The Climate of Nova Albion in the Summer of 1579

...the incredible becomes credible

Tree rings - Preacher Fletcher's witnesses

Drake & El Nino!
(But first read on...)

One of the most interesting and exciting things that can happen during the course of a historical investigation is for a new path to suddenly appear in the midst of what was thought to be a thoroughly explored forest, an unexpected path that leads to places of interest and importance extending far beyond the original issues. In this instance, a look at the way the weather reports in the narratives of the circumnavigation have affected the perspectives of various analysts prompted a secondary investigation into the truth of those reports, with surprising results and implications.

The Weather Reports from Nova Albion

On April 26, 1579, the Golden Hind left the coast of New Spain and sailed north into the waters of the American Northwest, the region soon to be known as Nova Albion, where she remained until August 4th. (The dates on this web sub-page have been adjusted to the modern calendar.) According to the World Encompassed, in what are almost certainly the words of Drake's preacher Francis Fletcher, she reached the latitude of 42 degrees - the height of today's border between California and Oregon - on June 13th. In the first sentence describing the region, the World Encompassed reports that during the night and while still well offshore Drake's men encountered "extreme and nipping cold." The following day, claims the World Encompassed, brought no relief:
... the very roapes of our ship were stiffe, and the raine which fell, was an vnnatural congealed and frozen substance ...
These are the first two of eight references in the World Encompassed to freezing conditions, as opposed to the many complaints of mere cold. After "sayling but 2. deg. farther to the Northward," more icy effects are noted:
... our meate as soone as it was remooued from the fire, would presently in a manner be frozen vp ...
... our ropes and tackling, in few dayes were growne to that stiffenesse, that what 3. men afore were able with them to performe, now 6. men with their best strength, and vttermost endeauour, were hardly able to accomplish ...
The first mention of snow follows on the next page:
From the height of 48. deg. in which now we were, to 38. we found the land by coasting alongst it to bee but low and reasonable plaine: euery hill (whereof we saw many, but none verie high) though it were in Iune, and the Sunne in his neerest approch vnto them being couered with snow ...
After reporting the anchoring on June 27th "in 38 deg. 30. min." in the "conuenient and fit harborough" where the Golden Hind "continued till the 23. day of Iuly [August 2nd]," the World Encompassed, in the next sentence, complains that "During all which time ... were wee continually visited with like nipping colds ...." Soon another reference to snow and what sounds like slush appears:
... the North and North west winds (the constant visitants of those coasts) fend abroad their frozen nimphes, to the infecting of the whole aire with this insufferable sharpnesse: not permitting the Sunne, no not in the pride of his heate, to dissolue that congealed matter and snow ...
The final mention of icy conditions reiterates that snow remained on the ground at low elevations throughout Drake's stay:
... in the middest of their Summer, the snow hardly departeth euen from their very doores, but is neuer taken away from their hils at all ...
Just as the first sentence of the Nova Albion narrative in the World Encompassed speaks of the cold, so, twenty pages and fifty-two days later, does the last:
... the extremity of the cold not only continued but increased ...
Altogether, nearly two thousand words in the World Encompassed report on, complain of, and theorize about the weather encountered by the circumnavigators in and about Nova Albion between June 13 and August 4 of 1579 - all on or along the coast between, roughly, Seattle and San Francisco.

The Reaction of the Pundits to the Weather Reports

Most historians have been content to consider this report a simple dramatization or exaggeration, several have theorized that it was fabricated in England, perhaps with the view of discouraging Spanish exploration, some have speculated that it means that Drake went much further north than otherwise indicated, while others have simply ignored it. A few historians have been so outraged by the perceived prevarications that they have questioned the veracity of the rest of the World Encompassed in general and Francis Fletcher in particular, sometimes in very nasty terms.

