the wreck. Soon the Seri fisherman would have his long awaited pictures. Con el tiempo y un ganchito, y, quizás, un Gringo.
About an hour had passed when we watched the bubbles leave the surface of the Cortés over the wreck and move toward our panga. Capitán Gonzalo had never left vigil on the bow and he watched the returning hunters approach. Smiling faces appeared in the green water. Fantastic erupted the Red Gringa. Habian encontrado el barco viejo los cazadores. ¡Asi es! Como dice Capitán Gonzalo. Después de contar de la corrida del barco nos volvamos a la playa. Pues ahora les hemos dado a los ninos un gran cuento de echar. The divers had found the old ship. Just as Capitán Gonzalo had said. After hearing about the dive, Capitán Gonzalo aimed our panga toward Desemboque. Well, now the children have been given a great story to tell.
In the sunset, the black silhouette of Cerro Tepoca cut sharply into the orange sky. The outline of a splendid wild creature appeared. The Seri claim that the Mo-kwet-mon never leaves Tepoca. We threw silent salutes to the great ram and thanked him for the experience he had allowed beside the Island with the Long Tail.
Warming lantern light spilled over the camp. In a circle we sat and told the story of the dive onto the shipwreck at the Island with the Long Tail. Pictures were fingered in the sand. Fabio the three-year-old added to our pictures and offered some of his own. María Dolores enjoyed the Italian spice offered her by the Gringa cocinera. Capitán Gonzalo beamed from the throne.
Seventeen pasos by seven pasos is the size of the wreck. Her fifty foot length lies east-west. Her twenty foot width is upright. Her bow points west. She appears to sit flatly on the bottom. Her port side is mostly covered with sand. The original port side can still be seen by the sea life marking the port edge of the ship. The starboard side is exposed and reveals the ships ribs and wall planks rising a braza off the sea floor. The wooden ship is still held together by bronze spikes. A meter tall dark sealife covered object sits on the white bottom near the starboard bow. Fifteen meters west of the bow stands the anchor of the ship. At midship is a circular metal ring about a meter tall and a meter wide. Parallel to the starboard rail in the stern lies a long wooden timber.
The sand drawing and platica beckoned Imagination into the lantern light and she danced for us in the silence as we contemplated our adventure. Capitán Gonzalo pointed out that the center section of the ship appears to be collapsed and possibly hiding something. Que ahí vive ella. Sería muy trabajoso la entrada. The Capitán was right. The treasure might be hiding there. And it would be hard work to extract it.
In the silence of the Seriland night our dreams seduced us. Atop the heilera lay the treasures taken that day from the wreck off the Island with the Long Tail. The bronze spikes had begun to transform to turquoise. And our dreams to gold.
The Island with the Long Tail was once mined for guano claim the Seri. Trenches can still be seen. The ship wreck shows evidence of burning. We wondered if guano and burned ship suggest a historical explanation for the wreck.
During dusk the seashore at our camp was colored mirror silver by sleek glistening fish surfing ashore to burrow holes into which they laid their orange eggs. Pez del Rey the Seri call them. Fish of the king. Gringos call them grunion. Capitán Gonzalo claims that the pez del rey comes only around Semana Santa and only at dusk and dawn for seven days. Seven hours a year. Our bounty of good fortune grew larger.
We peered at the stars that night. Capitán Gonzalo called Pleiades by the Seri word Ahup. The Capitán did not know of Orion. When he was told of the belief by the Californios of the Sierra San Francisco that the constellations must be women, the Capitán joked that this could not be so because No trae arco mujer. We laughed together. Later the Capitán melted into the night monte. Seriland had gifted us many primeras veces.
To Research a Shipwreck
During our return to the Rim, Curiosity rode with us. She wore a colorful gown and filled our land cruiser with her songs of questions. What? Whom? When? How? These were the principal words in her lyrics. We began to search for answers.
Capitán Ironpockets claims that he and his brothers found the wreck in 1965 while octopus fishing. They collected salvage from it that included a wine bottle and an oarlock. Two Seri in the village claim that Gonzalo brought up a cannon and a bell and that he sold these to a man from Hermosillo. Letters were inscribed on the bell. Capitán Ironpockets dismisses the story as a lie. The same lying Seri also said that gold was buried on Isla Patos in the trenches dug by the guano miners.
By studying our video of the shipwreck, we were able to draw a picture of the vessel. Barge, steamship, or sailship loomed as potential names for our vessel. The structure appeared more like that of a barge. Our drawing resembled a barge.
We learned that the Sea of Cortés was a major ship route for clippers during the years 1852 to 1877. Clippers brought supplies from San Francisco to the mouth of the Río Colorado. Fort Yuma had been established to protect the river traffic. In the estuary at the mouth of the river, the clippers unloaded pieces of steamships to be assembled and used on the Colorado River as supply and passenger vessels for the mining interests as far upriver as Nevada. The woodburning steamship river route ended where it connected with the Mormon Road linking Salt Lake City with San Bernardino. The arrival of the railroad in Yuma in 1877 ended the need for steamships in the Sea of Cortés, as supplies could be brought by rail to Yuma and then sent upriver to the industry. Rounding Cabo San Lucas became obsolete, and the clippers to Yuma ceased passing Isla Tiburón in 1877.
During the time of river steamships, Mr. Blyth founded an agricultural colony eighty miles upriver de la boca del Río Colorado. Should fertilizers have been necessary at the agricultural colony, guano would have been the preferred product. Isla Patos is the closest source of guano to the Blyth colony. Blyth later moved to the present site in California of the town that bears his name.
We spoke with the Arizona Historical Museum in Yuma. A sensitive person there chuckled that she would not have associated guano and Arizona so readily as had an outsider. Nevertheless, she found the idea of a guano barge to feed the colony at Blyth Colony both plausible and of interest and requested a means of communication should she be blessed with information after her promised inquiries. We provided her a number on the Rim.
Becky Moser arrived the first time in Seriland during 1951. She and husband Ed are legends in the literature concerning the Seri. We first met the silver haired vieja during our inaugural dive on the wreck off the Island with the Long Tail. This was long after husband Ed had died. Becky had been coming to and living in Seriland 46 years when we met her. One of her comments included an expression of thanks that water had finally arrived at the village, this because of the solar pump on the well up Arroyo San Ignacio.
About the wreck, Becky Moser told that the first she knew of it was about thirty years ago when some divers from San Diego arrived to explore the wreck. She assumed that the divers had read of the wreck and had therefore come. Only within the past ten or so years have the Seri dived on it she claims. Becky says that María Luisa Astorga gave her a brick from the wreck and that she has a piece of wood someone gave her. One can see the wreck from an airplane says Becky.
Then she offered the following statement without solicitation. Aboard the boat was a donkey used for pulling and it kicked and caused a fire. The boat was in the guano business, but María Luisa said it was there to bury gold. We asked her the source of the donkey story and she could not remember. She told that the only guano business she knew of was about fifteen years ago when guano from Isla Patos was packaged and shipped away from Campo Dólar.
Becky Moser had told a story much akin to our theory, although she was not aware that we contemplated such a hypothesis. Indeed, a burro could have been used in the loading process of guano mining. There is certainly evidence of a fire. Knowledge of a donkey as the cause of the fire indicates either an account by an eyewitness or simply a story.
To help identify the ship, we began to construct a mosaic of it through photographing still frames of the video displayed on a large television screen. We took almost 400 snapshots. This process allowed us to see the ship in a manner which had been impossible using only the video. Ironically, at this same time, exploration of the sunken Titanic was being broadcast over television to Americans. We could see how each exploration, theirs and ours, had followed the same course. By middle May the floor in the loft above the atrium was covered with a patchwork of photos.
The snapshot process provided data such that we made new discoveries about the old wooden ship. We saw objects for the first time, as they had appeared only as an amorphous flash in the video, but when photographed as a still, they became obvious. The drawing of the ship we had initiated by viewing only the video began to change. The boat no longer appeared as a barge. Instead it became a ship. To help determine which type of ship it may be, we looked at pictures of men-of-war. Although none of the war ships seemed like our sunken vessel, some of the merchant ships pictured did appear to resemble our wreck off the Island with the Long Tail.
In several libraries we examined pictures of ships. Of most interest was a ship of 1770. This commercial vessel was about the size of our wreck and about the shape. The 1770 ship had a brick cookstove with a copper cauldron located in the port foredeck. We had found bricks and copper in the port foredeck on the Patos wreck. The 1770 ship had a pump where the mysterious ring on the Patos wreck is located. We found what appears as a possible pump part at the ring. The wine bottle retrieved by Capitán Gonzalo can be certain of being handmade and older than 1860.
In the Camp of the Seri
On the summer solstice we hunters crossed the northern scar into Sonora. We carried the notebook we had assembled of our investigation of the sunken ship off the Island with the Long Tail. Heat had arrived Haxol Ihoon and all the beds were outside the casas. Under a dripping tree we gathered amongst hand touches and longskirts hugging the eight-year-old rodsman. We had arrived to the heat of the summer in the camp of the Seri.
To the village singer Amalia, we gifted a video and feathers and colored socks. To us she gifted a figura de mujer de Los Gigantes. We gave her a bottle of water from the canyon at our rancho on the Rim and asked the Cantatriz to place it dónde Cerro Pelon. To Capitán Gonzalo we gifted shoes and a video. To us he gifted the wine bottle he had taken at the shipwreck beside the Island with the Long Tail.
