pixel

Baja Travel Adventures
By David Kier

Searching For Melchior Díaz

By David Kier

Melchior Diaz Melchior Diaz

Baja California is a land filled with history and mystery. The location of where Spanish explorer Melchior Díaz is buried is one of the earliest North American mysteries with a Baja connection.

Following the discovery of California by Fortún Jiménez in 1533, the Spanish explored the length of the Gulf of California with the voyages of Francisco de Ulloa in 1539 and Hernado de Alarcón, the next year. Both expeditions proved California was a peninsula, despite that fact, many were unconvinced for the next 200 years and continued to view California as an island.

In May of 1540, Hernando de Alarcón left Acapulco, to support the great expedition led by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado. Coronado was seeking the ‘Seven Cities of Cíbola’ to the north of Mexico. Alarcón was bringing supplies for Coronado when he discovered the Colorado River, but he never connected with the Coronado expedition.

Alarcón may not have set foot on the California side of the river, but he and his men traveled up the river many miles in small boats. After waiting a pre-arranged time for Coronado, Alarcón returned to his ships at the head of the gulf, but left letters at a large tree and knew the natives would direct any Spaniards to it.

Marching west from the Coronado expedition to meet Alarcón was Melchior Díaz, with many Indian guides, and his troops. Díaz missed Alarcón by just days but found the message left in a jar at the base of the tree. The news from Alarcón released Díaz from his duty to retrieve supplies for Coronado. That allowed Melchior Díaz to explore the new land, west of the river. Díaz named the river ‘Firebrand’ noticing how the Indians kept warm with glowing sticks that December of 1540. The sticks were like fire heated branding irons. Díaz crossed the river using rafts, and he would be the first European land traveler to enter California. Díaz was injured in a freak accident and he died several days later, January 8, 1541. Where he was buried remains a mystery.

Melchior Diaz route Melchior Diaz route

The story about Melchior Díaz was told by Pedro de Castañeda de Nájera in his book ‘Narrative of the Coronado Expedition’: After entering California, the Díaz expedition encountered the boiling mud pots on the west side of the Colorado Delta, later called Volcano Lake. This is at the base of Cerro Prieto volcano, 20 miles south of today’s city of Mexicali. On the fourth day on the California side of the river, Captain Díaz suffered the mortal injury. A greyhound belonging to one of the Spaniards was annoying the flock of sheep they had along for food. Captain Díaz chased the dog on horseback and threw his lance at the animal. The lance missed the dog and stuck in the sand. Unable to turn his horse soon enough to avoid running over it, the lance pierced Melchior’s thigh and bladder.

Castañeda says the men returned across the river and that Melchior Díaz lived for twenty days on the return trip. While most believed his men returned across the Colorado River with Díaz, there are some who think the men followed the coastline south, trying to reach Alarcón’s ships. It is this possibility that sparked a light in the mind of desert explorer Walter Henderson when he read the story of Melchior Díaz. During the depression of the 1930’s, Henderson and a companion traveled south of Mexicali seeking the exotic blue palm trees of the canyons of Baja California. He heard from a prospector that some were in the Sierra de Las Tinajas and Sierra de La Palmita. These two small desert mountain ranges are about 70 miles south of the Mexicali border and 20 miles west of the road to San Felipe.

Melchior Diaz map Melchior Diaz map

Henderson writes that they left the San Felipe road about 20 miles south of La Ventana and traveled west to the base of the Sierra Pinta, as far as his Model A Ford would take them. The next morning they traveled into the hills, using the most obvious of routes to reach the Sierra de Las Tinajas. They would discover that they began their hike too far south to reach that mountain, within the limits of their time and water supply. They reached the top of the Sierra Pinta range and then went steeply down the west side, into Arroyo Grande. Around noon, roughly 1/4 to 1/3 of the distance down from the divide, Henderson says they came upon a large and very unnatural looking pile of rocks. It was on the north side ledge of the rocky ravine. No sign of any human presence, such as wood cutters or prospectors was near here, so it seemed most odd. The rocks were coated with desert varnish, indicating they were placed many, many years or even centuries ago.

