Spanish galleons played an historic role in world history, and were the type of ship used in the Manila trade lasting from 1565 to 1815 carrying silver from Acapulco across the Pacific to the Philippines to pay for Asian goods highly sought after in Spain and Europe.
Then they’d return with silks, spices, jade, gemstones, gold, Ming porcelain, carved ivory, ebony furniture and art treasures from the Philippines, China, Japan, India, Burma and Siam.
One of the galleons heading back to Acapulco was lost more than 300 years ago—believed to be off the Oregon coast in the area of Nehalem Bay some 35 miles south of Astoria.
It’s unclear why a galleon was so far north. A report in the Oregonian suggests that the ship drifted there after being disabled in a storm while on its eastbound voyage from Manila, loaded with a cargo of beeswax, porcelain chinaware and probably other goods.
We know about the beeswax because it’s been found on the Oregon coast for hundreds of years, and occasionally still is. Some already found are chunks weighing twenty pounds and marked with Spanish shipping symbols.
Wintering at Fort Clatsop, Lewis and Clark were surprised when Clatsop and Nehalem Indians offered large chunks of beeswax for trade.
Anthropologist Scott S. Williams of Olympia, Wash., said, “There were no honeybees native to Oregon in those days, and didn’t arrive until Europeans introduced them much later…so they asked the natives where they got this beeswax, and they told them there was a shipwreck.”
Based on Spanish shipping records, historians believe the ship was either the “Santo Cristo de Burgos” that sailed from Manila in 1693 — or the galleon “San Francisco Xavier” that left in 1705. Both remain missing and unaccounted for.
Williams heads the Beeswax Wreck Project that’s been trying to solve the 300-year old mystery of the alleged wreck for years—aided by the Maritime Archaeological Society in Astoria.
Heading for Acapulco, both galleons were loaded with Chinese goods, wax and other valuables, along with hundreds of passengers and crew.
Another theory about the wreck claims it could have been a Chinese junk, Portuguese trader, or a Dutch or English pirate vessel.
The story begins with a Papal Bull of 1493—a year after Columbus discovered America. The Pope gave Spain the exclusive rights to own almost all of North and South America; giving a part of Brazil to Portugal—his action backed up by two treaties in later years.
Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa traveling across the Isthmus of Panama in 1513 reached the Pacific Ocean and—with sword in one and a flag with the image of the Virgin Mary in the other—boldly walked into the sea up to his knees and claimed the Pacific and all adjoining lands and islands for Spain.
Soon settlements were established at Acapulco and other parts of Mexico, but then the Spanish took a siesta for about 250 years before colonizing California and exploring the Pacific Northwest.
During that time, Cortez, Pizzaro and other conquistadores were making themselves and Spain rich plundering the indigenous populations of the New World, sending home galleons filled with gold, silver, emeralds and other riches.
On the other side of the Pacific, the Spaniards made the Philippines a colony for 333 years and opened trade with China and other parts of Asia—mostly trading silver for silk.
The Manila galleon trade was dangerous business. One ship in six would be lost in the year-long roundtrip between Acapulco and Manila—leaving immense fortunes in gold, silver, jewelry and other valuables laying scattered on ocean floors to this day—with only a few already salvaged.
Back to the beeswax:
S. E. Clarke in his 1905 book “Pioneer History of Oregon” wrote, “Seven years before 1895, a high wind without rain blew away loose sand…he saw something exposed and found it to be a corner of a block of beeswax…washed ashore by the tides.
“He dug and found more; kept digging and found several tons of it in all shapes, sorts and sizes.”
The author writes about an Indian tale about a Chinese junk that “met its fate” on one side of the entrance to the Nehalem River “from which a number were saved…and wept bitter tears as they looked over the sunset seas toward the shores of the Orient … But in time they found homes and wives, leaving descendants, whose almond eyes tell of their Oriental origin to this day.”
Researcher Williams believes the ship was not a junk, but was the Santo Cristo, which he thinks might have been one of the larger galleons—150 feet long, 50 feet wide, five or six stories high and weighing 1,600 tons.
Scholars have verified that the beeswax was produced by the giant Asian honeybee through bee wings found imbedded in the wax. They further claim the beeswax was destined for making candles for use in churches and other venues throughout the Spanish Empire.
But there’s more to the story than beeswax.
Other finds around Nehalem Spit include teakwood, which was used in ship construction during those times, and shards of chinaware—sometimes made into arrowheads by the Indians in that area.
These artifacts can be seen in the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum and the Columbia River Maritime Museum.
Williams’ team is still searching for more.