Everyone was present when we spoke of the shipwreck Present was Chalio Astorga. He and Gonzalo had been the first to dive on the shipwreck. Afterwards came their brother Santiago. Chalio has many dives to his credit. He claimed that a cannon had existed, but was later missing. He claimed that a few colored stones were found near centership. Chalio told of lead pipes around the ring. These pipes had been cut off with axes and sold in the late 1960s.
Capitán Gonzalo told that the spool off the starboard side had once been midship. Several Seri believed the spool to be a cannon runner. Some believed it to be a device around which line is wrapped on a sailship. Most Seri agreed that the ring and the lead tubes could have been part of a pump. All Seri claimed that the Big Rock is indeed a rock. All confessed that there are no other big rocks in the area.
We mentioned that we had heard there was a bell with letters. This exposure brought an alarmed pause and quick glances amongst those present. Chalio finally and reluctantly spoke. Yes, there was a bell with letters. Can you write the letters? No. What can you remember about them? Chalio paused and looked at the ground. Then he said that a Yori told him the letters meant juan el e yo taller. We asked him to say it again. We heard Spanish words that meant John he and I workshop. Juan el e yo taller.
Our gathering with the Seri was productive. New information was gleaned. Old information was clarified. We promised to investigate more and to share our findings with the village.
A few days later, on our return to El Norte, we visited the University of Sonora Museum and the Museum of Sonora. No one at either place had any knowledge of a sunken ship in Sonora. No one had ever heard of Juan el e yo taller.
Juan el e yo taller
At our rancho on the Rim we continued our research. One line of inquiry was spawned by the Seri claim that Isla Patos was a guano source and Becky Moser’s claim that the ship was in the guano business. This prompted us to determine the time period of guano trade in the Sea of Cortés and the names of ships that participated. Our research quickly led us to the classic reference: American Clipper Ships 1833-1858, Octavius T. Howe and Frederick C. Matthews. Originally published in 1926, we could locate the Dover reprint of 1986.
On page 304 we found Juan el e yo taller. Not John he and I workshop at all. Juan is John. El e yo is Eliot. Taller is Thayer. John Eliot Thayer. Pronounced Juan el e yo taller in Spanish. Howe misspelled Eliot as Elliot. Nevertheless, he reported that the ship “Burned Sept. 13, 1858, while loading guano at the island of Patos, Gulf of California.”
So we had the name of the ship. Now to learn all about her.
The Clipper Ship Era
Following the American Revolution and the War of 1812, merchants in the young United States found themselves unable to satisfy consumer demand. This problem was caused by the reluctance of British merchants to ship goods on a timely schedule.
Sailors of that period considered the Atlantic Ocean to be a long hill. The route between America and Europe was considered downhill, the return from Europe to America considered uphill. The reason for this discrimination was the Westerlies, those winds that blow from the west toward the east along the Fiftieth Parallel. The downhill crossing, sailing with the wind, required a period of three to four weeks to run from Boston or New York to Liverpool. The uphill crossing required five to six weeks. During winter, the uphill crossing took even longer.
British merchants mostly refused to ship during winter. A few Americans began to cross during that time, and these experiments were closely monitored. By 1817, a group of four Quakers from New York had pooled their resources to create the first organized effort to provide a packet ship service between America and Europe. Their enterprise became known as the Black Ball Line. Founded on October 27, the unique aspect of the Line was that departures were scheduled, meaning ships would leave full or not. Random departures were thereby avoided and merchants could depend upon a steady flow of goods.
The Black Ball Line enjoyed a monopoly until 1822 when the Red Star Line and the Blue Swallowtail Line were formed. The Black Ball Line continued to dominate, however, and remained in business for sixty years, until 1877.
By 1835 the packet ship business was in full boom. Fast dependable ships were needed by the packet companies. Thus began the Clipper Ship Era. And the shanties that defined it.
The Banks of Newfoundland
The first clipper may have been built in 1831, or maybe 1841 or 1845. The designated date depends upon opinion. Regardless, by 1848, the style known as a Clipper Ship had been established. The design was that of the Americans. The British did not respond, and as a result lost the packet business to the Americans. The clipper style dominated American ships until 1860, when it essentially vanished.
The most famous and successful builders of clipper ships were all taught their trade by five prominent Connecticut men. These early teachers were Adam and Noah Brown, Jacob Bell, Stephen Smith and Isaac Webb. Their remarkable students became even more famous than these old and proven teachers. These students became the master builders of clipper ships.
N. B. Palmer, J. W. Griffiths, S. H. Pook and Donald McKay are considered to have been the best clipper ship builders. Palmer learned from Bell, Griffiths from Smith, Pook from Brown, and McKay from Webb and later Brown and Bell. Palmer, Griffiths and Pook each contributed innovation and technology. McKay, considered the greatest builder of all, took the finest ideas of the other three designers and molded them into a single plan for clipper ships.
Donald McKay called himself a mechanic. He was a Virgo of September 4, 1810, born in Nova Scotia, the son of a farmer. His first adventure out of Nova Scotia landed him in New York City, where he found work in a shipyard. He married the daughter of a shipbuilder. His path eventually took him to East Boston, where he became famous. By the time that Donald McKay died at age seventy, he had made a permanent mark on the speed records and sizes of clipper ships. Nevertheless, he died almost in poverty.
Donald McKay was discovered by Enoch Train. The White Diamond Line of Enoch Train was one of three packet lines running between Boston and Liverpool. On a trip to England, Train learned of a little known, yet promising, shipbuilder who had opened a yard in Massachusetts. Since Train wanted a builder near Boston, rather than New York, he visited McKay in Newburyport. Thoroughly impressed, the businessman offered McKay a contract within an hour of their first meeting, and the young builder moved to East Boston and began to manufacture clippers for Enoch Train and his White Diamond Line.
Donald McKay believed that clipper ships should be both big and fast. Each ship he built was bigger and faster than his previous model. The largest wooden ship ever built, the Great Republic, weighed 4,555 tons. It was one of the last clippers built by McKay. Only twelve clipper ships ever attained a speed of eighteen knots or greater. McKay built nine of them, including the two fastest of all, Sovereign of the Seas at 22 knots and Jaimes Baines at 21 knots. Only fourteen clippers ever attained a speed of 400 miles a day. McKay built ten of them. The record for the run from Boston to San Francisco was 89 days, attained by three clippers, two of them built by McKay.
Any list of great clipper ships includes those mentioned below. McKay built them all: Sovereign of the Seas, Flying Cloud, Jaimes Baines, Champion of the Seas, Lightning, Marco Polo, Westward Ho, Bald Eagle, Flying Fish, New World, Joshua Bates, Great Republic, Donald McKay. Two other clippers deserve mention. The Sea Witch was built by Griffiths and the Red Jacket was built by Pook.
In 1848, the Mexican War ended and Americans found themselves holding considerable new territory, including California. Previously, few Atlantic ships had reason to travel to California. Indeed, only four Atlantic ships landed in San Francisco between April 1847 to April 1848. However, with the addition of California to the American portfolio of commerce, a few more ships began to trickle into San Francisco.
Gold was discovered in California in 1849. The Rush began. Clipper ships began to round the Horn, carrying goods to California. Some of these goods were then sent around Cabo San Lucas to find the railroad approaching Yuma. In 1849, nearly eight hundred Atlantic ships landed at San Francisco. This set off a boom in shipbuilding, the preferred craft being a clipper.
In 1851, fifty-four clippers were built. In 1852, seventy-five more were added, and in 1853, one hundred twenty were launched. Keeping with the tradition established since the 1830s, each clipper ship built was larger than the previous one. These huge wooden ships were called extreme clippers.
By 1854, the boom had quieted and fewer clippers were built. Beginning that year the ships became smaller and were known as medium clippers. By 1860 the last clipper was launched.
The demise of the Clipper Ship Era was caused by several factors. The Recession of 1857-1859 was severe and cut deeply into the pockets of businessmen and shipbuilders. Many clippers became associated with the guano trade during this Recession. The approaching American Civil War increased tensions and further diminished commerce and the need for clippers. The completion of the Panama Railroad provided a shortcut to California, further reducing the role of clippers. The advent of the steamship provided the technology to replace sails and clipper ships altogether. The British, finally bringing competition to the Americans, returned to the sea lanes when steamships appeared. The Era of Clipper Ships ended.
John Eliot Thayer
She was born in East Boston. Paul Curtis launched her into the sea in November of 1854. She was oak, slim and trim and elegant, six times longer than wide, three decks high. Lloyds anointed her First Class in All Aspects, a Grand Cabotage. On the stern was written her name – John Eliot Thayer.
In precise nautical usage, the term “ship” is restricted to a vessel with a bowsprit, carrying square rig on all three masts – fore, main and mizzen – each composed of a lower, a top, and a topgallant mast. The John Eliot Thayer was the definition of a ship.
She was the largest clipper ship “Honest Paul” ever built. Previous to moving to East Boston in 1852, he had built in 1845 the Sunbeam, the largest vessel ever to be launched from the Medford shipyards.
The shipyard of Paul Curtis in East Boston lay beside that of Donald McKay. Each of these ship builders constructed vessels for Enoch Train & Co., an old and established shipping line. The year that Curtis built the John Eliot Thayer, he also built the Enoch Train, his second largest ship. Both of these ships would sail for Train & Co.
Enoch Train founded the White Diamond Line in 1844 in order to provide regularly scheduled departures from Boston and Liverpool. His business had boomed, along with the demand for fast packet ships. By 1854, Train was the most distinguished of all Boston shipping magnates.
