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Tiburón Island Tragedy


Tiburón Island Tragedy

Tiburón Island Tragedy
Date 1905
Location Tiburón Island, Sonora, Mexico
Deaths 3

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]


  • Background 1
  • The tragedy 2
    • Jack Hoffman's account 2.1
  • Search efforts 3
    • Edward Grindell's search party 3.1
    • Arizona Rangers 3.2
    • Thomas Grindell's remains 3.3
  • References 4


An abandoned Seri village on Tiburon Island in 1895.

Tiburon 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, which 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 Tiburon, 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 Tiburon and never came back. According to 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 Tiburon 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 woman 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 tragedy

The Grindell expedition consisted of four Americans and one Papago guide; Thomas Grindell, the leader, G. Olin Ralls, or 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. Grindell had briefly visited Tiburon some time between 1903 and 1904, but, upon his return, had reported to a Douglas newspaper that the natives were "the most peaceable people on earth." The newspaper went further, saying: "Many of them were so poor that they could hardly navigate and lived on a very plain diet, such as fish and turtles. They do not cook their food and do not use knives, but simply in a very primitive manner tear the food asunder and eat it raw. The women are supreme in tribal government and the older they are the greater their power." The expedition set out from Nogales, Arizona in the summer of 1895 and headed south for Hermosillo. With help from the commander of the Rurales, Emilio Kosterlitsky, they collected the Papago guide, some provisions, and 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 150 miles from Tiburon 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]

Jack Hoffman's account

View of Tiburon Island from the mainland in 2007.

The following was reported in a 1905 edition of the Bisbee Daily Review, shortly after Jack Hoffman returned to Guaymas:

The following was written by Jack Hoffman and appeared in Edward Grindell's The Lost Explorers: The Mystery of a Vanished Expedition, an article in a 1907 edition of The Wide World Magazine:

Search efforts

Edward Grindell's search party

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 whereabaouts, 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. In Edward Grindell's words: "The day after I arrived in Caborca a report was brought to the town that Papago hunters in the vicinity of Tiburon had found a place where some Americans had been killed and eaten by the cannibals of the island. Nothing was left of the unfortunate whites but the hands, and these were nailed to a plank stuck on end in the ground. There were also dance rings in the soil around, showing where the cannibals had had a feast. The Papagoes [sic] also reported finding a tin camp-stove and broken cameras. Many people thought that this gruesome discovery explained the fate of the [Thomas] Grindell party, but still I would not give up hope."[2][3]

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 along, 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 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 wrote: "There were two dance rings, one inside the other; the larger one was about forty feet in diameter and well beaten. At one side, and about a foot from the edge of the ring, there was a sawn plank, evidently driftwood, some fourteen feet long, firmly planted in the soil. Nailed to this plank crosswise, six feet from the ground, was a stick four feet long. At each end of this stick was a human hand, fastened there with leather straps cut from a camera case. On the inside of the straps were letters which evidently formed parts of the name of the owner; a capital  '​M '​ and a small  '​e '​ and  '​r '​ were noticeable. There were also some printed pages from a book on navigation tacked on the plank, and near by was a small tin stove. The savages, I should explain, tie their wretched victim to this plank and, as they dance, first one and then another will cut a piece of his flesh off, keeping up the horrible business to the tune of a doleful tam-tam [musical instrument] and their own chanting until death puts an end to the prisoner's suffering. And it was into the hands of these fiends that I feared the explorers had fallen!" 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 Tiburon 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 Tiburon 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 Tiburon 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]

Edward Grindell wrote the following letter to the Assistant Secretary of State, Robert Bacon, before leaving for Arizona:

Hermosillo, Sonora, Mex. Dec. 9. Robert Bacon, Assistant Secretary of State, Washington, D. C. Sir:—Mr. Hostetter, the American consul here, informed me you have written him regarding four Americans lost in the vicinity of Tiburon Island last July; namely, Thomas Grindell, Olin Ralls, David Ingraham and Jack Hoffman. Mr. Hoffman, however, has since been found, and you no doubt have heard his story. He says the other boys likely perished for want of water. Now I have been searching for this party since the 5th of September, giving my entire time to the matter, but have failed to find any of them. I have, however, found their trail and have followed it for over one hundred miles, but the recent rains have entirely obliterated their trails. So now I have nothing to work on but the general location. I found the boys' camp deserted. I found four or five animals dead. I trailed Mr. Ralls over forty miles, where he went alone with one mule. A sudden rain forced us to stop following the trail for the day, and next day the trail was gone. But one of the Indians found, about ten miles further on, a dead mule. The mule had the pack saddle still on its back and a rifle and bucket still fastened to the saddle, which led me to believe that Mr. Ralls had fallen between this and the point where I last had his trail. I searched the country thoroughly, but could find no trace of the men. I had with me five to twelve Papago Indian trailers and one American companion. We searched the entire coast of the mainland in front of Tiburon Island for a distance of one hundred miles, and back into the mountains for from twenty to thirty miles, and I think I have covered every place where bodies might reasonably be expected to be. We rode over eight hundred miles on horseback. I have given up ever finding the boys, but as a last resort I have offered a reward to the Papago Indians of $200 for each of the bodies they find. It is my opinion that the boys wandered in their frenzied condition away back into the mountains, into places where they never will be found. Everyone here has been very kind to me in the search, especially Louis Hostetter, the American consul. He has been very considerate, and helped me many times. I trust this information will be of value to your department. Very truly, E. P. Grindell.[3]

Arizona Rangers

Thomas H. Rynning

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 though and they returned to Arizona a few weeks later.[3]

Captain Rynning reported the following to a Douglas newspaper after his return from Mexico:

Thomas Grindell's remains

The remains of Thomas Grindell were finally discovered by another group of explorers over a year after the tragedy took place.[4]

A December 27, 1906, edition of the Boston Evening Transcript said the following:


  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 h i 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 e f g h "Arizona Rangers Thomas H. Rynning: A New Captain For Rangers:Tiburon Island Tragedy". Retrieved June 26, 2012. 
  4. ^ a b c d "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.  
  6. ^ a b Sturtevant, William C. (1983). Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 10. U.S. Government Printing Office.  
  7. ^ Peterson, Walt (1998). The Baja Adventure Book. Wilderness Press.  
  8. ^ "My Desert Magazine". June 1954. Retrieved June 26, 2012. 
  9. ^ a b "Tempe's Rough Riders: Part II". Jay Mark. November 7, 2007. Retrieved June 26, 2012. 
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