Bruce F. Barber
A DISTANT DESERT COMMUNITY
Bruce F. Barber
It is called the “Transpeninsular Highway“. 1,000 miles of macadam, it is the single artery connecting Southern California with the major business- and tourist-centers scattered between the International Border and Baja California’s “Cabo San Lucas”.
There is another route, however, connecting Southern California with a popular tourist center at its end, too. Rather than a 1,000-mile-ribbon, this one, Mexico’s Federal Highway 5, is but 125 miles in length and terminates at the east coast port of “San Felipe”. (This highway was extended all the way to its intersection with Highway 1 at Laguna Chapala subsequent to the second publication of this article.)
While La Paz and Loreto have more noted histories, the history of La Paz is anything but peaceful as its name tends to imply. Similarly, Loreto was the historic capitol of the land during the period when 95% of Baja’s original inhabitants were decimated by the newly arrived Spaniards.
San Felipe, on the other hand, has a considerably more serene history although much of it is clouded in an unrecorded past. As far as recorded history goes, Francisco Ulloa was the first European to sight its sandy shores during a treasure-seeking voyage in 1539. Hernando de Alarcón sailed passed in 1540. While others came in the 18th and 19th centuries, I seek earlier information impossible, perhaps, to obtain.
There are scientists who believe man lived in a nearby area for most of the past 39,000 years. Having read their treatises, I prefer to believe the matter true. I carry the presence of these early humans a step further, however. Believing the ancestors of these early settlers walked across the Alaskan landbridge, once they settled in California’s Imperial Valley and northwestern Sonora (Mexico’s Sierra Pinacate) it is logical to assume they explored the areas surrounding their habitats. My assumption is based on man’s basic understanding of land (rivers flow downhill to end in lakes, seas and oceans) and his unending need for food (generally available where there is an abundance of water).
The evidence of Indians in San Felipe is literally all over the place. I know of at least a dozen shell mounds, each of them littered with flakes of obsidian. I know of a dozen wall painting sites that place these early settlers near fresh water. Although the two regions are separated by at least 20 miles, the fact is, their distant desert “community” was in a highly desirable locale.
Prior to 1,000 years ago, there was no lake where California’s “Salton Sea” now stands. 500 years ago, the first lake to appear there went dry. And, since the Salton Sea was created by accident in 1905, the only water in the region was in the Colorado River or pouring randomly down and out of the mountains.
With hardly a drop of water, Sonora’s Altar Desert is a deadly place. Similarly, the delta formed by the untamed Colorado must have claimed many a careless life. Between its quicksands and the Sea of Cortez’s fast running tides, there is no safe place to fish. That is, until you arrive in San Felipe.
Here was an original Horn of Plenty. I have listened to tales told by those who arrived in the 1920s. I was here myself in the late 40s when corvina, lisa and totoava were in such abundance it is impossible to imagine their numbers. Oysters lined every rocky shore. Clams were counted in the billions. Shrimp were as common as sand fleas. These were not “delicacies”, they were common, everyday foods. So common, in fact, that weekly shipments of local seafood were prepared and sold to the US military out of San Diego all during World War II.
I cannot help but wonder what man was like 39,000 years ago. His features are discernable, simply because he was an earlier hominid. He had to have been intelligent. He lived where there was food, water and security. Need I ask what he ate? Is it any wonder there are wall paintings in the nearby mountains?
In a similar equation, I find a man historians placed in the shadows as the first European to set foot on San Felipe soil no less than two months after Fernando Alarcón disappeared over the southern horizon (with his two ships). This “newcomer” was Melchior Díaz.
The first mayor of the city of Culiacán (in the Mexican state of Sinaloa),Díaz is the forgotten explorer. Not only was he called upon to verify the first sighting of the Seven [golden] Cities of Cibola, he was requested by Francisco Vazquez de Coronado to ride to the coast, find and return with the supplies Alarcón’s ships carried for his (Coronado’s) expedition.
Riding south out of west-central New Mexico (based on “hearsay statements” recorded 20 years after the fact), Díaz headed for a Spanish settlement along the Sonora River where he obtained soldiers to accompany him. Although inaccurate, the balance of his story is one that may someday be corrected. When it is, let us hope it includes the establishment and dedication of the “Melchior Díaz Trail”, following the route he followed from Sonora’s “Banamichi” to Baja California’s “San Felipe”.
I believe he stood on the mound where local fishermen built a shrine to Guadalupe. If so, his men harvested shrimp, oysters, snails and clams from the waters before him. His guides would have provided potable water and at least some red meat. Owing to his accident, I firmly believe, his blood was the first European blood to be spilled on local shores.
The forgotten explorer is dead. His grave is lost. His name disappeared from the recorded past, and time brings us to our present day. Not long ago, I attended a ceremony during which Governor Ruffo laid the corner-stone on a new multi-million dollar project.
Our distant desert community is growing. There are to be more condominiums, another trailer park, additional wet and dry boat berthing, another hotel and shops San Felipe has not seen before.
Trees have been planted. The jetty is to be enlarged. Additional stop signs were placed, as well as curbs, gutters and sidewalks. The police force was enlarged, and laws are now being enforced. Our little pueblo is not just awake, it is in the throes of serious growth.
Now that we are growing, I look back and say, “I wonder who really was first? Could it have been a nomadic wanderer? Was it a band of warriors and their women? Or, was it someone seeking to reap the harvest of the world’s most prolific salt water aquarium?
39,000 years is not only a long time, most of those years are marked by the presence of totally different native groups including the Malpais (16,000 to 39,000 B.C.), the San Dieguitos (7,000 to 13,500 B.C.) and the Amargosas groups I (1000 to 3000 B.C..), Group II = 300 A.D. to 1,000 B.C. and Group III = 1850 A.D. TO 300 A.D.
It is impossible for me to believe one or more of these thousands of men and women didn’t search for and find a safe place to obtain seafood for themselves and the shells they used as tools, jewelry and money. That “safe place” had to have been the cove created by tidal currents swirling around the base of Mount Machorro: A place that was subsequently named San Felipe de Jesus!
Mine, although fun to ponder, is a moot question. Is it silly to linger in the past? Not for me. I relate to the past because most of it is matters of historical fact recorded on solid rocks. Consequently, since history repeats itself, an understanding of what took place before can lead to an understanding of what could occur in the future.
The local shellmounds indicate the populations that once lived in this distant desert community. Petroglyphs tell us approximately how long they remained. Wall paintings speak of the coming of the Spaniards. Two Spanish galleons were discovered in local sands.
Silver goblets were removed from a nearby streambed. Legends tell of nearby caves and that one of them is filled with gold. These are treasures of a bygone age but the stories linger on. There is history in this distant desert community …more than readily meets the eye.
We have an international airport now with twice-weekly service between Orange County and Tucson, Arizona. There is a new bus depot and a new bus arriving each day. San Felipe boasts a Spanish language tabloid and a new English language magazine. There’s even a new restaurant ready to prepare Beef Wellington, a New York Strip or Newport style lobster.
Hot in the summer, cold in the winter, four months of each year include absolute perfection, San Felipe is a distant desert community… heading into the future. It is not like Loreto, La Paz or Cabo. But it will be in less than a lifetime.
A LIVING DESERT MUSEUM
Bruce F. Barber