"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Minding the beeswax

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit" is a series of posts aimed at giving BoingBoing readers a chance to show off their favorite exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. I'll be featuring posts in this series all week. Want to see them all? Check out the archive post. I'll update the full list there every morning.

This is a 300-year-old chunk of beeswax, housed at the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum in Tillamook, Oregon. That part alone is pretty nifty, but it's the background that really makes this specimen sing. According to Roger Peet, who sent me this photo, the beeswax comes from the wreck of a Spanish galleon that washed ashore north of Tillamook long before any other European settlers had ever visited the area—probably around 1700 or so. Pollen analysis indicates that the beeswax actually came from the Philippines. How cool is that?

Here's an excerpt from an archaeological report on the wreck that Peet sent along with the photo:

Native oral histories and the earliest accounts of Euro-American settlers on the Northwest Coast refer to a wrecked vessel (or several wrecked vessels) at the beach of Nehalem, as being the source of an abundant supply of beeswax that the local Indians used and traded prior to and after the time of Euro-American settlement. The first written accounts of the wreck come from Astoria fur trader Alexander Henry in 1813, who reported that great quantities of beeswax were dug out of the sand at the spit and that the Indians brought the wax to Astoria to trade. As the 19th century progressed, numerous accounts of the presence of both beeswax and teak lumber at Nehalem and reports of intact pieces of wreckage appeared in various newspapers and books, and such reports continued into the early 20th century.

The wax and its origin were widely discussed throughout the 19th century, both locally in Oregon and in newspapers from California, the Midwest, and even New York. Beeswax was found in such abundance that, for a brief time, some non-residents were convinced it was actually a petroleum product that indicated large oil deposits were in the area (Chicago Daily Tribune 1891; Christian Science Monitor 1909), and a short lived oil boom occurred despite the Indian accounts of the wreck and the presence of candles and wax blocks with carved symbols on them.


  1. I’m lost on the economics here.  Why was it a good idea to transport a ship full of beeswax from south Asia to Europe?  They didn’t have wax in Spain?

    1. Given that it wrecked off the coast of Oregon, my guess is that it must have been aiming for Spanish missionary outposts in what is now California. In which case, they might have had wax, but maybe not access to enough supply/manpower to make all the wax they needed? I dunno. It is a bit weird. 

      1. The 1700 date predates the California missions by several decades, but trade with Mexico and Central/South America may be possible although honey bees were introduced to N America in the early 1600s (I can’t find a reference for the introduction of bees to the Southern Spanish colonies).

        The presence of teak suggests the ship may have been of SE Asian origin, possibly a Chinese junk that was blown way off course in a typhoon.

        Ack! Ignore that last bit. This page says the Spanish at the time regularly sailed North from the Philippines, across the Pacific, and down the coast of California to Acapulco. The teak was probably just cargo.


      2. The native bees of California (well, Alta California, anyway) are solitary bees, not social bees.  The colony-building honeybee was a European import.  I don’t know when the Spanish imported honeybees to Mexico, but likely the colony’s output of beeswax was very small in 1700.

        At any rate, beeswax in multiple-ton amounts was definitely part of the Manila Trade:

        Regular trade between Manila in the Philipines and Mexico began in 1571 and continued until 1814 The voyage, conducted by large galleons weighing up to two thousand tons, took only three months from Acapulco to Manila, but typically six to nine months to return.  An entrepot for goods from Asia, Manila became the center of a valuable exchange network.  There merchants from New Spain traded silver from the Americas for Chinese silks, damasks, jewelry, and porcelains, and Philippine cinnamon and beeswax.

        The Oxford History of Mexico, Beezley and Meyer, Oxford University Press (2010)

        Because the galleons followed the trade winds, they generally made landfall a considerable distance up the Alta California coast on the return voyage.  The rocky, fogbound cliffs of Alta California were inhospitable, so the Manila galleons sailed down the coast without landing for nearly 200 years before Gaspar de Portolà’s 1769 overland expedition explored the interior and discovered San Francisco Bay.

        Storms sometimes blew the returning ships as far north as the Oregon coast – most likely the fate of the ‘beeswax galleon.’

        1. I watched the History Detectives episode linked below … apparently the wax would have been bound for missions in Mexico that required huge quantities of pure, unadulterated beeswax, for candles and whatnot. You had to use the pure bee stuff … no animal fat candles … for both religious and art-preservation reasons. 

          1. Exactly.  Even if the padres kept honeybees, there’s no way their local hives could have supplied enough wax to satisfy the missons’ demands.

    2. I suspect that a huge amount of wax could very well be part of the ship’s supplies rather than a trade good.

    1. Yeah I saw that too.  I also think I remember reading about in Oregon Coast Magazine.   I think a lot of Northwest papers covered it.  Very cool.

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