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  • Writer's pictureBy Quinn Bender

Mystery of Manzanita's mountain

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

THE NATIONAL POST | Stones on the Oregon coast point to a vast hidden treasure ... if it really exists

Some treasure hunters believe it was Sir Francis Drake who buried his plundered loot on Manzanita mountain, a story that lines up dubiously but plausibly with the oral history of Oregon's Indigenous Clatsop.

There's something unusual about Manzanita, Oregon. For any visitor who swims in a place called Smuggler's Cove, or walks down roads with names like Windward, Spyglass and Treasure Cove Lane, the bearings in this town read like the preface to a fantastic novel. And perhaps they should. Manzanita likes at the foot of Neahkahnie Mountain, the setting for a mysterious ancient legend.

For more than a century, hundreds of men and women have descended on Manzanita, some 160 kilometres west of Portland, spending their fortunes, and sometimes their lives, trying to decode the mountain's ambiguous history that begins with a "giant winged canoe." It was sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries when the Clatsop Nation watched the strange craft smash its hull in the shallow waters of Nehalem Bay. As Oregon pioneers settled the area, the Clatsop relayed their story, saying 30 crewmen had deserted the vessel. They carried a large chest to one of Neahkahnie's terraces and, before burying it, deposited heavy sacks of treasure. They then walked away. Some north, some south.

None returned.

So began the Legend of Neahkahnie Mountain.

It should have faded with time; presumably other yarns did. But instead it gained only momentum when a farmer named Pat Smith discovered three curious boulders around Neahkahnie's base. Carved into their surfaces were hieroglyphic messages of letters, dots, and arrows. The Smith family and a legion of opportunists, made the dubious argument that if these markings existed, they must be a map. And if a map existed, it must lead to a treasure. At the turn of the century, their belief was strengthened when clam-diggers raked out of Manzanita beach 27 tones of beeswax--a trading commodity once carried aboard the often treasure-laden Spanish Galleons. Then when a low tide early in the 1900s revealed the remains of a rotted teak hull similar to the ancient ships, the effect upon Manzanita was of endemic gold fever.

"You'd either have to be real desperate," says Larry Parson, one of the first Manzanita residents I meet, "or a real genius to look for that treasure."

I drove into Manzanita to find either one. It was a Stygian afternoon where the sea swelled, and from the horizon fell in sheets of rain, a magnificent titanium grey. The streets were mostly still, but for a family dashing indoors. Tufts of Holland beach grass whipped at building foundations. In the summer months, these streets would crowd with freckled Portlanders, outnumbering the residents three to one. They would drink a tonnage of beer and before returning to the city refuel Manzanita's economy for another winter. But now it was the empty hotel beds that outnumbered the residents. The beer was flat. And only a small A-frame house relieved the mood with its fanciful trellises hung with greenery and rainbow-patterned windsocks. Over and open door, a child-like sign read simply, Snookums.

This was Larry Parson's shop. From a storefront in his living room he sold wooden pirate swords and plastic kites to tourists. In these colder moths he spent his retirement years producing historical documentary videos and recording the oral legends of Oregon-coast First Nations. The legend of Neahkahnie he called a "molested" fable, borne on the whims of settlers who hadn't the discipline for keeping the facts straight. "Any clues the legend might have given to the stones are lost," he said.

And none of the Indigenous people are around any longer to recount the story.

"Most of them were wiped out long ago. One of the last -- a Tillimook -- probably knew the original legend, but nobody recorded her stories. You see, the men used her as a prostitute, and so to keep their wives from finding out about their activities, they spread rumors that she was crazy.

"But nobody really cares what the legend says -- one version talks about an eight-foot tall black man who was killed and buried with the treasure.

"The only thing people hear is 'gold', and they come running to what they think is a map."

Sometimes any map would do. One man, said to be the grandson of a local pioneer, claimed to possess a family map with direct coordinates to the galleon haul. When asked why he did not recover the cache, he confessed his psychic medium had said "the time is not yet auspicious." Another woman claimed she too possessed a map, and any man with $5,000 was welcome to see it.

A treasure stone with the letters D.E. Photo courtesy the Tillimook Pioneer Museum

But none of these extraordinary claims could match the mystery of the actual Stones. And when their discoverer, Pat Smith, died poor in 1929, he and his family left behind a fantastic idea free for the solving: select Bible verses revealed the treasure's location -- the Stones told which verses to study.

"After all the work they [the Smiths] had done, not to win seems un-American and unfair. The murdered Negro, the Indian legends -- it all looks like stew when you try to sort it out."

I'm talking by phone with Richard Walburn, a California-based investigator of lost treasures.

