The Columbia River has a long history of shipwrecks. Its bar, where freshwater and saltwater meet, is one of the most difficult crossings of any river in the world, especially in the spring when the river’s volume is so great that the freshwater plume extends 100 miles to sea, and in the winter when storms lash the jumble of waves to 50 feet and higher.
Historically, the crossing was particularly difficult for ships under sail because the two natural channels across the bar forced them to turn sideways to the current and the wind. To this day it is not uncommon for ships to wait a week or longer for the bar to calm enough to allow a safe crossing.
The mouth of the Columbia and the near-shore areas to the north and south are littered with shipwrecks. (See this interactive Flash for information on most of the wrecks). More than 200 are known to have occurred. Some, like the Peter Iredale, which ran aground on the Oregon shore south of the river in 1906, are visible to this day.
Shipwrecks in and around the mouth of the Columbia date to the early 1800s, but there is circumstantial evidence of shipwrecks on the coast long before that. Spanish ships may have wrecked in the early 1700s, probably driven ashore in storms. There is circumstantial evidence, too, that crews were captured by Chinook and Clatsop Indians and then traded to other tribes as slaves.
Between 1769 and 1776, Spain established presidios and missions along the Pacific coast of New Spain — present-day Mexico and southern California — in a resurgence of interest in Northwest exploration and conquest. Spanish ships made regular trips between the Philippines and New Spain, sailing a circular route that brought them eastward in northerly latitudes and then west in more southern latitudes.
Crossing eastward, it was their practice to sail north to catch the Japan current. Then, about 200 miles off the coast of present-day central California, they would turn south toward the outposts of New Spain. It was a perilous voyage. Pirates preyed on these ships around The Philippines, and near the Pacific coast fierce storms sometimes blew the ships far off course to the north and sank them or wrecked them on the coast.
The most persistent story about shipwrecked 18th-century sailors on the Northwest coast, told in variations, involves the survivors of a ship or ships that grounded on the present-day Oregon coast and later were attacked by local Indians. The survivors might have been Spaniards or, in one version of the story, Japanese swept across the ocean by eastward currents. The incident might have happened around 1700 or 1750; in fact, there probably were multiple shipwrecks along the coast in this era. Some of these survivors were said to have buried treasure chests ashore. If so, the treasure hasn’t been found — or reported to have been found, at least.
There are Chinook and Chehalis Indian legends about white men who emerged from “a whale with two spruce trees standing upright on it” which had washed up on the shore near present-day Seaside, Oregon, in the mid-1700s. Three or four bearded, pale men emerged, making signs that they wanted water and gave the Indians copper kettles and pointed inland, gesturing that they wanted the kettles filled with water. Instead, the Indians took them prisoner and scoured the ship for copper and brass. Of the survivors, at least one died and two were kept as slaves. Another version holds that the survivors escaped and worked their way upriver on the Columbia to the Cascades or The Dalles, where they settled, married native women and had children. In 1811, an aged blind man living at The Cascades, who said his name was Soto, claimed his father was a Spaniard named by the Indians Kanopee, who had been shipwrecked near the mouth of the Columbia.
Other stories tell of red-haired Clatsop Indians, possibly descended from a red-haired Scotsman said to have survived a shipwreck in Nehalem Bay in December 1760. Another account dates this particular shipwreck in 1745.
There is evidence of even earlier shipwrecks. The Spanish supply ships often carried great quantities of beeswax to the missions, and when these ships were blown far off course and wrecked along the northern Pacific, the beeswax would wash ashore. Beeswax does not decay in saltwater or sand. Because it was common practice to stamp each block of wax with the year it was made, these blocks can date a shipwreck. Several have been found in the Nehalem, Oregon, area with the date 1679.
Outbound tanker crossing Columbia Bar, one of many hazards in the "Pacific Graveyard". Credit: Columbia River Bar Pilots.