Tiburón Island Tragedy

Final Tiburon Island Mexico Thomas Grindell Expedition 1905.gif

The Tiburón Island Tragedy occurred in 1905 when three members of a small American gold prospecting expedition went missing in the Sonoran Desert near Tiburón Island. At the time, Tiburon was inhabited by the Seri natives, who were widely believed to have been responsible for the fate of the expedition. There were also Yaqui renegades active in the area, and there were rumors about their involvement as well. However, the sole American survivor, Jack Hoffman, said that lack of water was most likely the cause. Of the five-man expedition, the leader, Thomas F. Grindell, and two of his associates disappeared while the other two men survived, including a Papago guide, who left the journey early on. A prolonged search for the missing men then commenced. Led by Edward P. Grindell, search parties uncovered several artifacts that had belonged to members of the expedition, as well as evidence of their fate, but no trace of the men themselves was found. It was not until over a year later that the remains of Thomas Grindell were discovered by another group of explorers. Evidence at the scene seemed to confirm that dehydration was the cause of death.[1][2][3][4]


An abandoned Seri village on Tiburón Island in 1895

Tiburón Island is the largest island of Mexico, but its location in the middle of the Gulf of California meant that it was still extremely remote in 1905. It was also sacred land of the Seri people, who were a small tribe that lived either on the island or on the Sonora coast. A narrow strip of land connected the island to the mainland, but it could be accessed only at extreme low tide, and then it was still dangerous. The Seri also had pinewood boats, called belsas, which could be used for getting across the water or for fishing. The Seri were considered extremely hostile and very primitive in 1905. They were not believed to have developed the use of fire and ate all of their food raw. They did not have any firearms and every time foreigners stepped foot onto Tiburón, they were met with a hail of arrows and other projectiles. There were two long-standing myths about the island: that it was rich in gold and that it was filled with Seri cannibals. Neither proved to be true, but the Seri were known to have killed several people between 1893 and 1905.[1][2][5][6]

In 1894 or 1896, according to conflicting sources, an American newspaperman and romantic writer named R. E. L. Robinson went to Tiburón and never came back. According to James H. McClintock, before leaving his home in Phoenix, Arizona, Robinson told an Associated Press correspondent that he intended to be gone for six months, at the end of which he would return with some stories about the natives. Robinson also told the correspondent that he wanted to be pronounced dead by the newspapers so that people would assume he was killed by the natives. After heading south to Yuma, Robinson joined the owner of a small sloop and the two men sailed to the island from the Colorado River. However, not long after going ashore, the boatman heard a pistol shot and saw Robinson struck down by stones and/or arrows. The boatman barely escaped and set sail for Guaymas. He reported to the authorities what he had seen. Between 1896 and 1897, Captain George Porter, who had participated in multiple natural history expeditions in Lower California, disappeared after he sailed his junk to the island to collect seashells and curios. When he failed to return home, the Mexican Army conducted a search of the island and found nothing more than a shoe, the remains of a large campfire, and the sternpost of the junk. No human bones were found, and there were no signs of a struggle, but the Mexicans reported that Porter was probably killed and cooked over a fire made by wood from the junk. In 1904, when two Yaqui renegades fled to Tiburón Island, the governor of Sonora, Rafael Izabal, sent a messenger to the Seri: "Bring in the Yaquis with their hands tied to a pole and you will receive a reward." The Seri did not speak Spanish, so that the messenger had to rely on sign language, which was not very clear. Some time later, a group of Seri women arrived in Hermosillo with eight bloody Yaqui hands tied to a pole and protected by a pair of straw hats. Later that year, Governor Izabal launched a military campaign to clear the island of its inhabitants. Although the engagement is considered to be the last formal campaign against the Seri, a small band of hostiles remained on the island and fighting continued into the 1920s.[1][2][6][7][8][9]

The tragedyEdit

The Grindell expedition consisted of four Americans and one Papago guide; Thomas Grindell, the leader, G. Olin Ralls (Rawlins), Jack Hoffman, David Ingram, or Ingraham, and Dolores Valenzuela. Grindell was a respected educator; before his disappearance, he was both a teacher and principal of schools in Nogales and Tempe, as well as a clerk for Arizona's Supreme Court. Moreover, in 1898, he served as a sergeant of the Rough Riders during the Spanish–American War.

