Neahkahnie Treasure Film Update. Museum Field Trip!!
The Neahkahnie Treasure film project continues at full speed! We recently returned from a tight shooting day on the north Oregon Coast and wanted to share some key findings with you. We were provided with unparalleled access to the collections at the Benton County Historical Society in Philomath and the Tillamook Pioneer Museum on the coast. Both museums possess excellent examples of beeswax and shipwreck artifacts that are most likely from the same shipwreck, which could be the remains of the Santo Christo de Burgos, which might have wrecked off the north Oregon coast in the 1690s.
There are a lot of maybes, could bes, and might ifs in that above paragraph, and with reason. While some new shit has come to light, including the conclusion of recent studies that have determined that some of the recently found timbers originated in the Philippines, there are still so many secrets and mysteries about this story. While we know that a ship, or multiple ships, wrecked off the coast between Cannon Beach and Manzanita, sometime in the 17th or 18th centuries, the archaeologists have not definitively determined the derelict’s identification. Many are quick to say it is the Burgos, and they could be correct.
Treasures from a Spanish shipwreck?
One institution that is hedging towards Burgos is the Benton County Historical Society. We had a chance to examine their collection in Philomath, which includes a teak block and tackle, or a pulley as others have termed it, that seems to have come from a Spanish ship, and possibly a Spanish galleon. Their example seems to resemble another artifact on display at the coast, so I thought it would be a good idea to compare the two.
Below is a composite image of the Philomath’s pulley on the left, which was lifted from the wreck off of the Nehalem spit, when it was somewhat exposed in a twenty-year low tide in 1896. The second is from Astoria’s Columbia River Maritime Museum, and it was found on the Nehalem beach in 1992.
The pulley on the left, now located in Philomath, was the property of Patrick Henry Smith, “a Nestucca hermit who devoted a lifetime in search of the lost treasure of the ‘Beeswax Ship,'” as the 1923 Corvallis Gazette-Times stated. That pulley is 32 inches long and 17 inches wide and the wood is of Asian origin. As a May of 1990 Oregon Geology magazine stated, “the last recorded time that a wreck was visible was 1926. Between 1890 and 1916, one wreck with exposed ribs, a keel, and teak-wood decking was partially stripped of its wood, which was then locally used to make furniture and souvenir walking canes.” Much like the Peter Iredale, it wasn’t all that long ago that you could go to the beach and actually see the shipwreck.
Also obtained in this 1896 salvaging was a quantity of the teakwood decking. Some of that wood was turned into a carpenter’s mallet, which was said to be on display at the Oregon Historical Society in 1923. A current-era search has turned up an absence of this historic mallet, as it cannot be located in the museum’s collections.
The pulley example on the right from Maritime Museum in Astoria was almost thrown on a bonfire when found on the beach in 1992. It was radiocarbon dated to the 1650s, give-or-take-quite-a-bit. The two examples look very different to me, at least in terms of the wood composition, but I’m not an archaeologist…
In addition to the impressive rigging block/pulley device, the museum in Philomath is curator of a formidable gathering of specimens of beeswax from the shipwreck. Numerous examples are included in the photo gallery below, including several beeswax candles that were supposedly obtained from the exposed shipwreck in 1896. While there are many chunks of the beeswax to be found in cultural institutions across western Oregon, candles from this wreck are extremely rare indeed. A letter in the archive from Matthew Deady stated that in the 1860s, small portions of beeswax “had often been found on Tillamook beach.” We had a chance to view numerous examples of this wax, and the examination was insightful and delightful.
There was another set of curious artifacts that really drew the attention of JB and I. Initially, it appeared to both of us to be a clump of reddish-brown hair! Could it have been from the head of Jack Ramsey??? But the material in question was a chunk of “caulking material,” which looked to be coconut or palm fibers, and an iron spike were included in the collection – two types of artifacts attributed to the shipwreck that we had not seen before. Original provenance notes stated that the pair were recovered from the shipwreck in Nehalem in 1897. The caulking material was singular from what we had seen in our previous artifact examinations. The spike reminded us of an image we had seen that Archaeologist Scott Williams had presented at the October 2022 meeting of the Pacific Northwest Archeological Society. THAT image was an x-ray of one of the recovered timbers from June 2022, shot by a hospital in Astoria. The x-ray revealed a metal spike quite similar to the example in the museum of Philomath. This is original, archival research we are bringing to the discussion.
After a diversion to Newport to dine on some excellent fried bivalves, we voyaged to the Tillamook Pioneer Museum. This museum care-takes one of the most distinctive beeswax chunks ever displayed; the specimen with a giant 67 carved into its rugged exterior. We also shot footage of the marked “treasure stones” they have on display, including the famed “1632 W” rock, and one of the “walking canes” said to be made from the exposed shipwreck decking (it just looked like a boring stick, to be honest). Craig Andes, the finder of the recent Spanish galleon timbers (maybe), joined us at the museum, and had a chance to examine the institution’s bountiful beeswax collection and porcelain pieces. Craig stated that the porcelain on display at the museum (found in Nehalem, according to the placard) is different than the pottery he finds at Oswald West. So does that mean two wrecked Spanish galleons? Oh man… the more you look into this story, the weirder it seems to get!
What really strikes me is what a considerable distance the beach area is that hosts these shipwreck artifacts. If you consider the length of the coastline from Cannon Beach to Tillamook, that’s maybe 50 miles, north to south, as the proverbial crow flies. That seems like quite an extant for pieces of porcelain, chunks of beeswax and busted-up candles, from the hull of one Spanish galleon, to be distributed upon. This formidable swath of physical evidence would seem to point to several Spanish shipwrecks within this stretch of rugged coast, but the documentary evidence wouldn’t seem to support this theory. This part of the coast is just too far north from where the Spanish typically practiced the Manila Trade. When they sailed from the Philippines, due east across the Pacific Ocean, heading for Acapulco, they typically spotted land around today’s San Francisco, or mayyyybe as far north as Monterey Bay. And then the galleon would sail south. The north Oregon Coast is so far north that it seems nearly inconceivable that one Spanish galleon would be in these waters to wreck, let alone two of them. So many secrets and mysteries wrapped up in the Neahkahnie Treasure tales…
Next, our location scout sent us frantic text messages about a contact he had met the acquaintance of who possessed quite a unique specimen of beeswax. This artifact was in his private collection, but he would share it with us. Speed was of the essence… the contact had to leave soon to prepare for a 50th anniversary dinner! We quickly downed our tasty de Garde beers and hit the road. We drove north to Rockaway and met the man, a hotelier who wishes to remain anonymous. He showed up at our meet up location with a beautiful chunk of beeswax that he found in 1996 while looking for agates on the beach at Rockaway. He thought he had spied an agate sticking out of the sand, but when he bent down to pick it up, he discovered it was something much larger. A photograph of his impressive specimen is in the gallery below.
Secrets of the Mysteries.
So 315 driving miles later, all in one day, we captured some kick ass footage, and completed original archival research at the same time! And ate some real good oysters. Much of the motivation behind this moving picture project is to get into these less-visited museums and historical societies and see what secrets and mysteries they preserve in their holdings. Not just the Neahkahnie Treasure shipwreck, but other mysteries as well. And we hope you’ll enjoy these journeys, too.
Filmmaker Tony Altamirano and historians Doug Kenck-Crispin and JB Fisher are working on a film project about the legend of the Neahkahnie Treasure Shipwreck and how this yarn fits in with the Spanish timers recently recovered, and alllll that beeswax. DKC has recently lectured on the topic in Cannon Beach.
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