Did Drake Really Do It?

In 1577, a 37-year-old sea captain set sail from England for the Pacific Ocean, which the Europeans had only recently discovered. The journey was extremely risky. “These men faced far greater danger than today’s astronauts,” says Bay Area historian Edward Von der Porten. “They hardly knew where they were going; they were gone nearly three years, and when they returned people were astounded they were alive.”

That captain was Francis Drake, who was knighted by England’s Queen Elizabeth on his return from the almost inconceivable feat of circumnavigating the earth. In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition was the first to make it around the world, but Magellan was killed before his voyage’s completion.

Von der Porten is steeped in knowledge of Drake’s epic journey. He and many other historians believe that as part of that adventure, Drake — on June 17, 1579 — entered what is now Drakes Bay for a 36-day stay on the shores of West Marin.

Or did he? Did Drake indeed repair and replenish his ship, the Golden Hind, less than a mile from where today’s Sir Francis Drake Boulevard nears its western terminus on the Point Reyes Peninsula? Or did he stop in Oregon? Near Santa Barbara? Or the seemingly obvious: inside San Francisco Bay?

Answering that question with certainty has captivated adventurers, amateur sleuths, nautical historians and even archaeologists for almost 200 years. It has held Von der Porten’s attention since 1956. Among many of its facets, the answer involves mentions of “38 degrees” of latitude, crates of Chinese bowls and plates, and the confirming assertions of one of World War II’s great heroes.

“Of course, Drake and his men landed and encamped in Marin County,” says Von der Porten, a 77-year-old retired history and archaeology teacher who lives in San Francisco. “There are approximately 50 pieces of evidence about Drake’s landing site, and they fit only one place: Drake’s Cove at Drakes Bay.” (Modern maps do not use the apostrophe.) Von der Porten’s confidence rests primarily on three factors:
• A mid-1800s cartographer cruised the coast in a square-rigged ship and determined Drakes Bay was the “general area” where Drake put in.
• Comparisons between a sketch made in the late 1570s and photos taken in 1952 that confirmed passage into Drakes Estero was possible.
• A 1978 hearing of the California State Historical Resources Commission, where 27 expert witnesses said their studies showed Drake landed in West Marin. All theories advocating other locations were rejected. “This was not a ‘smoking gun’ situation,” Von der Porten says of the hearing, “but a constant parade of irrefutable evidence.”

Still, the only pieces of hard evidence presented to the state commission were shards of late-16th-century Chinese bowls and plates Von der Porten and his Santa Rosa archaeology students had uncovered in the late 1960s and early 1970s while excavating Coast Miwok campsites.
With the aid of then–Asian Art Museum curator Clarence Shangraw, Von der Porten says, one-third of those fragments were convincingly linked to cargo that Drake left with Coast Miwok people at what is now called Drakes Bay. The remaining porcelain pieces were dated to a 1595 shipwreck.

“The controversy had definitely been ended,” says Von der Porten. “Sir Francis Drake landed and spent time in what is now known as Drakes Bay.” But that state historical commission failed to reach a conclusion. Why?

Setting Sail

In the mid–16th century, Spain and Portugal controlled the bulk of the known world’s sea routes. England was only awakening to the concepts of commerce and empire. Queen Elizabeth I wanted to challenge other nations that had staked claims along the coasts of Africa and the New World. Captain Francis Drake was the man she sent forth.

Drake, who already made several journeys to the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, departed England’s Plymouth Harbor on November 15, 1577, for the relatively uncharted Pacific. His armada comprised 164 seamen on five relatively small ships. The Golden Hind (“hind” was a heraldic term meaning “deer”), about 80 feet long and displacing 150 tons, was the largest. Drake also possessed a letter from the queen entitling him to raid a Spanish ship in retribution for an attack he had suffered on an earlier Atlantic voyage.

After nearly a year at sea, Drake lost four ships and more than half his crew to storms and a near mutiny while passing through the Strait of Magellan into the Pacific. Near Ecuador, according to logs maintained by Drake’s nephew, John, the Golden Hind “legally” raided the Spanish galleon Cacafuego and made off with 26 tons of silver as well as crates of Ming porcelain dinnerware the Spaniards had acquired in Manila with the intent of trading with Peruvians for more silver.

Weeks later, on the coast of Costa Rica while taking time to scrape the hull of the Golden Hind, Drake captured an oceangoing craft small enough to pilot the bigger vessel into tight coves. Upon reaching Mexico, the two ships left the coastline and began sailing hundreds of miles on a north-northwest course. Then Drake turned northeast to approach the coast again.

Accounts from those who viewed firsthand the logs and charts from the voyage (which were destroyed when London’s Whitehall Palace burned in 1698) indicate Drake was looking for the legendary Northwest Passage, hoping to expedite his return to England. But all he found were frigid weather and dangerous seas, and off the coast of Oregon he turned around and headed south along the shore in search of a safe harbor where he could repair his battered craft. On June 17 (June 27 by the modern calendar), 1579, he put ashore somewhere on the Pacific coast. Exactly where Drake landed isn’t absolutely certain, although the predominant historical consensus is that it was what would become, some 270 years hence, Marin County.

