Beeswax from shipwreck washes ashore

GOLD BEACH, Ore. — It was the amber luminescent glow of an egg-shaped object in the winter sun that grabbed Loretta LeGuee’s attention on the beach she had combed for years.

Experts say it almost certainly is a chunk of beeswax from a Spanish trading vessel that sank off the coast more than 300 years ago.

The wax has been turning up on the north coast in the Nehalem and Manzanita areas for centuries. A find this far south is rare.

“From the picture they sent me, that’s what it looks like to me, it’s definitely beeswax,” said Scott Williams of Olympia, Wash., assistant state archaeologist for Washington.

He leads the Beeswax Wreck Project of volunteers probing why blocks of beeswax have been popping up along the Oregon Coast for centuries.

This hunk could have been from the Santo Christo de Burgos, which sank in 1693, or the San Francisco Xavier, which disappeared in 1705. Both were en route from the Philippines to Acapulco, Mexico, with tons of wax.

Such discoveries have been traced to the Philippines by the wings of the bees, native to those islands, found in the wax.

“Where she (LeGuee) found it would be unusual, being so far south,” Williams said, noting the ocean currents off Oregon flow north, not south. “But we know the Indians were trading it prehistorically up and down the coast.”

LeGuee, 52, and her German shepherd, Norman, found the 10-pound chunk just south of Gold Beach in early December.

After a ferocious storm in the area, she kept a sharp eye out. She had found fishing floats and agates in the past after storms.

“And we had just had high winds, real bad weather,” she said.

She took it to Gold Beach High School so science teacher Nancy Treneman could examine it.

“I have walked the Oregon beaches for 48 years and I have never seen anything like this,” said Treneman. “Loretta has found the coolest find,” she said, noting her students are fascinated.

“It’s things like this that make it so interesting to live here,” Treneman added. “Two years ago it was a dead whale. This year, it’s the beeswax.”

“Yeah, when I took the kids on a drive down past Pistol River the other day, we were talking about the dead whale,” LeGuee said. “One of the kids said, ‘Remember mom, one of the kids got up on top of it and fell in.’”

Treneman knows the Latin names of the barnacles and mussel shells embedded in one side of the wax.

“This looks to me like a worm tube,” she said of a formation left by one long-dead sea creature. “They are all species that live on our coast. All of these are near-shore species.”

But she was baffled about the chunk until she spotted a January article in Science magazine on Oregon’s mysterious “beeswax wreck” near Nehalem.

“I knew this was what we had,” said Treneman, who contacted Williams.

Beeswax was once preferred for candles over malodorous tallow, or rendered animal fat.

“The Catholic church required the use of beeswax,” he said. “There were no native honeybees in the New World. The churches in Mexico had to get wax from someplace and the large Asian honeybees produced a lot of beeswax.”

Records dating to the early 1800s record Indians trading cakes of beeswax to settlers arriving in the Pacific Northwest.

“As soon as the Northwest fur trades came into the country, the Indians were trying to trade beeswax to them,” he said. “The Indians told them it was from a shipwreck.”

The San Francisco Xavier was carrying some 75 tons of beeswax, according to shipping records. Because a massive earthquake and tsunami in January of 1700 would have sent earlier ship remains farther inland, a researcher on the team says the Nehalem Bay beeswax is likely from the 1705 shipwreck.

Finds of the wax along the north coast still occur. The wax lacks the monetary value of the gold and silver thought to be lost, or even buried, along the north coast but discoveries are considered priceless to archaeologists.

“It’s 300-year-old beeswax from a Spanish galleon to me, that’s really neat,” Williams said, adding, “And it’s still washing up.”

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