The Tiburon Island Tragedy – What Happened?

A view of Tiburon island.
A view of Tiburon island.

The Tiburon Island tragedy is an event that happened in 1905 when three people that embarked upon a gold-seeking quest disappeared in the deserts of Tiburon Island. The island itself is located in the Gulf of California. It is the biggest island in the area, covering the space of more than 1200 square kilometers. The volcanic origin of the terrain and very hostile environment probably led to the disappearance of the expedition members. 

Past Disappearances 

The 1905 events were not the first of their kind that happened on Tiburon. Sometimes between 1894 and 1896, a similar incident occurred, and it included an American writer R.E.L. Robinson. A plan for his writer’s mission seemed pretty straightforward. Robinson was supposed to travel to Tiburon. Still, prior to his leave, he informed the Associated Press that he wants the public informed of his death. He was expecting to be gone for six months, which he thought would be enough to gather enough information about the native people living on Tiburon. 

Robinson’s plan completely backfired. When he joined his guides, and they started to travel down the Colorado River, the person driving the boat heard gunshots, and before he knew it, Robinson was taken down with arrows. 

The same destiny struck upon an experienced explorer named George Porter. Captain Porter participated in a similar mission before but ended up disappearing on Tiburon Island. The authorities in Mexico conducted a search but reported that nothing was found except one shoe and woods used for the campfire. The official statement from the Mexico Army was that Porter was killed, cooked on that same campfire, and - eaten by the natives. 


The idea that the people inhabiting the area were cannibals was most probably used to initiate a military campaign by Governor Izabal, who wanted to clear the Tiburon Island from such a threat. Who lived there, and why were they considered to be so dangerous?

Tiburon Island was populated by Seri people, and the island itself was the land they held sacred. The Seri people were living isolated from the mainland, and it was believed that they did not master the fire yet and that they eat their food raw. One thing that accompanied this speculation is rumors of Tiburon Island being very rich in gold resources. 

The American Expedition of 1905

All of these dangerous stories and events surrounding the Tiburon Island and the Sari people that lived there did not stop the Grindell expedition to travel to the island. Three more people were coming along with Thomas Grindell, who had a reputation of a skillful and experienced explorer, who even had military experience. They were joined by a Papago guide called Dolores Valenzuela, who had to lead them through the desert area before they reach the Tiburon Island. So, how did everything go so wrong?

First of all, as it was later reported by the only American survivor Jack Hoffman, Grindell made a mistake of storing all the water on one donkey that carried the cans through the desert. When the equipment they brought to purify the water failed, the Papago guide did not want to continue any further. The five people group decided to split up; the guide went back, and the men tried to find a boat that will get them to Tiburon Island. 

All of these decisions ended up fatal for everyone except Hoffman, who was alone for more than four months while he traveled from Tiburon to Guaymas. Hoffman survived 150 miles of unpredictable and harsh terrain, while the others were not so lucky. 

Hoffman’s testimony explains that all of them died from dehydration and that the Sari people were not responsible for their deaths. These events were later investigated further when another expedition,  led by Edward P. Grindell, found artifacts that the Grindell expedition used on their fatal journey. A whole year passed before the body remains of Thomas Grindell were found. It was then confirmed that Thomas Grindell died from dehydration. In the Grindell expedition, four people lost their lives: the leader Thomas Grindell was gone, along with his partners G. O. Ralls and D. Ingram. The remains of the Papago guide Dolores Valenzuela were never found.


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