Newsweek Profiles Man Who Believes an Ancient European Ship Is Buried in California. Big Surprise: Two Cable Channels Are Doing Shows About It
Newsweek has a fascinating piece about the people who believe that there is a lost Viking or Spanish ship in the deserts of California, somewhere between Coachella and Baja. It’s a modern myth, one born of some tall tales spun in the 1800s and especially after the 1930s, but it is a story that continues to fascinate believers, often treasure hunters, down the present. The most popular version of the story, from 1939, is a secondhand account of a man who claimed to see a stereotyped Viking vessel in the desert, complete with round shields attached to the sides, just like in the picture books. The present Newsweek article takes the form of a profile of the adventures of former mattress salesman John Grasson, a man born in 1957 and currently living on disability, who is both a treasure hunter and a believer in the UFO crash at Roswell.
Newsweek describes his quest for the lost ship, which he thinks was actually a Spanish vessel that sailed up the Colorado River, thinking California to be an island, in quite stark terms familiar to any of us who recall the anger and grievance almost all believers in fringe history share:
He is also driven by a slight sense of grievance, a conviction that academics are errant in their near-unanimous assertion that there is no desert ship. He knows they look down on him, but he also thinks he knows more than they do. “All archeologists are wreck hunters,” he told me. “[Their] science basically started with a treasure hunter looking for gold.” This a reference to Heinrich Schliemann, who founded modern archeology with his search for the city of Troy in southern Turkey. Grasson isn’t denigrating professional archeology; only reminding its more pedigreed practitioners that their profession rewards a well-developed imagination—something it shares with astrophysics and pure mathematics but few other disciplines.
Grasson knows so much, in fact, that after fifteen years of seeking the ship, he has yet to find a single trace of it. Nevertheless, he has a fantasy that one day he will find proof of the ship, take it to a major university, and force them to plaster it with his name so he can lord it over all of them.
You might think of him as a kook and a crank, but I’m sure you’ve already guessed where this is going. Cable television has beaten a path to his door, and TV fame is much more fun and lucrative than mattress sales. According to Newsweek, despite his proven track record of failure, he has appeared on Myth Hunters on the American Heroes Channel and will appear on an upcoming series called American Legends for the Travel Channel and an unnamed upcoming pilot for a new a series on the unexplained for the History Channel. There is almost literally nothing too stupid or too lacking in evidence for cable TV to throw money at. According to Newsweek, both the Travel Channel and the History Channel sent teams with ground-penetrating radar to try to find the ship. Of course they found nothing.
Grasson, when confronted with skeptical views, could only offer as a rejoinder that skeptics cannot prove a negative, so the ship might exist until its non-existence has been demonstrated conclusively. If that were the standard of proof, then we would be overrun with unicorns and Atlanteans.
Newsweek’s Alexander Nazaryan compared Grasson to a religious believer and suggested that his faith in a goofball legend helps to alleviate the workaday miseries of his painful, impecunious life:
In other words, Grasson has plenty in common with the WWCs—i.e., members of the white working class—who handed the presidency to Donald Trump: he’s a middle-aged, white-as-the-driven-snow guy from the Midwest who served in the armed forces but can’t even get decent medical care. Yet never once did I hear him air any grievances. He had given himself to a greater faith and, like all devoted believers who do so, he could not be bothered by the petty inconveniences of everyday life.
I’ll just stop to note that Nazaryan specifically identified Grasson’s distrust of academic elites as a grievance, though presumably he is here claiming that Grasson wasn’t blaming his problems on Mexicans or Muslims because he was too busy fantasizing about buried treasure and how he will use it to stick it to the intellectual elites. Nazaryan seems blind to where Grasson has displaced his sense of grievance, even as he himself reported it with the word grievance!
According to a guidebook produced by the U.S. government before World War II, the legend of the desert boat was inspired by a real abandoned vessel, built in 1862 for a Colorado river mining company and abandoned in the desert when the cost of transporting it to the Colorado River was too great. Not coincidentally, sightings of the “Spanish” or “Viking” ship began shortly after, in the 1870s.
Nazaryan, while knowing that this is the origin of the story, nevertheless prefers the myth. He claims that some fake stories are “evil” and should be exposed, but “others must be allowed to live, because without such nourishing nuggets of wonder, life can shrivel up into an endless series of tasks, captured and measured, posted on social media, forgotten.” Nazaryan, like Grasson and so many others, confuses fantasy with fun, and fabrication with improvement. He thinks fake legends are somehow the only thing reenchanting the world, adding magic into the drudgery of life. This is the bad argument of a person unwilling to do the work of finding the actual fun and interesting parts of life. Science is full of what Darwin once termed “endless forms most wonderful,” and we don’t need fake stories to find fun. Wonder is all around us, but one must be willing to look for it. A retreat into fantasy is the province of the lazy and the small and the dull.
Grasson has one amazing line in his interview with Nazaryan that about sums up the entire philosophy of fringe historians everywhere: “The beauty with legend,” he says, “is that you’re never wrong.”
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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