The Enduring Mystery of Sir Francis Drake’s California Landing

The name Sir Francis Drake resonates with adventure, piracy, and exploration in the annals of history. In the late 16th century, Drake embarked on a groundbreaking journey around the world, becoming one of the most renowned English navigators and privateers of his time. While his exploits and contributions to British maritime history are undisputed, the location of his purported landing in California remains a perplexing enigma.

In 1577, Sir Francis Drake led an expedition of five ships and 164 crew members, with Francis Pretty among them, on a historic circumnavigation of the globe. Departing from Plymouth, England, on November 15, 1577, their journey faced immediate challenges as violent storms battered the fleet off the coast of Cornwall, necessitating repairs in Plymouth. They finally resumed their expedition on December 13, 1577.

As they sailed, Drake’s crew explored islands near the Cape Verde archipelago off the west coast of Africa. Months later, they made landfall in Guanabara Bay, Brazil, where they constructed a new ship. There, they also encountered exotic fruits, wild goats, and jungle fowl. Their journey continued southward, eventually leading them to the treacherous waters of the Strait of Magellan at the southern tip of South America, where one of their ships was lost in a fierce storm.

Conflict arose when they interacted with the tall natives of Chile, culminating in the abduction and execution of Thomas Doughty, one of Drake’s crew members. Subsequently, they ventured to Peru, where they plundered Spanish ships and discovered untold treasures. Finally, they circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope and returned to Plymouth on September 26, 1580.

Sir Francis Drake’s exploration along the west coast of North America marked a significant chapter in history. After raiding Spanish ports and ships, Drake and his crew made landfall along the California coast to repair their vessels and claim the land in the name of Queen Elizabeth I of England. However, the exact location of their landing has been a subject of dispute for years.

In 1875, British geographer George Davidson identified a bay northwest of San Francisco, which he believed to be Drake’s landing site, and renamed it Drakes Bay. This discovery was well received by Californians, who saw Drake as a founding figure of their state. Nevertheless, Davidson’s conclusions were later challenged, with historian Robert F. Heizer suggesting in his book “Francis Drake and the California Indians” (2022) that Drake never entered San Francisco Bay.

The enduring mystery of Sir Francis Drake’s landing in California revolves around the authenticity of “Drake’s Plate.” This copper artifact, measuring approximately 15 x 20 inches, bears Latin inscriptions claiming Drake’s arrival and the land’s possession in Queen Elizabeth I’s name. In 1977, nuclear activation analysis conducted by Helen Michel and Frank Asaro confirmed that the plate was a forgery, produced in the late 19th or early 20th century and containing chemical elements inconsistent with 16th-century English manufacturing techniques.

Moreover, there is no historical record of Queen Elizabeth I presenting such a plate to Sir Francis Drake. Upon the plate’s exposure as a hoax, James Hart, then-director of the Bancroft Library, publicized the findings, debunking its authenticity.

In 2003, a group of historians claimed that “Drake’s Plate” was deliberately crafted as a practical joke by Herbert E. Bolton’s associates. Bolton, the director of the Bancroft Library from 1920 to 1940, had received the plate from Beryle Shinn and publicly validated its discovery before his friends could admit it was a hoax.

These individuals, associated with E Clampus Vitus, a historical and fraternal organization, included G. Ezra Dane, George Haviland Barron, George C. Clark, and Lorenz Noll. They were known for creating fake plaques and engaging in playful jests among their fraternity members. The plate’s back also featured the letters “ECV,” an abbreviation of E Clampus Vitus, which further implicated its origin.

Sir Francis Drake’s legacy remains a complex tapestry of exploration, piracy, and national identity. While he is celebrated as a hero in England, his actions stirred tensions with Spain, which viewed him as a pirate. Simultaneously, his presence in California offers an alternative origin story to the Spanish missionaries and Native American populations of the region.

The controversy surrounding Drake’s landing site continues to shape California’s historical narrative and identity. While the mystery of his exact landing location persists, the enduring fascination with Sir Francis Drake and the enduring intrigue of “Drake’s Plate” ensure that his name will be forever linked with the history of the Golden State.