San Diego’s a bonanza of buried treasure legends… We’ve got rumors of abandoned gold and silver mines, Thomas L. “Pegleg” Smith’s “hill of black gold” (somewhere northeast of the trail connecting Yuma to San Diego) and, at least according to Dr. Joseph J. Markey, the lost treasure of Francisco de Ulloa Cortes. Markey, who died in 1985, was an ophthalmologist, a Navy medical officer, journalist, theater critic, novelist, historian, a KFMB radio personality, and an archeologist. He called his 18-room Mediterranean villa, on a cliff in Oceanside, San Malo (“Saint Wicked”). It was part of a motion-picture colony in the ‘50s. Artists got away from it all on the then-two-lane Coast Highway. Ben Hecht lived next door, and Markey regaled his Hollywood pals with stories of his world travels.
The most infamous happened near his home.
Historians agree, with almost metaphysical certitude, that Juan Cabrillo discovered San Diego Bay in 1542. Wrong, said Markey: Francisco de Ulloa sailed to “upper California” in 1540, beating Cabrillo by two years. Markey also swore he had proof.
In 1539, Hernan Cortes outfitted three ships — the Santa Agueda, the Santo Tomás , and the Trinidad — to explore the Gulf of California and find the legendary passage to China, Strait of Ainan. Ulloa sailed north from Acapulco on July 8. Within days, the 20-ton Santo Tomás sunk. Ulloa continued, however, becoming the first to discover the Colorado River mouth, which meant that Baja California was a peninsula, not an island.
Ulloa sailed around the tip of Baja, through fierce and fickle winds, and headed up the West Coast to Cedros Island, latitude 28 degrees (about halfway up the peninsula). The two ships explored the area for three months. Then, short of supplies, Ulloa sent the Santa Agueda back to Mexico. His crew for the Trinidad was 25 men and five prostitutes. He wrote to Cortes, “I have determined with the ship Trinidad and these few supplies and men, to go on, if God grant me the weather, as far as I can, and the wind will permit.”
For centuries, no one knew how far north Ulloa went. The traditional story held that the Trinidad ship-wrecked somewhere off Baja.
Twelve years before Markey’s “discovery,” historian Henry Raup Wagner wrote that Ulloa didn’t get far beyond Cedros Island and came back to Acapulco. In 1542 Ulloa testified at two trials – one in Mexico, another in Spain – and abducted the daughter of Antonio Cordero, one of his pilots.
Markey didn’t blink at Wagner’s proof. “Most historians,” he said, “are so busy copying each other’s texts they seldom open the door to sniff the air… To steal from one author is plagiarism, but to steal from six is ‘research.’” He was particularly irate about San Diego historians, whose “loyalty to Cabrillo is unshakeable.”
These words prefaced Markey’s announcement, in 1952, that the Trinidad reached Santa Barbara. On its way home, the ship anchored at the mouth of the San Luis Rey River. Somehow — Markey doesn’t make clear – the ship sunk. And the scurvy-plagued crew came ashore. They drank polluted water from a lake and died of “violent dysentery.” Markey’s proof? He found 22 skeletons in a cave in the San Luis Rey Valley (near what is now Camp Pendleton). They were “white Europeans,” proclaimed Markey, and their weapons, a breastplate, lead buttons, gold coins, and a Spanish helmet dated back to the 1530s. Therefore, Francisco de Ulloa “was the first white man to set foot on California soil.”
Markey added more evidence. In 1950, he had a “chance meeting” in Paris with Miguel de Ulloa, who claimed to be a direct descendent of Francisco. Miguel said two members of the Trinidad expedition survived. One of them, Pablo Salvador Hernandez, wrote a document about the odyssey. Hernandez claimed that, because he and a companion remained near the boat and drank only wine, they didn’t contract dysentery. When they went to the cave, the only person still alive was a prostitute. “To end her misery,” Hernandez dropped a stone on her head. Then he and the other crewman rowed the Trinidad’s longboat from Oceanside to Acapulco.
Garrahy and Weber: “The Hernandez account, Dr. Markey tells us, was accompanied by three maps. These showed the location of the Trinidad at anchor, the location of the cave, and the location of some gold that Ulloa had asked Hernandez to bury.”
Using the maps and then Hernandez account, and asking local ranchers if they’d ever found human skeletons, Markey says he explored the San Luis Rey Valley. He found the cave, the skeletons – including “one of a female with a crushed skull” – and 2000 gold coins, dating “from the First Century B.C. to about 1500 A.D.”
