Cecil B. DeMille and the Tiburon Island Adventure

By Bowen, Thomas | Journal of the Southwest, Autumn 2004 | Go to article overview

Cecil B. DeMille and the Tiburon Island Adventure


Bowen, Thomas, Journal of the Southwest


Cecil B. DeMille needed a vacation. He had been working hard preparing for a new motion picture to be titled The Ten Commandments (the 1923 silent black-and-white version), and he needed a break before the exhausting job of filming began. What better way to rest up, he thought, than to get together with some friends on his beloved yacht Seaward for a few weeks of sailing and casual hunting and fishing. And what better place to get away from the Hollywood pressure cooker than Mexico? He and his friends could sail south to the tip of Baja California and then head northward into the Gulf of California. To add a little extra adventure, they could chart a course for fabled Tiburon Island and take a first-hand look at the notorious Seri Indians. But the idyllic voyage he had in mind proved to be anything but smooth sailing. Things began to go awry right from the start, and through a combination of misinformation, misunderstanding, perhaps a bit of hubris, and plain bad luck, it turned out to be a trip that would dog him for the rest of his life.

The idea of sailing into the Gulf of California and visiting the Seri Indians was a familiar one to southern Californians, for intrepid sailors had occasionally been doing just that for more than two decades. Unfortunately, some of the earlier trips had come to tragic ends. Two parties of Americans who went ashore on Tiburon Island in the mid-1890s disappeared and were presumed killed by Seris. The fate of the missing Americans had made lurid copy for the Los Angeles newspapers. For a while, imaginative journalism ran wild, and the Seris were accused in print of cannibalism and a litany of other sins against God and Nature. These fanciful reports induced a number of prominent and self-righteous southern Californians to concoct schemes to buy Tiburon Island, conquer or exterminate the loathsome Seris, and turn the island into a cattle ranch or a vacation resort with luxury hotels. Nothing ever came of these quixotic schemes, of course, and gradually the wild and sensational tales of mysterious Tiburon and its ferocious Serfs faded from the newspapers.

In the meantime, Los Angeles yachtsmen had quietly begun exploring the gulf waters for their sport fishing potential. By the early 1910s, several had been ashore on Tiburon Island and had found the Serfs to be a bit wary but otherwise friendly toward Americans. Even the wives of these gentlemen-sailors were having their pictures taken with the supposedly "fierce savages" (Bowen 2000: 175-201,247-55).

Exactly how or when DeMille first began to consider a trip to the gulf is not known. The Los Angeles yachting community of the early 1920s was a small and exclusive club, however, and DeMille would have known from his fellow yachtsmen that Tiburon Island was a superb destination and a reasonably safe place for Americans. The immediate inspiration to make such a trip himself probably came from a voyage of the yacht Maud F. This vessel had spent six weeks in the spring of 1921 cruising the gulf, sailing as far north as Angel de la Guarda Island and stopping at Tiburon Island on the way back. Those aboard had found Tiburon a highlight of their trip--the fishing had been little short of incredible, and a shore party had no difficulty bagging two of Tiburon's huge and abundant mule deer. After the Maud F. returned to Los Angeles, DeMille had a typescript copy made of her log (Log of the Maud F. 1921).

The following year DeMille began planning his own gulf trip, which he scheduled for December 1922 and January 1923. By the fall of 1922, he had extended invitations to five friends to join him. What he needed to do next was secure the appropriate permits that would allow him to enter Mexican territorial waters, call at various ports, hunt and fish, and go ashore on Tiburon Island.

DeMille had long since achieved international acclaim as a director and producer, and he had acquired personal connections and power commensurate with his status. …

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