The year the ship John Eliot Thayer was born there lived in Boston a prominent fifty-one-year-old banker and his younger brother partner. These two businessmen were sons of the Reverend Doctor Nathaniel Thayer of Harvard and Lancaster fame. Independently of their pedigreed father, these sons had founded a prosperous enterprise themselves. Their wildly successful firm John E. Thayer & Brother was heavily involved in Boston financial circles, assisting both Enoch Train and Paul Curtis.
By autumn of 1854, the shipping industry was beginning to change. During this time, Train & Co. suffered the consequences of the cessation of emigration. Their ships had few passengers and the company recorded an economic loss. It was into this climate that the John Eliot Thayer was launched in November.
The clipper ship John Eliot Thayer sailed from Boston to New York in December 1854. There she was surveyed by Lloyd’s of London. The records of Lloyds show that Enoch Train of the White Diamond Line owned the John Eliot Thayer. After the ship was registered, Train & Co. immediately sent her to Europe with a cargo of packets.
This maiden voyage, under the command of Captain Gaius Sampson, produced two remarkable passages between Liverpool and Boston. The new ship John Eliot Thayer required only 15 days outward from Boston, and 19 days homeward from Liverpool, the latter admitted to be the shortest winter passage on record.
January 1855 was not a good month for Enoch Train. The once mighty White Diamond line had seen its Boston service become reduced and irregular, and it was forced to relinquish management to the interests of Warren & Thayer. Although the new managers continued to use the established name Train & Co. on advertisements, the loss was heartfelt to the proud shipping magnate. Compounding the disaster, Enoch Train was assaulted in his Dorchester house, barely escaping with his life.
Throughout 1855, the John Eliot Thayer sailed for Train & Co. under management of George W. Warren and John Eliot Thayer. Packet ship records and newspaper articles report that the John Eliot Thayer departed New York on December 12, 1855, en route to England. Fourteen days later, on Christmas Eve, she arrived at Liverpool. Master Gaius Sampson, her veteran captain, was responsible for her swift voyage, one of the fastest outbound ever.
After cutting her baby teeth on the Boston to Liverpool route, the John Eliot Thayer matured into a Cape Rounder. Master Sampson departed and command was passed to Master Pousland. This captain took the John Eliot Thayer from New York on May 11, 1856, and sailed south toward Cape Horn. He rounded the Cape and turned north toward California. On September 22, 1856, after 130 days of travel, he reached San Francisco.
Master Pousland kept the clipper John Eliot Thayer in port until November of 1856. On the 3rd of that month he sailed for Callao, Peru, with a crew of thirty-five. His orders allowed him to proceed from Peru to either Europe or the United States.
In 1856, the oldest son of John Eliot Thayer died. He was Ebenezer Francis Thayer, born in 1837, named after the father of his mother, dead at age nineteen. He was the second son of John Eliot to die. His other son, John Eliot Thayer, Jr. had died at age four.
In January 1857, the Train Line succumbed in the financial panic. The famous name Train & Co. was removed from advertising and that grand old tradition vanished forever. The successors of Enoch Train & Co. were John Eliot Thayer and George W. Warren.
Later that year, Duncan McFarlane sat at Prince’s Dock in Liverpool and gazed out over the harbor. The John Eliot Thayer had just sailed in from America. She anchored between the Daniel Webster and the Parliament. All three ships had sailed for the White Diamond Line of Enoch Train. Now that old and established line was history, taken over by Warren & Thayer. The new owners, in order to maintain a tradition, continued to use the White Diamond flag, and the John Eliot Thayer displayed it, even though Enoch Train had been removed from management in December 1854. Seeing legend and beauty together, Duncan McFarlane captured the moment on a broad piece of canvas. His splendid painting, unusual for depicting three different ships in three different positions, now graces a private collection.
A few months later, on September 29, 1857, the namesake of the ship herself, the banker John Eliot Thayer, died at the age of fifty-four.
The John Eliot Thayer rounded Cape Horn for her final time in the early spring of 1858. Her first rounding had been two years previous, in 1856. Turning north at the cape, she sailed on to arrive in San Francisco.
On July 17, 1858, Captain Pousland pointed the bow of the splendid ship John Eliot Thayer southward from San Francisco toward Cabo San Lucas. His proud ship, a Grand Cabotage, had been forced by the hard times of the Panic to engage in the disgraceful guano trade. George W. Warren and Nathaniel Thayer, brother of John Eliot, had refused to join the China slave trade, opting for a smelly cargo rather than one of doomed flesh.
After passing Cabo San Lucas, the John Eliot Thayer sailed eastward to Mazatlán. Following a brief stay, she turned north and entered the Sea of Cortés, sailing on to Guaymas. Subsequent to another short stay, the clipper continued northward into the Cortes, hugging the western cliffs of Isla Tiburón, rather than passing between Isla San Esteban and Isla San Lorenzo, the normal route of the clippers running toward the mouth of the Río Colorado and Fort Yuma. She had entered the waters of the Seri Indians, rumored to be cannibals, but known otherwise by all sailors. On August 20th she reached a tiny island called Patos and there she dropped anchor.
Summer in Seriland is an oven. Sailors from the John Eliot Thayer sweltered in the torrid air as they packed guano from the baked island of Patos onto a lighter. The smelly cargo was then transported to the tall clipper anchored in the hot sea. As the sailors worked through August and into September, Seri Indians seated on the island watched the crew labor. The Seri had become accustomed to seeing clippers, as the shipping lane from San Francisco to the railroad approaching Yuma had been established for several years.
In the Sea of Cortés, the John Eliot Thayer married Death. Off the south end of Isla Patos, at the entrance to the Straits of Hell, while sailors loaded filthy stinking seabird droppings, the disgraced clipper made her pact with the Grim Reaper, and their wedlock was consummated with fire.
The Seri tell that in the night the ship burst into flames. The camp of Hajhox at Tecomate was suddenly illuminated and all the Seri ran to the beach to watch the inferno on the sea directly in front of them. The Indians claim that the blaze continued for several days and nights. Finally, the ship burned to the waterline and then sank slowly out of sight and into legend.
So there the clipper ship John Eliot Thayer expired into history. She died at age four, almost exactly a year after the death of prominent Boston banker John Eliot Thayer.
Then they were all gone. All within a few years. One each for three years consecutive. First had passed oldest son Ebenezer. Then father John Eliot himself. Finally the ship named for the father. Struck down in a brief instant, all the Thayer men and their namesake ship.
Toll the bell, Watchman.
The tale of the John Eliot Thayer did not expire with the burning of the ship. The total Tell revealed treachery and intrigue. And introduced us to a mysterious Frenchman.
Researching A Shipwreck
Inquiry methods: Our investigation occurred in the earliest days of the Internet, when information was sparse. Consequently, the great majority of our reference material was provided by libraries, inter-library loans, used book stores, newspaper archives, and museum collections.
Our pursuit of information about the clipper ship John Eliot Thayer caused us to contact the Thayer Families Association in Massachusetts. Within hours we received a call from Rick Thayer, a retired architect living in Boston. He was keenly interested in our tale and offered that a Shipwright in Scituate would begin research immediately. He declared that the Shipwright believed that the John Elliott Thayer was a local ship built in the 1800s.
To assist the Seawright and the Architect in their research, we sent to them the record of our adventures in Seriland. We included our sketch of the ship and a copy of the video we had filmed. Included in the package was a seashell necklace gifted by Seri fishermen to Boston shipbuilders.
Within a day of our initial conversation, Rick Thayer called to tell us that he had found a picture of the John Elliot Thayer on the cover of The American Neptune magazine of Summer 1995. This magazine reports on Maritime History & Arts. A photograph of a painting of the John Elliot Thayer is featured on the cover page for the Peabody Museum Maritime Division website.
The original painting by Duncan McFarlane is dated 1857 and was painted when the John Elliot Thayer arrived at Prince’s Dock in Liverpool. The painting features the John Elliot Thayer flanked by the Daniel Webster and the Parliament. The Neptune reports that “all three ships sailed the Boston-to-Liverpool run for Enoch Train’s White Diamond Line.” Indeed, the White Diamond flag of Enoch Train flies from the main mast of the John Elliot Thayer. Elliot is spelled with a single T and double L’s.
With great anticipation we keyed in the web address given us by the Architect. Soon on our computer screen appeared the subject of our search. What a ship! The John Elliot Thayer was a full clipper. Her three masts sported full sails. Her bowsprit pointed gracefully. Flags adorned the vessel. She was huge! None of us had expected what we saw on the screen. It is certain that the shipwreck off The Island With The Long Tail reveals only a small portion of the clipper ship John Elliot Thayer.
Following his discovery of the painting, Architect Thayer spoke with his friend and shipwright Joe T. Chetwynd. The shipwright quickly found a reference reporting that the John Elliot Thayer was built in 1854 in East Boston by Paul Curtis, whose shipyard was near that of master ship builder Donald McKay. The John Elliot Thayer weighed 1,918 tons. Initially owned by Enoch Train, the ship was sold to a group composed of Benjamin Bangs and John E. Thayer & Brother. While loading guano off Isla Patos on September 13, 1858, a fire ignited and burned everything from the topdeck up.
To obtain still more information, we spoke with shipwright Joe Chetwynd. He informed us that most clippers by 1854 had flat bottoms. At 1,918 tons he suspected that the John Elliot Thayer enjoyed three decks, with a deck length of about 240 feet and beam width of about 44 feet. He predicted a height of 23 feet from the water level to the bottom of the ship.
