Did archaeological group solve the ‘Beeswax Ship’ mystery?

Jul 18, 2018, 6:22 AM | Updated: 8:52 am

Growing up in the Northwest in the 20th century, if you had any interest in local history, you probably heard about the mystery of the “Beeswax Ship.”

You might have read about it in a book from your local library called “Pacific Graveyard” by James A. Gibbs or “Lost Mines and Treasures of the Pacific Northwest” by Ruby El Hult, both suitably adorned with thrilling cover art, and packed with romantic tales of hidden treasures and vessels mysteriously lost at sea.

Amongst all Northwest myths and legends, the “Beeswax Ship” remains particularly resonant around here for its downright longevity, which is why the recent news that a local archaeological group may have solved at least part of the mystery is particularly thrilling.

The story begins on the Oregon Coast, from the time of the arrival of the earliest non-Native settlers more than 200 years ago, when mysterious pieces of beeswax marked with numbers and symbols were noticed and written about by some of the first explorers and fur traders in what’s now Oregon and Washington state.

Trading in beeswax

Natives would bring the beeswax – in blocks, or sometimes in the form of candles – to trade with settlers. Settlers eventually found chunks of beeswax themselves in the sand dunes on and around Nehalem Spit. This narrow peninsula of sand is just south of the little town of Manzanita and a coastal peak called Neahkanie Mountain, several miles down the coast from the popular resort destination of Cannon Beach.

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Even today, beachcombers still occasionally find beeswax in the area, and sometimes sherds of Chinese porcelain. And artifacts like these found decades or even more than a century ago are prized by museums from Manzanita, to Tillamook to Astoria, with the most choice pieces often on permanent display to help tell the story of the Beeswax Ship.

But what was the Beeswax Ship and where did the beeswax and pottery come from?

As early as 1811, Europeans working in the fur trade at what became Astoria were told by Natives that some kind of big ship filled with beeswax had wrecked near Nehalem Spit many, many years previous. The story was part of the local Native oral tradition among Clatsop and Nehalem people, but the specific circumstances (such as the date of the wreck, the name of the ship, and other details) were difficult for the European settlers to ascertain.

For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the mystery remained a mystery, with various authors and amateur historians theorizing that the Beeswax Ship had been some kind of Spanish vessel that had lost its way. The stories were frustratingly vague, but remarkably persistent, as more beeswax kept turning up in the dunes.

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Fast forward to the early 21st century, and one person who had never heard of the Beeswax Ship was Scott Williams.

Searching for a Spanish galleon

For his day job, he’s the manager of the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Cultural Resources Program. Earlier this year, it was Scott Williams who told KIRO Radio listeners all about the fallout shelter under I-5 in Ravenna.

In 2006, two colleagues of Scott’s were working on underwater archaeology in Hawaii. One day, they reached out to him for help with a new project.

“[They] called me up and said, ‘Hey, would you like to help us search for a Spanish galleon?’ And I said, ‘Oh boy, I sure would.’ And I have these pictures of diving in clear warm water in Florida [or] Mexico, and they said, ‘No, it’s in Northern Oregon,’” Williams said.

“And I said, ‘You guys are nuts, there’s no Spanish galleons in Oregon.’”

But Williams’ colleagues explained about the Beeswax Ship, and about the robust trade between Manila in the Philippines and Acapulco, Mexico centuries ago, where the Spanish had established colonies. Beeswax from the Philippines, China and India was a key ingredient in candles, and thus was highly sought after in the New World.

Williams signed on, and became principal investigator for the Beeswax Wreck Research Project, which is part of a non-profit organization called the Maritime Archaeological Society.

The team, officially based in Astoria, conducted major new research in archives in Spain, Mexico and the Philippines, and archaeological research on the Oregon Coast. Incredibly, through this work, they came up with a short list of two specific Spanish vessels that could be the Beeswax Ship. Each had left Manila bound for Acapulco – one in 1693, one in 1705 – but neither had ever arrived.

Perhaps most importantly, they debunked a 1939 book that had caused a lot of confusion in prior efforts to establish the true identity of the Beeswax Ship.

Through their research, they figured out that one particular vessel – the Santo Cristo de Burgos – that this book said had been burned in the Western Pacific had, in fact, not burned. It had actually disappeared. No one knew where it had ended up.

“So that was kind of a big epiphany for us, it was like, ‘Oh, it didn’t burn, there were no survivors, it could be the ship in Oregon,’” Scott Williams said. “And then, as we did the archaeology and looked at the artifacts that have been washing ashore, the Chinese porcelain that it was carrying, that porcelain dates to 1680 to 1700, there’s nothing later than 1700, which adds support to the idea that it’s the 1693 ship, not the 1705.”

The Santo Cristo de Burgos

The theory is that the Beeswax Ship was, in fact, a Spanish galleon called the Santo Cristo de Burgos. It left Manila bound for Acapulco on July 1, 1693. Somehow, and for some unknown reason, it lost its way and wrecked at the mouth of the Nehalem River on the northern coast of what’s now Oregon, sometime between October and early December of 1693.

