Wreckage from 17th Century Spanish Galleon Found Along Oregon Coast
A beachcomber exploring sea caves along the north coast of western Oregon, USA discovered timbers from the hull of the Beeswax wreck Spanish galleon that sunk in the Pacific Ocean more than 300 years ago, state officials have just announced.
For the past several years, explorers have been searching at land and at sea up and down the Oregon coast looking for the remains of a long-lost Spanish galleon trading ship known as the Santo Cristo de Burgos. The ship disappeared on a voyage from the Philippines to Mexico in 1693, as it apparently drifted severely off-course before being wrecked somewhere near the modern village of Manzanita.
This was known because bits and pieces from the Spanish galleon have been washing up on northern Oregon beaches for many decades. Included among these 300-year-old artifacts were many blocks of beeswax, which was used to make candles for Catholic ceremonies and was routinely shipped from Asia to Spanish colonies in Mexico in centuries past. Because of the unusual nature of this item, in northern Oregon the lost Santo Cristo de Burgos came to be known as the Beeswax wreck, which has its own Wikipedia page!
A model of the Santo Cristo de Burgos Spanish galleon that was on its way from the Philippines to Mexico in 1693 when it was blown off course and sunk in Oregon coastal waters. Manzanita Mayor Ben Lane with a model of the Santo Cristo de Burgos in a photo from 1951. (Oregon Historical Society Research Library)
The Trail of Beeswax Spanish Galleon Pieces and Artifacts!
One of the most eager and persistent of the amateur explorers looking for the Beeswax wreck was a Tillamook County commercial fisherman named Craig Andes. While exploring one particular sea cave along the rugged Oregon coastline a few years ago, he stumbled across one sizeable piece of timber that looked like it might have cut and fitted for use in the construction of a ship. In 2019, Andes found approximately a dozen more pieces of worked and polished timber inside the same cave, which had been freshly exposed by shifting sands.
At this point there was no doubt in Andes’s mind that he had found the remains of a shipwreck of some type. He suspected the timbers might be from the hull of the legendary Santo Cristo de Burgos Spanish galleon, but he couldn’t be sure until the experts could be brought in to take a closer look at what he’d found.
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Looking for answers, archaeologists performed radiocarbon dating tests on the wood found inside the cave. These examinations confirmed that the timbers dated to the time of the wreck of the 17th-century Spanish galleon.
It had already been established that the Santo Cristo de Burgos had wrecked in the area because numerous small pieces of Chinese porcelain that matched what was known to have been carried by the ship had washed ashore over the years. Careful analysis proved the porcelain came from items made during China’s Kangxi Period, which lasted from 1661 to 1722.
A geological study revealed that a sediment layer covering some of the ship’s recovered artifacts had been deposited by a tsunami that struck the area in 1700, and in the 1661 to 1700 window the Santo Cristo de Burgos was the only Spanish galleon lost anywhere in the northern Pacific.
Caves in the area where the remnants of the wreck were found. (Courtesy of Scott Williams/ MAS)
A Secret and Daring Rescue
Even though Andes made his discovery in 2019, it was only in 2022 that the timbers could be retrieved from the sea cave. The retrieval operation was an elaborate affair, as maritime archaeologists and local law enforcement agents collaborated with search-and-rescue teams and Oregon park rangers (the sea cave is located within the boundaries of a national park) to extract the heavy pieces of timber from the hard-to-access caves and to haul them back to shore with jet skis.
“It was amazing to pull off such a complex operation, made entirely possible by teamwork, cooperation, and exceptional professionalism by all involved,” James Delgado, the Santo Cristo de Burgos project’s principal archaeological investigator for the cultural resource management firm SEARCH, Inc., said to National Geographic.
This artifact rescue operation took place in mid-June, and only after it was completed did state officials agree to disclose to the public that part of the sunken Santo Cristo de Burgos had been found. An earlier disclosure would have invited unwanted intrusion by members of the public and possibly by artifact thieves, so it was necessary to wait to make the exciting announcement.