Desert Magazine Desert Magazine

They made camp that night in Arroyo Grande, and returned the next day to the Model A by traveling up Arroyo Grande to the base of Borrego Mountain and then back east to the car. Years later, Walter read about Melchior Díaz and the lost grave. This Spanish captain was a highly respected man and would have been buried with his possessions. Walter Henderson believed his rock pile could be the missing grave and made several attempts to have the Mexican government follow his route and protect or extract the remains for their great historic value. The answer he got was that he would have to finance the expedition if he wanted Mexico to save the treasure and put it in a museum! Not a remote chance of that happening and so Melchior Díaz, or perhaps just a ‘pile of rocks’ remains to be rediscovered.

arroyo cave arroyo cave

Many years later, writer Choral Pepper shared Henderson's story in her 1973 Baja California book after he sent her a letter about the finding. Henderson provided details and directions to a ‘rock pile’ he found in Baja. Since Mrs. Pepper was the editor of Desert Magazine he thought she could be a great outlet for sharing the discovery with fellow desert enthusiasts who might have an opportunity to find the possible 1541 grave site. The story was featured in the August, 1981 edition of Desert Magazine, but this time with more location details. It was from this magazine story that excited San Felipe desert explorer Bruce Barber who spent a great amount of energy analyzing Pepper’s story using science, and searched the desert hills north of San Felipe. The problem is that Pepper’s 1981 story gave an incorrect starting point for Henderson’s hike. I know because I have the original 1967 letter Walter wrote to Choral. I have since shared the letter with Bruce Barber, who had so much passion for finding the Díaz grave and devoted much of his 2003 book “...of Sea and Sand” to the search.

Choral Pepper passed away in 2002 and wanted me to continue my sharing of the Baja history that is so exciting to many, so she instructed her family to leave her Desert magazine Baja related photos and letters to me. In 2009, I found her ‘Lost Mission’ of Santa María Magdalena. In 2015, I hoped to find the other mystery that remained: the rock pile location.

arroyos arroyos

The following are critical notes from Walter's letter to Choral Pepper:

  • Henderson traveled south of La Ventana approx. 20 miles before turning west.
  • Henderson mentions the road shown by El Chinero.
  • Henderson went about 5 miles south of that road, then turned west.
  • Henderson drove to the base of the hills and parked (Red Arrow).
  • On Day 1 of the hike, Henderson found the rock pile at noon about 1/4 to 1/3 down towards Arroyo Grande from the divide, and then camped in Arroyo Grande that night.
  • On Day 2 Henderson walked back to the Model A from the base of Cerro Borrego.

In April of 2015, four friends (Tom, Joe, Karl, Harald) and I camped in Arroyo Grande and explored 3 possible canyons coming down the Sierra Pinta. It was about 10 miles from the Model A parking spot to the divide. Arroyo B (blue line) is 3 miles long. The middle canyon (black line) I named ‘Arroyo A’ and a small dam at its entrance required a detour climb around to enter the lower region. Beyond there were just a choice of narrow gullies blocked by boulders. Two of our group climbed up to the top of the canyon ridge but found no clear arroyo path higher. The south canyon (yellow line) was named ‘Arroyo D’ in my pre-trip planning. We could actually drive up it for some distance before beginning the hike. That promising feature soon ended as the canyon narrowed and got steep. A surprise was finding a large cave and made the hike that much more interesting. The north canyon (black line) is my ‘Arroyo B’, and was my first choice to explore. However, a week prior to our trip, another friend (Paul) discovered an impassable dry waterfall making it unlikely for Henderson or the Díaz Party to have used it. Paul hiked into Arroyo B from Arroyo C, which ends in Arroyo Grande, further north.

Sadly for us, all three routes up from Arroyo Grande had rock obstructions that made getting to the divide seemingly impossible. No way could horses and a man on a stretcher pass, unless the canyons were far different than today. A helicopter would seem to be the best way to find the rock pile!

The 1930’s rock pile found by Walter Henderson and the 1541 grave of Melchior Díaz remain to be found somewhere in the desert of Mexico. Should you have the good fortune to find them, this author (and many other history buffs) would be very happy to hear from you!


About David

David Kier is a veteran Baja traveler and the co-author of 'The Old Missions of Baja and Alta California 1697-1834. Visit The Old Missions website.

4.7 112 Reviews
  • user logo
    Charles Gee
    From logo

    Incredibly fast and painless. Paid about $180 for a month of coverage. It was easier than going on line.

  • user logo
    Chyla Nava
    From logo

    Great, easy to use service. I haven't had to file a claim (and hope I never have to) but the online portal is very easy to use, and it's...

  • user logo
    Kierian Kuklok
    From logo

    I have been a customer for years and when I really needed them they stepped up in every way. I had a freak accident to my car and they...