“Oregon is actually really far north of the sailing route of the galleons,” Williams said. “So maybe it got pushed northwards by a winter storm coming up out of the southwest.”

Williams says that despite all the research about the Santo Cristo de Burgos, the exact dimensions of the ship are still not known.

“We don’t know for sure,” Williams said. “[But] we think it was about 150 feet long and probably 45 or 50 feet wide, so it was a real tub.”

Shipwrecks were almost commonplace hundreds of years ago, but Williams says it was a major seismic event that guaranteed that the Beeswax Ship would become legendary.

On January 26, 1700, what’s now known as the Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami hit the Pacific Northwest coast.

Help from the Cascadia Earthquake

At that point, the wreckage of the Santo Cristo de Burgos had been on or near the Nehalem Spit for about seven years. Scott Williams says the tsunami created a unique set of conditions that are, essentially, the only reason that all that beeswax was preserved so near the site of the wreck and not washed out to sea over the centuries.

“Because the tsunami picked up the wreck materials like beeswax and it dumped it on the Nehalem Spit, it deposited the wax, the tsunami wave was high enough to put the wax out of the reach of storm waves, high tides, river floods, and so the wax sat there for hundreds of years,” Williams said.

“And, because the Nehalem Spit was a barren sand spit with sand dunes with sand blowing across it, the wax would be exposed, buried, exposed, buried,” Williams said. “So over hundreds of years, people could keep finding the wax.”

Williams also says that the remains of the ship were sometimes visible in the 19th century, and may have been seen as recently as the 1970s.

“The earliest settlers to the Oregon Coast talk about a ship exposed at the river mouth in the ocean and it was only exposed at extremely low tide every few years,” Williams said. “But when it was exposed, you could walk out to this part of the ship and there was a deck, and there was some mast stubs with rigging blocks. And people would dig into that ship at low tide to collect beeswax and other items.”

How certain is Williams that his team has positively identified the Beeswax Ship?

“We haven’t found the wreck yet, but we’re 95% certain it’s the Santo Cristo de Burgos,” Williams said. “I’m actually 100% certain, but until I find the wreck, I leave that little margin of error.”

There was something else aboard that ship that could be far more interesting beeswax or porcelain: the crew and passengers. Williams says that archival records his team found show that there were 215 crewmembers and 16 passengers when the ship left Manila; the detailed records, incredibly, even give the names and occupations of most of those who were on the ship.

Shipwreck survivors

And while it’s unclear how many survived the perilous trip across the Pacific Ocean and the wreck at Nehalem Spit, Williams says it’s a good bet that some must have made it ashore alive.

“We’re pretty certain there were survivors,” Williams said. “Just given the Native oral histories and some of the other accounts of later explorers on the coast talking about Native Americans in the area who had red hair and freckles who were the descendants of shipwreck survivors.”

Williams says this aspect of the project would be difficult to fully research.

“The Native American oral histories talk about survivors who lived with the local Nehalem Indians for a time,” Williams said. “And we’re pretty sure those survivors probably left descendants. That would be hard to track unless you could get a bunch of modern Native Nehalem or Clatsop Indians who are willing to do DNA tests and see if they had Spanish or Filipino or Malaysian ancestry, which they could have after 300 years anyway.”

Williams says that the Maritime Archaeological Society has big plans for the next year or so ahead, but that their resources don’t quite match their ambitions.

Finding the Beeswax Ship

“We’ve pretty much done all we can as a volunteer organization,” Williams said.

“We’re a non-profit, our funds are really limited. We’d like to find the wreck, but it’s not a treasure hunt. We don’t get to keep anything. The wreck is protected by state and actually international law, and so finding the wreck is going to take probably an institution with a lot more resources than we have,” he said.

But Williams and his colleagues are actively fundraising, and they welcome donations to fund the next step as early as next year: exploration of the waters off Nehalem Spit to find whatever wreckage of the Santo Cristo de Burgos that might remain.

“If we can get the funds, we will try and do an offshore survey,” Williams said. “We think even though the wreck is historically described as being on the spit and at the river mouth, we think part of it might still be in slightly deeper water and that’s what we’d like to look for.”

Williams says that even if they do find the remains of the ship, one part of the mystery is likely to persist.

“There’s probably a dozen different reasons why it may have wrecked up in Oregon,” Williams said. “Even if we found the wreck, we probably wouldn’t know.”

And that seems like a good thing, to keep a little bit of the mystery, even while finding a treasure far more valuable than gold or other shiny objects: more details about a priceless chapter from Northwest history.

Special thanks and congratulations to our friends and colleagues at the Oregon Historical Society for their work to share the stories of the Beeswax Ship, and for the incredible Summer 2018 issue of their Oregon Historical Quarterly, which highlights several aspects of the archaeology and other research into the longstanding mystery.

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Did archaeological group solve the ‘Beeswax Ship’ mystery?