Walburn invented an electronic tool to detect inorganic anomalies in otherwise balanced environments. When his "imprecise" (and classified) equipment picked up "dense" metallic readings along a six-kilometre stretch of the Oregon coast, he adopted the Smiths' Bible-theory to extrapolate an exact coordinate. Now 56 years old, carrying the Smiths' legacy to fruition drives him as much as recovering the cache.

When a low tide early in the 1900s revealed the remains of a rotted teak hull, similar to the ancient ships, the effect in Manzanita was of endemic gold fever.

"The stone with the 'M' is the key to all this. The D.E. didn't mean due east, as many treasure hunters thought. It meant the book of Deuteronomy in the Bible, just as the BKS on another stone meant the Book of Kings.

"What a shock! Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, treasure hunters have been digging in the wrong place!"

The right place, Walburn says, is 30 kilometres south, near the village of Oceanside.

"Everything led to this parallel. You've got three rocks lined up; each one has got a hole in it pointing towards this spot."

He found this by following 25 verses as closely as he could, tracing the shoreline until he found a beach similar in appearance to Manzanita's -- one "like unto the first" with a stretch of sand, and a finger of land jutting out into the ocean. And there, close to the shore, he saw Three Arches Monument -- a trio of islets looking like the humps of a petrified sea serpent. It was a landmark described metaphorically in the Book of Kings: " in three rows, and light was against light in three ranks."

While observing his discovery, Walburn witnessed a waxing tide shoot water with tremendous force through a fissure in the finger of land. It sprayed the beach like a sprinkler. And Walburn concluded: "For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs." Deuteronomy 8:7.

"The main section of the code is to get you to this parallel -- the pinnacle," Walburn says.

"But there's more to it. And if not me, then someone else will pick up where I left off and solve it."

"Whoever put this code together was limited to what the Good Book said. He wasn't giving any freebies away."

"Who do you think it was?" I ask.

"I believe it was Francis Drake. What I think he buried was Aztec antiquities. But when the glitter hits the sunlight, that'll be the deciding factor."

The next morning I wonder about Walburn's claim as I hike up Neahkahnie Mountain through tunnels of hemlock and Sitka spruce. Sunlight dapples the ground, and basalt boulders torn from the cliffs lie strewn. The curved ocean horizon is likely of the same Prussian blue Drake would have sailed on centuries ago after defeating the Spanish Armada. It's not so incredible to say he had been here, nor that his ships held outstanding treasures. During Drake's circumnavigation of the globe in 1579, he sailed as far north to what is now the Oregon-Washington border, seeking refuge for his sea-beaten vessel, the Golden Hind. From my vantage point on Neahkahnie, a shipwreck seems entirely possible. Whitecaps blink like tiny explosions. All along the coast, spires of rock rise from the sea. Closer to land, breaker waves crease the surface and rush ashore, grinding the basalt boulders in the fine sand of Manzanita beach. But Drake returned to England with the Golden Hind. His journal keeper wrote nothing of burying any treasure -- nearly everything of value on board was plundered Spanish property. Leaving it behind would have defied Drakes agreement with Queen Elizabeth I.

I wonder how long Walburn will follow his clues. Because, the Bible-code theory consciously excludes an important detail: In addition to the three marked boulders found by Pat Smith, later treasure hunters discovered another 30.

"I find it impossible to believe that anyone would go through so much trouble just to hide something," says Wayne Jensen, director of the Tillimook Pioneer Museum. "The treasure hunters all swear up and down that there's a treasure. They say this and that, but I don't try to change their minds. What's the use? They believe it."

And none, it seems, account for all of the treasure stones in their theories. One treasure hunter, the late Bud Kretsinger, believed the fabled treasure contained King Solomon's gold and ancient scrolls written by Moses himself, basing his belief on only 12 of the stones. Wayne Jensen also developed a theory: The stones were part of a 16th century triangulation for a land claim laid by none other than Sir Francis Drake. However, two-thirds of the 33 stones fall outside the grid that supports his claim. Were Jensen correct, it would mean that Canada's border with the US should lie further south of the 49th parallel.

For more than a century, critics have scoffed at Manzanita's treasure hunters. Drunk on a strange cocktail of historical fable and quasi-archaeology, many hunters have invented historical falsities to fit their beliefs. Archaeology often took second place to romanticism. Though none have found the great hidden chest, as I drive out of Manzanita on a road strapped like a belt around the belly of Neahkahnie Mountain, I think of what could inspire the making of the Stones -- do they tell a message, make up a map, or are they, as one man would have me believe, merely a sailor's graffiti?

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