A conversation with the archaeologist who (possibly) found the wreckage of a Spanish galleon in an Oregon sea cave
For more than 300 years, pieces of beeswax, formed from Filipino pollen, and shards of Chinese porcelain have washed up on the northern Oregon coast around Nehalem – the wreckage of a wrecked ship.
Beachcombers have discovered the artifacts for decades, and larger chunks of beeswax can be found on display in small coastal museums and libraries. Fantasy fables about the treasure have been incorporated into the story. Since Astoria’s founding in 1811, white settlers have heard Native legends of a ship in distress, then searched for hordes of silver, gold and jewels secreted on Neahkahnie Mountain – the abundant wax detritus of bee providing presumed evidence for these ancient claims.
It’s an Oregon legend older than the political construction of “Oregon” itself. Even if you haven’t heard the story, you’ve seen it referenced: The beeswax wreck is the source material that inspired One-Eyed Willy’s treasure ship in The Goonies.
For 16 years, Scott Williams has been searching for this galleon. Two months ago, his team salvaged timbers that provided long-awaited evidence of the ship that met its fate in the Pacific.
Well, maybe, Williams concedes.
He leads a group of dedicated volunteers, called the Maritime Archaeological Society, which since 2006 has been trying to solve the mystery of the ship’s identity. After combing through countless historical documents, examining the thousands of physical evidence found along the shore, and consulting with other experts around the world, the team came up with a hypothesis. Their theory: The specific ship that wrecked along this stretch of the Oregon coast was the 17th century Spanish galleon. Saint Christopher of Burgos.
In 2013, commercial fisherman Craig Andes discovered a cave with waterlogged timbers, partially buried in sand, which he believed to be part of this ship’s wreck. In 2020, he contacts the company and informs them of his cache.
The cave is located on a particularly dangerous section of rugged coastline, north of Manzanita, in a site accessible only at extremely low tide. Permits from several agencies were obtained to recover the artifacts, and in mid-June (as originally detailed by National geographic and The Daily Astorian), a dangerous and lightning-fast two-year salvage operation removed the ship’s century-old timbers.
Last week, WW met with Scott Williams, archaeologist with the Washington State Department of Transportation and president of the Maritime Archaeological Society, in Olympia, Washington, to discuss this legend in Oregon history. He told us about their recent discovery and the timbers of the over 300 year old ship that support their theory. (Maybe.)
WW: What place does this ship occupy in your life?
Scott Williams: From the start, the search has been an interesting riddle for me to solve: when we started, no one knew what type of ship the beeswax wreck was from, where it came from or why it was was on the Oregon coast. I didn’t grow up with the story, and in fact had never heard of it until my friend called and asked me to work on the project, and I knew nothing about the business of Manila galleons. This allowed me to approach the puzzle without preconceived ideas or prejudices – I had no dog in the fight to know if it was a Spanish galleon, a Chinese junk or another ship, or whether it was the 1705 galleon or a different one.
There have been many people involved over the 16 years. And really, it’s just people who were interested in, wow, that Spanish galleon that wrecked off the Oregon coast! When, where, how, why kind of thing.
Have you solved the mystery?
We are 99% sure that we know the sinking ship. We know when he was shipwrecked, but we don’t know exactly where he was shipwrecked.
We certainly don’t know why it sank. He shouldn’t have been here in Oregon. Our goal is therefore to continue to investigate this end. We’d like to find the wreckage offshore where we could do some limited digging and find a Spanish anchor or a Spanish cannon where we could say we’re not 99% certain anymore, we’re 100% certain.
You have selected the galleon Saint Christopher of Burgos, a Spanish galleon, as the probable ship. Why?
In the 1500s, the New World is discovered, it is the European era of exploration. European powers create this huge trade with Africa, India and China. And from China, they begin to obtain luxury products: silk, cotton, spices. These are the Big Three and the Porcelain.
The Spaniards have a colony in the Philippines, its main purpose is to buy Chinese products. They’re starting to explore this trade, and because of the trade winds, monsoons and all that, really, it’s only practical to cruise once a year or so. You leave the Philippines in June and ideally reach Acapulco, Mexico around Christmas. Then you sell everything. You refit the ship, the ship leaves Acapulco in March and returns to the Philippines in three or four months. Return to the Philippines in time to load brand new cargo and then set off again.
The trade eventually evolves to essentially one large ship each year. He leaves Manila in June, sometimes July. For 250 years, this trade continues. Ships are getting bigger and bigger because if you can only send one ship a year and that’s all your economy, you have to send a big ship. So they are maximized super cargo carriers. Massive and slow ships. Large crews, 200 to 300 crew members.
