Has the Mystery of the "Beeswax Wreck" Been Solved?
By Robert Lewis Knecht
Published: 02/24/2012  Updated: 06/21/2019
Robert Lewis Knecht

Beeswax, porcelain and teak timbers, among other artifacts, have been found along Manzanita's beaches and the adjacent Nehalem Spit and Bay.

When I moved back to the Oregon coast in 2010, it wasn't long before I heard the intriguing story of the "beeswax wreck" reputed to lie somewhere in the surf beyond the sleepy seaside town of Manzanita, just south of Cannon Beach. These stories told of large blocks of beeswax (some weighing 175 pounds) with strange markings on them, teak wood timbers and delicate Chinese porcelains which had been washing up on the beach for the last several hundred years. My first thought? A Manila galleon! These Spanish trade ships sailed from Acapulco, New Spain (present day Mexico) to Manila, the Spanish capital of the Philippines, for 250 years, delivering silver from New World mines in exchange for the fabled silks and spices of the East.

And just like it did when I was six and seven, my head began to swim with the magical euphoria one gets when hearing a "mysterious shipwreck" or "lost gold mine" story for the first time. But there was a problem. What was a Manila galleon doing so far north? You see, Manila Galleons had to sail with the "trade winds" and were aiming to make sight of land no farther north than present day San Francisco – if they came in north of there, something was most likely wrong.

And yet, Native American oral histories tell of "white men" coming ashore from a boat near present day Manzanita, and of a shipwreck just off shore, whose boney ribs could once be seen, clawing out of the sand at low tide. Explorers and early pioneers dating back to Lewis and Clark recorded fair-haired and light-skinned "tribesmen" in the region.

And the artifacts are real. Beeswax, porcelain and teak timbers, among other artifacts, have been found along Manzanita's beaches and the adjacent Nehalem Spit and Bay.

Some folks over the years have claimed the ship was a Chinese Junk lost in a storm, or perhaps a Portuguese or Dutch trader. Others felt sure the wreck was a Manila galleon. But there were even those who said it was a British pirate ship – maybe even One Eyed Willie's vessel!

But as romantic as a pirate wreck sounds, the facts, gleaned from thousands of hours of research, geomorphology, advanced electronics surveys, and get-on-your-knees-and-dig-in-the-dirt-archaeology, tell us a true-life tale harkening back to the Age of Discovery; a tale, that, perhaps, may even rewrite Oregon history.

For the last seven years, archaeologist Scott Williams has been the principle investigator for what has become known as the Beeswax Wreck Project Group which boasts nearly two dozen volunteers: archaeologists, historians, geologists, divers, curators, students, and community members, some of whom have been searching for and gathering clues to the wreck for over 50 years.

Their combined work culminated in an astounding paper published in the March/April 2011 edition of Geoarchaeology (available on-line from www.wiley.com.) The paper, Geoarchaeology of the Nehalem spit: Redistribution of beeswax galleon wreck debris by Cascadia earthquake and tsunami (A.D. 1700), strongly suggests that the "beeswax wreck" is a Spanish Manila galleon returning to Acapulco from Manila. Spanish shipping records show that of the hundreds of galleons that sailed between 1565 and 1815, approximately five were lost and never heard from again. Is our wreck one of those galleons? Most Manila galleons were built in the Philippines and were constructed of teak timbers. The beeswax found on Manzanita's beaches bears Spanish ownership markings, and Chinese "blue and white" arrowheads have been found in former Native American settlements throughout Nehalem Bay.

By painstaking study of the designs on nearly 1,200 ceramic shards, the team was able to narrow the date of the wreck to the late 1600s. And Spanish records revealed that only two ships which left Manila during that time were never seen again: Santo Christo de Burgos lost in 1693, and San Francisco Xavier lost in 1705.

But which ship is it? Over 300 years has passed, and countless beach combers and storms have scattered the clues for miles. The probable answer was discovered when examining the effects of the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami of 1700. According to geomorphology, ground penetrating radar and magnetometer surveys, this colossal event redistributed pieces of the beeswax wreck into Nehalem Bay – an event that occurred five years before San Francisco Xavier left port. "I am convinced that the wreck is that of Santo Christo de Burgos," Williams told me recently. "The only thing that would be 100 percent proof is if we could find a piece of the wreck in the tsunami sediment layer; that would clinch it."

But the most enduring legacy of this treasure tale is best stated in Geoarchaeology: "Perhaps the greatest significance of the Beeswax wreck is that it represents the earliest archaeological evidence of contact between Euroamericans and Native Americans on the northern Oregon coast."

Thanks to the Spanish scribes on the docks in Manila 319 years ago, and to the curiosity, diligence and talent of those who followed them, we now have a good idea what happened to that lost galleon so long ago. And I can't help but wonder, sipping some sweet wine by the fire on that lonely stretch of beach, are the descendants of those long-ago Spanish sailors still walking amongst us today?

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Has the Mystery of the "Beeswax Wreck" Been Solved?