Chetwynd claimed that the ship would have burned to the waterline. He proposed that most of the hull originally settled on the sea bottom off Isla Patos. However, he suspected that little remains of the ship because everything exposed should have been eaten by marine organisms. Only what is buried is preserved, except for the small portion that is currently uncovered and in the process of being eroded. As for the “ring” which is so obvious in the video, he suggested that it may be a mast ring. He thought the “piston” might be a piece of a donkey-engine used to work the sails or to load cargo.
Shipwright Chetwynd recommended that we search for specific documents housed in the Copley Square Boston Public Library. We sent a formal letter to Ms. Katherine Dibble of the Special Collections department. She forwarded to us a list of researchers and we selected Ms. Kate Murphy to help us search. Within an hour we received word that Researcher Kate had found the ship listed in the Registre de Veritas. She would look for more information and send us a package. The search was on.
The initial data gathered by Researcher Kate arrived first to rainy North Quincy, where it was copied by Architect Rick and then forwarded to us here on the Rim. As we opened the package, Anticipation joined us in the Sun Room.
The Bureau Veritas, Lloyd Universel, Registre de Renseignments sur Navires, Registre 29, Paris, 1 Janvier 1857, Page 874, Entry Number 1292 references the John Elliott Thayer. Elliott is spelled with a double L and double T. This Register is the equivalent of the Register of Lloyds of London for 1857.
Lloyds reports that the John Elliott Thayer was commanded by Mr. Sampson the master. The vessel was deemed First Class and was classified Grand Cabotage, meaning that the vessel was proper for “Foreign voyages, the voyages to the Frozen Ocean, Baltic, Coast of Spain and Portugal, Azores, Canaries, Mediterranean, Gulf of Venice Archipelago, and Black Sea.” Lloyds described the hull as Class 1 and materials as Class 1. These were the highest ratings. The Register further defined the John Elliott Thayer as a Ship of 1,918 tons with three decks, of American origin, built in 1854 in East Boston. The ship was constructed of oak and had a single bottom. Fully loaded, the John Elliott Thayer had a draught of 24 feet. She claimed the Port of Boston and was owned by Enoch Train when she was surveyed in New York in 1854.
Carl Cutler is considered the writer of the classic works concerning clipper ships. In his 1961 book, Queens of the Western Ocean, on Page 372, under a column entitled Train’s Line, is listed the following: “1854, John Eliot Thayer, 1919 tons, Gaius Sampson master. Burned, Gulf of California, 1858.”
Still more is found in Queens of the Western Ocean. On Page 564 is reported the following: “New York to Liverpool. John Eliot Thayer. Gaius Sampson, master. 14 days, land to land. Sailed Dec. 8, 1855. Arrived Dec. 24. Reported in New York Tribune, Dec. 10, 1855; Boston Courier, Jan. 15, 1856.” Eliot is spelled correctly.
In his classic entitled Greyhounds of the Sea, Carl Cutler, in 1930, on Page 505, presents a list of clipper ships arriving California in 1856. “John E Thayer, Pousland master, Sailed from New York on May 11; Arrived San Francisco Sept 22, 130 days. “
The American-Built Clipper Ship 1850-1856, published 1997 by William Crothers, contains an alphabetical list of vessels and a chronological list of vessels. The John Eliot Thayer is not included on any list. However, there are two clipper ships of similar tonnage. This measure provides an idea of the dimensions of the John Eliot Thayer.
The clipper ship Young America, launched April 1853, weighed 1,961 tons, enjoyed 243 feet of deck length, a 43-foot beam, and a 27-foot draught when fully loaded. She had three decks. The Sierra Nevada was launched May 1854. She weighed 1,942 tons, had a 230-foot deck, a 44-foot beam, a 27-foot draught, and three decks. It is probable that the John Eliot Thayer, at 1,918 tons, was of equivalent size. Shipwright Joe Chetwynd had proposed similar dimensions when he had learned of the tonnage.
Researcher Kate had supplied us with specific information. At last we could begin to envision the ship John Eliot Thayer and to know her short history and to imagine her mysterious past. Our thirst for more information drove us to search further.
Under a brilliant blue sky in middle November of 1998, in the lower pasture where the grass had turned brown and crisp autumn leaves colored the ground, we outlined a true scale model of the ship John Eliot Thayer. She extended from the house-well to just beyond the Wizard Tree. This was 220 feet along the keel. We gave her a 44-foot beam at midship and a 35-foot stern, and at a distance of 65 feet from the bow we scaled her 35 feet wide. We drove stakes through the yellow leaves into the soft ground and then strung yellow plastic tape between the stakes. A clipper outline emerged.
Suddenly the ship leaped up! She was afloat! Her thunder boomed against the canyon walls. She warmed and shaped and rolled in the great swells of the Lower Pasture. The knowing could see a White Diamond flag stiff in the breeze, hear the boom of the swell against the bow, feel taut lines quiver in the wind, taste the sweetness of land air after a long salty voyage, enjoy the last run to home port after so long gone.
We danced. We toured her. The youngest waverider jumped and skipped as he ran from bow to stern, cutting around the ring and the brick pile and the long timber and leaping over the buckets placed to show the Big Rock and the Basketball. We placed a chair at the helm. Captain Sampson joined us. We put some trolling rods astern. Lines in the water she said. The Blue Diver walked the starboard bow and claimed that it is most certainly what is visible above the sand.
The tall oaks provided a sense of the height of the sails. The great clipper dwarfed us. The canyon wall across the creek mimicked Isla Patos. Scrub jays and acorn woodpeckers were surrogates for seabirds. Everyone played on our ship. Childhood again. The good ship brought bliss to us all. She was elegant, the color of swift, bearing the gift of joy, the finest packet of all.
Using the full-scale model of the John Eliot Thayer living in the Lower Pasture, we drew a true scale model on paper. A plan view and a profile were drafted. Answers appeared with the drawing. The Basketball is a capstan located between the foremast and mainmast. The Big Rock may be a windlass that had been located on the bow. The timber is a yardarm from either the foremast or mainmast. The Ring is not for a mast and remained unexplained. The ship is buried from midship to stern. The port side is buried all the way to near the bow. The highest side of the ship is six feet above sea bottom. This is near the Big Rock. Most of the ship, even that buried, has been eroded extensively.
Continuing our search, we located the manuscript Paul Curtis: American Shipbuilder 1832-1873 by Christopher Miller, written in 1984, at the GW Blunt White Library at the Mystic Seaport Museum. Also there is a Bill of Sale dated April 25, 1811, containing the name Nathaniel Thayer. We spoke with Researcher Wendy at the Library and she reported that the manuscript was written by a student for a course. The source was Merchant Sail plus a listing of ships that Paul Curtis had built in Medford.
The conversation with Researcher Wendy was friendly and she asked the name of the ship we are researching. After visiting a file she returned with the handwritten notes of Carl Cutler. The famous author had searched the Custom House Records for ship measurements. Researcher Wendy read from the notes. The ship John Eliot Thayer was 222.3 x 43.1 x 30. Just like that it happened. For the first time we knew the dimensions. Researcher Wendy promised to send us a copy of the portion of the notes pertaining to the John Eliot Thayer.
Shortly before Christmas 1998 we received a letter from Researcher Wendy at Mystic Seaport. She wrote, “I hope the enclosed photocopy of the Cutler cards relating to the John Eliot Thayer helps you… Mr. Cutler gleaned this information from a variety of sources, including Boston Custom House records and the New York Maritime Register for 1858. Of interest may be the facts that the vessel had a half poop, three decks, a round stern and a figurehead…”
Five Cutler cards had been copied onto a single piece of paper. Four of the cards contained handwritten notes. A single card contained typed notes.
One of the handwritten notes appears to be from the Boston Custom House in 1854. This card contains information we had not previously seen. The John Eliot Thayer was certified November 25, 1854, and received certificate number 482. Her actual tonnage was 1918.77 tons. Her dimensions were 222.3 x 43.1 x 30. With respect to ownership, the following was scrawled by Cutler. “Enoch Train & Frederick William Thayer copartners 1/2 & Benjamin Bangs 1/2.”
Another handwritten note contains information on ownership that reads “Enoch Train & Co. Later Benjamin Bangs & John E Thayer & Bro.” This card is undated. A handwritten note from the Boston Custom House 1855 contains information claiming “Surr. N.Y. Dec 31, ’57.” The typed note is from the New York Maritime Register 1858. Information included these items. “Draft 22. Full Model – Hf. P.; Capt. Paysland.” In different type, clearly added at a later time, the note contained the following line. “NYH Nov 15, 1858. Burned in Gulf of Calif, Sept 13.” We interpreted NYH to mean New York Herald.
The new information supplied by the Cutler cards made us anxious to receive still more. Researcher Kate began to search through the Copley Library for anything pertaining to John Eliot Thayer, Paul Curtis, Enoch Train, Warren & Co and anything associated with our inquiry. She dispatched to us her first mailing and we received it just after Christmas. Her letter read “I have enclosed the information we discussed over the phone plus I have found additional clippings you will be interested in. Unfortunately we do not have the NY Herald for the 1850’s but I found the article I think you want in the Boston Daily Advertiser on 11/15/58.”
Researcher Kate was right. Always we had wanted to know more about the burning of the ship John Eliot Thayer. The notecards of Cutler had suggested the Monday, November 15, 1858, New York Herald as a source of information. Researcher Kate did not have the Herald, so she searched the Boston Daily Advertiser for the same day. There she found the story of the burning of the John Eliot Thayer.