Because this trade was so important, it was controlled by the Spanish government. Every ship was tracked, they had a cargo manifest, they knew the crew. If a ship was missing, they went looking for it because they wanted to find the cargo.
So in that 250 year period you only have four sailboats from Manila to Acapulco that just disappeared. One of them is in Baja, Mexico. One of the other three is the wreck we are looking at.
It shouldn’t be in Oregon. There was no reason for this ship to be here. They were not here exploring or establishing a new colony. They weren’t looking for food or water. They are either lost or disabled.
How far north would it have been reasonable to expect a Spanish-controlled ship to come?
About Monterey Bay. Maybe a little further north, but not much further. San Francisco, in the lead. So being here is of course.
In 2018, you co-wrote an article for Oregon Historical Quarterly which detailed the conclusions you reached to support your theory that the beeswax ship was the Saint Christopher of Burgos. What was your proof?
We worked with Curt Peterson, a coastal geologist specializing in ancient earthquakes and their effects on the coast. Curt came out and he did his mapping with ground penetrating radar and said the only way your artifacts will get to where they are is in the 1700 tsunami. So that was our first clue.
Then we started working with the Spanish archives, and there’s a 1699 letter from the governor of Mexico to the king of Spain, six years after the Saint Christopher of Burgos Depart from Manila, informing the King that despite six years of searching the western Pacific islands and the coasts of New Spain, the ship has disappeared without a trace.
Finally, the accounts of historians: In 1917, one of them wrote about the galleon trade, and a long history of the Philippines in 1909 also stated that the ship set sail in 1693 and did not never been seen again.
So finding the antlers is just another piece of evidence supporting your hypothesis.
To correct. We knew about the antlers from the ships since 2020. We delivered a report to the State of Oregon in January 2021, with a proposal that we must go and collect these antlers before they were taken away, or before the hunters memories take them away.
And honestly, I’m not 100% sure that these woods are from the Saint Christopher of Burgos. I spent Friday in Astoria, and I collected wood samples from these beams which we will send to the Philippines and to a radiocarbon dating laboratory to obtain more dates and better identification of the wood. Because it is possible that it is a different ship. It’s a wreck, but it’s possible it’s a Japanese junk. As we know from Indian stories, another ship was wrecked around 1770.
The simplest explanation is that it is our Saint Christopher of Burgos. It’s exactly where it should be. These are indeed shipwrecked pieces, but it is possible that it is not the wreckage.
How much physical material did you collect from the cave?
We are still analyzing it. We have collected parts that once returned and somehow cleaned them are clearly not [from] The boat. But we have over 20 pieces that we think are from the ship.
Some pieces measuring a foot in length, badly water worn, up to 7½ feet. Most pieces are under 3 feet. I mean five or more that are over 3 feet long. Some have more distinctive features, and we hope to be able to send photos and 3D models of these pieces to people who really know Spanish ships and say, “Does this look like a rib from a 17th century galleon ? Does it sound like it’s coming from the top deck? »
Therefore the Saint Christopher of Burgos carried porcelain and beeswax. How much beeswax?
We don’t know for sure. These ships carried between 40 tons of beeswax and 100 tons of beeswax. We do not know how many tons of beeswax were transported on the Saint Christopher of Burgos, but the beeswax was actually only a small part of the cargo. So if you stop and think about the amount of beeswax found over the past 300 years, that was the small cargo on the galleon. The big cargo was silk. And the cotton, which of course is all bad, unless you find it buried in the mud. Asian luxury spices and art, Japanese lacquers…
And a crap metric of treasure!
There was probably gold jewelry.
I’m talking gold and silver, I’m talking Goonies shit, tons of Goonies treasure.
No, no, it wouldn’t have been tons. Probably gold jewelry, but not like the galleons in Mexico or Colombia. Art and silk were the real valuables.
The rich passengers, they had their family fortune. But we are not talking about galleons in Florida where there were 50 tons of gold or a hundred tons of gold or silver. There could have been, you know, a Catholic priest who had 200 pounds of gold. Maybe, if he was a really corrupt priest, 500 pounds of gold, but not 5 tons of gold.
Well, that’s disappointing!
So what questions do you still have?
Now that we know which ship was wrecked, what really interests me is the effect the 1700 tsunami had on the wreckage: is part of the ship still offshore or is it all down ? If the tsunami picked it up and deposited it on land, what is the offshore source of the porcelain and wood that continues to wash up on shore?
This is just another piece of supporting evidence. It’s not a, oh my god, we found out virgin. It’s, you know, we’re on the right track.