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This Nest of Dangers: Beeswax on a lee shore: One of our enduring mysteries

Published on February 28, 2017 6:20PM

The Maritime Archaeological Society recently adopted the Beeswax Wreck Project, the long-running search for what is believed to be a Apanish galleon that sank on the North Oregon Coast in the late 17th century.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

The Maritime Archaeological Society recently adopted the Beeswax Wreck Project, the long-running search for what is believed to be a Apanish galleon that sank on the North Oregon Coast in the late 17th century.

Manzanita Mayor Ben Lane examined a model of the Spanish vessel San Augustin in 1951, at the time thought to be a possible source of mysterious shipwreck debris occasionally found on the Oregon Coast.

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Manzanita Mayor Ben Lane examined a model of the Spanish vessel San Augustin in 1951, at the time thought to be a possible source of mysterious shipwreck debris occasionally found on the Oregon Coast.

Beachcombers have long found marked blocks of beeswax, like this piece found in 1915, that investigators from the Beeswax Wreck Project believe are from the Santo Cristo de Burgos, a Spanish ship sailing between colonies in the Phillipines and the American West Coast.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Beachcombers have long found marked blocks of beeswax, like this piece found in 1915, that investigators from the Beeswax Wreck Project believe are from the Santo Cristo de Burgos, a Spanish ship sailing between colonies in the Phillipines and the American West Coast.

Porcelain is among the artifacts washing up on the Nahalem Spit from what investigators with the Beeswax Wreck Project believe is from the Spanish galleon Santo Cristo de Burgos that sank near the beach in the late 17th century.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Porcelain is among the artifacts washing up on the Nahalem Spit from what investigators with the Beeswax Wreck Project believe is from the Spanish galleon Santo Cristo de Burgos that sank near the beach in the late 17th century.


One of the joys of living at the beach is seeing what the tide brings in. Along the shore south of the mouth of the Columbia, in centuries past, in big chunks or small, it was what seemed like beeswax.

The South Bend [WA] Journal of the late 1800s noted, “Judge James Swan, in his book entitled ‘Three Years on Shoalwater Bay,’ … published in 1857, [wrote] …: ‘There is a tradition among the Indians that a Chinese or Japanese junk was wrecked years ago on Clatsop Beach, south of the Columbia. Part of her cargo was beeswax. … [T]here are to this day [1857] occasionally, after great storms, lumps and pieces of this wax found on the beach.’“

Farther south along Oregon’s coast, near Nehalem, scientists continue investigating shipwreck debris — beeswax, Chinese porcelain fragments — and narrowing a wreck to one of two Spanish ships bringing beeswax to Mexico or California for the Catholic mission churches.

Mission churches were part of Spanish exploration 400 and 500 years ago, candles were part of church services, the best beeswax came from the Philippines, and occasionally a vessel loaded with beeswax got caught in the confusion of weather and westbound currents, fetching up northward rather than southward.


‘History Detectives’


Not long ago, the PBS TV program, “The History Detectives,” played an episode about a piece of beeswax owned by Oregonian Phyllis Koch. The detectives tested Koch’s sample, finding it was generated by Philippine (Oriental) honeybees. Patterns on the Chinese porcelain date to between 1680 and 1700, which when compared with Spanish shipping records indicate the wreckage to be from one of two Spanish galleons: San Francisco Xavier or Santo Cristo de Burges.

I find good research a lot of fun.

The scientific groups pursuing the beeswax investigation are:

• The NAGA Group (www.nagagroup.org/BeesWax)

• Astoria’s Maritime Archaeological Society (maritimearchaeological.org/beeswax)

Following their websites will keep us up to date on this intriguing study.


Peninsula beach combing


One more comment about beeswax comes from Ilwaco’s Columbia-Pacific Heritage Museum archives, from their Whealdon-Williams Family box:

“When Will Whealdon was driving the freight wagon [in the late 1800s] between Oysterville and Ilwaco, at a certain portion of the beach, he occasionally picked up strange objects that the tide had washed in from the ocean’s bottom. Russian icons, crosses and large pieces of beeswax. … For years Will had a piece of the beeswax and one of the tarnished crosses around his home. In later life we read, where in the early days, a ship loaded with supplies for the Russian Missions in Alaska had gone down off our stretch of beach.”

Remember the onion church dome at California’s Fort Ross? It demonstrates Russian fur traders got farther south than the Columbia.


Mystery on a lee shore


There we have at least three different possible sources for the beeswax found in the area: Chinese or Japanese junks, Spanish vessels, and Russian ships.

Ours is a lee shore, a coast toward which the prevailing winds and currents can move anything that floats. They might all be right, or not; Nehalem’s sound like a surety.



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