Beeswax wreck research begins to sink mystery

Churning into flotsam by the surf of the Pacific Ocean, more than 200 men watched helplessly from the Nehalem Spit as their monstrous citadel of a ship – a Manila galleon – was claimed by Davy Jones’ Locker.

By Jordan Wolfe
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They were officially castaways in the virgin Pacific Northwest.

At least, that’s what research suggests from Oregon Coast Alliance Executive Director Cameron La Follette, who believes she – along with her colleagues – may have solved a pair of 325-year-old mysteries: the first shipwreck on the Pacific Northwest and the disappearance of a Manila galleon.

“We’ve long known a large ship wrecked on the Oregon Coast,” La Follette said, “Archaeologists now think the ship is the Santo Cristo de Burgos.”

On Aug. 4, La Follette gave a presentation of her findings at Tillamook County Pioneer Museum titled “Oregon’s Manila Galleon: Discovering the Crew, Cargo and History.” La Follette and researchers Douglas Deur, Dennis Griffin, Scott S. Williams and others published their findings in the 2018 summer edition of Oregon Historical Quarterly’s special issue on Oregon’s Manila galleon.

For hundreds of years, large amounts of beeswax has been documented from the Nehalem valley area – with theoretical origins ranging from naturally occurring mineral wax to ships from Asia. La Follette’s research relied on a combination of archives and the history of the Pacific Northwest to conclude the Oregon coast’s famed Beeswax wreck is the Santo Cristo de Burgos – a Manila galleon of the Kingdom of Spain built in The Philippines.

Two Manila galleons went missing in the late 17th Century: the Santo Cristo in 1693 and the San Francisco Xavier in 1705 and an unexpected discovery led to archaeologists’ confident belief of the Beeswax wreck’s true identity.

“Beeswax was found not only at the front but behind the spit as well,” La Follette said, “Geologists realized the tsunami of 1700 washed it all the way over the spit.”

With the Santo Cristo predating the Xavier, it is now accepted as the probable candidate for the Beeswax wreck.

“There is something like 3,000 – between 2,000 and 3,000 – shipwrecks on the Oregon Coast,” La Follette said. “Nothing has seized the imagination like the galleon.”

La Follette’s independent research team then uncovered detailed archival information about the ship’s ill-fated history, including documents naming all members of its officer and crew of Basque, Spanish and Filipino men, and the passengers on board.

A massive castle on the sea loaded with more than 1,600 tons of luscious luxury goods from Asia, the Santo Cristo set sail in 1693 – never to be seen again.

First life of the Beeswax wreck
The story of the Santo Cristo de Burgos is as extravagant as they come, according to La Follette – it is one of greatest courage, greatest greed, highest stakes, longest journey and tremendous reward.

“They risked all – and I mean all,” La Follette said, “Not just money and reputation, but their lives.”

The trade route from Manila to the southern terminus in Acapulco, Mexico was the longest navigation route – around 9,000 miserable nautical miles. Galleons sailed north toward Japan to find a route that would return them to Mexico, sailing toward California before heading south. A typical journey would result in the deaths of about 30 percent of those on board during the six- to- nine-month trek.

“It was the worst journey in the world,” La Follette said, “And the longest one.”

At the helm of this particular long journey of the Santo Cristo was Captain Don Bernardo Iñiguez del Bayo. As one of the nobility, he did not need any maritime experience for such a position – which was thought of one of highest esteem.

“We found out a lot of information about the captain, which was exciting,” La Follette said, “It’s hit or miss whether you’ll find much information.”

Del Bayo ventured from Spain to Mexico, looking for adventure and excitement, common among the youth of Spanish nobility, according to La Follette, and eventually became mayor of San Luis Potosí and spearheaded the city’s first (what we would deem) public works project – a canal to drain floodwaters. In her quest for information, La Follette also discovered a portrait of del Bayo.

“It’s incredibly rare to have a likeness of a galleon captain,” she said, “I was just ecstatic. It was magical.”

In her research, La Follette discovered a complete passenger and crew list, which revealed a manifest of 237 crew and officers supposedly onboard along with 16 passengers, including Vicente Gonzalez, a diver tasked with repairing exterior damage to the galleon while sailing, Augustinian priest Fray Francisco de Ugarte – whose contemporaries lamented his passing in archival writings, along with many Filipino crewmen. Embarking on his ill-fated journey in 1693, del Bayo snuck out of harbor after the ship was loaded to avoid paying port fees – an act that resulted in the ship being poorly supplied and leaving around 30 sailors behind.

“Every single person on a Manila galleon was essential,” La Follette said.

The Santo Cristo attempted the journey once without success prior to setting sail on its ill-fated journey. The galleon was built between 1687 and 1688 with 1,600 tons of cargo capacity – it was an economic powerhouse for the Spanish colonies, which floundered whenever a galleon was lost.

“The cargo was so valuable and the profit opportunity was so extensive, goods were packed in every nook and cranny,” La Follette said. “The key thing about the Manila trade was they were beautiful, glittering, luxury trade goods… The goods involved were so incredibly gorgeous. There was nothing pedestrian, this was the finest of the fine.”

