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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Coming to a beach near you: Ghostly beeswax from the 1600s

Chunks of beeswax that still occasionally wash up on Oregon beaches have been carbon-dated to the early 1600s, and are believed to be from a wrecked Spanish galleon.

Beeswax from the deep
Frank J. Kumm, custodian of Pioneer Museum of Tillamook, holds
a piece of beeswax found on the nearby beach in 1952. In 1961,
radiocarbon dating showed the wax was formed in the 1600s.
Historians think it was part of the cargo of a Spanish ship wrecked
nearby between 1650 and 1675. (Salem Public Library/Ben Maxwell)
EDITOR'S NOTE: The subject of this column was revisited in a longer and more detailed column published in late 2016, which you will find here. I recommend it in preference to the version on this page; the newer column is thoroughly rewritten and re-researched and is of considerably better quality than this one, which was written during Offbeat Oregon History's first full year.

The original version of this article incorrectly gave the date of the San Francisco Xavier's departure from Manila as 1603 instead of 1705. That date has been corrected in this version. I apologize for any resulting confusion. —FJDJ

By now, the wreck of the New Carissa – or, rather, the half of it that ended up on a beach near Coos Bay – is just about gone, cut up and hauled away by the scrappers. And just in time, too – sorted, cleaned steel is once again barely worth the cost of salvage. But not long ago, it was selling for more than a dime a pound on the scrap-metal market. And there was a lot of it on that beach – plenty enough to qualify, for a properly equipped salvage outfit, as treasure from a shipwreck.

But the New Carissa’s carcass certainly isn’t the first trove of shipwreck treasure ever to wash up on the shores of Oregon, and it definitely will not be the last. In fact, one of the most famous pieces of shipwreck treasure on the coast is also quite possibly the oldest – and it’s still washing ashore, piece by piece. We don’t know the name of the wreck, or even what country it’s from. We just know it came to grief somewhere off the Oregon Coast, more than 300 years ago. And we know that today, it’s still out there somewhere, releasing its treasure in bits and pieces – in the form of mysterious chunks of centuries-old beeswax.

Although no one knows the identity of this mystery ship, most scientists and historians agree it’s probably the San Francisco Xavier, a Spanish galleon that left Manila in 1705. There was an outbreak of civil war in the Philippines just before the ship left, and several high-ranking Spanish families used the galleon to flee from the violence there and, they hoped, start a new life in California

They never made it. They and their ship vanished without a trace.

So … was it, along with its cargo of prized Asian beeswax and all those wealthy families’ treasure, lost near the mouth of the Nehalem River in Oregon?

Quite possibly. Certainly the San Francisco Xavier was lost somewhere.

On the other hand, the beeswax that’s washing ashore could have come from another ship. Beeswax was a very common cargo on 1600s Spanish galleons. The Spanish greatly preferred the beeswax from the East – it had a higher melting point and a slower burn rate than the stuff European and North American bees produced, and that was important for the ritual candles used in the Mass. So the Spanish loaded and shipped the stuff by the ton, on ship after ship, from India to the missions of California, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

Might one or more of those ships have been blown off course and foundered near Tillamook? Sure. In fact, accounts by natives – including one who, interviewed in 1895 at the age of 100 years, said his father had witnessed the wreck of a galleon near the Nehalem – support this theory.

Whether that wreck was the San Francisco Xavier or not, of course, is impossible to say, although the mathematics don't seem very promising; 1895 minus 100 years, minus 30 or 40 or however old this fellow's father was when he was born, definitely doesn't get us all the way back to 1705. What we do know is that, for the last 300 years, chunks of the same mysterious beeswax have been washing up all along the Oregon Coast. The farther north, the more is found – although one big chunk was found recently in Gold Beach. And radiocarbon dating shows these pieces of wax, and the bits of wood embedded in them, are about as old as the San Francisco Xavier.

Which means that somewhere, on the floor of the Pacific Ocean not far from the place where Tillamook Cheese is made, there lies the wreckage of a 300-year-old Spanish galleon – one that quite possibly may be full of gold and jewelry.

Sources: The Beeswax Wreck Project Website (Naga Research Group, Hawaii); NW Limited Magazine; Gulick, Bill. A Roadside History of Oregon. Missoula: Mountain Press, 1991.