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