Markey announced his findings to the San Diego Historical Society January 25, 1952. Except for a photo of him, in the cave, holding a human skull with other skulls in the background, Markey produced no other evidence. He said a forthcoming 500-page book (with 300 illustrations) would contain all, including, he hoped, discovery of the sunken Trinidad. About where it might be, he added, “professional treasure hunters” don’t “share anything with anyone. They would steal it.”
The thing about Markey: his resumé impresses, but he always added something more. He wasn’t just a journalist; he worked with Damon Runyan. When writing in New York, he lived at the Algonquin Hotel, the famous literary hub. And his writing shows a flare for the sensational, as if his goal were violent reactions, not truth. His 1932 novel, For Women Only, described, in detail quite graphic for the time, the “sins” of almost every officer in the 11th Naval District. The brass hit the ceiling, in print, and demanded proof of Markey’s allegations. Markey called their rant “a million dollars’ worth of free publicity” but showed no proof. The book was a best seller.
In 1953, Markey wrote two articles, one the subject of an Art Buchwald column, arguing that he could prove, scientifically, that women are inferior to men. “Women of all ages have been intellectually lazy,” he wrote. “With minds incapable of entertaining sustained projects of any great magnitude, their mental equipment finds abstract thinking difficult or impossible…Women are egocentric and not nearly so selfless as the poets would have us believe.”
In 1971 Markey confessed to Genevieve Claussen of San Diego Magazine that he meant both articles as a spoof and, says Claussen, “He was as delighted as a schoolboy with a lunch pail full of garter snakes when a couple thousand irate women responded by rush mail.”
In the mid-‘50s, Markey searched the waters off Oceanside for the Trinidad. Richard Crawford: “Suggesting that the galleon must have sunk somewhere near the San Luis Rey River, he began launching rafts in the river loaded with tons of scrap iron. By noting where the rafts sank, Markey hoped to locate the logical burial spot of the Trinidad. After three years of raft-building, Markey gave up.”
Treasure seekers continued to search the river mouth. “The Aztec Six,” professional divers, explored in 1968. Crawford: In 1969 “Bill Takasato claimed to have found a wreck buried in sand only a few hundred yards from shore. Bad weather and equipment failures forced him to abandon the search.”
In 1973 salvagers said they found the wreck, then lost it, owing to equipment problems. Crawford: “in 1976 Bill Warren, a nightclub singer and swimming pool salesman, found ‘a couple of cannons down there’ with the aid of a $7000 metal detector.”
Markey died in 1985, leaving no 500-page book, no maps, no gold coins, no Hernandez diary.
Richard Crawford (former archive director of the San Diego Historical Society and currently the San Diego Library’s “preservation specialist”): “It was a hoax, all right. Maybe it was a power thing. Maybe Markey just got off making people look like idiots. Perhaps the most remarkable fact is that Markey’s theories have been so widely believed in the first place. In my years at the Historical Society I helped many researchers who were studying the story. I gave them all the material that debunked Markey, but it was clear they’d rather believe in sunken treasure and old bones!”
Claussen, Genevieve, “The Remarkable Dr. Markey,” San Diego Magazine, Part I, June 1971; Part II, August 1971
Interview: Crawford, Richard W. “preservation specialist” San Diego Library.
Crawford, Richard W., Stranger Than Fiction: Vignettes of San Diego History, San Diego Historical Society, 1995
Garrahy, Stephen T., and David J. Weber, “Francisco de Ulloa, Joseph James Markey, and the Discovery of Upper California,” California Historical Society Quarterly 1 (July 1922)
Wagner, Henry Raup, “Francisco de Ulloa Returned,” California Historical Society Quarterly 19 (September 1940)
- Henry Raup Wagner: “Just how far north Ulloa finally sailed we do not know, but a little north of the island of Cedros is as far as the accounts of the expedition which have survived show the party to have gone.”
- J.J. Markey: “This sentimental goo about who is the first man in a state forever amuses me. Who in the wide world cares? In San Francisco they’ll tell you it was Drake. But do you know or care who was the first white man into Wyoming, or Kansas?”
- San Diego Magazine, August 1971, editor’s note” the cave photo with the skull “was taken in Tahiti… Markey was using the same cave to illustrate two different discoveries, or that maybe neither cave was what he said it was.”