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Is state’s oldest known sunken ship full of buried treasure?

No one knows for sure what the “Beeswax shipwreck” was, but if it was the San Francisco Xavier, there may be more than just chunks of 300-year-old wax buried in the sands off Nehalem Bay.

This photo illustration accompanied a 1915 article about the beeswax shipwreck in the Portland Sunday Oregonian. (Image: UO Libraries)
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in March 2009, which you’ll find here.

Buried somewhere in the sands off Nehalem Spit is Oregon’s oldest known shipwreck — and it’s a wreck that may be a genuine treasure ship.

The wreck has become known as the “Beeswax shipwreck,” for the simple reason that as if to remind us that it’s still out there, after every storm the 320-year-old wreck sends another few chunks of its cargo of beeswax floating ashore on the waves.

 

Those chunks have been washing ashore since well before Oregon was first settled by Europeans. Word of the wreck first reached European ears in 1813, when Clatsop tribe members came to Astoria with beeswax to trade.

That the beeswax these native Americans were carrying was from a shipwreck, there could be no doubt. Some of them were in the form of candles, with holes in them where the wicks had been; others were in flat slabs with cryptic symbols carved or stamped on them.

Of course, beeswax was a useful thing to have about when one was perched precariously on the edge of a howling wilderness in which it rained all the time. It could be used to seal seams and hat fabric, and of course it could be used in candles. So the traders were very happy to have it.

Asked about the source of the wax, the natives told the fur traders it came from a very old shipwreck, one that had taken place before the living memory of their oldest citizen. One elderly fellow, though, claimed he was actually the son of one of the sailors who’d been stranded in that wreck, and the traders noticed that some of the Indians looked as if they had some European ancestry in them — red hair, freckles, that sort of thing.

“When I first came here 51 years ago, there was beeswax among the Indians, from Salmon River on the south to Columbia River on the north,” wrote Clatsop County pioneer John Hobson in a letter to the Morning Oregonian in 1894. “They did not know what it was, and used it for lights and leaky canvas.”

One of Hobson’s fellow pioneers, an entrepreneurial soul named Baker, found the beach where most of the wax had floated to rest, and actually went into business “mining” it — prospecting along the beach with a spade, digging up big chunks of the stuff, melting it into ingots and selling it. Hobson recalled having bought a huge slab of the stuff from Baker in 1868 stamped with the letters “I.H.S.”

 

An unidentified man poses with a chunk of beeswax he found on the beach in 1955. (Image: Ben Maxwell/Salem Public Library)

Even in 1868 the wax was old, but still perfectly serviceable in candles and other things. How old, though, Hobson and Baker could only speculate. We, on the other hand, can do better than that. With the benefit of science and the ability to cross-check records, we’ve learned quite a lot about this mysterious beeswax.

First of all, radiocarbon dating has been done on the wax and bits of wood embedded in it, and it turns out to be close to 350 years old — dating from the late 1600s.

It’s also very clear that the wreck is that of a Spanish galleon. No one but the Spanish was shipping beeswax around the Pacific Ocean in the late 1600s — but they were shipping a lot of it. For candles used in the Catholic Mass, the Spanish greatly preferred the hard, clean-burning wax produced by Asian bees, so much so that they were willing to go to tremendous trouble and expense to import it to their missions in California rather than getting it from local bee colonies in the Americas. So this wreck had to be Spanish.

Having narrowed the field of candidates down that far, historians next turned to the records kept by the Spanish at Manila, the colony from which the wax-shipping galleons sailed. In those records, during that time, only two galleons were lost at sea without a trace: The Santo Christo de Burgos, which sailed out of Manila in 1693; and the San Francisco Xavier, which departed in 1705.

Both these galleons were big vessels, carrying thousands of pounds of beeswax and hundreds of passengers when they left Manila bound for California and vanished into the hungry sea. So, the Nehalem treasure ship is almost certainly one of these.

A few of the symbols that have been found pressed or carved into chunks of Oregon Coast beeswax, as published in the Portland Sunday Oregonian in April 1915. (Image: UO Libraries)

Until recently, most archaeologists thought it was the San Francisco Xavier. In the past couple years, though, the thinking on this has shifted, and that’s primarily because of the wide dispersal of the beeswax. Beeswax has been found buried in the sand high above the high-tide zone; Baker, the pioneer beeswax entrepreneur, actually told John Hobson he had discovered a particular and recognizable layer of clayey strata that carried the beeswax, and would spend days fruitfully prospecting with a spade for veins of that distinctive-looking soil layer on the spit.

The reason this is significant is, the last great Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake happened in 1700 — right between the two possible shipwrecks. And the tsunami that resulted from that earthquake was big enough to utterly wipe out hundreds of coastal villages from northern California to southern British Columbia.

The tsunami, of course, would have broken the shipwreck to fragments, dispersing fragments of teakwood and chunks of wax all over the area and likely leaving it all behind in a depositional layer of sand mixed with dirt and clay — very much like how Baker described the wax-rich strata a century and a half later. So this is a strong argument for calling it the Santo Christo de Burgos — which would have, according to this theory, had seven years in which to rot away before being slammed by a 50-foot-tall wall of water and shattered and scattered all over the north coast.

On the other hand, the tsunami was strong enough to carry debris far inland, and there aren’t any stories of finding beeswax in coastal forests and upland areas; which is odd, because wax floats, and would have been carried on the crest of the tsunami’s waves. This argues for the San Francisco Xavier as the mysterious ship.

And here’s why it’s important, or at least interesting, to know which one it was:

The San Francisco Xavier left Manila at a time of great local tensions. The Filipino population, quite naturally, thought it ought to be in charge of the Philippine Islands, rather than the Spanish, and Filipino revolts were a frequent occurrence there. So in 1705, a number of prominent and wealthy Manila families took passage on the San Francisco Xavier, planning to move to California and start a new life in a new colony. They, of course, brought their worldly possessions with them. And neither they, nor their treasure, was ever seen again.

So if Oregon’s beeswax shipwreck is the San Francisco Xavier — which left Manila after the tsunami, so it would still be more or less intact — there is almost certainly a fortune in gold, jewelry and archaeological treasures tucked away somewhere just behind the line of breakers, somewhere along the northern Oregon coast.

(Sources: Scott, Leslie. “Source of Nehalem beeswax still mystery,” Portland Sunday Oregonian, 4-25-1915; Gulick, Bill. A Roadside History of Oregon. Missoula: Mountain Press, 1991; Williams, Scott. “Beeswax shipwreck,” The Oregon Encyclopedia, oregonencyclopedia.org; Beeswax Wreck Project Website at nagagroup.org/BeesWax/about/about.htm)