Antlers from a 17th-century shipwreck salvaged off the Oregon coast
In July 1693, a large Spanish galleon sailed from the Philippines with a cargo full of Asian luxuries, including silk, porcelain, and beeswax. The ship was destined for Acapulco, Mexico when it veered off course and disappeared.
The ship’s fate was the subject of a mystery that spanned more than 300 years along the coast of what is now northern Oregon. Pieces of blue-and-white porcelain and beeswax with Spanish markings have long washed up there, offering tantalizing clues to beachcombers and searchers that a shipwreck lay somewhere nearby.
Last month, a team of maritime archaeologists painstakingly recovered more than a dozen antlers from sea caves along the coast that researchers say were almost certainly pieces of the missing galleon, the Santo Cristo de Burgos. Researchers said it was the first time the remains of a Manila galleon had been recovered in North America.
“This ship comes from when the global economy was booming,” said Jim P. Delgado, senior vice president of Search Inc., a cultural resource management company that was tasked with coordinating the recovery. Woodland. “It was the beginning of the modern world we live in today.”
The find was remarkable, the archaeologists said, not least because the washing machine effect of pounding waves and tidal changes inside a sea cave are not ideal conditions for preserving wood. But the water off the Oregon coast has less salt than other parts of the Pacific Ocean, they said, and the wood was buried under a layer of sediment from a tsunami that hit the coast after an earthquake in 1700. These conditions left the wood in remarkably good shape.
Recovering the first tangible pieces of the beeswax wreckage, as the wreckage has become known, is the culmination of an effort that dates back to 2006, when Scott Williams, an archaeologist with the Department of Transportation Washington State, first heard about the mysterious Spanish Galleon from two friends.
Williams’ fascination with shipwreck eventually led him and other researchers to found the Maritime Archaeological Society. The volunteer group studied porcelain shards and blocks of beeswax that had been harvested from the shore over decades and determined that the porcelain was Chinese and the beeswax had Spanish markings.
The group concluded that the beeswax wreck must be one of two Manila galleons that went missing between 1650 and 1750: the Santo Cristo de Burgos, which was lost in 1693, or the San Francisco Xavier, who disappeared in 1705.
Initially, archaeologists thought it was the San Francisco Xavier they were looking for. In 1700, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit the west coast, triggering a massive tsunami that would have destroyed everything in its path, including all remnants of the Santo Cristo de Burgos.
However, a geological survey later established that the area they were looking for, where the Nehalem River meets the Pacific, was in a layer of sediment left behind by the tsunami, meaning the ship must have been there when it hit. The San Francisco Xavier was ruled out.
But there was a problem: many documents indicated that the Santo Cristo de Burgos was burning in the middle of the ocean. The Maritime Archeological Society raised funds for an extensive search of the Spanish naval archives, which revealed that the ship had simply disappeared without a trace.
This supported the researchers’ hunch that pieces of the ship were still offshore somewhere. Since 2012, the company has been carrying out risky dives, using sonar and underwater detectors to try to find any sign of the wreckage.
This is where a commercial fisherman named Craig Andes comes into the picture. The beeswax wreck is said to have inspired Steven Spielberg’s story for ‘The Goonies,’ a 1985 film about a group of children who search for the treasure of a 17th-century pirate ship on the coast of Oregon. It was one of Andes’ favorite movies growing up, so when he moved to Oregon as a kid, he became obsessed with finding treasure, just like the kids in the movie. Eventually, Andes was inspired to learn more about the Beeswax Wreck.
When Andes, now 49, learned that the Maritime Archeological Society was looking for the wreckage, he got in touch with Williams and the two began exchanging information.
In late 2019, Andes was walking along the rocky beach when something caught his eye: wooden beams sticking out of the water, stuck in a cave. It didn’t look like driftwood to him.
Excited, Andes called Williams, who was skeptical.
“I told him, ‘It can’t be from the shipwreck; the wood doesn’t keep for 300 years in the tidal zone,” Williams recalled.
But Andes insisted. The two retrieved a small piece of wood and sent it to a lab to settle the dispute.
The lab determined the wood to be tropical hardwood from Asia or South America – hardly ordinary driftwood. Radiocarbon dating showed it could be nearly 300 years old.
The group came up with a plan to recover the antlers. It wouldn’t be easy, as the wood was trapped in dangerous sea caves belonging to Oregon State Parks. Appropriate permits and authorizations will need to be obtained.
The Maritime Archeological Society hired Delgado and his company to coordinate the recovery. The project was funded in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society.
After two years of planning — a schedule that included delays related to the coronavirus pandemic — about two dozen people scattered along the shore around sunrise June 13, with officials from the Parks Department and various law enforcement agencies public safety joining the researchers. The team would have around 90 minutes to complete their delicately choreographed mission before the tides become too high to safely enter the caves.
First, it would take more than 30 minutes to traverse huge boulders covered in smooth kelp, said Stacy Scott, a coastal region archaeologist with the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation, who helped plan the recovery.
Once the team members reached the caves, they had to be careful not to let the waves throw them into the rocks. Next, the group had to carefully dislodge the beams, the largest of which was 7.5 feet long and weighed over 300 pounds. The only way to get him out was to wrap life jackets around him and float him on jet skis to a fire crew, who then wrestled him onto a backboard that could be dragged to shore .
“We finally have the missing piece,” Scott said. “It was humbling to know that I was involved in something that probably inspired one of my favorite childhood movies, but also such an important historical event.”
The 16 antlers, of varying shapes and sizes, were transported to the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon, where they will be properly dried and preserved. The tests will determine the type of antlers, and archaeologists even hope to be able to determine which part of the ship the antlers came from. Manila Galleon experts from around the world will have access to the information, Williams said, in hopes they could help solve the puzzle.
There is a small chance that the antlers are from another wreck. But Williams said he has no doubts that he and his team have brought the legendary Beeswax Wreck’s earliest known pieces to earth.
“You have a log, with Asian tropical hardwood that washed ashore about 300 years ago, with square sides and holes for the spikes,” he said. “We are convinced that it comes from this shipwreck.”