History Outdoor

Ship of Mystery

Story by Cheryl D. Wanner

Image Above: A Manila galleon being loaded from Chinese vessels. Courtesy maritime artist Roger D. Morris

NO OREGON COAST SHIPWRECK has spawned greater speculation or more unanswered questions than the Beeswax Wreck of Nehalem Spit. Shrouded in time, steeped in legend, this unknown vessel has captured the imagination since Euro-American explorers and settlers first set foot on the North Coast.

For the indigenous Nehalem-Tillamook people, the wreck was a straightforward event, carefully recorded in their oral histories. Early settlers found these accounts easy to reconcile with known facts. Blocks and chunks of beeswax, much of it engraved with shipper’s marks, were widely traded commodities. Teakwood timbers and rotting masts had been seen protruding from the sand, tackle and rigging recovered, and smashed bits of blue and white porcelain picked up from the beaches.

This block of beeswax from the Nehalem wreck is on display at the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum. Photo courtesy Beeswax Wreck Project

The consensus of white inhabitants in the early 1800s was that this was a galleon wreck, as both beeswax and Chinese porcelain were known cargoes on the Spanish-operated Manila trade route. The ship had run aground in a storm, and survivors of the wreck lived among the Nehalem people until lack of respect for local marital customs resulted in the massacre of all or most of them by tribal warriors.

Later settlers often re-interpreted events, and the stories were enhanced by native storytellers who sometimes pandered to white enthusiasm for sensationalism. By the second half of the nineteenth century, facts anchored in oral histories had morphed into tales of treasure, ritual death, and undecipherable wax markings, while the ship itself ghosted into legend. Only in the last two decades has scientific and systematic research into her true origins, fate, and identity been undertaken.

In 2006, a team of archeologists, geologists, and historians, headed by Washington state archeologist Scott Williams of Olympia, founded the Beeswax Wreck Project. Using magnetometers, ground-penetrating radar, and material evidence, team members have made serious inroads into unraveling the mystery of what is now confirmed to have been an eastbound Manila galleon.

This recently built Spanish galleon, despite its smaller size, is a good representation of what one looked like during the height of the Manila trade. Photo courtesy Fundacion Nao Victoria

The Manila trade, run between Spanish-held Philippines and Acapulco from 1565 to 1815, provided Mexico and other parts of New Spain with the highly coveted products of the Far East. The galleons plying this route were the largest and richest ships of their day. Westbound from Acapulco, they carried silver from the exceedingly rich Potosí mine in Bolivia to the Spanish merchants of the Philippines. Eastbound, they imported the greatest treasures of the known world into the Americas.

The voyage from Acapulco to Manila was a straightforward east-to-west route that relied on prevailing trade winds. But sailing out of Manila involved a torturous navigation of the Philippine archipelago before turning north toward the Marianas Islands to catch the westerlies across the Pacific. Landfall was made near Cape Mendocino, north of present-day San Francisco, before sailing down the Pacific Coast to Acapulco. This trade route, the longest and most deadly in the world, was so incredibly lucrative it endured for two and half centuries.

The galleons made one annual round-trip voyage, carrying a limited number of passengers in addition to crew and cargo. Some of this cargo would later be transported overland to Vera Cruz (east Mexico) or Portobelo (Panama) for shipping to Spain while the remainder was sold in the Spanish American colonies. Products included beeswax (required by the Catholic Church for daily mass) and Chinese porcelain (prized by Spanish households), along with Chinese silks, East Indian spices, teakwood furnishings, and other exotic Asian goods.

Nehalem Spit and bay from the summit of Neahkahnie Mountain. Photo by Cheryl Wanner

A number of Manila galleons wrecked and were salvaged by the Spanish. Four are known to have disappeared without a trace. Two of these, the San Juanillo (1578) and the San Jose (1586) vanished too early (based on Nehalem-Tillamook oral traditions and the likely presence of European genes in the native population) to be serious candidates for Oregon’s Beeswax Ship. But the San Francisco Xavier, lost in 1705, vanished in the right time frame, as did the earlier Santo Cristo de Burgos (1693).

While definitive identification can only be made by recovery of metal artifacts, such as iron or brass cannon or coins with an inscribed date, geological fieldwork has produced a strong candidate. In January of 1700, the massive Cascadia earthquake rocked the Northwest coast, triggering a trans-Pacific tsunami with a shoreline run-up height of 25 feet. So devastating were these combined events that the coastline along Nehalem Bay dropped 5 feet.

The scatter pattern of the Beeswax Ship, sighted in multiple locations on the northern half of Nehalem Spit, is in keeping with a tsunami of this magnitude. In addition, the wax itself has been picked up all over the spit, even upriver from the bay, and the distribution of ceramic sherds, though not so widespread, is fairly extensive.

