In July 1693, a large Spanish galleon set sail from the Philippines with a full load of Asian luxuries, including silk, china and beeswax. The ship was bound for Acapulco, Mexico when it veered off course and disappeared.
The ship’s fate was the subject of a mystery that lasted for more than 300 years along the coast of what is now northern Oregon. Pieces of blue-and-white porcelain and beeswax with Spanish markings washed ashore there long ago, offering wreckers and explorers tantalizing clues that a shipwreck lay somewhere nearby.
Last month, a team of marine archaeologists painstakingly recovered more than a dozen timbers from sea caves along the coast that researchers said were almost certainly part of the missing Santo Cristo de Burgos galleon. Researchers said it was the first time remains of a Manila galleon had been recovered.
“This ship dates back to when the world economy was booming,” said Jim P. Delgado, senior vice president of SEARCH Inc., a cultural resource management firm brought in to coordinate the timber recovery. “It was the beginning of the modern world we live in today.”
The find is remarkable, the archaeologists said, not least because the washing machine effect of waves and tides in a sea cave are hardly ideal conditions for preserving wood. But the water off the Oregon coast has less salt than other parts of the Pacific Ocean, they said, and the wood was buried under a layer of sediment from a tsunami that struck the coast after a 1700 earthquake. These conditions left the wood in remarkably good shape.
Recovery of the first tangible parts of the beeswax wreck, as the shipwreck became known, is the culmination of an effort that dates back to 2006, when Scott Williams, an archaeologist with the Washington State Department of Transportation, first heard about the mysterious Spanish Galleon of two friends.
Mr. Williams’ fascination with the wreck eventually led him to found the Maritime Archeology Society. The group of volunteers examined the shards of china and blocks of beeswax that had been harvested along the coast over the decades and found that the china was Chinese and the beeswax had Spanish markings. The group concluded that the beeswax wreck must have been one of two Manila galleons that disappeared between 1650 and 1750: the Santo Cristo de Burgos, which was lost in 1693, or the Sa Francisco Xavier who disappeared in 1705.
At first, archaeologists believed it was the San Francisco Xavier they were looking for. In 1700, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck the west coast, triggering a massive tsunami that would have destroyed everything in its path – including all the remains of the Santo Cristo de Burgos.
However, a geological study later found that the area they searched, where the Nehalem River meets the Pacific, lay within a layer of sediment left behind by the tsunami, meaning the ship must have been there when it struck. The San Francisco Xavier was ruled out.
But there was a problem: numerous records claimed that the Santo Cristo de Burgos burned in mid-ocean. The Maritime Archeology Society raised money for a comprehensive search of the Spanish naval archives, which revealed that the ship had simply disappeared without a trace.
This supported the researchers’ assumption that parts of the ship were still lying somewhere off the coast. Since 2012, the company has been conducting risky dives, using sonar and underwater detectors to try to find signs of the wreck.
That’s where a commercial fisherman named Craig Andes comes in. The beeswax wreck is said to have inspired Steven Spielberg’s story for The Goonies, a 1985 film about a group of children scouring the Oregon coast for treasure from a 17th-century pirate ship. It was one of Mr. Andes’ favorite films growing up, and when he moved to Oregon as a boy, he became obsessed with finding treasure, just like the kids in the film. Finally, Mr. Andes was inspired to learn more about the beeswax wreck.
When Mr Andes, now 49, learned that the Maritime Archeology Society was searching for the wreck, he contacted Mr Williams and the two began exchanging information.
In late 2019, Mr Andes was walking along the rocky beach when something caught his eye: wooden beams sticking out of the water and stuck in a cave. It didn’t look like driftwood to him.
Excited, Mr Andes called Mr Williams, who was skeptical.
“I said to him, ‘It can’t be from the shipwreck; Wood doesn’t last 300 years in the intertidal zone,’” recalled Mr. Williams.
But Mr Andes was persistent. The two got a small piece of wood and sent it to a lab to settle the debate.
The lab determined that the wood was tropical hardwood from Asia or South America – hardly regular driftwood. Radiocarbon dating showed it could be almost 300 years old.
The group hatched a plan to salvage the timbers. It wasn’t going to be easy as the wood was trapped in dangerous sea caves that are part of Oregon State Parks. Appropriate approvals and permits would need to be obtained.
The Maritime Archeology Society hired Mr. Delgado and his company to coordinate the salvage. The project was funded in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society.
After two years of planning — a schedule that included delays related to the coronavirus pandemic — about two dozen people scattered along the shore at sunrise on June 13, with officials from the Parks Department and various public safety agencies joining the researchers. The team had about 90 minutes to complete their carefully choreographed mission before the tide got too high to safely enter the caves.
First, it would take more than 30 minutes to traverse huge rocks covered in smooth kelp, said Stacy Scott, a coastal archaeologist with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department who helped plan the salvage.
When the team members reached the caves, they had to be careful not to be smashed into the rocks by the waves. Then the group had to carefully remove the beams, the largest of which was 7.5 feet long and weighed more than 300 pounds. The only way to get it out was to wrap life jackets around it and float it on jet skis to a team of firefighters, who then maneuvered it onto a backboard that could be hauled ashore.
“We finally have the missing piece,” said Ms. Scott. “It was humbling to know that I was involved in something that probably inspired one of my favorite childhood movies, but also in such a significant historical event.”
The 16 timbers, of various shapes and sizes, were shipped to the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon, where they will be properly dried and preserved. Tests will determine the type of wood, and archaeologists hope they can even figure out which part of the ship the woods came from. Manila Galleon experts from around the world will be given access to the information, Mr Williams said, hoping it could help solve the mystery.
There is a small chance that the woods are from another shipwreck. But Mr Williams said he had no doubt that he and his team had landed the first known pieces of the fabled beeswax wreck.
“You have an Asian tropical hardwood log that washed ashore about 300 years ago, with square sides and pricked holes,” he said. “We are convinced that it came from this shipwreck.”