Archeological Investigation: The mystery of the Spanish cross

HISTORY MYSTERY The remnants of a Spanish cross, left, can be seen in the Trinidad Museum. A mural in the back shows Trinidad, where a Spanish explorer erected the cross in 1775. JD | Union

HISTORY MYSTERY The remnants of a Spanish cross, left, can be seen in the Trinidad Museum. A mural in the back shows Trinidad, where a Spanish explorer erected the cross in 1775. JD | Union

Jessie Faulkner
Mad River Union

TRINIDAD - Private investigators aren’t the only ones latching on to elusive clues and solving mysteries.

Humboldt State University applied anthropology and museum studies master’s student and Trinidad Museum intern Alexandra Cox recently spent several months in 2015 in an effort to determine whether three pieces of beat-up wood in the museum’s collection were actually part of the cross Spanish explorer Bruno de Hezeta installed June 11, 1775 on what would come to be known as Trinidad Head.

Cox, who shared her trail of discovery during a recent Humboldt County Historical Society presentation “The Trinidad Cross Remnants: Genuine or Fake?” at the main county library in Eureka, combined scientific analysis and a fair amount of sleuthing to determine that the mystery wood was – to a 99.9 percent certainty – actually redwood from the cross put in place nearly 241 years ago. Europeans didn’t settle on the North Coast for another 75 years after Hezeta left his legacy on Trinidad Head.

It was curiosity that led Cox to the chase not long after starting an internship at the Trinidad Museum and being introduced to the facility.

“The object was in a box sitting on the floor,” Cox said recalling her initial tour of the Trinidad Museum. “You couldn’t really tell what it was ... It was a hokey box.”

Trinidad Museum Society president Patti Fleschner told Cox it was the supposed remnants of the cross installed on the well-known headland by the Spanish explorers.

TRINIDAD HEAD This granite cross was erected on Trinidad Head in 1913 and still stands there today. JD | Union

TRINIDAD HEAD This granite cross was erected on Trinidad Head in 1913 and still stands there today. JD | Union

Cox’s project for her internship – one that continued after the internship was complete – was born. She set out to find out if those ragged, aged wood pieces were really part of the Spanish cross.

The search took two pathways – an exhaustive search of any related records and documents and a scientific analysis of the wood.

In 1775, Cox said, the Spanish sent two ships to survey and map the West Coast and, of course, claim land for Spain. Hezeta, captaining the Santiago, headed south from St. George’s Reef and landed in Trinidad Harbor on Jan. 9, 1775 where he and his crew remained until June 19, 1775.

It was on June 11 of that year that Hezeta followed a formal process of claiming the land for King Charles III of Spain. Cox said the first Catholic mass celebrated on the West Coast took place during that ceremony.

Centuries later, three alleged pieces of that cross remained.

“Two of the smaller pieces,” she said, “were highly degraded and there wasn’t much to work with. But the larger piece gave me some hope.”

Cox then went back to the university and worked with Allyson Carroll of the HSU Department of Forestry and Wildland Resources to attempt to date the wood with the use of dendrochronology, the study of tree growth rings. In simplest terms, the growth rings of the wood pieces were compared with growth rings of trees confirmed to have come from the time of the cross’ installation. Environmental factors, of course, affect the rate of a tree’s growth – a pattern reflected in the size of the growth rings. It was a bit challenging, Cox said, with only 132 growth rings to work with in the largest and most intact fragment.

By finding like characteristics between trees from that time period and the wood believed to have come from the cross, the researchers were able to narrow the wood fragment’s origins to between 1580 and 1711.

“These dates meant the tree was alive during those years,” Cox said.

Essentially, the results confirmed that it was possible that the fragments were from the original cross.

Part of determining the fragments’ date involved a close examination of the nail fragments left behind.

The remains of the 12 nails were present in the wood fragments. The nails were iron, square, had tapered points, and were possibly handcrafted between the mid-1700s and early 1800s, Cox said.

The next step was reviewing documents related to the cross, known in the field as ethnohistoric research. That search revealed that the cross’ remains were presented to the Eureka Woman’s Club in 1924, 11 years after the Woman’s Club installed the granite cross that still stands on Trinidad Head. A Humboldt Times article on the cross’ installation revealed that Anne Zane Murray chaired the committee in charge of the new cross. It was a fact that would later be helpful in Cox’s exploration.

Cox also discovered that the Eureka Woman’s Club donated its collection of historic relics to the Eureka Veterans’ Memorial Building in 1933 or 1934.  It appears the cross remnants were part of that donation.

Although Cox was unable to find any reference to that donation in the local newspapers of 1934 – The Humboldt Times and The Humboldt Standard – a review of the publications from 1933 helped. In December 1933, The Humboldt Times reported that the Eureka Woman’s Club and the Society of Humboldt County Pioneers purchased a “suitable case” for historic relics to be displayed in the Veterans’ Memorial Building

Cox recounted her next step, visiting the Eureka Veterans’ Memorial Building, as slightly less than illuminating – at least in the beginning. Present-day staff were unaware that the H Street hall had once housed a museum, she said. A tiny storage room in the basement was more helpful.

“Behind an old roll-away bed, there was a box that had old records,” she said. “I did find a memo (noting) that the museum room was not generating a lot of money and not drawing a lot of visitors.”

That situation led to the facility’s closure in 1950. No records were found explaining the pieces’ move from the Veterans’ Memorial Building to the Clarke Historical Museum nor where the pieces were housed in the interim. Eureka High School teacher Cecile Clarke opened the museum at its present site in 1960.

Former Clarke Historical Museum curator Pam Service happened upon the pieces decades later.

“She just found the box in one of their storage units and gave it to the Trinidad Museum in 2010,” Cox said.

But, a subsequent visit to the Humboldt County Historical Society’s research room provided a little bit more clarity and brought in Eureka Woman’s Club committee chair Murray’s recollection into the story. The chair of the 1913 cross installation committee wrote in her memoir, Cox said, that the remains of the original cross were found during construction of the road to the top of Trinidad Head, a necessary step for installing the granite cross. Murray’s 1941 autobiography indicated that the pieces resided in the museum collection at the Eureka Veterans’ Memorial Building.

Cox also said she uncovered a 1983 Trinidad News & Views column by Sybil M. Jamieson that said the remnants were part of the Clarke Museum, later renamed the Clarke Historical Museum.

Both Jamieson and Cox noted that British Capt. George Vancouver, who visited Trinidad Bay in 1793, reported that the original cross still stood.

Those interested in viewing the wooden remnants may do so by visiting the Trinidad Museum, 400 Janis Court, during open hours, Thursday through Sunday, 12:30 to 4 p.m. A full copy of Cox’s report is also posted on the Trinidad Museum’s website, trinidadmuseum.org, under permanent exhibits.

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