Nehalem is the site of a series of mysteries so entwined, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. Clatsop Indian legends tell of a “winged canoe” that wrecked on the beach and from it came vast quantities of beeswax that the natives traded with the first white settlers in the region. The Clatsops also tell of another vessel that anchored off the coast and dispatched a team of men who buried a chest, presumably filled with treasure, and marked the spot with an inscribed rock.
In search of answers, I traveled to Nehalem, between Astoria and Tillamook along the Oregon coast. Two hours west of Portland, this small town lies just south of Neahkahnie Mountain, where legend has it, pirate treasure still lies undiscovered.
A light rain fell as I navigated the winding road south towards Nehalem. Between the cold, wet weather and the darkening skies, I would have little time to explore the area. But a place with such historic mysteries deserves at least a look.
Early stories of Nehalem and its treasures were told to settlers by the Clatsop Indians. Much of their historical knowledge was recorded by historian Silas B. Smith in the 1890’s. He found that they spoke of two distinct vessels that had come to the area. The first was a ship that visited long enough to allow men to bury a chest before sailing away. A second ship wrecked on Nehalem Beach spilling its cargo across the sands.
The tale of the treasure ship is related in similar stories told by Smith and by pioneer John Hobson. Both men say that the Clatsop Indians remember a large vessel anchoring just off the coast from Neahkahnie Mountain. From the ship, men came ashore and buried a large chest filled with sacks of money. They then killed a man and laid his body over the trunk before burying it. The site of the interment was marked with a stone upon which they carved hieroglyphics. 1
Further evidence that a ship once wrecked off the coast of Nehalem can be found in the journals of the legendary explorers Lewis and Clark. In 1805, they met with a group of Clatsop Indians and among them was a man of much lighter color than his fellow natives. His freckles and long red hair indicated to Clark that he “certainly must be half white at least.” 2
This same man or another quite similar was spotted later by Alexander Henry of the Northwest Company of British fur traders. In his journal for December 8, 1813, he stated “The old Clatsop chief arrived [and] there came with him a man about thirty years of age, who had extraordinarily dark red hair, and is the supposed offspring of a ship that was wrecked… many years ago.” 3
But stranded mariners weren’t all that the shipwreck brought. From before the first white settlers arrived and up until today, large quantities of beeswax have been discovered washed ashore along Nehalem Beach. As early as 1814, the Clatsop Indians recovered large chunks of the wax and transported it north to Astoria to trade with the early settlers.
In the 1930’s, Nehalem resident Waldemar H. Hollensted found a chunk of wax approximately 15 by 18 inches and four to five inches thick. Carved into the surface was a cross with a circle at its center. Other chunks of wax have been found inscribed with roman numerals and geometric shapes. At first glance, the beeswax with its strange symbols seems to be quite mysterious. However, it is now commonly accepted that this mystery has largely been solved. 4
Chemical analysis has proven that the wax is consistent with beeswax from Southeast Asia and a carbon-14 test shows that the wax was formed in 1681. From 1565 to 1815 Spanish galleons sailed between Acapulco and the Philippines and it would not be difficult for a ship sailing this route to be blown off course and wreck on the Nehalem beach. 1,4
Known measurements of the average minimum cargo size for such vessels match closely with the dimensions of the largest, most intact blocks of wax that have been found. Additionally, a private mark would identify all of a consignor’s packages stowed aboard a ship. When shown a reproduction of several of the marks found on the Nehalem wax, Professor William Schurz, an expert on Spanish galleons commented, “The marks are exactly like those I found in the Spanish archives on some of the manifests of the galleons.” 1
While the marks on the beeswax have not been matched with a specific ship’s manifest, it is likely that the ship in question was the San Francisco Xavier, which set sail in 1705 and was recorded as lost. But what of the first lost ship with its buried treasure and inscribed marking stone?
The stories of the Neahkahnie treasure were merely unsubstantiated legend until 1890 when treasure hunter Pat Smith discovered a two hundred pound rock not far from Nehalem Beach. Upon the surface of the stone was chiseled the letter W with a cross on each side. Below were the letters DE along with eight dots and below them was an arrow that pointed up the mountainside. A short distance away, a smaller rock was found with two dots and an arrow pointing back towards the larger stone.
Since 1890, many more rocks have been discovered on and around Neahkahnie Mountain all bearing similar inscriptions. The discovery of the glyphic rocks along with the enigmatic beeswax have driven dozens of treasure seekers to dig countless holes around the mountain, earning it the name, the “mountain of a thousand holes.” 4
Sam Reed, owner of the Neahkahnie Tavern in the early 1900’s allowed many men to search for the buried treasure on his land. Although none of them ever met with success, Reed uncovered some mysteries of his own while clearing land in back of the tavern. In the process of blasting a tree stump, workmen discovered two crude bronze handles in the loosened soil. They appeared to be handles from a chest, but there was no sign of a trunk or any of its contents.
