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.
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.”
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
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
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,
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.
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.
"Texas Tales" June
4 , 2009 column
Related Topics: Ghosts
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