Adding to the mystery, Captain William Clark noted seeing a 25-year old Clatsop Indian man who was light skinned and freckled; and in 1811, Gabriel Franchère from the ship Tonquin tells about meeting an Indian named Soto who claimed he was the son of a Spaniard wrecked many years earlier near the mouth of the Columbia River.
Similarly, two years later fur trader Alexander Henry reported meeting a 30-year old male who said his father was a crewman of a ship wrecked a few miles south of Astoria. Henry also told of great quantities of beeswax dug out of a sand spit.
In the 1930s, Ben Lane, mayor of Manzanita made a small table out of wood believed from the shipwreck—the table now on display in the Columbia River Museum.
Radiocarbon dating from wood and beeswax, plus more precise data from the porcelain shards back up the claim that the mystery vessel was indeed from the period of the Spanish Manila trade.
Most of the artifacts have been found in a wide area on and around the sandy Nehalem Spit — and more inland. “The dispersed pattern of these shards in terrestrial sites suggests an offshore source is ‘feeding’ a beach deposit at Neahkanie (seaside mount), perhaps off the wreck,” Williams explains.
He believes a tsunami that occurred in 1700 — after the ship was wrecked — picked up the debris and scattered it as it roared inland, and then dropped more as the wave receded back to sea.
“The only viable mechanism for ship timbers and beeswax to get over the fore dune and up the river valley is a tsunami cresting over the spit,” he said.
Williams is convinced that “Based on stylistic analysis of design motifs on recovered shards of the porcelain cargo that the ship carried, the vessel wrecked sometime between 1670 and 1700, during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty.”
Williams expects to look for the wreck this summer. “We’re waiting for a grant we’ve applied for to fund a boat to use in an offshore survey, and we’re waiting for the return of a magnetometer that’s under repair, which we’ll test in the Columbia River first.”
He believes the wreck is in shallow water scuba diving range. “I think from eight to a hundred feet. I hope not deeper than 150 feet.”
If and when Scott Williams and his devoted team of searchers find the mystery ship, it may be highly unlikely that their joy will equal that of Mel Fisher’s team when they discovered the “Our Lady of Atocha” in the Caribbean with a reported 40 tons of silver, gold, jewelry and assorted riches aboard worth some $400 million.
Historians know what kind of goods the Manila galleons carried in both directions — so in the mystery wreck, there might indeed be a hidden treasure of gold, diamonds, rubies and …
• • •
Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at email@example.com
More galleon wrecks…
In addition to the Beeswax Wreck, there are two other known Spanish galleon wrecks off the West Coast—one off Northern California and another off Baja California. The Baja wreck has been found after Ming porcelain shards were found on a beach in 1997. The California galleon is yet to be located.
Gold from China…
Little reported fact about Spain’s Manila trade: While large quantities of silver were being shipped to Asia in payments for silk, spices and other goods, gold was being sent back in exchange, along with the silk and other Asian goods. The reason is that China’s monetary system under the Ming Dynasty had a high demand for silver—buying it with gold.
Beeswax technical glitch…
The Lewis and Clark expedition brought with them a metal frame designed by Lewis for a small boat that they could cover with hides. When they stopped near today’s Great Falls in Montana as they headed westward, they assembled a boat—stitching elk hides together and caulking it with a mix of ash, buffalo tallow, and beeswax because there wasn’t any pine tree pitch available. It didn’t work. The boat leaked and began sinking. They junked the idea and abandoned the frame.
Manila galleon trivia…
Most Manila galleons were built in the Philippines, with eight built in Mexico
Most Manila galleons that perished sank in the Philippines and surrounding area, Japan and China
In 1568, Miguel López de Legazpi, Spain’s first governor in the Philippines owned the first galleon to be wrecked on its way to Acapulco
Galleons used by Spain during the Spanish Armada in 1588 were between 90 to 120 feet in length, weighing 300 to 1,000 tons. Some of the large Manila galleons were 140 to 160 feet long weighing 2,000 tons
Largest Manila galleon was the Santisima Trinidad, 150 feet long, weighing 2,000 tons with a crew of from 400 to 800 and armed with 54 cannons. The ship was captured by two British naval vessels and taken as a prize in 1762
Death on the high seas…
Mortality rates were high in the Manila galleon trade — especially in the early years — with ships frequently arriving in Manila from Acapulco with only a fraction of their crew still alive. The rest died from starvation, disease and scurvy. Few wanted to risk the return trip to Acapulco, so Asians were hired and made up the majority of the crew. Filipinos were particularly valued for their seamanship.
History Corner readers interested in volunteering to help in the search for the Beeswax Wreck, contribute financial support or follow the search progress are invited to contact the Maritime Archaeological Society, a non-profit research group supporting the Beeswax Wreck Project at maritimearchaeological.org.