Scholars’ solution to the age-old mystery of the ‘beeswax wreck’ off the Oregon coast can be read online for free
PORTLAND, Ore. (KTVZ) — For centuries, beeswax and Chinese porcelain have washed ashore on Nehalem Spit on Oregon’s northern coast.
After years of research in archives around the world, in combination with archaeological evidence, researchers were able to highlight the Saint Christopher of Burgosa 17th century Manila galleon belonging to the Kingdom of Spain, such as the mysterious ship commonly known today as the “beeswax wreck.”
June 16, National geographic announcement that state officials had confirmed the recovery of timber from the Saint Christopher of Burgos near Manzanita.
In the summer of 2018, the scientific journal of the Oregon Historical Society, the Oregon Historical Quarterly, published a groundbreaking special issue on this research, a powerful combination of archaeological and archival evidence solving this centuries-old mystery. In light of the recent discovery of wreckage remains, OHS recently published this special issue of OHQ“The Manila Galleon of Oregon”, available free online.
“Our understanding of the history of the Beeswax Wreck is due to the knowledge and scholarship shared by dedicated people from all disciplines and centuries; everything from Aboriginal oral tradition to archival research to maritime archaeology, has brought new insights to the public about one of Oregon’s most intriguing mysteries,” said Oregon Historical Quarterly Editor Eliza E. Canty-Jones. “With this exciting find from the woods of the ship itself, OHS is proud to make this scholarship available to everyone to provide a fuller account of this fascinating part of Oregon’s history.”
Stories of a very large shipwreck began circulating during the early days of the Euro-American presence in the Pacific Northwest, as fur traders and explorers learned from natives that a large ship had wrecked long ago on Nehalem Spit, with survivors and cargo that included beeswax. . The stories, shrouded in speculation and often contradictory Euro-American folklore, have captivated treasure hunters who have searched for a century and a half nearby Mount Neahkahnie and adjacent beaches.
The team led by archaeologists from the Beeswax Wreck Project used geology, archeology and porcelain analysis, combined with documentation from the Spanish archives, to identify the probable identity of the vessel. Beeswax stamped with Spanish shippers’ marks confirmed the origin of the wreck, and patterns on the Chinese porcelain shards allowed researchers to narrow the date range.
The Spanish Manila galleon trade was the first worldwide network, and nearly 300 galleons left the Philippines for Acapulco carrying Asian goods during its 250 years. The project determined that the beeswax wreck was one of two galleons that disappeared without a trace: the Saint Christopher of Burgoswho sailed in 1693, or the San Francisco Xavierwhich left Manila in 1705. Mapping the location of the beeswax deposits allowed project members to state with confidence that the ship had almost certainly been wrecked before the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami in 1700.
Cameron LaFollette and his team of archivists then undertook extensive research in the archives of Spain, the Philippines and Mexico to locate all available information on the Saint Christopher of Burgos of 1693. They discovered the story of the captain of the ship, Don Bernardo Iñiguez del Bayo; a complete crew and passenger list; and very important facts about the cargo.
Researchers now know that the Saint Christopher of Burgos – which was built at the Solsogón shipyard on the island of Bagato in the Philippines – carried 2.5 tons of liquid mercury. Public reports at this time do not indicate whether mercury testing has been performed on salvaged wood.
After many years of work to solve this centuries-old mystery, the La Follette research team and the Beeswax Wreck Project group have published their findings in this special issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly. La Follette is Managing Director of Oregon Coast Alliance and lead author of the special issue. By day she advocates for coastal conservation and by night she writes poetry, which is archived in the University of Oregon Special Collections and University Archives.
The Oregon Historical Quarterly (OHQ) is a peer-reviewed public history journal published by the Oregon Historical Society that brings the history of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest to scholars and general readers. OHQ is one of the largest state historical society journals in the United States and is a recognized and respected source for the history of the Pacific Northwest region.
The summer 2018 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly is now available for free reading online, and print copies are also available for purchase in the Oregon Historical Society Museum Shop for $10. A subscription to OHQ is a benefit of membership in the Oregon Historical Society.
About the Oregon Historical Society
For more than a century, the Oregon Historical Society has served as the collective memory of the state, preserving an extensive collection of artifacts, photographs, maps, manuscripts, books, films, and oral histories. Our research library, museum, digital platforms and website (www.ohs.org), educational programming and a historical journal make Oregon’s history open and accessible to everyone. We exist because history is powerful and because a history as deep and rich as that of Oregon cannot be contained in a single story or a single point of view.