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Wrecked Spanish galleon likely source of unusual items washing ashore

Large chunks of beeswax and other items that have washed ashore on Nehalem Spit, south of Clatsop County. (Courtesy Oregon Historical Society)
By Oregon Historical Society, Friday, July 6, 2018

Beeswax and Chinese porcelain have washed ashore on Nehalem Spit for centuries.

Now, archival and archaeological evidence point to the Santo Cristo de Burgos, a 17th-century galleon owned by the kingdom of Spain, as the mysterious vessel commonly known today as the “Beeswax Wreck.”

Stories of a very large shipwreck began circulating during the earliest days of Euro-American presence in the Pacific Northwest, as fur traders and explorers learned from local Indians that a large ship had long ago wrecked on Nehalem Spit. Among the cargo: beeswax.

The stories, shrouded by speculation and often contradictory local folklore, captivated treasure hunters, who searched for decades on nearby Neahkahnie Mountain and adjacent beaches.

But which ship was responsible?

An archaeologist-led team known as the “Beeswax Wreck Project” used geology, archaeology and porcelain analysis -- combined with documentation from Spanish archives -- to pinpoint the ship’s likely identity.

Beeswax stamped with Spanish shippers’ marks confirmed the wreck’s origin, and patterns on Chinese porcelain shards allowed researchers to narrow the date range.

The Spain to Manila galleon trade was the first global network, and close to 300 galleons left the Philippines for Acapulco carrying Asian goods during its 250-year span.

The project determined that the beeswax wreck was one of two galleons that vanished without a trace: the Santo Cristo de Burgos, which sailed in 1693, or the San Francisco Xavier, which left Manila in 1705. Mapping the location of beeswax deposits allowed project members to assert with confidence that the ship almost certainly wrecked before the 1700 Cascadia earthquake and tsunami.

Cameron La Follette and her team of archivists then undertook wide-ranging research in the archives of Spain, the Philippines and Mexico to locate all available information about the Santo Cristo de Burgos of 1693.

They discovered the history of ship Capt. Don Bernardo Iñiguez del Bayo, a complete crew and passenger list and important facts about the cargo. Researchers now know that the Santo Cristo de Burgos was carrying 2.5 tons of liquid mercury.

If the wreck is located, testing for mercury will provide confirmation of the ship’s identity.

La Follette’s research team and the Beeswax Wreck Project recently published their findings in a special issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly.

The magazine is a peer-reviewed public history journal published by the Oregon Historical Society.

The Summer 2018 issue is available from the historical society’s museum store for $10.

Subscriptions to the magazine or abstracts of the articles featured in the special issue are available at ohs.org.

Cameron La Follette


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