“Loss of Ship John Eliot Thayer – The following statement of Captain Pousland gives the full particulars of the loss of the ship J. E. Thayer by fire off Patos Island: —
“I left San Francisco on the 17th July, in the ship John Eliot Thayer, owned by Benj. Bangs and Nathan Thayer of Boston. I was bound for Patos Island, Gulf of California, for a load of guano, stopping on my way at Mazatlan and Guaymas for orders. We arrived at Patos Island on the 20th of August, nothing material having occurred on the passage. On the 13th of September, after having taken in about three hundred tons of guano, at one o’clock in the morning the ship was discovered to be on fire in the forward part of the upper between decks, near some thirteen barrels of pitch which were to be used in caulking the ship outside. All hands immediately went to work to endeavor to extinguish the fire, and water was passed rapidly between decks for that purpose. We had a good force pump and hose, but they were of no avail, as the ship was too high out of water for the pumps to work, as we had only about one-tenth of our cargo in. The fire gained rapidly on us, for as soon as the barrels of pitch burst they carried vast sheets of flame to all parts of the ship, so that in ten minutes’ time she was on fire from stem to stern, and in fifteen minutes the flames had reached her royal tracks, so that it was perfectly impossible to save the ship. It was dangerous even to attempt to scuttle her, and it was with difficulty that we escaped with our lives in the boats, very few saving more clothing than what was on their backs. We saved nothing from the ship but the three boats in which we escaped. The ship burned forty-seven hours after we left, down to eleven feet forward and thirteen feet aft, and then sank in 7 1/2 fathoms of water. About forty men were employed for twelve hours trying to save the hull, but their efforts were fruitless, having nothing but buckets to work with. Measures have been taken to secure the suspected or guilty parties.
“The insurance was as follows: — On ship, $70,000, via, China Mutual Co. Mercantile Equitable (Mutual), Boylston New England Mutual, Manufacturers’ $10,000 each. Mercantile Mutual, NY, $5,000. Delaware Mutual, Philadelphia, $5,000. The freight was insured for $30,000 as follows: — Alliance Mutual and American Companies, Boston, $10,000 each. China Mutual $5,000. Roger Williams and American Companies, Providence, $2500 each. Total $100,000. In Boston, $85,000.
“The captain and part of the crew were taken to Guaymas by the Edwin Flys. Captain Pousland was the last to leave his ship, which in less than fifteen minutes from the time the alarm was given, was one mass of flames, from her decks to her tracks. The John E Thayer had on board about three hundred tons of guano. The ship was undoubtedly set on fire by one of her crew, as the evidence taken before the Spanish consul at Guaymas (no American consul being there) clearly showed. Capt. Pousland arrived at New York on Friday, on the Star of the West, with his witnesses.
“The want of an American consul at Guaymas is seriously felt. The presence of a man-of-war would be very beneficial, none of those belonging to the United States having been there for several years. American interests are greatly on the increase, and it must be for some time to come the easiest mode of communication with certain parts of Arizona and New Mexico on the Pacific side. The harbor of Guaymas, although comparatively small, is perfectly safe, and sufficiently commodious for all the wants of Sonora – the water deep, the holding ground good, and the entrance perfectly easy and without obstructions.”
So there was the story of the death of the John Eliot Thayer as told by Captain Pousland. The great ship had been the victim of arson in the night. The account of the educated Captain Pousland mirrors almost identically that of the Stone Age Seri as passed down by them through a century and a half of storytelling.
After the turn of the year, we received a package from shipwright Joe Chetwynd. Included in his package were copies of pages 103, 105 and 409 of The American-Built Clipper Ship by William Crothers. Page 105 is a scale drawing of the structure of the Golden Fleece built by Paul Curtis in 1855 and weighing 1500 tons. Shipwright Chetwynd compared the Golden Fleece to the John Eliot Thayer. The shipwright sketched his interpretation of what remains of the John Eliot Thayer. Page 409 is a comparison of various weather deck arrangements of clipper ships. The drawings provide five different arrangements and suggest a model for considering how the John Eliot Thayer might have been arranged.
The placement of the capstans and the windlass are of interest because of their similarity to what we observed on the wreck of the John Eliot Thayer. Three ships of Donald McKay, whose shipyard lay next to that of Paul Curtis, are included in the drawing on page 409. All of these ships had capstans and a windlass in the bow, which is where we found the capstan and the windlass of the John Eliot Thayer.
In late January 1999, we traveled to College Station, Texas, to visit with Dr. Donny Hamilton of the Texas A&M University Department of Anthropology, Nautical Archeology Program. Over a dozen graduate students and faculty members attended our presentation. After a brief introductory statement, together we watched the video taken two years previous by the Red Gringa. Then we joined around the map and talked and planned.
Dr. Kevin Crisman, head of the New World Studies group spoke first. He expressed doubts that very many relics remain, as he feared all had been melted, even the metal, citing the high temperature at which oak burns and the duration of the fire. But what about the glass wine bottles and the cannon and bell and the copper sheeting? They had not been burned away. Dr. Crisman suggested that isolated parts of the ship might not have totally burned.
Researcher Ahmad, along with Dr. Hamilton and Dr. Crisman, expressed skepticism that the “anchor” in the video is really an anchor. Researcher Ahmad theorized it to be a portion of the rudder assembly. This, of course, would mean that we had misinterpreted the ship by 180 degrees, that our “bow” was really the stern. Ahmad speculated that an anchor would not have been dropped so close to the bow, and that for an anchor to remain upright and perpendicular to the sea bottom is unlikely.
Others in the group, Researchers Erich, Christopher and Peter, disputed this claim, arguing that the ship appeared to be pointed like a bow toward the alleged anchor, and citing the position of the windlass and capstan, and noting that the anchor might not be the anchor set to hold the ship, rather a secondary anchor.
Researcher Ahmad countered that the stern would also appear pointed, and that it is uncertain that the “Big Rock” is really a windlass, and he reminded everyone that some clipper ships had capstans placed aft, and suggesting that, if the object in question is indeed an anchor, it may be a stern anchor.
One researcher suggested that the starboard portion of the ship has been extensively eroded and that the “edge” of the vessel is actually not the original side. He pointed to the angle of the frames and argued that this angle supports his contention. Other researchers argued the contrary, claiming that the angle in fact supports the theory that most of the starboard remains.
As for some of the relics we had retrieved from the wreck, the archeologists quickly explained that our “pipes” were not pipes at all, rather concretions which had grown around metal that had disintegrated and left both square holes and round holes where the metal had been.
All the archeologists acknowledged that there is need for measurements of the wreck. They suggested measuring the distance between frames, the proper name for “ribs,” measuring the distance across the ship at various points, and measuring the distance from the wreck to the alleged ”anchor.”
In order to determine how much of the ship remains, the archeologists proposed that stakes made of bicycle spokes be inserted into the sea bottom to provide a proposed outline of the ship. Digging and probing should occur inside this outline, with trenches carefully dug by hand. No more relics should be retrieved, as they cannot be properly preserved. The researchers estimated two weeks as the time required to conduct a preliminary survey.
All the researchers recognized that more photographs are needed, especially still photos as opposed to video. It was pointed out that the water clarity as shown by the video is remarkable for the tidal conditions in which rests the wreck. Such clarity yields good photos and excellent working conditions.
Of course everyone asked what our plans for the wreck might include. We responded that our intentions were to use the wreck as a means to help the Seri. We recounted the story of the Seri and the hardships they had endured, and we told of how they as a people had been decimated and almost become obsolete. How to help them was the question that demanded a good answer.
Contributing to a museum was discussed. We pointed out that a Seri museum already exists at Kino Nuevo and that the addition of the historical record and some relics from the John Eliot Thayer would augment the attractiveness of the Institution.
Ecotourism was discussed, and this idea drew the most enthusiasm. It was brought up that marine parks in Portugal and the Caribbean are in operation, and that the wrecks there available for the tourist are not nearly so well preserved and attractive as is the John Eliot Thayer. Dr. Hamilton mentioned that Texas A&M has a department specially devoted to establishing parks for recreation.
Also discussed was the possibility that the John Eliot Thayer could become part of a project being considered by the Shining Sea Foundation. Mr. Charles Quinlan, 80 Border Street, East Boston 02128, phone 617-567-8908, is a developer. He is trying to restore the old shipyard section of East Boston as a historical area. We speculated that Mr. Quinlan would like to have for his development some relics and the written history of an original East Boston clipper, especially since the vessel is one of the finest clippers ever built, one built by a famous East Boston ship builder and named after one of the most prestigious men of historical Boston.
All the archeologists encouraged us to continue. Our archival research was especially praised. One researcher claimed that we already had enough material to support a “PBS” documentary. Dr. Hamilton and Dr. Crisman promised to try and help us locate researchers to aid us in future work.
Back on the Rim after our visit with Texas A&M, we found that Researcher Kate had sent us a new package of information, writing, “enclosed is what I have recently found and I hope it is of interest.” On March 8, 1855, the Boston Daily Evening Traveler contained an advertisement which read: “For London from Constitution Wharf, the magnificent new packet ship J. ELIOT THAYER, 1900 tons register, Capt. Gaius Sampson, will be dispatched the last of this month. This beautiful packet has made two remarkable passages between Liverpool and Boston, being only 15 days outward, and 19 days homeward, — the latter admitted to be the shortest winter passage on record. For freight, (having three-fourths of her cargo engaged,) apply to: ENOCH & CO., 37 & 38 Lewis wharf. A dozen cabin passengers can be comfortably accommodated. No steerage taken.”
