Timbers From 17th-Century Shipwreck Recovered Off Oregon Coast


In July 1693, a large Spanish galleon set sail from the Philippines with a full cargo load of Asian luxury goods, including silk, porcelain and beeswax. The ship was destined for Acapulco, Mexico, when it veered off course and vanished.

The ship’s fate has been the subject of a mystery that endured 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 have long washed ashore there, offering tantalizing clues to beachcombers and researchers that a shipwreck was somewhere nearby.

Last month, a team of maritime archaeologists painstakingly recovered more than a dozen timbers from sea caves along the coast that researchers said were almost certainly pieces of the galleon that disappeared, the Santo Cristo de Burgos. The researchers said it was the first time that remnants of a Manila galleon had ever been recovered.

“This ship comes from the time in which the global economy was rising,” said Jim P. Delgado, senior vice president of SEARCH Inc., a cultural resource management firm that was brought in to coordinate the retrieval of the timbers. “It was the beginning of the modern world that we live in today.”

The discovery was remarkable, the archaeologists said, not least because the washing-machine effect of pounding waves and tide changes inside a sea cave are hardly ideal conditions for preserving timber. But the water off the Oregon coast has less salt than other parts of the Pacific Ocean, they said, and the timber was buried beneath a layer of sediment from a tsunami that struck the coast after an earthquake in 1700. These conditions left the timbers in remarkably good shape.

The recovery of the first tangible pieces of the Beeswax Wreck, as the shipwreck came to be known, is the culmination of an effort that dates to 2006, when Scott Williams, an archaeologist with the Washington State Department of Transportation, first heard about the mysterious Spanish galleon from two friends.

Mr. Williams’s fascination with the wreck eventually led him to establish the Maritime Archaeology Society. The volunteer group studied the porcelain shards and beeswax blocks that had been harvested from the shoreline over the decades and determined that the porcelain was Chinese and that the beeswax had Spanish markings. The group concluded that the Beeswax Wreck had to be one of two Manila galleons that went missing between 1650 and 1750: the Santo Cristo de Burgos, which was lost in 1693, or the San Francisco Xavier, which disappeared in 1705.

Initially, the archaeologists believed it was the San Francisco Xavier they were looking for. In 1700, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck the West Coast, triggering an enormous tsunami that would have destroyed anything in its path — including any remnants of the Santo Cristo de Burgos.

However, a geological study later established that the area they were searching, where the Nehalem River meets the Pacific, was within a sediment layer left by the tsunami, meaning the vessel had to have been there when it hit. The San Francisco Xavier was ruled out.

But there was a problem: Numerous records claimed that the Santo Cristo de Burgos burned in the middle of the ocean. The Maritime Archaeology Society raised money for an extensive search of Spain’s naval archives, which revealed that the ship had simply vanished without a trace.

That supported the researchers’ hunch that pieces of the ship were still offshore somewhere. Since 2012, the society has been taking risky dives, using sonar and underwater detectors to try to find any sign of the wreckage.

This is where a commercial fisherman named Craig Andes enters the picture. The Beeswax Wreck is said to have inspired Steven Spielberg’s story for “The Goonies,” a 1985 film about a group of kids who search the Oregon coast for treasure from a 17th-century pirate ship. It was one of Mr. Andes’s favorite movies when he was growing up, so when he moved to Oregon as a boy, he became obsessed with the idea of finding treasure just like the kids in the film. Eventually, Mr. Andes was inspired to learn more about the Beeswax Wreck.

When Mr. Andes, now 49, learned that the Maritime Archaeology Society was searching for the wreck, he got in touch with Mr. Williams, and the two began swapping information.

In late 2019, Mr. Andes was walking along the rocky beach when something caught his eye: wooden timbers protruding from the water, 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 does not preserve for 300 years in the tidal zone,’” Mr. Williams recalled.

But Mr. Andes was insistent. The two retrieved a small piece of the 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 that it could be nearly 300 years old.

The group hatched a plan to retrieve the timbers. It wouldn’t be easy, as the wood was trapped inside dangerous sea caves that belonged to the Oregon State Parks. The proper permits and permissions would need to be obtained.

The Maritime Archaeology Society enlisted Mr. Delgado and his firm to coordinate the retrieval. The project was funded in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society.

After two years of planning — a timeline that included delays tied to the coronavirus pandemic — about two dozen people scattered along the shore around sunrise on June 13, with officials from the parks department and various public safety agencies joining the researchers. The team would have about 90 minutes to pull off their delicately choreographed mission before the tides became too high to enter the caves safely.

First, it would take upward of 30 minutes to traverse enormous rocks covered in slick kelp, said Stacy Scott, a coastal region archaeologist with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, who helped plan the retrieval.

Once the team members reached the caves, they had to be mindful to not let the waves toss them into the rocks. Then, the group had to carefully dislodge the timbers, 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 vests around it and float it out on Jet Skis toward a team of firefighters, who then wrestled it onto a backboard that could be dragged to shore.

“We finally have the missing piece,” Ms. Scott said. “It was humbling to know that I was involved in something that likely inspired one of my favorite childhood movies, but also such a significant historical event.”

The 16 timbers, in various shapes and sizes, were taken to the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Ore., where they will be properly dried out and preserved. Testing will determine the type of wood, and the archaeologists hope they will even be able to figure out what part of the ship the timbers are from. Manila galleon experts from around the world will be given access to the information, Mr. Williams said, with the hope that they might help solve the puzzle.

There is a small chance the timbers might be from a different shipwreck. But Mr. Williams said he had no doubt that he and his team had brought ashore the first known pieces of the fabled Beeswax Wreck.

“You’ve got a log, with Asian tropical hardwood that washed ashore about 300 years ago, with square sides and spike holes,” he said. “We are convinced it’s from that shipwreck.”