  • user logo
    Lourdes Montoya
    From logo

    Easy, fast, and affordable.

  • user logo
    Aj Cornejo
    From logo

    Reasonable prices and we thought best chance to actually get results if we needed them.

  • user logo
    Adrianna Dorsey
    From logo

    Great company, great prices, and even better customer service. We've lived in Baja for 7 years and have used them for the past 6years....

  • user logo
    Gary Counts
    From logo

    So convenient and easy to navigate thru the online process. I'll never use any other Mexican insurance service!

  • user logo
    Joey Digiovanni
    From logo

    Easy to work with 😉. Always courteous and helpful. Have used them for all trips to Mexico. Easy website to navigate

  • user logo
    Jolene Bibian
    From logo

    Shauna at Baja Bound was AWESOME!! We had specific questions about how to quote the policy based on our vehicle type and she was super...

  • user logo
    Rebecca Newell
    From logo

    Great service!

  • user logo
    Maria Elena Smith
    From logo

    Easy and affordable.

  • user logo
    Mehdi Fahid
    From logo

    I reapplied for my Baja Bound Mexican car Insurance yesterday and I spoke to Ms. Shauna. This lady processed my application quickly and...

  • user logo
    Benjamin Driebe
    From logo

    Absolutely fantastic, I already forgot her name because I have a terrible memory but the woman that helped me on the phone was wonderful,...

  • user logo
    richard carr
    From logo

    fast replies and great price!

  • user logo
    Juan Zuniga
    From logo

    I just would like to know if you guys are going to update the fastpass direction any soon, during the month of January the lane changed to...

  • user logo
    Richard Schweiger
    From logo

    Very professional, very helpful, great policy, I couldn't be happier with Baja Mexican Insurance, the friendly smiles and ease of it all in...

  • user logo
    Ryan Frisby
    From logo

    We use them every time we travel to Mexico. Luckily we have not needed their services yet but getting insurance through them is quick and...

  • user logo
    Jan Muhammad
    From logo

    I need a tourist visa for maxico I'm from pakistan help me sir

  • user logo
    Tracy Moore
    From logo

    Very easy, quick, and professional

  • user logo
    robert kepper
    From logo

    They are very good . There website doesn't show you need a title to bring a vehicle across the border.I was stopped and told I had to...

  • user logo
    Edilver Martinez
    From logo

    Our go to Baja car insurance, everytime we take a visit down south . Usually it's for a day trip either for a quick getaway with the family...

  • user logo
    Daniel “Dan M” Markofsky
    From logo

    Third time working with Baja Bound and they made it easy! Thanks!

  • user logo
    Steve Bender
    From logo

    Have never needed to use the insurance fortunately but the website always works great. Can buy a policy in about a minute.

  • user logo
    Jose Paez
    From logo

    Had a great experience getting insurance at Baja Bound, before I always stoped at the border to purchase my insurance, not anymore. By the...

  • user logo
    JUSTINE SERRANO
    From logo

    I purchased insurance through them & CHUBB for our trip to San Felipe. Unfortunately, we had to cancel due to our vehicle having an oil...

  • user logo
    Christian Minor
    From logo

    Team were on point, provided inside information, prices were great and they had my proposal already in the system when I called back....

  • user logo
    George
    From logo

    Excellent customer service

  • user logo
    Kellye Pummill
    From logo

    Fast and easy!

  • user logo
    Jennifer Toups
    From logo

    Baja Bound is and has been my go to Mexico insurance company. The website is extremely easy to use, keeps all your info for a quick...

  • user logo
    Cesar Lopez
    From logo

    Very convenient, great price !!

  • user logo
    Louis Schneidman
    From logo

    I had an awesome experience with Baja Bound. Family owned and highly personal, top notch customer service. I have total peace of mind...

  • user logo
    Phil Noble
    From logo

    If you’re looking for Mexican Insurance that you can trust and feel good about while traveling in Mexico, you’ve found the right place....

  • user logo
    Jeff Bunker
    From logo

    Great coverage options . Price buy and print policy , very quick and easy , highly recommend them when driving in Mexico

  • user logo
    Burrell DeVine
    From logo

    Easy to navigate and very competitively priced! I had to call in and add an additional day, they couldn't have been any more pleasant to...

  • user logo
    Nereyda Torres
    From logo

    Me gusta la asuguranza porque la puedes comprar por un dia y te asegura en Mexico por el tiempo que vas ya sea hasta por mes (Translated...