White Cliffs of the Pacific

Drake’s 36 days on the coast of the Pacific are minimal compared to his nearly three-year journey around the globe. Nonetheless, they were significant. He made the first English encampment in what eventually became the United States, led the first encounter between Englishmen and Native Americans, and laid England’s first claim to land in the New World. Drake named the land Portus Novae Albionis or Port of the New White Land (or New England, depending on interpretation), sometimes also referred to as Nova Albion — reportedly because the white cliffs of Drakes Bay reminded crewmen of similar cliffs along the English Channel, Von der Porten says.

The Golden Hind’s chaplain, Francis Fletcher, recorded the interaction between Drake’s crew and the Coast Miwoks, an account repeated in The World Encompassed, a book by Drake’s nephew published in 1628. According to both accounts, although the Miwoks’ welcoming ceremonies “used unnatural violence against themselves; tearing their flesh from their cheekes with their nailes in a monstrous manner,” they were later found to be “a people of a tractable, free and loving nature, without guile or treachery.” Both accounts also mention distinctively woven baskets that helped identify Coast Miwoks as the peoples Drake had met, Von der Porten says. Coast Miwoks are specific to Marin’s coast.

While ashore, the crew repaired the Golden Hind by using a hazardous process called careening, laying the 150-ton vessel on its side in order to clean, patch and resurface its undersides. To accomplish this required unloading cannons, supplies and captured treasures. The crates of Chinese porcelain taken from the Spanish were left behind when the ship was reloaded. Conjecture is they were left as gifts for the Coast Miwoks.

Prior to embarking, Drake’s crew trekked inland to what is now Inverness Ridge and the Olema Valley: “It was farre different from the shoare,” Fletcher wrote, “a goodly country with fruitful soil and many blessings for the use of man.” Then, according to Fletcher, Drake erected a monument, with a “plate of brasse,” that compared the white bluffs of Drakes Bay to the famous white cliffs of the English Channel, laid England’s claim to the surrounding countryside, and stated that no Spaniards had ever been so far north. Neither the monument nor the brass plaque have ever been found.

On or about July 27, 1579, the Golden Hind sailed for home. The passage across the Pacific and Indian oceans and around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa took more than a year. When Drake sailed the Golden Hind into Plymouth Harbor on Sept. 26, 1580, he and what remained of his crew had completed a voyage of two years and 10 months.

The Captain and Marin

Additional evidence suggests  Drake indeed landed in Drakes Bay and not elsewhere on the Pacific Coast. In addition to the numerous shards of Chinese porcelain linked to his raid of a Spanish ship, there is the matter of “38 degrees north latitude.” Historians from the 16th century who saw Drake’s charts and logs later stated this was the location recorded for his June 1579 landing. And Marin’s Drakes Bay is located at 38.034 degrees north latitude.

Another supporting document is a world map made in the late 1500s by Dutch cartographer Jodocus Hondius, who claimed to have seen the charts maintained by Drake’s navigator. In the chart’s upper left corner is an insert titled “the Portus Novae Albionis view of Drake’s haven in California.” Exhaustive research in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s — including photography and tidal studies — by the Drake’s Navigators Guild, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports the theory of Drake’s Marin landing, clearly correlates the Hondius sketch with today’s Drakes Bay.
Perhaps the most prominent supporter of the theory that Drake landed in Marin was Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, head of the U.S. Pacific fleet during World War II, a lifelong man of the sea and honorary chairman of the Drakes Navigator Guild. Nimitz, who died in 1966, once gave a statement summarizing the evidence validating the landing of Sir Francis Drake on Marin’s shores in 1579:

“Unless Drake’s calculations of latitude can be proven wrong, the landmark White Cliffs be termed a falsification, the naming of the land ‘Nova Albion’ be considered a figment of nostalgia, and the charting of Portus Novae Albionis be declared an imaginative invention … I take great pleasure in declaring Drakes Bay the site of Drake’s 36-day encampment in 1579.”

Drake's Legacy: Marin Leads the Way

Sir Francis Drake was the first person to lead — and complete — a journey around the world. And his life had only just begun. After returning home, in 1588 he led England’s fleet against the Spanish Armada, and then led several voyages, including attacks, throughout the New World. Drake died in 1596, at age 56.

According to many historical accounts, in addition to being a globe-circling adventurer, Drake was also a privateer (some say a pirate) and a slave trader.

Possibly that explains why — except for in Marin County — few places are named for the diminutive mariner with red whiskers. In his hometown of Plymouth, England, only a traffic roundabout bears his name — and it’s called Drake’s Circus.

Yet locally, the 16th-century sea captain is virtually exalted. In West Marin, you will find Drakes Bay, Drakes Estero and, the one-of-a-kind Drakes Beach Cafe. Sir Francis Drake High School, whose outstanding school newspaper is the Jolly Roger, is on Marin’s most critical east-west thoroughfare, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. And in San Francisco, there’s the popular Sir Francis Drake Hotel.   

If you’d like to walk in the shadow (literally) of the courageous captain who — more than four centuries ago — likely strolled the shores of Marin, visit San Rafael sculptor Dennis Patton’s 30-foot tall metal likeness near the Larkspur Landing Ferry Terminal on — where else? — Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.

Finally, consider joining forces, financially as well as cinematically, with Kentfield’s Corinne Swall, who is writing the film script for The Story the Porcelains Tell, a documentary short on the time Sir Francis Drake, a world adventurer if there ever was one, is believed to have spent in Marin County. Swall can be reached at 415.461.0313 or [email protected].