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Robert Lewis Knecht, Cannon Beach Treasure Company
Ahh, shipwreck treasure... perhaps no other subject is quite as magical, and I grew up with that magic. I was born just six miles from the wreck of Gold Rush paddle steamer Brother Jonathan, which took $500,000 in gold to the bottom just off Crescent City, California in 1865, and grew up listening to Dad spin tales of lost gold mines, sunken ships and, with the fire glowing bright and a glass of sweet wine in his hand, the fables of treasures to satiate desire.
When I landed in Key Largo, Florida as a teen, I jumped in the water and never looked back. After hundreds of dives on Spanish galleons and other historic shipwrecks around the world, the question I'm most often asked these days is: Are there any Spanish galleon shipwrecks off the Oregon coast?
Had I been asked that question in the Keys, I would have said, "No." But 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 lbs.) 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.
Among the many shipwreck and lost treasure stories of the Pacific Northwest, this single wreck has left a legacy shrouded in mystery, conjecture and over 200 years of the telling and retelling of tales.
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.
For the ship that wrecked off present day Manzanita, apparently there were survivors, as Native American oral histories and legends tell of "white men" coming ashore from a boat near Manzanita and burying a chest on nearby Neahkahnie Mountain, or 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. 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. She had just traded tens of thousands of silver "pieces of eight" minted in New Spain (Mexico) and Peru for a hold full of silks, spices, porcelains and, of course, beeswax.
An old diving buddy of mine once told me the Spanish were the inventors of paperwork – they kept a record of just about everything. These records tell us that out of the hundreds of Manila galleons that sailed between 1565 and 1815, some were shipwrecked, a few were commandeered by enemies, and approximately five were lost and never heard from again.
Was this one of those galleons? Most Manila galleons were built in the Philippines and were constructed of teak timbers. Literally tons of beeswax blocks, chunks and even candles have been recovered from the area beaches. The blocks had markings that indicated they were owned by the Spanish and may have been headed for one of the missions in New Spain. I have dived on Spanish treasure galleons and have recovered pieces of Chinese "blue and white," just like the pieces that have washed up on the beach; some had been worked into arrowheads and were found in former Native American settlements throughout Nehalem Bay.
By painstaking study of the designs on nearly 1,200 ceramic sherds, 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; both would have carried the style of blue and white found throughout the Nehalem area.
But which ship is it? And could Williams and the team figure it out? Over 300 years has passed, and countless beach combers and storms have scattered the clues for miles, and many were still irretrievably buried under tons off sand. The probable answer was discovered when examining the effects of the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami of 1700. On January 26 a wall of water, from British Columbia to northern California, reshaped parts of the Northwest coast. According to Williams and members of the team specializing in geomorphology, ground penetrating radar and magnetometer surveys, this colossal event is the "mechanism" that 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% 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?
What is a Manila galleon?
By the Age of Discovery in the early 15th Century, trade between the Far East and Europe had been going on for over 1,500 years. Some goods came by land, others by a combination of land and sea, through the Mediterranean; but both routes were subject to interruption due to wars, ever changing political boundaries, and of course, the weather. And since every merchant who touched the trade goods on their journey charged a "tax" or "transport fee," this often made them very expensive.
One of the biggest obstacles mariners of that period encountered was ocean currents and wind directions; one couldn't just use the wind to sail east, then return west by the same route – wind and currents weren't that simple. The "Trade Winds" we just starting to be discovered.
By the time Columbus headed west in search of the Indies, the Portuguese had been exploring and developing trade with Africa, but they hadn't made it to India, or the "Spice Islands."
In 1494, with the Treaty of Tordesillas, the Spanish and the Portuguese agreed to divide the recently discovered lands outside of Europe. The line of demarcation ran about half way between the Cape Verde Islands (Portuguese owned, off the coast of West Africa) and the islands discovered by Columbus (present day Bahamas). With that, Portugal wound up with the eastern route to the Indies around the tip of Africa, and four years later, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gamma was the first to sail directly from Europe to India by rounding the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa.
By the early 1500s the Spanish realized that the "New World" was not the Indies, but it wasn't until 1521 that the route was discovered. Another Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, convinced Charles I of Spain (also known as Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire) to help finance his expedition, and he was the first European to sail across the Pacific to what is now the Philippines. While he was killed in a battle there, his expedition continued west and was the first to circumnavigate the world.
Now that a westward route had been discovered, all that remained was to find a way to return heading east. Spanish ships that continued west back to Spain had to sail through dangerous waters prowled by pirates and the ever expanding Portuguese and Dutch fleets. On the other hand, if they found a way to get back heading east, that would be a secret worth more than ten galleons filled to the gunwales with gold doubloons!
Several attempts were made. Then in 1665 the return route was discovered by Andrés de Urdaneta. Urdaneta reasoned that if a "gyre" (a large rotating body of ocean currents and winds created by the Earth's rotation) existed in the Pacific as it did in the Atlantic, then by sailing north, past Japan, he should pick up "trade winds" which would push him back east across the Pacific. The hunch paid off, and while his "expedition" was ill-provisioned for such a long voyage, and he lost most of his crew to hunger and scurvy, he sighted what is now Cape Mendocino, California (about 300 miles north of San Francisco), then followed the coast down to Acapulco.
For the next 250 years, the Galeones de Manila-Acapulco (Manila Galleons) would sale from Acapulco to Manila, in the Philippines, carrying hundreds of thousands of silver "pieces of eight." They returned with the "riches of the Orient," silks, spices, porcelains, ivory. They sold some of this to the colonies in New Spain and Peru, but most of it was carried across Mexico to Veracruz, where they were loaded on the Spanish treasure fleets heading back to Spain.
Most of the galleons were built in the Philippines, and they were massive compared to the Spanish treasure fleet galleons in the Atlantic. Atlantic galleons averaged less than 500 tons; Manila galleons ran between 1,700 and 2,000 and could carry nearly 1,000 passengers.
While it was no pleasant voyage, and it took an average of two and a half months to sail from the New World back to Spain, the Acapulco to Manila route took about three and a half months. But the return trip was far more perilous; a good trip was four to five months, but they sometimes lasted up to seven months. Quarters were mindbogglingly cramped, and everyone shared their spaces with thousands of sea going rats, of which even the cats on board were afraid. Death was always present, from disease to scurvy, and sometimes starvation. If you boarded a galleon in the Philippines with five other family members, it was not uncommon that less than four of you would disembark in Acapulco. In some cases less than 50 percent of the passengers and crew survived the return voyage, and in 1657 the galleon San Jose sailed on past Acapulco, failing to stop. When boats caught up with her they discovered a ship full of mummified passengers - she had been at sea for more than a year.
(A modified version of this story was originally published in Coast Explorer Magazine's Spring 2012 issue.)