Finding a partial cargo list from Mexico, La Follette and her colleagues know ornate silks, Chinese porcelain, inlaid furniture and ivory pieces were included on the ship as well as valuable spices like cinnamon and pepper.

“Obviously, these don’t last after a shipwreck, but were very lucrative parts of the trade,” La Follette said of the spices.

The cargo also included beeswax – lots and lots of beeswax.

“There were tons and tons of beeswax with shipper’s marks,” she said.

Beeswax burns long with little smoke so was very popular with the churches in Mexico.
La Follette discovered four matches between shipper’s marks from the beeswax found in the Pacific Northwest to beeswax known to have been included in the cargo of a 1701 Manila galleon.

“It cinches that this was a Spanish ship,” La Follette said.

Historically, there has been debate whether the Beeswax wreck could have been a Japanese or Chinese ship, as a near derelict Japanese fishing vessel washed ashore in Cape Flattery, Wash. in the early 1800s with very few surviving men.

“It is possible to float derelict across the North Pacific and live to tell the tale,” La Follette said, “It happened at least once.”

However, shipper’s marks on the beeswax found, along with the inscription of “IHS” (Latin for “Jesus our savior”) and study of the wax itself tracing its origins to Asian bees helps solidify the wreck was a Manila galleon, if not the Santo Cristo itself.

If the Beeswax wreck is indeed the Santo Cristo, then when it wrecked, it also lost 2.5 tons of liquid mercury into the Pacific Ocean. Packed into leather bags and secured in barrels, the elemental mercury – also known as quicksilver – was essential for refining silver. La Follette addressed concerns of the coast being a basin of poison following the wreck but addressed the fact elemental mercury tends to stay in the same state when it is in seawater. Tiny glittering orbs of mercury may still be trapped within the wreckage, if it is ever found, she said.

With a ship lacking essential supplies and 30 crewmen, La Follette said it can be assumed the galleon may have been heavily disabled by the time it reached North America, thousands of miles north of their destination. Caught in the Davidson Current, La Follette said the ship was doomed.

“As far as we know the ship wrecked on Nehalem Spit and not shattered on Neahkahnie Mountain,” La Follette said. “The galleon probably wrecked in winter, which is what we’d expect.”

All or most of the crew survived, according to La Follette’s research. She believes the castaways probably stayed with the natives for several months.

“Here they are in Oregon, a century before Robert Gray sailed the mouth of the Columbia [River] and all of a sudden, the locals come down to the spit and see this monstrous ship,” La Follette said. “The natives probably never had seen anything like this.”

Tragedy followed soon after, however. In reports she found, a large group of men were massacred due to their disregard for marital relations.

“The deep human tragedy,” La Follette said, “Is some 200 men died.”

Second life for the Beeswax wreck
Tales from the native peoples of the north Oregon coast over the course of 200 years would lead to a boom in the mid-20th Century for treasure hunters.

Dual stories of the Beeswax ship and a tale from the Nehalem-Tillamook people of a treasure ship burying a box with unknown contents somewhere near Neahkahnie Mountain ultimately became conflated into one.
Searching for treasure, hunters would dig 30- to- 80-foot deep pits peppering the area in and around Neahkahnie Mountain – one group of seekers from Seattle would even dig a 125-foot deep hole just off Highway 101 in 1958 looking for treasure.

“The most persistent treasure hunter was Tony Mareno,” La Follette said. “He was very serious and used heavy machinery.”

Mareno believed $20 billion worth of treasure was buried and his exploits digging up various sections of the beach near Neahkahnie Mountain was documented in papers such as “The Oregonian.” Treasure hunters would also use marked stones (believed to be from Sir Francis Drake) as treasure maps.

“One [treasure hunter] thought the Ark of the Covenant was buried in Neahkahnie Mountain,” La Follette said.

Environmental damage and the loss of three lives helped repeal an Oregon treasure trove statute.

Third life for the Beeswax wreck

With evidence suggesting Oregon’s Beeswax ship is the Santo Cristo, La Follette said the work is now just starting to begin.

“We have at least two things to do,” she said, “The first is to locate the ship.”

With tides, currents, the Orphan Tsunami of 1700, the whereabouts of the wreckage is unknown and if it is ever discovered, another problem with identification arises: Manila galleons did not carry the name of the ship on the bow.

“Even finding the ship wouldn’t necessarily tell us whether it was the Santo Cristo de Burgos or the San Francisco Xavier,” La Follette said.

Under maritime law, the ship – in whatever condition it is in – belongs to Spain.

“Spain requires permission from the government – if the galleon is found – to do anything with it,” La Follette said.

If the wreckage is ever found, she said she hopes Spain would allow local museums to have the artifacts on permanent loan. One of the artifacts was long ago claimed by one of the Nehalem-Tillamook.

“The porcelain arrowhead [in Tillamook County Pioneer Museum] is a gorgeous artifact of cultural fusion,” La Follette said.

The second step to understanding the galleon, she said, is to conduct further historical and genealogical research. The Basque people have genetic markers that are unique to them and people who may still be living in the Pacific Northwest may possibly be descendants of some of the shipwrecked men.

“There’s so much more we need to do and can do,” she said. “I hope that if anybody finds objects – which can happen, things get buried all the time – that they be in a public-spirited manner and donate it to their museum.”

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