Years later a Mrs. Schmidt of Portland became interested in the treasure and sought the advice of a spiritual medium in finding it. The medium told her that on October 20 she must climb Neahkahnie Mountain at sunset “to discover the point at which a line from the setting sun intersected at right angles the line that passed due north and south through the middle point on Neahkahnie’s crown.”
Schmidt did as she was told and after climbing the mountain was able to calculate the precise spot. The location turned out to be the exact same place that Reed had uncovered the two brass handles years before! Of course, aside from the handles, no treasure of any kind was found at this location. 1
While no chest has yet been recovered, it hasn’t stopped hungry treasure hunters from spending a small fortune in search of it. L. E. “Bud” Kretsinger spent over 20 years searching Neahkahnie Mountain for what he believed was part of the treasure of King Solomon. Kretsinger and his partner Dean Grimes estimated that between them they spent over $250,000 in their search. Despite their substantial investment and high hopes, they were never able to find the riches they sought. 4
Grimes and Kretsinger along with countless other treasure seekers believe the inscribed stones hold the clue to locating the lost booty. Two men claim they have finally deciphered the riddle of these mysterious rocks found scattered around Neahkahnie Mountain.
In 1969, Don Viles was looking through photos of the hieroglyphic stones when it occurred to him that the engravings might represent compass bearings. He theorized that a pattern of bearings could have been used to take a “sight” on the location. Viles then contacted researcher Wayne Jensen who he knew had a large amount of data about the stones and their original locations and orientations.
The two men came to an agreement and immediately met with success. While tracking out one of the bearings on foot, Vile came to a cliff face upon which were inscribed numerous glyphs including the word “AUGUR,” meaning to foretell or predict.
Additional searches eventually turned up another site consisting of a large circular platform of stones approximately ten feet in diameter and two feet high. The men removed the stones and uncovered a second layer of smaller rocks that formed a foundation for the larger stones on top. Noticing a depression, they dug a shallow hole, but found no treasure. However, their digging did uncover evidence of burned wood of which only charcoal remained. Samples of the charcoal were sent to the University of Georgia and were radio-carbon dated to the year 1095 A.D.
While they were dismantling the stone mound, the men discovered a rectangular stone with a groove carved into one side measuring 36 inches, or exactly one English yard. With a unit of measurement in place, the team was able to uncover many more inscribed stones; none of which lead to the discovery of any treasure. Eventually they determined that the rocks were actually markers used as part of a survey to stake out a land claim made in 1579 by Sir Francis Drake with which he claimed for England all land north of 45 degrees north latitude. 4
It is known that Drake made landfall for several weeks somewhere along the west coast of what is now the United States, but the exact location has remained a mystery that has perplexed scholars for centuries. The Jodocus Hondius Broadside map of 1595 refer to a bay Drake identified as Portus Novae Albionis. The contours of this harbor match closely with the coastal outline of Nehalem bay.
Viles and Jensen’s work is thorough and appears to offer a scientific explanation for the enigmatic carved stones. However, some mysteries still remain. For instance, why did the charcoal from the stone mound return a radio-carbon date of 1095 A.D. when their research shows the site was constructed in 1579?
Additional mysteries were uncovered by treasure hunter Ed Fire who has spent over 25 years researching and digging for the Neahkahnie Treasure. While digging into Neahkahnie Mountain, Fire claims to have found a series of tunnels and chambers, some of which contain evidence of human habitation such as armor, muskets and even bodies. In the tunnel system, he also discovered a piece of timber that has been dated as being 40,000 years old and appears to have been hewn by man. 4
As I pondered these mysteries, I pulled over at Nehalem Beach and took a few photos in the light drizzle. Driving down a residential street along the coast, I headed towards Neahkahnie Mountain, all the while keeping an eye out for the spots where previous treasure hunters dug deep holes into the earth. The locations of these holes can usually be identified by the large “No Trespassing” signs that surround them.
Since I didn’t want to trespass—at least not in the rain—I decided to drive south to the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum, which houses a small display showing several samples of the beeswax found on Nehalem Beach. In the basement of the museum is a larger display containing some of the carved stones that have been found on Neahkahnie Mountain.
Many of the mysteries of Nehalem seem to have been solved by modern science. The beeswax with its strange symbols no longer seems so out of place and unexplained. The carved stones now appear to have a prosaic purpose unrelated to the riches usually prescribed to them.
But what of the original Clatsop Indian account of the chest they saw buried with a body placed on top? This was standard practice for pirates who believed the dead man’s ghost would guard their buried loot. How would the Clatsop know this detail of pirate lore when nothing in their own culture matched this gruesome practice? 5
Could there still be a treasure lying undiscovered on the mountain waiting to be located? And what of the discoveries of underground tunnels found by Ed Fire and the anomalous radio-carbon date given to the charcoal uncovered in the stone mound by Viles and Jensen? It seems that with each mystery we “solve,” another rises to take its place.