Also included in the package from Researcher Kate were copies of three newspaper articles from the Boston Daily Advertiser. The article dated Tuesday, November 16, 1858, reads as follows: “US Commissioners Court, Before Sidney Webster, Esq. The Burning of the Ship John E Thayer. A French sailor named Philip Richard was on Saturday evening (Nov 13) arraigned before US Commissioner Sidney Webster, in this city, on a charge of setting fire to the ship John E Thayer, in the Gulf of California. The prisoner pleaded not guilty, and the case was adjourned to Wednesday next, at 10 o’clock. James Sullivan and John Clark, two of the crew of the ship, to whom the prisoner made confession of the crime, and who were brought in custody from Mexico, were also committed as witnesses. H Pousland, the captain, and Charles Bennett, the mate of the ship, who arrested and brought home the prisoner and witnesses, were admitted to their own recognizance in the sum of $1000, together with Mr. Benjamin Bangs, a part owner of the ship, to appear before the Commissioner on Wednesday.”
The second article, dated Thursday, November 18, 1858, reads “US Commissioners Court, Before Sidney Webster. US vs Philip Richards and others, seamen of ship John E Thayer, for burning the same. Case postponed to 20th, to allow defendants time to obtain counsel.”
The third article, dated Monday, November 22, 1858, reads “US Commissioners Court, Before Sidney Webster. US vs Philip Richard, charged with having cast away and burned the ship John E Thayer, while lying at the Island of Patos in the Gulf of California on Sept. 13, 1858. The Captain, Wm. Pousland, Benjamin Bangs, Charles G Bennett, and James Sullivan were called, and testified as to the ownership of the vessel and the facts of the burning by the defendant. Upon the testimony he was held for trial at the December term of the District Court. JP Woodbury for US; WH Judson for defendant.”
So there was the story. The extraordinary Researcher Kate had found it. A French castaway had torched the ship. We immediately wondered what had happened to the culprit.
The National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts, was contacted because of the material found by Researcher Kate. There we spoke with Mr. Stan Tozeski. Following a brief search of the files, he found two snippets of information concerning the burning of the ship.
About a week later we received from Tozeski copies of handwritten records. From a folder marked “Jurors and Misc. Records of the Courts, USDC Dec 1858,” the Archives had copied three pages. The first page was a title sheet reading “List of US Prisoners, December Term 1858.” The second page was a certification by the US Marshal reading “United States of America, Mass District Court, Boston, December 7, 1858. I certify that the foregoing is a true list of all prisoners confined within the jails in my district. By authority of the United States. Watson Freeman, US Marshal.” The third page was a “List of Prisoners now confined in the Jail of the County of Suffolk, in the custody of the US Marshal of said District with the causes of Commitment, &c. City of Boston, Dec. 7th, 1858.”
Ninety-six names are on the list. Some of the names appear to be witnesses rather than prisoners; that is, a person who is a witness “being detained in prison for want of security for his appearance as such Witness.” The name of prisoner “Philip Richard” is listed ninety-fifth. The November 22, 1858, Boston Daily Advertiser article mentioned two witnesses, James Sullivan and John Clark. These names are listed as witnesses on the List of Prisoners supplied us by the National Archives of Waltham. “James Sullivan” is listed at the top of column two, the first name under “Witnesses,” and the name “John Clark” is listed second, immediately under that of “James Sullivan.”
Also from the Waltham Archives, in a folder marked “Non-entries – USDC – Dec 1858,” we received a copy of a document reading “D. C. U. S., Order To Pay Witness Chas G Bennett, $4.50.” On another page from the folder was written “District Court of the United States for the District of Massachusetts, The United States vs. Philip Richard, December 10th, 1858. And now it appearing to the Court that Charles G. Bennett of Boston attended said Court as a Witness in the above case, on the part of the United States, and Traveled three days, It is ordered by the Court that the Marshal pay to said Bennett the sum of four dollars & fifty cents. Attest (signature illegible), Clerk. Correctly taxed (Jesse P Woodbury), US Attorney.”
The material sent by the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts, provided us a glimpse of Philip Richard; he was in jail on December 7, 1858. Also we received a glimpse of Charles G. Bennett; he appeared in District Court on December 10th, 1858, to testify for the Government, and he was paid $4.50 for three days of his time. Finally, we got a glimpse of sailors James Sullivan and John Clark, both confined in jail so that they would be available as witnesses against Philip Richard.
Although all this was welcome information, we needed information on the trial, of course, so we continued to search. On a Friday afternoon, after she had returned home from the Boston Copley Library, Researcher Kate called us. She spoke in a voice filled with excitement. She had found three major stories regarding the burning of the ship John Eliot Thayer. Teasing us by refusing to reveal details, she promised to put the stories in the mail. We began an anxious wait.
The package from Researcher Kate arrived early the following week. It contained three newspaper articles, one from the Boston Atlas & Bee of November 22, 1858, page four, the second from the Boston Post of the same day and the third the Boston Courier of November 22, 1858.
From the Bee we read “The case of Phillip Richards, charged with having cast away and burned the ship John Elias Thayer, of Boston, on the 18th of September, 1858, came up before US Commissioner Sidney Webster, this morning. Jesse P Woodbury appeared for the government, and WH Judson for the defence.
“Benj. Bangs testified that he owned one half the ship John E Thayer; John E Thayer & Brother owned the other half; she was bound from San Francisco to Duck Island or Patos Island, in the Gulf of California.
“Capt. William Pousland testified that he was master of the ship at the time she was lying at Patos Island, in the Gulf of California; 18th September, about one o’clock in the morning, he heard a cry; he asked what the noise was about, and the reply was ‘Fire – the ship is on fire.’ The crew were called; the fire was found to be forward between decks; there were tar and pitch on fire; the more water was poured on, the more the fire rose; it ran aft, and I told all hands it was no use to try to save the ship; the boats were got down, and the men all in them; I inquired if all the men were in the boat; the answer was ‘yes;’ I then told them to haul the boat along, so that I could get into it. The back awning of the cabin was then on fire, and the masts, rigging, sails, and everything attached. Phillip Richards was in the boat, and saw me coming down. He stepped out of the boat, into a shore-boat. He was the only man that left the ship’s boat. All landed safely on the beach. Richards landed from the shore-boat, and for most of the time afterwards kept himself aloof from the rest of the crew.
“Two days after, while we were getting a launch ready to go to Guaymas, he tried to stow himself away in a water-boat. I told Mr. Hargos, superintendent of Patos Island, that I suspected Richards wanted to avoid going with me. When Richards saw Mr. Hargos coming, he left the water-schooner, and came with our people in the launch. I went next day in the Edwin Try. At Guaymas I took the whole crew before the Spanish Consul. After the examination I asked to have Cassidy, Sullivan, Clark and Richards taken into custody. Cassidy, I have understood, was killed on the island.
“We took passage to Mansanillo. Arrived there on the 19th of October. Left there on the 26th for Panama in the John L Stevens. Richards was kept in irons. The captain of the John L Stevens would not have him at liberty for fear he would fire her. Took the railroad to Aspinwall. An examination before the consul there. He gave Capt. Gray, of the Star of the West, a certificate to take the men home. Arrived at New York on the 12th of November; at Boston on the 13th.
“On the 20th of October, at Mansanillo, asked Richards a question, which he thought the pleasantest, to be sailing in the ship or to be secured in the way he was. I did not understand his answer. I then said – ‘You know you burnt the ship.’ He said – ‘Yes; I always said that.’ Clark and Sullivan were present at the time of the conversation. I asked him about burning other ships, but did not understand his answer. I said I supposed he had set a dozen on fire.
“The day previous to the fire – Sunday – Richards had two men from the shore to see him. They had been on board three different times that day. The steward came to me and said he was fearful that something was going to happen. In consequence, I thought there was something going wrong. I asked Richards what those men were doing on board the ship so often in one day. Did not understand his answer. Told him to tell the men to leave the ship, and not to come on board again; and to say to them, if their object was to get him away from the ship, they might get hurt, or shot. That was the first time I had spoken to Richards. He appeared to be sulky or angry, and I did not understand what he said to me.
“At the time of the burning of the ship, she was about a quarter mile from the island. We left the ship in about ten minutes after the alarm of fire. Where the fire broke out, there was nothing to set the pitch and tar on fire; I think it must have been set on fire.
“On the cross-examination Capt. P. said Richards had belonged to the ship about two months; he did not obey orders cheerfully; the two men who came on board to see him were Frenchmen; one belonged to a schooner, and the other to a water-boat; they did not go below; it was in the evening that I spoke to Richards about them.
“Charles Bennett, the mate, was the next witness, and testified that when he had heard the alarm, he thought the noise might have been caused by the breaking out of a mutiny; ordered the buckets to be passed; I made inquiries for Richards; couldn’t see or hear of him; the water I threw on the fire caused it to spread very rapidly; the fire was set among twelve or fourteen barrels of tar and pitch, on the upper between decks.
“In all particulars bearing upon the prisoner’s case, Mr. Bennett’s testimony concurred with that of Capt. Pousland. Richards had not been struck or abused on board the ship.
“James Sullivan, a lad belonging to the crew, testified to the conversation between the captain and Richards at Mansanillo, about setting the ship on fire. Richards said, ‘You know I set the ship on fire.’
