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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Ghost Ships

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

A big guy wearing a sleeveless pullover walked into the antique-book-coin shop carrying a cardboard box covered with a Mexican blanket.

He waited politely even though it looked like it took him a lot of energy to do so, while owner Rod Bates and I talked about fishing in the Laguna Madre.

Finally, Bates asked the man what he had.

Without saying anything, the visitor pulled away the multi-colored blanket to reveal a large, pale blue glass float.

“How much you want for it?” Bates asked, getting right to the point.

“Talk to me,” the man replied.

“I’ll give you $100,” Bates said. “I’d pay more if it still had any of the net on it. And I’d go $300 if it was green.”

The object in question, which did fetch the visitor a $100 bill, was a Japanese fishing float bearing a glassblowers mark. It had washed up on the beach at South Padre Island, one of many that have done so over the years.

Bates, a student of local history and an avid beach-comber and metal detecting enthusiast, said ocean currents regularly bring to the lower Texas coast objects from both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

“In the mid-1950s, the Guinness brewery dropped a bunch of Ginger beer bottles with notes in them into the River Thames,” Bates said. “About half of them ended up on Padre Island.”

The currents responsible for getting so much flotsam and jetsam to Texas have been around for a long time.

“I found an entry in a document written by (Alonzo Alvarez de) Pineda that gave me chills when I read it,” Bates said. “He was the first European to visit North America, coming here in 1519. He wrote that when he reached the mouth of the Rio de las Palmas, which most historians believe is the Rio Grande, that he found it littered with ship wrecks and old bottles.”

Ship wrecks and old bottles? Only the Karankawa and other aboriginal tribes inhabited the area at the time. No maritime trade existed anywhere near what would become Texas, unless you count the wooden canoes the Indians used. Indeed, Columbus’ discovery of the New World had been only 27 years earlier, making Pineda only the second European to see this hemisphere.

Padre Island history buff Steve Hathcock, who operates a museum and book store-coffee shop on the island, agrees that on his mapping expedition Pineda wrote of a treacherous sandbar and a beach strewn with spars and rigging from wrecked ships. He thinks the explorer was talking about Brazos Santiago Pass and did indeed visit the Rio Grande, but other historians dispute that.

The Spanish document, in Bates’ opinion, means that the prevailing currents brought wrecks and their cargo from other times and other oceans. No telling what literal or archeological treasures are still buried in the vicinity, he says.

While not all historians believe Pineda spent some time at the mouth of the Rio Grande, Bates has little doubt.

“A year later, when Jamaica governor Francisco de Garay organized a relief expedition for Pineda, he sent the ships to the coordinates Pineda had reported. They arrived as Brazos Santiago.”

Too, in 1974 some amateur archeologists unearthed near the Rio Grande a carved stone bearing Pineda’s name and the date 1519. Though some have questioned its authenticity, Bates says it is similar to other stones found elsewhere.

Historians not buying the story say Pineda could not have been on the Rio Grande because it had no palm trees.

“But what they don’t know is that the Rio Grande was ground zero for sabal palms,” Bates says. “Gen. Zachary Taylor had most of them cut down when he came to the Valley in 1846. In Piendas’ time, the river would have had plenty of palm trees.”

Pineda aside, the current that makes Padre Island the final destination for floating trash and treasure is well known. Even if Pineda had seen ship wrecks and old bottles at some other river mouth in Mexico farther south along the Gulf, the same thing likely occurred along South Padre and the Rio Grande.

The possibilities would make for a great maritime ghost story: Disease kills everyone aboard a ship operating in the North Atlantic. Drawn on by the currents, the ghost ship sails for months before it ends up foundering at the mouth of the big river that would one day be called just that – the Rio Grande. Or maybe all occupants are swept away in a giant hurricane, their ship somehow staying afloat until it reached future Texas.

The possible scenarios could go on and on, sailing like a ghost ship on the endless sea of time.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
June 4 , 2009 column

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