Mysteries of an Oregon beach

Nehalem Bay in Oregon, where a 16th century Spanish galleon wrecked. Credit: Bob Heims, 1984, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The Oregon coast is lined with cozy clapboard getaways, but the tranquil image of surf and sun is undermined by a small brochure in our motel room: “Tsunami Evacuation Map” reads the loud type against a bright yellow background. “If you feel an earthquake … DUCK, COVER AND HOLD,” it warns, like Cold War instructions for a nuclear attack.

The brochure includes a map of “assembly areas” to run for after you get out of your defensive crouch. Run like hell up hill: “A tsunami may be coming in a few minutes.” Have a nice weekend.

It’s a fitting reminder that this coast — beautiful as it is and dotted with tourist villages, parks, and scenic overviews — features a kind of rough trade too: huge storms, earthquakes, tidal waves, giant rocks, and killer waves. They don’t call the stretch on either side of the Columbia River the “graveyard of the Pacific” for nothing.

I recently stayed with a friend in Manzanita, 25 miles north of Tillamook and one block from miles of sandy beach. There are a dozen documented wrecks just off this shoreline, dating from the late 17th century to the early 20th. Those disasters are one reason I’m here.

The Oregon coast’s beauty has an edge. On this chilly May day on a beach just to the north, there are surfers black as seals in wetsuits braving the waves that batter the shore. But for others, the rocks and terrain present a challenge, a puzzle. Old men don’t throw their bodies into the surf, but into speculations about the mysteries of this place, and what the rocks, cliffs, stones, and driftwood can tell us about it.

Nearby Nehalem Bay is the site of a 16th century Spanish shipwreck that left evidence behind, specifically tons of beeswax that still occasionally washes up, as it has for the last 300 years (see “Unsolved Northwest Mysteries”). It also left shards of Chinese porcelain that were part if its cargo (typical of Spain’s Manila galleons), and Asian teak timbers that local residents have salvaged and used to make tables and walking sticks, or to repair their cabins. The Indians before them did something similar: If you go down to the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum, you’ll see Indian arrowheads made from blue and white china chips.

Before captains Cook and Vancouver or Lewis and Clark, Northwest Indians were using candle wax from the Philippines and porcelain from China brought to them, inadvertently, by an off-course Spanish vessel crewed by a multicultural complement of sailors likely including Spaniards, Filipinos, Malays, Africans, Chinese, and Mexican Indians. Here’s an early example of Pacific Rim cultural exchange.

Such anomalies are inherently fascinating, and often tied to others. As anyone born with the treasure-hunting gene understands, one thing leads to another, hopefully a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The surviving treasure from the Spanish galleon was mainly wax, a valuable commodity in its day and now a wonderful curiosity. You can see it in museums, sitting in glass cases looking like chunks of driftwood or old cheese rounds with moldy-looking rinds (maybe that’s just because we’re in Tillamook Cheese country). Some are stamped with Spanish shipping marks traced to the 1600s. But surely the vessel carried other treasure, perhaps gold and silver.

In fact, one small silver vessel that likely contained holy oil was found in the sand in the last century. It appears to be of Dutch origin, which adds to the picture of early “globalization.”

Today, archaeologists are trying to find the wreck, but more to satisfy curiosity and settle points of controversy. Which Spanish galleon was it? Did a Chinese junk wreck there, too? Can they find the galleon’s cannons? When exactly did the beeswax wreck occur? What is the geology of Nehalem Bay and the great spit of sand where the wreckage of the vessel was last seen in the mid-1920s? Will evidence of survivors ever be found?

Archaeologists are data-driven: they want to know the truth, gold or no. Besides, Oregon’s heritage laws are such that any shipwreck treasure would belong to the state. If it had wrecked in Washington, however, the loot could largely stay in private hands. Yet another example of the difference between the two states.

Other seekers, though, have been motivated by treasure pure and simple, and obsessed with the mysteries that inevitably go along with a treasure hunt. Looming over Manzanita and Nehalem is Neahkahnie Mountain, an impressive, forested headland that rises some 1,700 feet above the sandy beaches, with slopes that drop off to sea-cleaving cliffs where breakers crash and shorebirds wheel. If the beaches below are offering archaeologists bits of new information about a historic Spanish vessel, Neahkahnie Mountain teases with mysteries that might or might not be related.

Local legend from the Indians has it that a small group of armor-clad white men, at least men whiter than the Indians, rowed ashore in the mists of time, dragged a chest part way up the mountain, filled it with treasure, and buried it. One version says this followed a battle between “winged canoes” that blew smoke at each other, perhaps suggesting an encounter between the Spanish galleon and unknown pirates.

Another version says a dead black man was laid on top of the chest, making it a kind of dead man’s chest, I suppose. Yo ho ho. Whether the story is directly connected with the wrecked Spanish ship is unknown. There are various stories that say survivors of the beeswax vessel came and lived among the Indians and intermarried, or wandered off, or were killed. No one knows, and the oral histories are inconsistent, or garbled like a game of “Telephone.”