The expedition set out from Nogales, Arizona in the summer of 1905, and headed south for Hermosillo. With help from the commander of the Rurales, Emilio Kosterlitsky, they collected the Papago guide, some provisions, horses, donkeys, and water. Grindell made the unfortunate mistake of storing all of the water in five-gallon oil cans, which were attached to the donkeys. A small still was also brought along to purify seawater, but failed to work properly. The expedition made slow progress and, according to Hoffman, on the day before reaching the coast, the guide refused to go further. By that time, they were already nearly out of water, and they found the narrow strait connecting the island to the mainland to be impassable. Instead of continuing further, the men attempted to find a cattle ranch that they supposed to be in the area, but never found it owing to their inaccurate map. According to McClintock, all of the men eventually became separated and died in the desert, except Hoffman, who survived off the fauna and from water he distilled. When he did finally reach safety, on November 5, 1905, Hoffman discovered that he had been alone for four months and that he had walked over the 150 miles from Tiburón to a point near Guaymas, crossing over desert, swamps, and mountainous terrain. He also assisted Edward Grindell in his search, once he was healthy again.[1][2][3][9]

Search effortsEdit

Edward Grindell's search partyEdit

Thomas Grindell intended to be back in Hermosillo no later than August 15, 1905. So after he and his men failed to appear, rumors began circulating that they had been massacred by either the Yaquis or the Seris. Three search parties were formed over the next several weeks. The first two were led by Thomas Grindell's brother, Edward P. Grindell, who later wrote a detailed account of his experiences called The Lost Explorers: The Mystery of a Vanished Expedition. On September 1, after hearing no news about his brother's whereabouts, Edward Grindell traveled to Hermosillo, where he received "all the help possible" from Governor Izabal. Izabal issued Grindell the proper paperwork and he assigned a few Rurales to help in the search. He also sent for the Papago guide, who lived at a ranch near Caborca. The guide, Dolores Valenzuela, was very frightened after the Mexican authorities summoned him. According to Grindell, there was an unwritten law in Mexico that said that it was a very serious offense for a native guide to return from a journey without bringing his followers back safely. Valenzuela told Grindell that on June 24, he left the expedition on the beach in front of the island, after being paid for his service. He made no mention of what might have happened to the others, but he did agree to help in the search. By that time, news arrived in Caborca that some Papago hunters had discovered a disturbing site in the desert.

Edward Grindell's account says that the people of Caborca were not entirely trusting of Valenzuela, some called him a "bad Indian" that knew more than he was letting on. An interesting incident took place between Grindell and Valenzuela before the search could really begin. Grindell claims that Valenzuela was anxious to begin searching with him alone, but, after he said he was bringing a translator named Furhkin, Valenzuela said he wanted to bring two of his brothers. Grindell agreed, believing that he had nothing to fear from his guides. Meanwhile, before leaving Caborca, Grindell came across a Papago vaquero named Juan Cholla, who said that Valenzuela was indeed a bad man. Among other things, he had deserted from the Mexican Army and had attempted to kill a prominent Mexican cattleman. When it came time to begin the search, Valenzuela was nowhere to be found. It seemed obvious that he was responsible for the disappearance of the others, so Grindell reported back to Governor Izabal, who said he would dispatch troops and nothing else could be done. Grindell then decided to return to his home in Tucson, Arizona. However, within hours of his arrival, he found Valenzuela walking down the street. Grindell confronted the man and, when he asked what had happened, Valenzuela replied by saying that he was searching for him. Grindell then remembered that he had told the guide that he lived in Tucson and Valenzuela told him that he was staying with a relative, Hugh Norris, at the Papago reservation outside of town. Grindell spoke with Norris, who said that Valenzuela was still anxious to help, but he would not return to Caborca because he was afraid of what the Mexicans would do to him. He left Caborca on horse and rode straight to Tucson in two days, a distance of about 200 miles. Grindell agreed to bypass Caborca and, because he didn't want to travel alone with the guide all the way back to Hermosillo, he enlisted the help of a young miner named Fred Christy. The three men then headed back to Mexico, having telegraphed Governor Izabal and the American consul, Louis Hostetter, before leaving.[2]

