MANZANITA (AP) — Somewhere off the coast of Manzanita rest the bones of a galleon from the Philippines, wrecked on the rocks around 1700 as it left Manila laden with goods destined for Mexico.
That’s the legend told here for centuries, but the saga isn’t just empty words. For as long as the tale’s circulated, Native Americans, settlers and even modern-day beachcombers have found the beeswax and porcelain to prove it.
Now, a volunteer group of students, archaeologists and historians calling themselves the Beeswax Wreck Research Project is hoping to get one step closer to finding the ship when they set out to sea later this month with equipment that may zero in on the galleon’s location.
“Next is the big offshore survey,” said Scott Williams, a Washington archaeologist heading up the mission. “We’re going to do some remote sensing using sonar and a magnetometer” — a metal detector towed behind the boat.
“We know it is somewhere off Manzanita. We have some ideas where we want to look, but it’s a big area. That’s why we are using the metal detector and sonar. Those instruments will let us know where it is and then we’ll send divers down.”
The earliest written record of the shipwreck came from a fur trader in Astoria in 1813 who noted in his journal that Native Americans were bringing big blocks of bees wax to trade, Williams said.
The trader knew there were no native honeybees in Oregon and asked where the beeswax came from. The Native Americans told him about the wrecked ship. And so the story has been passed from generation to generation.
The accounts include sightings of the ship’s remains at the mouth of the Nehalem River and scattered over the beach around Manzanita.
The last credible report was in 1926, when someone apparently saw a section of the hull off Manzanita. Another report of wreckage on the beach came in as recently as 1973, though Williams said he has his doubts because no one else saw it that time.
The galleons “were huge, up to 2,000 tons, probably about six stories high and about 150 feet long,” he said. “They were 40 to 50 feet wide and they would have stood from keel to top almost 50 feet at the highest parts. There were usually five or six levels of decks, and they carried anywhere from 200 to 300 crew members and another 200 or 300 passengers.”
Regular trade route
The ships ran a regular trade route from Manila to Acapulco, both in territories claimed by Spain, about 7,680 nautical miles or 8,800 regular miles. Once a year, a ship would leave the Philippines loaded with Asian luxury goods and sail to Mexico to sell the cargo at a merchant’s fair. It would then return to the Philippines loaded with silver to buy more goods.
Researchers don’t know why a galleon was off the Oregon coast, but they theorize it may have become disabled in a storm or from some other trouble and drifted this way. Normally, the galleons would turn south for Mexico after nearing North America, usually off Northern California, Williams said.
He and the other volunteers believe they’re looking for the Santo Cristo De Burgos, based on detailed records that the Spanish kept of every ship, its captain, crew members and cargo.
“Because the ship and cargo were so important — literally, the entire economy, they kept very good records,” Williams said.
“If one of them went missing they went looking for it. They would look for years. They would send other ships to look on islands and reefs, looking for survivors and records. It was like a big stock market crash.”
Records show the Santo Cristo De Burgos left Manila in 1693, short on crew and having just undergone repairs. It had previously set sail for Mexico in 1692, but had to turn back after losing all three masts in a storm.
“Then all we know is it disappeared,” Williams said. “No wreckage was ever found. Very few of the galleons actually totally disappeared. Usually they wrecked and there were survivors or they found the wreckage. For this one, it left and just disappeared.”
But its cargo apparently didn’t.
Visitors to the Nehalem Valley Historical Society can get a look at several pieces of beeswax — including one large piece on loan, about 16 inches wide by 18 inches long and 6 inches thick — bearing a symbol identifying the shipper in Manila. The wax was carbon-dated to the mid-1600s and determined by the pollen to be from bees in the Philippines, said Tom Mock, a historical society volunteer.
A family found it on the beach near Manzanita about 70 years ago, Mock said. “It was a young girl, 8 or 9 years old. She was just sitting in the sand with her folks. She noticed something in the sand beside her and brushed the sand away and there it was,” he said.
A local private collector also has thousands of shards of porcelain believed to be from the ship as well as stoneware from containers used to store beer, wine, water and perfume, Mock said.
Researchers believe the items are from the ship based on the time period and the fact that there is no other logical source for them. Mock is considering borrowing the shards to put on a display.
“It’s the classic exciting story about the lost ship,” Mock said. “People just light up and it really plays to everybody’s love of a mystery of a hidden treasure. There are only three known galleon ships on the entire North American West Coast. One off Baja, one off Northern California and the one up here.”
The one in California hasn’t been found, but artifacts wash up. The one off Baja has been found and is being investigated, Williams said.
This isn’t the first time researchers have gone looking for the Oregon ship, but past excursions have been plagued with problems.
Williams and his team have had to cancel in the past due to weather or mechanical issues, but this time he said the group has the right-sized boat and good equipment.
The crew, which is largely self-supported but also gets funding from the Naga Research Group based in Honolulu, will go out on a 40-foot fishing vessel.
But even if they do find it, the galleon likely will remain right where it is.
“Underwater archaeology is really expensive, so I don’t know that it would be excavated,” Williams said. “I suppose if National Geographic was really interested, it could certainly be done. It would take more money than I personally have, so I am not going to do it.
“It’s more about answering a historical mystery that’s been around for 200 years.”