Beeswax with a Spanish shipping mark from a lost Spanish galleon that washed up on the coast near Manzanita, Oregon. Courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society. (Cannon Beach History Center and Museum)
Myths and Legends of the Santo Cristo de Burgos
The Santo Cristo de Burgos left the Spanish colony of Manila in the Philippines in 1693. Its cargo hold was filled with high-quality and highly-prized Asian trading goods, including Chinese silks and porcelain and beeswax used to make candles for religious ceremonies. It was headed to Spanish colonies in Mexico, on a well-established and heavily traveled trade route that thrived for 250 years (from 1565 to 1815).
It isn’t known exactly what happened, but somehow the ship lost its way and ended up hundreds of miles north of its planned destination. It is believed the ship was wrecked when it hit a sand dune island known as the Nehalem Spit, which can be found approximately 3.8 miles (6 kilometers) south of the village of Manzanita in Tillamook County. Ocean waves apparently carried parts of the wreckage toward the steep cliffs of the northern Oregon coastline, and when that happened some of the broken timbers were deposited inside a sea cave that penetrated the rock face.
Legends passed down by local Native American groups tell of a foreign ship that sunk just off the coast many centuries ago. There were survivors from the wreck who came to shore and eventually met and possibly lived with the area’s Native American peoples for at least a while.
The discovery of the galleon’s timbers “confirms that our ancestral people knew what they were talking about,” said Robert Kentta, a representative of the Siletz Tribal Council and Confederated Siletz tribes. “They related oral histories in a way that just spoke the truth.”
In the 19 th century, stories began to spread about the wrecked ship among white settlers. These were wild tales that claimed the Spanish galleon had been filled with gold and that some of the treasure might have been buried nearby. Soon treasure hunters began roaming all about the area with shovels and picks, digging up the land in search of the lost gold.
These stories were false, as the ship had carried no gold. Nevertheless, at some point Steven Spielberg apparently heard the story of lost treasure of the Santo Cristo de Burgos, and it inspired him to write the story that was made into the 1985 cult film The Goonies. This movie highlights the adventures of a group of young explorers who found a lost galleon loaded with gold inside a huge sea cave along the wild Oregon coast.
These Kangxi period Chinese porcelain fragments were part of the precious cargo carried by the unlucky Spanish galleon that sank off the Oregon coast nearly 300 years ago. (Maritime Archaeological Society)
The Search Continues …
James Delgado will lead a team of marine archaeologists who will be studying and analyzing the recovered ship timbers at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon. He is hopeful that the examination of the Santo Cristo de Burgos’s remains will reveal information about how the ship was constructed, how it came apart, and why it ultimately wrecked.
“Will this answer big questions? Probably not,” Delgado said in an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting. “But it’s another step in a process that could potentially lead to further discovery.”
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While the recovery of the ship timbers scattered about the sea cave is thrilling, what was found only represents a small percentage of what might be out there. Volunteers from the Astoria-based Maritime Archaeological Society, which was formed 15 years ago specifically to search for the remains of the Santo Cristo de Burgos, hopes to someday recover the ship’s lower hull, which they believe might be sitting at the bottom of the sea close to the location of the sea caves.
“We haven’t found what we would call ‘The Wreck,’” lamented Scott Williams, vice president and principal investigator at the Maritime Archaeological Society. “We don’t know if something like ‘The Wreck’ exists.”
The search for the remaining sections of the ship will continue, by highly motivated searchers whose spirits have been buoyed by Craig Andres’s amazing discovery.
Top image: An amateur has found a new piece of timber from the Spanish galleon known as the Beeswax wreck. To date, many artifact fragments have been found on this rough coastline area, including pieces of Chinese porcelain. This image shows an unnamed wooden shipwreck have buried in a sand beach. Source: Scott Williams / Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff
By Nathan Falde