Cobbles and dark sand layer left behind by the tsunami of 1700. Photo courtesy Beeswax Wreck Project

The discovery of a layer of cobble drape deposit (water-smoothed or cobbled stones and coarse river sand), laid down over Nehalem Spit by the tsunami, is key in determining which galleon wrecked here. The greatest concentration of these cobbles is in Nehalem Bay State Park, where early settlers reported seeing portions of the wreck in the backdunes (those further from the sea). The only way for a ship to be buried so far inland and so widely scattered was for it to have been washed over the foredunes by a tsunami, as seasonal storms would not have the necessary force.

Given the date of the Cascadia earthquake and the distribution of wax and porcelain sherds, Scott Williams is convinced the Beeswax Wreck could not be the San Francisco Xavier, as she disappeared five years later. The geological evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the Santo Cristo de Burgos.

Porcelain sherd depicting pattern from the Kangxi Period. Photo courtesy Beeswax Wreck Project

The prevailing theory is that she grounded on or near the spit and, six years later, the tsunami washed her upper decks into the backdunes while her lower hull remained near or below the tide line. This would account for the various locations in which her remains have been seen. Additional support comes from the sherds, which date to the Kangxi Period (1661-1772). Because the Chinese changed patterns every few years, the fragments on the Nehalem Spit pinpoint a relatively narrow time frame with a mean date of 1686.

The Santo Cristo de Burgos, built between in 1687-1688, made her first voyage to Acapulco in 1690. Her second voyage (1692) ended in disaster when storm damage forced her to turn back to the Bay of Naga in the Philippines for repairs. She continued on in 1693, covertly slipping from port so her captain and other officers could avoid paying security deposits and fines levied on them for damages. As a result, much needed supplies as well as thirty crew members were left ashore at Naga.

The Manila trade was rife with corner-cutting and cargo smuggling. To free up space for additional merchandise, critical provisions such as gunpowder and water jugs were often reduced in number or stored in locations where they risked damage or inaccessibility. While official manifests listed items for export, huge quantities of unregistered cargo slipped aboard, ingeniously disguised or stored in unlikely places, to avoid shipping duties. Manila galleons routinely sailed with far more cargo than was prudent or officially allowed. If the Beeswax Ship is, in fact, the Santo Cristo de Burgos, overloading and the absence of key personnel and supplies may have rendered her unable to weather a severe storm in the north Pacific.

The link between Neahkahnie Mountain and Beeswax Ship is based on treasure legends, some tied in with the wreck itself and others associated with a different ship that came and then sailed away. Photo by Cheryl Wanner

The conclusions drawn by the Beeswax Wreck Project launched the independent archival research of Cameron La Follette, executive director of the Oregon Coast Alliance, and anthropology professor Douglas Deur of Portland State University and the University of Victoria. With a ship’s name to work with, La Follette and Deur hired Esther González, an expert in Spanish historical documents, to search the General Archives of the Indies in Seville while other researchers checked Spanish records in Mexico City and Manila. González’ work yielded a complete manifest for the 1701 voyage of the San Francisco Xavier and a list of trade goods exported by a passenger aboard the Santo Cristo de Burgos in 1693.

While a full cargo manifest for the de Burgos is yet unaccounted for, González did locate the ship’s complete passenger and crew list. Only 16 passengers were aboard, most of them priests or military officers. The crew list is identical for both 1692 and 1693, though key members are known to have been left behind and others may have remained or come aboard at Naga.

Among the items known to have shipped aboard the Santo Cristo de Burgos was 2.5 tons of quicksilver (liquid mercury) for use in refining silver ore. Quicksilver is not listed on the cargo manifests for the San Francisco Xavier in 1705. If and when the wreck site is located, the presence of mercury globules would further confirm the ship’s identity as the Santo Cristo de Burgos.

Drawing of a galleon from an old map. Courtesy Beeswax Wreck Project

With no promising excavation spot pinpointed, the Beeswax Wreck Project will now focus on a comprehensive offshore survey, hoping to find cannon or ballast from the lower hull. The team has no intention of recovering any portion of the ship, only confirming her identity and final resting place. “We don’t get to keep anything we find,” Williams says. “This isn’t about treasure; it’s about history.” After all, the real treasure of the Beeswax Ship is not the spices and rich silks she once carried in her holds, but what she can teach us about the past and those who came before.

Learn More

For more extensive information, pick up a copy of the Summer 2018 Oregon’s Manila Galleon issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly from the Oregon Historical Society. To order, call 503-222-1741 or buy from the Museum Store at 1200 SW Park Avenue in Portland. Cost is $10 (plus shipping for orders).

This story appeared in the Winter 2018/2019 issue of Oregon Coast magazine.