  • user logo
    james whitmer
    From logo

    Best insurance I've had so far

  • user logo
    Rail1riders
    From logo

    Quick, easy, well designed website and not just for Baja. Good rates for temporal residente gringos. We’re not living in Jalisco. Printed...

  • user logo
    Matt B
    From logo

    I always use Baja Bound to source my insurance while traveling to Mexico. Fortunately, I have not had to file any claims. I do appreciate...

  • user logo
    Refugio I. Rochin
    From logo

    Excellent online and by direct phone. Spanish and English with proven response to questions. Website is very informative about driving in...

  • user logo
    Kelly Carney
    From logo

    Yara is very helpful and explains everything. Love working with companies like this.

  • user logo
    Slumdog Gump
    From logo

    Changed some money. Good rate and friendly people.

  • user logo
    Jeff G
    From logo

    Went down to TJ June 11 2020 No problems going into TJ but the way back was a ordeal 6 hours in line to get back into the USA but no...

  • user logo
    don letson
    From logo

    Great renewal process, if only south Dakota would do the same for car registration.

  • user logo
    len buckholtz
    From logo

    SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD. OLD GUYS LIKE THAT. WILL DEFINITELY USE IN 6 MONTHS IF STILL RUNNING AROUND THE WILDS OF BAJA.

  • user logo
    Susana Judd
    From logo

    Easy, quick and fair prices. Easy to deal with if needed.

  • user logo
    Seismic Waterfinder
    From logo

    Very excellent service, needed insurance for Mexico, price was fair. The custumer service rep was Yara

  • user logo
    Nicolas Dervé
    From logo

    Very good ans very fast. We hope all will ben good if we need it.

  • user logo
    Blake Glassco
    From logo

    I will never drive south of the border without Baja Bound in my center console. I was in an accident a couple hours south of Ensenada and...

  • user logo
    JohnPaul Gemelli
    From logo

    Baja Bound could not have made it an easier ... also, I made a mistake and called them having to leave a message ... but, they called back...

  • user logo
    Jeff Brandt
    From logo

    so far so good, however I have read good things about them

  • user logo
    Sengoz N
    From logo

    SERIOUS.

  • user logo
    Kenneth Trass
    From logo

    Getting a policy was simple, Provided more than provider for price comparison.

  • user logo
    Esther Valencia
    From logo

    Super easy to purchase just the coverage you need when crossing the border in your own car. I especially appreciate the fact that I was...

  • user logo
    Larry Cottingham
    From logo

    Great service, very helpful people there.

  • user logo
    Luis Cortes
    From logo

    Easiest way to purchase insurance when traveling to Mexico. I have used their service for the last 7 years and it only gets easier and...

  • user logo
    j dougher ty
    From logo

    EZ Peasy insurance purchase. Great service every time I've used them. Had to cancel one time when my travel plans went away - no problem....

  • user logo
    Paul Niehouse
    From logo

    Extremely easy to acquire a policy. Many options available. Reasonable rates.

  • user logo
    Colin
    From logo

    Super-easy and instant. Very happy with initial purchase.

  • user logo
    Howard M Elster
    From logo

    2nd year with Chubb. No problems

  • user logo
    Cyndee Congrove
    From logo

    Great customer service, quick, friendly staff helpfully answered all questions, very patient with my learning curve on a new product. Would...

  • user logo
    Art Eugenio
    From logo

    I've had Baja Bound insurance for more that ten years now with thousands of miles logged in Baja. Fortunately, I've only had one fender...

  • user logo
    Gabe Matthews
    From logo

    Where do i start..... you dont know you have good insurance until you have to actually use it. I have had Baja Bound INS for over 5 years...

  • user logo
    keith berkley
    From logo

    Been going to baja for 45 years. This is best insurance company i have come accross.

  • user logo
    Ryan Perkio
    From logo

    I have been using BajaBound Insurance for 15 years - multiple trips per year. Their website is easy, their coverage is great, and the...

  • user logo
    RaMon McBride
    From logo

    I have not had any claims thus far so rating is based on ease of purchase.

  • user logo
    Larry French
    From logo

    By far the best service for Mex insurance in Baja. They are personally there for you if you have problems south of the border.

  • user logo
    Tudor Thomas
    From logo

    Baja Bound makes buying insurance for going south of the border as easy as it gets. The website is the easiest I have used and the staff...