“The case was submitted without argument, and the Commissioner committed the defendant to answer to the US District Court. The witnesses were held in $1000 to appear at that time.”
The Bee article is a compelling document, one that provides much new information while raising many questions. We learned that the water used against the fire actually caused the fire to spread. We learned that there were several boats at the island when the fire occurred; a schooner, a shore-boat, a water-boat, and the John Eliot Thayer. We learned that present was a Mr. Hargos, the Superintendent of Patos Island. Does this imply that there was a permanent guano business at the island? We learned that a sailor named Cassidy had been killed; but there is confusion about when and no information as to why. We learned that the mate Bennett had thought a mutiny had begun. What prompted him to imagine this? Were there already heated feelings? We learned that Captain Pousland said that Richards had set a dozen fires previously. Did Richards in fact confirm this?
We noted the spelling as Phillip Richards rather than Philip Richard. We noted the ship John Elias Thayer rather than the John Eliot Thayer. We noted the ship Edwin Try rather than Edwin Flys. Manzanillo and Guaymas are both misspelled in the article.
The Boston Post story reads “The Burning of the John E. Thayer. US Commissioner’s Court – Saturday – Before Sidney Webster, Com. The postponed case of Philip Richard, charged with burning the ship John E. Thayer, came up, and a further examination took place.
“The Attorney for the United States moved to amend the complaint by the insertion of a count for burning and casting away the John E. Thayer within the jurisdiction of a foreign port, to wit, the Island of Patos, in the Gulf of California; and another count charging Richard with procuring the ship to be burned and cast away. The motion was not objected to by prisoner’s counsel, and was allowed by the Commissioner.
“John H. Riley, Benjamin Bangs, William Pousland, Charles G. Bennett, James Sullivan and John Clark, were then sworn as witnesses.
“Benjamin Bangs – I reside in Boston; am a merchant and ship owner; I own half of the ship John Eliot Thayer, and John E. Thayer and Brothers own other half; the ship was built in East Boston in year 1854; her last voyage was from San Francisco to Island of Patos or Duck Island, in the Gulf of California; I think she left New York for San Francisco on the 17th January 1858; no one else but Enoch Train & Co., myself and John E Thayer & Bro. have had any interest in this ship; Train & Co. sold their interest to Thayer & Brother.
“William Pousland, called – Was master of ship John E Thayer during her last voyage; John Eliot Thayer was on the stern; I sailed from New York to San Francisco on the 17th of January, 1858, in the afternoon; from San Francisco went to Mazatlan in Mexico; from there I went to Guayamas, stopping there for a pilot, and from there to Patos Island, arriving there on 20th of August; I lost all my books and journals by the fire; Philip Richard was one of the crew; he shipped at San Francisco; he was never discharged from the ship; my ship did not leave Patos Island because she was burned. On the 15th of September, 1858, I was lying asleep on the starboard poop and Mr. Bennett, the mate on the other; we heard a cry of some unusual noise; Mr. Bennett and myself started up at the same time and inquired to know what it was; the answer was ‘fire, the ship is on fire;’ I immediately ordered the crew to draw water; Mr. Bennett and myself went in between decks to see where the fire was; several of the men followed us. By the time we had got there, the water was coming down the main hatch; we discovered fire to be in the forward end, between decks, amongst some barrels of pitch and tar; we commenced throwing water, but the more we threw the worse was the fire; we were driven by the fire up the after hatch; I said to Mr. Bennett it is no use to try to save the ship – get the boats down and try to save the crew and ourselves; I was standing between decks near the after hatch; the fire, at this time, was near the after hatch; the ship was set by the stern; the pitch melted and ran aft; we got boats down and got men into them; I inquired if everyone was in the boats and got no answer; I inquired a second time and was answered yes; I said then haul the boat ahead and let me get into it; the boat, when I gave the order was under the ship’s counter; I was on the after part of the quarter deck, abaft of the main rigging; the fire, at that time, was in the after part of the cabin, and reached to the awning over my head; the foremast was on fire nearly to the truck; the rigging, mast, sails and everything attached to the mast was on fire; on going down to the boat, Richard, the prisoner, who was in the boat, saw me and stepped out of the boat into a shore boat; he was the only man of the crew who left the boat; from the ship we pulled off a short distance, waited a few moments, and pulled to the beach; we landed all hands safely on the beach but Richard, who went ashore in a shore boat; after Richard got on shore he kept himself aloof from the rest of the crew most of the time; the next day but one after, while getting a launch ready to go to Guayamas, Richard tried to stow himself away on board a water boat; I called for Mr. Hargos, the superintendent of the Island of Patos, and told him I thought this man was trying to get clear from going to Guayamas and wished him to interfere; when Richard saw the superintendent of the island coming down he came into the boat to go to Guayamas; I went myself in ship Edwin Flye, and arrived there the day after the crew in the launch; there was no American counsel there, and I went to Mr. Robinson, the former American counsel; I stopped in Guayamas till October 10, when I left in a Mexican schooner called Confidence; I took passage for Mansanillo, where I came October 19, waited there till the 26th, and then left in steamer John L Stevens for Panama; the prisoner was with me in the Confidence and John L Stephens; at Panama crossed by railway to Aspinwall; took the man before Mr. Fox or Mr. Cox, the American counsel, and had an investigation; the counsel gave Capt. Grey, of steamship Star of the West, a letter to take the prisoner and witnesses home; we arrived in New York on November 12th, and took the prisoner out and put him and witnesses in police station overnight, and in the morning took them in the cars and came to Boston that evening. On board the John L Stephens the captain would not leave the prisoner at liberty for fear he would set afire his ship, and so it was on board the Star of the West; the prisoner has never been arrested since the burning by any authorities of the United States, until he came to Boston; on the 20th of October last, while lying at Mansanillo, on board of the Confidence, I asked Richard which he thought was the pleasantest, burning the ship or having to be secured in the way he was; did not understand his answer; I then said to him – ‘You know you burned the ship!’ He said – ‘Yes, I always said that.’ Clark and Sullivan, the witnesses here, were present at this conversation; I do not recollect that Sullivan has ever said anything to me about the burning; the day previous to burning the ship was Sunday and Richard had two men on shore who used to come on board to see him; these men had been on board three different times that day; in consequence of what the steward told me I thought something was going wrong. I called Richard and said to him ‘what were those men doing on board the ship so often in one day;’ I did not understand his answer; I then told him to ‘tell those men to leave the ship and not come on board again;’ tell them from me that ‘if they come here to take you out of the ship they had better keep away or they will get hurt, perhaps shot;’ Richard appeared at that time angry; my ship at the time of burning was lying about a quarter of a mile from the shore; she was at all times outside of low water mark; she laid in seven and a half fathoms of water. It was near sundown on Sunday the 12th of September when I told Richard about men coming on board the ship; they left the ship right away; Richard remained on board the ship; I do not recollect whether I saw him after that; I did not see him when I heard the cry of fire; the first I saw of him was when I was getting down forward into the boat; Patos is under the Mexican government; I left the ship in about ten minutes, I think, after I heard the cry of fire; when I first discovered the fire it was in the forward part of the vessel, among tar and pitch; the fire I think must have been set by some person.
“Cross-examined by Mr. Judson. – Do not speak French nor understand it when spoken; it was over one month after prisoner joined my ship that the burning took place; I had thirty men when I left San Francisco; one ran away; I do not think Richard brought anything away from the ship.
“Re-examined by US Attorney – No fire was allowed in that part of the vessel where the flames first appeared; no lights were allowed to go there, and none were there except in the day time, and then only an officer with a lantern; cooking all done on deck; do not know any motive the prisoner had for setting the ship on fire.
“Charles G. Bennett. – Am mate of the ship; joined her four years ago, when she was new, and have been in her ever since; Richard, the prisoner, was one of the crew; she was found on fire about half past twelve on the night of 13th September; at nine o’clock that night I laid on the port, and Captain on the starboard side of the ship; at about half past ten heard a hooting noise forward, which I supposed was a meeting or something of that kind; I went into the cabin, took my revolver and went forward; inquired what was the trouble, and some person sang out ‘fire;’ Don’t know who sang out; saw smoke, and ordered buckets and water passed between decks; during this time I made three different inquiries for prisoner; I asked the crew if they had seen him, and they said no; I then went between decks and threw water on the fire which made it spread very rapidly; this fire was between twelve or fourteen barrels of tar and pitch on the upper between-decks; the ship being some eighteen inches or two feet by stern, caused pitch as it melted to run aft very rapidly, and caused so much smoke that we were obliged to leave between decks; Captain Pousland said it was no use to try to extinguish the fire, and he gave orders to get ready to get boats to save crew and ourselves; Richard was not seen by me during fire, nor did I see him in any boats which went from ship; I first saw him on morning after the fire on the beach; could not say whether captain’s boat or mine left ship first; two boats took all the crew and ourselves ashore; Richard looked very much down when I saw him next morning on shore; I asked him where he had come from, and being busy I did not understand his reply; I saw him several times on shore. He was with his two countrymen and the Indians chiefly; was away from the crew; he did not after the burning associate with the crew; did not see him speak to one of the crew; did not observe anything in him before the fire, except a sulky disposition and manner; I was on board all of Sunday but two hours; saw ‘the two countrymen’ on board twice; these men appeared to have their speaking privately to each other and taking a great deal of notice of me; could not understand their language; did not see them go below; forecastle of ship was on deck, some thirty feet from where the fire took place; she was of some 1900 tons burden; do not know where Richard was during the fire, and I didn’t see any one who did know where he was; on Sunday no person had any occasion to go where the pitch and tar was stowed and where fire first appeared; I have never heard prisoner say anything about the fire; I had suspicions that prisoner was trying to run away from ship; I think it impossible for the ship to have been on fire as it was unless it was set intentionally; the ship was inside of a quarter of a mile from Island of Patos, and in seven and a half fathoms of water; prisoner was never struck aboard ship to my knowledge; I left Island of Patos in the launch with sixteen men and prisoner, and went to Mansanillo; I supposed prisoner was a Portuguese till I heard him say he was a Frenchman; he speaks French and Spanish; I suspected him because of what I saw of him, and what I knew of his desire to get away from the ship.