At Hermosillo, Grindell purchased supplies and hired twelve more heavily armed Papago scouts. From there, they went to the Sonora River so they could follow it to the coast. Once at the coast, the search party went north to where Valenzuela said he had left the others. A week later, at a place called Coyote Springs, or Coyote Wells, the search party picked up the trail left behind by the Grindell expedition and began following it. The location was over 175 miles from Hermosillo. After going six miles, the search party arrived at the coast and found the Seri camp where the hands were attached to a piece of wood.

Grindell continues on by saying that he believed the severed hands and the straps from the camera case came from two Los Angeles miners named Harry E. Miller and Gus Olander, who traveled to Tiburón in January 1905, but never returned.[2][4]

Continuing further, the search party found several abandoned camps from the expedition, as well as several artifacts and a few dead pack animals, but no trace of the explorers themselves were found. The Papago scouts also discovered fresh Seri tracks on more than one occasion, and according to Grindell, in some cases they appeared to be overlapping, or following, that of the lost expedition. The Papagos told Edward that they were certain the Seris had either killed his brother and his men or that they were prisoners on Tiburón Island. Eventually they convinced Grindell, and when the supplies began running low, they decided to go back to Hermosillo, where they would organize another search party for Tiburón Island itself. Grindell's second journey lasted a week and, because rain had washed away most of the tracks, they returned without finding anything of the lost explorers.[2][3]

Arizona RangersEdit

Once Hoffman turned up alive and it was confirmed that tragedy had struck, the Arizona Rangers became involved. Captain Thomas H. Rynning had served with Thomas Grindell during their brief career as Rough Riders, so he and a few of his men volunteered to make one final search. However, Governor Joseph Henry Kibbey made it clear that Rynning and his men could only enter Mexico as private citizens and had no jurisdiction once across the international border. The rangers went anyway and, with the help of Emilio Kosterlitsky and the Rurales, they attempted to pick up where Grindell and his search party had left off. The rangers were not successful, and they returned to Arizona a few weeks later.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d McClintock, James H. (1916). Arizona, prehistoric, aboriginal, pioneer, modern: the nation's youngest commonwealth within a land of ancient culture, Volume 2. The S. J. Clarke publishing co.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Grindell, Edward P. (1907). The Wide World Magazine: an illustrated monthly of true narrative, adventure, travel, customs, and sport, Volume 19: The Lost Explorers: The Mystery of a Vanished Expedition. G. Newness.
  3. ^ a b c d "Arizona Rangers Thomas H. Rynning: A New Captain For Rangers:Tiburon Island Tragedy". Retrieved June 26, 2012.
  4. ^ a b "Google news: Boston Evening Transcript - December 27, 1906". Boston Evening Transcript. December 27, 1906. Retrieved June 26, 2012.
  5. ^ Niemann, Greg (2002). Baja Legends: The Historic Characters, Events, and Locations That Put Baja California on the Map. Sunbelt Publications, Inc. ISBN 9780932653475.
  6. ^ a b Sturtevant, William C. (1983). Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 10. U.S. Government Printing Office. ISBN 9780160045790.
  7. ^ Peterson, Walt (1998). The Baja Adventure Book. Wilderness Press. ISBN 9780899972312.
  8. ^ "My Desert Magazine" (PDF). June 1954. Retrieved June 26, 2012.
  9. ^ a b "Tempe's Rough Riders: Part II". Jay Mark. November 7, 2007. Retrieved June 26, 2012.