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Pieces of Legendary Oregon Coast Spanish Galleon Wreck Retrieved Near Manzanita - Part 1

Published 06/19/22 at 4:45 AM PST
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Pieces of Legendary Oregon Coast Spanish Galleon Wreck Retrieved Near Manzanita - Part 1

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(Manzanita, Oregon) – This is part one of the story; it's so large that it must be broken into two parts. The second is available Monday morning. Oregon Coast Beach Connection has some exclusive additions to the story. (Photo: one of the timbers from the galleon, courtesy Scott Williams)

It's been 14 years since something archaeologically huge has been discovered on the Oregon coast : 2008 saw the recovery of the rest of the cannon from a 1900s shipwreck that gave Cannon Beach its name. That, however, pales by comparison to what is almost certainly bits of a Spanish galleon that were found at Manzanita three years ago, with the find only now being publicized. It's not just any Spanish galleon, either: it's the legendary 1693 shipwreck that let loose lots of beeswax on these beaches until recent decades. This one's been talked about for generations, with legends passed down from local tribes for hundreds of years, remaining a true mystery.

Over the last decade, archaeologists – including those from the PBS show History Detectives – have determined all that famed beeswax came from the Spanish ship Santo Cristo de Burgos, which ran trade routes from Manilla in the Philippines to Mexico. Somewhere en route that fateful year, it disappeared, and it turns out she met her demise on the Nehalem Spit.

Now, it's come to light via the National Geographic Society and the northwest's Maritime Archaeological Society that pieces of the wreck were discovered in a sea cave just north of Manzanita three years ago and just this last week they were removed for study.


Caves of the area, courtesy Scott Williams

The news has caught worldwide attention – although it's somehow spawned the false narrative that the movie The Goonies was inspired by the galleon legends of Nehalem Bay. That is not true: the script was written long before film crews found the north Oregon coast locations for some of the flick.

Goofy internet rumors aside, it's a landmark find. Archaeologist Scott Williams is president of the society, but his fulltime gig is Cultural Resources Program Manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation. Williams told Oregon Coast Beach Connection it's a rarity, too. Not just for this continent but for the entire world.

Pieces were rather dramatically removed from this remote sea cave on June 13, with an expansive crew that included Williams, various state agencies and an expert that worked on the Titanic. The pieces of 300-year-old galleon timbers are now being studied further and eventually should go on display.

These pieces are an important discovery.

“This would be one of only three Manilla galleon wrecks in the world where wood was preserved,” he said.

It's the only such wreck in this category on this continent where any wood is left: the other two in Baja, Mexico and central California do not have wood preserved. Two galleons outside of Manilla have some remaining.

The beam pieces come in different sizes, but one beam is 7.5 feet long, ten inches around and weighs 300 pounds. This meant researchers needed special help to get these out of the sea cave.

How everyone got to this point is an archaeological adventure worthy of Cameron Crowe or Indiana Jones.

It all goes back to early 2020, when local Craig Andes gave Williams a call saying he'd found wooden beams in a sea cave that appeared to be from a shipwreck. Williams said he didn't believe that, and then the pandemic hit, slowing down any actions on anyone's part.

“It's very rare for shipwreck wood to be preserved anywhere, except for maybe mud - that keeps out the oxygen,” Williams said.

Yet they kept conversing about this over the summer of 2020, and Williams got Andes to grab a sample and send it off for testing. Experts would be looking for an Asian tropical hardwood. That would be a sign it was from the Spaniards. If it was local wood from Oregon, it would be like a giant buzzer going off telling you “wrong answer.”

“Sure enough, it came back as hardwood,” Williams said. “At that point I was like … wow.”

Part two of the story delves into the further twists and turns in the search for the galleon pieces, the scientific research needed, what happened to the rest of the ship, if a major tsunami played a part, and some other unique surprises.

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Spanish galleon exhibit at the history museum in Manzanita

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