“James Sullivan – Was one of the crew of John Eliot Thayer; shipped at San Francisco and went to Patos Island; Richard joined the ship there; on Sunday before the ship was burned, I saw a man on the ship who was not of the crew, walking on the port side with Richard, with a bundle under his arm, rolled up in a handkerchief; he and Richard sat on a spar for a while; they walked on the starboard side and went down between decks and took the bundle; I didn’t suspect anything at the time; saw them when they came up; the man had the bundle then; can’t say that he took it out of the ship; I saw Richard about eight o’clock on Sunday night on the forecastle; I next saw him on shore in the morning bathing with one of his two countrymen who were on board ship to see him; didn’t see Richard during the fire.
“Cross-examined – In Mansanillo I heard Captain ask Richard ‘was that pleasanter than setting ship on fire?’ Richard says ‘Yes, Sir, you know I set the ship afire.’ The Captain says ‘Yes, and you have set on fire a dozen more.’ Richard replied ‘Yes, Sir.’
“The government here rested its case.
“The Commissioner decided that the evidence proved the offence with which the respondent stood charged to have been committed, and there was probable cause to believe Richard guilty thereof. The crime of burning a ship is not bailable by him, he ordered the respondent committed to prison to appear before the next District Court. The witnesses, Mr. Bangs, Capt. Pousland, and Mr. Bennett were ordered to recognize in the sum of $1000 for their appearance as witnesses, which they did; and Sullivan and Clark, unable to find bail, were committed to jail. JP Woodbury for US; WH Judson for respondents.”
This story contained considerable new information. We learned that a pilot had been obtained in Guaymas. Was this for the trip to Patos? Why did they need a pilot? We learned that the ship had been set by the stern. Does this mean anchored from the stern? We learned that there were Indians on the island. They had to be Seri. We learned that Charles Bennett had been the mate of the John Eliot Thayer since her launching. We chuckled that we now had three different spellings for Edwin Flye, Flys, Try. Guaymas was spelled Guayamas.
The article in the Boston Courier begins “United States Commissioner’s Court – Saturday – Before Sidney Webster, Commissioner. The examination of Philip Richards, for burning the John E. Thayer, was commenced. The ownership of the ship was proved by Mr. Benj. Bangs.”
The remainder of the article is exactly like the piece in the Bee & Atlas.
Researcher Kate sent a short note with the newspaper articles. “I will continue to look for the District Court results.” We hoped that the trial would provide a clearer picture of the incident at Isla Patos. Continuing, Researcher Kate examined the Daily Advertiser, the Semi-weekly Advertiser, the Mercantile Journal, the Daily Journal, the Morning Journal, the Atlas & Bee, the Courier, the Post, and the Telegraph. None of these Boston newspapers had any mention of the results of the trial of Philip Richard.
Our search included records of the Massachusetts State Archives in Dorchester, and archives of the Delaware Mutual Insurance Company, and the Donegal Mutual Insurance Company. The disappointing letter from Donegal convinced us that if we were to locate insurance papers concerning the ship John Eliot Thayer, we would most likely locate them in the files of one of the ship owners. The business papers of John E Thayer & Brother are included within the records of Kidder, Peabody & Co.
The Baker Library at Harvard University holds three document sets of Kidder, Peabody & Company. The Library also holds the records of Thatcher Magoun, the Medford ship builder who taught Paul Curtis the art of shipbuilding. In a document set entitled Business Records, 1816-1885 (inclusive), with the author cited as Thatcher Magoun, there is mention of the Thayers.
We contacted Librarian Mandy at the Historical Collections Department of the Baker Library. Her helpful assistance began the process of access to the collections. Librarian Mandy also provided us contact with Harvard Student Resources, the group that provides student researchers. There Assistant Director Cindy began her search for our researcher.
By electronic mail we heard from Researcher Bill. He is a Harvard senior majoring in Latin American History and Literature. He is from Colorado Springs and hopes to find work with Merrill Lynch in Chile after some time just hanging out. He speaks Spanish well. His interest in helping us stemmed from the desire for extra money. He seemed bright and willing, so we sent him some information and planned a strategy.
Researcher Bill met with Librarian Mandy at Baker Library, and together they searched the documents of Kidder, Peabody & Company. Nothing of interest was found. The papers of Thatcher Magoun, entitled Business Records, 1816-1885 (inclusive) were examined. Since Magoun had taught Paul Curtis the skill of ship building, we searched these records for any mention of the clipper ship John Eliot Thayer or her builder or the word Thayer. Although we found no mention of these subjects, except the name Isaac Thayer, we found Captain William Pousland mentioned as the master of the ship Manlius from 1854 through 1860. This surprised us, as Pousland was captain of the John Eliot Thayer during some of those years. Researcher Bill looked through Magoun Collection, Accounts of Ships, Case 4, to see what was reported about Captain Pousland, but he learned nothing of the John Eliot Thayer.
Researcher Kate had alerted us to seek Ship registers and enrollments of Boston and Charlestown, Compiled by the Survey of Federal Archives in 1942, published by the Survey of Federal Archives. When she had searched for the collection, Researcher Kate found that only the first volume was available. This had been the case in several libraries she had tried. During her search, Researcher Kate was told that the entire collection is in the Baker Library. However, when Researcher Bill visited Baker Library, he too found only the first volume of the collection.
Researcher Bill also found the collection in the Baker Library called Account books and records of shipbuilders, New England and New York, 1754-1923. Hoping to find mention of Paul Curtis, he searched the collection, but we left empty-handed. Our search of Baker Library had yielded disappointing results.
Information about Philip Richard and his trial continued to escape us. We regrouped to determine our next course of action concerning the trial records. Librarian Mandy proposed that we search the 1860 Census for Massachusetts. These records are housed at the National Archives in Waltham. She reasoned that if Philip Richard had indeed gone to trial and been sentenced to jail, that he might still be in jail in 1860, and that, since the US Census included prisoners, his name may be listed along with some personal information.
We contacted Stan Tozeski in Waltham. He apprised us that the Census records are indexed in a hardbound volume, and the actual records are on microfilm. There is open access to the material.
Researcher Bill traveled from Harvard to Waltham to search the Census records for information on Philip Richard. While he was there, he looked for William Pousland, Charles G Bennett, James Sullivan and John Clark, all these men being witnesses to the burning of the John Eliot Thayer. He found none of the names on the 1860 Census list.
While at Waltham, Researcher Bill and Director Jim Owens searched the various lists of prisoners for most Massachusetts jails for the period 1859 and 1860. There was no mention of Philip Richard.
Director Jim Owens suggested they search the District Court Records, Vol 42. There the results of the charges against Philip Richard were found. On page 312 reads “December Term 1858. United States of America Massachusetts District: At the District Court of the United States, begun and holden at Boston, within and for the District of Massachusetts, on the first Tuesday (being the seventh day) of December in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and fifty-eight, in part Before the Honorable Peleg Sprague, Judge, in part Before the Honorable Arthur Ware, Judge. Dec.17th — Philip Richards against whom no bill has been found was discharged.”
So there it was. The final episode of the clipper ship John Eliot Thayer, the story of the trial and judgement of Philip Richard, had at last been revealed to us. There was no trial. The charges had been dropped. The John Eliot Thayer expired into memory.
At last we knew how ended the life of the John Eliot Thayer.
During our search for information, we had communicated with Researcher John Vandereedt at the National Archives in Washington. Months later we received from him a plastic container holding 35-mm microfilm. Without delay we sent the film to Washington State to have paper prints made. Within a week we held the papers in ours hands.
One of the principal documents was the registration of the John Eliot Thayer in Boston. The registration contains an emblem of a clipper ship in the upper left of the page, and written beneath reads Permanent No. 482. Another principal document was the registration of the ship at New York. In the upper left of the registration is an emblem of the Federal eagle, underneath written Registration No. 762.
The package contained three crew lists. One list was for the historic December 12, 1855 voyage, one of the fastest ever outbound New York to Liverpool. The list contains the signature of Master Gaius Sampson. We realized that the ship was about one year old at the time of this record setting voyage. The other crew list was for November 3, 1856. This was for a voyage from San Francisco to Callao and on to Europe or USA not to exceed 12 months. The signature of Pousland is scrawled on the list. This voyage was previously unknown to us, as we had never seen it reported by anyone else.
The best was saved for last. The concluding document was the crew list for the final voyage of the John Eliot Thayer. Dated July 14, 1858, the ship was bound from San Francisco to Mazatlan to Isla Patos to Corke to USA. Master Pousland signed his name.
Of profound interest to us was the signature of sailor Philip Richard. He claimed to be 40 years of age, 5’0” tall, black hair, dark complexion. At last we could see him.
The Banks of Newfoundland by Padraig Grimes
The Banks of Newfoundland by The Punters