While coin collectors are attracted to the pastime for a variety of reasons, the opportunity to hold a piece of history in one’s hand is universally, irresistibly intriguing. An antique coin, worn by the touch of many thousand hands, would have endless tales to tell were it not mute metal. It’s impossible not to dream a little about the role it played in commerce and life in centuries past.
A recent discovery on the Oregon coast evokes such reveries. This summer, two beachcombers hunting for agate found two old Spanish coins and a fragment in the sand at Nehalem beach. They are speculated to be relics from the so-called “beeswax galleon,” a Manila trade ship wrecked in the late 17th century on its journey from the Philippines to Acapulco. Laden with trade goods including beeswax and porcelain, it has shed evidence of its cargo on the local beaches for centuries. Local Clatsop and Nehalem Indians traded beeswax in the region, offering pieces to Lewis and Clark during their visit to the Pacific in 1805-6. The museum in Tillamook displays beeswax chunks that look like aged cheeses, some with Spanish markings. They also show old arrowheads crafted from blue and white Chinese porcelain.
Local historian and treasure salvor Robert Lewis Knecht has viewed photos of the artifacts. He’s dived many Spanish galleons off Florida, and is well versed in coinage of that era. He identifies the date and mint marks of one silver coin as a one reale from Bolivia, 1661, and the other as a Spanish maravedi.
These coins aren’t rarities, and they don’t necessarily indicate a wealth of treasure on the sea floor–an eastbound ship would be laden with trade goods, not money. But they vividly bring a moment of history to life: a fragile teak ship plying the Asian seas northward from the Philippines, catching the current across the north Pacific, heavy with goods destined to be carried over land from Acapulco to the Caribbean and onward to Europe. Bad weather on a treacherous coast, and the coins are suddenly lost to the sands of time, where they’re no longer worn by fingertips as they change hands around the globe, but by the relentless caress of the dark, deep sea.