In any case, since the 19th century, there have been big believers in Neahkahnie treasure, and the mountain is riddled with digs where a century of treasure-hunters have dug and bulldozed in vain. The mountain has also yielded stones with strange markings. Some claim they are clues or coded directions leading to the treasure, others say they are evidence that the Spanish survivors carved messages into the rocks. Still others believe the stones are part of an early survey. Author Garry Gitzen, who believes that Nehalem Bay was the site of Sir Francis Drake’s famous West Coast landing in 1579, asserts they were left by Drake’s party to help confirm England’s claim to this part of the continent.

You can see these stones in the local museums too, or photographs of them. Some are clearly carved or notched, others seem as readable as runes: undecipherable, maybe not even man-made at all. Unfortunately, the mountain has been so picked over, there’s not a lot archaeologists could do at this point.

A less romantic mind would point out several things. One is that 19th-century finds of rocks, pits, mounds, and mysterious writings were common, and often bogus. They often had to do with unrecorded history, whether it was the Lost Tribes of Israel wandering North America, or the Knights Templar stashing treasure in Nova Scotia. (Note, however, that while some famous old rune stones turned out to be false, it is fact that the Vikings beat Columbus to North America.) It is also true that many old maps and markers have turned out to be fakes: the famous Vinland map is almost assuredly a fraud. So too the infamous Drake brass plaque “found” in California (a hoax).

Some Neahkahnie stones seem dubious, or the results of wishful thinking. Some see in them messages, others constellations, measurements, or names. My sense is that some men stare at rocks in strong belief and see what they wish, like Drake’s own adviser, the magus John Dee, who believed he received messages from angels via reflections in shiny stones.

Neahkahnie is a kind of Rorschach test for lay people who love a historical mystery. Landmarks often attract these kind of imaginative speculations. Mt. Rainier was once said to hide a UFO base.

The local treasure stories often sound like urban myths. In fact, the whole idea of buried pirate treasure itself is largely fiction. Modern scholarship indicates there is only one documented example of a pirate actually burying part of his treasure. Captain Kidd did hide a bit of treasure once for safekeeping, but it was quickly found on Long Island and used as evidence against him at trial.

For the most part, pirates spent their loot as fast as they could get it. Buried treasure and maps were largely the invention of writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving, and Robert Louis Stevenson. (And sorry, walking the plank didn’t happen either.) A good beach book about what pirates were really like, drawing on recent scholarship, is Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly.

Neahkahnie Mountain was undoubtedly important to the local tribes as well as settlers. It is an impressive coastal landmark. If you wanted to see far out to sea or send a signal, you might go there. And it’s a sure safe spot in a tsunami. It could well be that survivors of the beeswax wreck, which could have broken up near her base, or other castaways left carvings in some of the stones. I am reminded of the 17th century scrawls you can still see inscribed into rock at El Morro National Monument in New Mexico. Yes, the conquistadors left graffiti behind.

But it is also possible that the romance of treasure and the spirit of Indiana Jones have caused people to read too much into it. Neahkahnie is a kind of Rorschach test for lay people who love a historical mystery. Landmarks often attract these kind of imaginative speculations. Mt. Rainier was once said to hide a UFO base. In a small pamphlet called “Tales of he Neahkahnie Treasure” produced by the Nehalem Valley Historical Society’s Treasure Committee, we learn of one Ed Fire who claimed that he had discovered a series of tunnels and chambers, stone tablets, and also human remains, armor, and muskets left behind by underground dwellers. He said that only state bureaucrats were keeping him from revealing all this to the world, presumably because no one wanted to issue more permits for futile digging. A state park can endure only so many pot holes and dreams.

Back at sea level, archaeologists and volunteers are still systematically searching for the Spanish wreck. We met up with Scott Williams, the principal investigator, whose day job is as an archaeologist for the Washington Department of Transportation. Williams took the time to update a group of Nehalem’s history buffs on his quest.

Without major exploratory excavations in the vast sands of Nehalem Bay State Park — now no longer barren dunes but held down by squatty pines, grasses, and scotch broom and over built with campgrounds and an airstrip — the plan is to conduct an off-shore survey to see if the wreck, or a major portion of it, is, or isn’t, under the surf somewhere off shore. If it is, it is likely buried under many feet of sand. The costs and dangers of an underwater archaeological excavation are not likely to be appealing, and any promise of treasure slim. Still the desire to find, to know, to explain is strong, and the possibility of surprises compelling.

Williams believes the Spanish beeswax ship wrecked before the great tsunami of January, 1700, which followed a massive 9.0 quake in the Cascadia subduction zone. He thinks the resulting tidal wave moved the wreckage and its debris. Sightings of some of the wreckage have placed some of it well above where high tides and storms could have moved it. Also beeswax has been found far up the Nehalem river, farther than winds would take it. He notes that parts of the wreck have been playing peekaboo in the sand and tidelands for centuries, appearing and disappearing after storms or unusual tides. He jokingly told his audience that given the barriers to excavating, it might be best if his archaeological team received help from another tsunami. Such waves might supply the hydraulic heft needed to move centuries of sand, though at the expense of charming Manzanita.

Thinking of that tsunami brochure in the motel room, I decided that I’d first run for the hills. Then, when it’s all clear, head back to the beach and look for gold, teak, porcelain, and 300-year-old beeswax. A disaster could leave a treasure trove in its wake, and maybe even a bottle of rum.

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