Shared from the 7/17/2022 San Francisco Chronicle eEdition


328 year later, Spanish galleon’s saga emerges

Michael Macor / The Chronicle 2011

Edward Von der Porten, an expert on the Manila galleons, constructs a model of the whaling vessel San Juan from around 1576 that is similar to a galleon.


“Do you remember the first time you met the ocean?” That was the headline on a newsletter from the Point Reyes National Seashore Association. It quoted Tina Baldry, who led a field trip of Sonoma County kids to the beach at Point Reyes.

Do you remember the first time you met the ocean? Good question. You probably wondered yourself. What was under the water? What was beyond the far waves? The ocean is still a mystery to us, even when we live in a city surrounded on three sides by salt water.

So I was intrigued when I saw reports of the recovery of big pieces of timber found in a sea cave on the Oregon coast, clues to the mystery of the loss of a Spanish galleon, bound from Manila to the Mexican port of Acapulco and wrecked in a winter storm 328 years ago

Those ships skirted the coast of California for hundreds of years and this one was a legendary shipwreck, with stories passed on by native people, told again by fishermen and beachcombers, and even by Steven Spielberg, the movie mogul, who made the legend of a lost pirate ship on the Oregon coast the centerpiece of his 1985 movie “The Goonies.”

A fisherman named Greg Andes had seen that movie when he was a kid and became obsessed with it when he first spotted what he thought was timber from a Spanish galleon, but it was James Delgado, a marine archaeologist who identified it as part of the galleon Santo Cristo de Burgos, which sailed from Manila bound for Mexico in July 1693 and was never seen again.

Delgado helped coordinate an expedition last month to find pieces of timber from that lost Spanish galleon.

I had been on a couple of exploring trips with Delgado, out just past the Farallones, searching for sunken ships just off San Francisco, so I called him. I also checked stories I’d done with the late Edward Von der Porten, a San Franciscan and an expert on the Manila galleons. Von der Porten led a team that discovered the remains of an even older Spanish ship, the San Juanillo, lost in Baja California with all hands in 1578.

Both men loved the sea and its history and also were involved in explorations of Northern California’s oldest shipwreck — the galleon San Agustin, which ran aground near Point Reyes in Marin County in the winter of 1595. It was an age when the Pacific Coast was the far side of the world. The Manila galleons sailed the longest trade route in the world from Asia to the Americas and Europe.

The first Spanish ships bound east from the Philippines for Mexico sailed in 1572. Von der Porten quotes a letter the colonial governor of the Philippines wrote the king of Spain: “We are at the gateway of great kingdoms. Will your majesty aid us with wherewithal so trade may be introduced among many of these nations?”

The ships sailed every year until 1815, trading Peruvian and Mexican gold and silver for treasures of Asia: porcelain, silk, cinnamon, pepper, cloves and tons of Philippine beeswax, unattainable in Europe.

Delgado says the Manila galleons were important because they began the first global trade. “Ships built the modern world,” he told me. “We don’t realize it so much because modern ports are sealed off from public view, but think of all the material we get from China and other parts of Asia now. And it comes by sea.”

But first Pacific voyages — which lasted months — were extraordinarily difficult, with miserable conditions, including starvation, sickness, pirates, storms and perils of the sea. “The worst voyage in the world,” Von der Porten called it.

Though we tend to think of the Manila galleons as part of European history, the ships themselves were built in Mexico or the Philippines, using local labor. The captains and navigators were European, and the crews were drawn largely from the seagoing people of the Philippines.

The Santo Cristo de Burgos, the Oregon shipwreck, sailed 115 years after the San Juanillo, the ship Von der Porten discovered in Baja California. But the voyages were similar. They both set sail from Manilla with prayers and a great public ceremony. The Santo Cristo de Burgos carried nearly 200 people, including 16 passengers and some military personnel for defense. The ship was packed with cargo including silks, porcelain, trade goods and several tons of beeswax, packed in blocks. The beeswax, Delgado said, was high-value cargo. “It was much desired in Europe and worth its weight in gold,” he said.

The Manila galleons usually headed north and east, steering by the sun and stars, and made landfall in California and sailed south to Mexico. But after six months at sea the Santo Cristo de Bur-gos, perhaps lost, perhaps disabled, ran aground in a cove far north of the usual route in what is now near the tiny town of Nehalem in Tillamook County, Ore.

The ship lay on the beach for some time, badly damaged but mostly intact. But a huge earthquake in January 1700 produced a tsunami 25 feet high that destroyed the wreck and scattered its timbers. For years, people found bits of porcelain and shards of Chinese pottery on the beach and up the Nehalem River. And even pieces of beeswax. Members of the American Lewis and Clark expedition, who came to the area more than 100 years later, noted that the native people had beeswax to trade and heard stories about the great lost shipwreck.

A few members of the crew — about 30, archaeologists say — survived and lived with the coast people for a while. But then, the old stories say, they quarreled, probably over women and families. There was a great battle, and the sailors were killed. All they left behind were pieces of the ship and a mystery that lasted more than 300 years.

Carl Nolte’s columns appear in The San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday edition. Email:

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