In the 1880's, H. H. Bancroft became particularly incensed by what he considered the impossible weather report, and his derisive bellowing typifies the attitude of many later investigators and still echoes through the literature. In Bancroft's The History of the Northwest Coast, poor Fletcher is listed in the table of contents under "Fletcher's Falsehoods" and on a page heading he is called


It was the weather report that triggered Bancroft's tantrum, for it is only for the meteorological observations that Bancroft heatedly castigates Fletcher, page after page:
The author's absurd statements and explanations [about the "excessive cold"] are not worth repeating in detail.
It is moreover remarkable that he [J.W.Dwinelle] should accept Fletcher's statements about the climate and season as even remotely founded on truth.
And as to Fletcher's veracity and accuracy, our faith is not strengthened by the many glaring absurdities of the narrative, by his deliberate falsehoods respecting the snow covered hills in June.
Fletcher ... who was so nearly frozen among the snow-covered hills in June ...
Bancroft's frustration is palpable; he worked himself up into such a state of indignation that he felt compelled to throw out the World Encompassed altogether, leaving himself without the by far most detailed narrative of events in Nova Albion. In consequence he was left with little to say about Drake in California, and thus he missed an early opportunity to compare the richly detailed descriptions of the Indians with the remnants of Indian culture in the region. Had Bancroft made such a comparison, it would have been at a time when the destruction of these cultures was less complete than when Samuel Barrett and Alfred Kroeber made their later analyses.

There have been more recent and more serious consequences of similar attitudes which are too important to condense into this web page, but which are discussed at length in my forthcoming book Francis Drake in Nova Albion - The Mystery Restored.

A New Investigation into the Weather Encountered by the Golden Hind

This author, like earlier analysts, had no reason to think that snow ever covered the coastal hills of northern California in early summer. But because of the shadow cast over the narratives by the apparent lies, and the resultant chaos among investigators, it seemed important to make a new attempt to identify the source of, and the reasons for, the weather reports.

There are three conventional explanations for the reports, each somewhat strained and none supported by much logic, let alone evidence. One has the probable original source, preacher Francis Fletcher of the Golden Hind, lying for unknown reasons. The second has the severe cold fabricated in England by an unknown official source in an attempt to discourage Spanish or other foreign expansion into the region. The third has the incredible weather conjured up on Drake's behalf as an excuse for his not having looked further for the fabled Strait of Anian - the Northwest Passage.

Two ideas which include the acceptance of the weather report as truthful are heard occasionally. One is that the account is plausible because the Golden Hind was much further north than otherwise indicated; this concept is untenable because of, among other things, the evidence of the native culture encountered. The other lays the cold to what is commonly referred to as "the little ice-age," a long period of lower than usual temperatures which afflicted much of Europe in Drake's time; however, the sort of summer cold described in the narratives far exceeds the drop in temperatures associated with this period.

A lengthy investigation by this writer, working with the invaluable assistance of the University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research and in particular with its Professor Emeritus Dr. Harold Fritts, as well as with a number of other institutions and individuals, has uncovered solid evidence that an extreme short- term climatic anomaly was occurring in the region Drake visited during the early summer of 1579. In short, the paleoclimatic evidence indicates, very strongly, that the weather reports were truthful. The investigation further revealed a possible cause for these extreme conditions. This startling information, which has implications having nothing to do with Drake, is fully detailed and documented in my above-mentioned forthcoming book, and has been presented, late in 1995, as a lecture at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research and at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Discoveries at the University of Texas.

Insofar as the mysteries surrounding Drake's journey are concerned, the strong paleoclimatic evidence supporting the seemingly impossible weather report substantially raises the level of confidence with which the primary narrative of the circumnavigation, the World Encompassed, can be viewed. This may not sit well with those whose comfortable resort, when attempting to dispose of inconvenient statements in the World Encompassed, has been to point to the weather report as a de facto indicator of its unreliability. Perhaps not least of all, this new evidence also restores the reputation of a much maligned man, preacher Francis Fletcher of the Golden Hind.

Author's Note: Much of this material is adapted from my forthcoming book Francis Drake in Nova Albion - The Mystery Restored, in which these and neighboring thickets are explored much more deeply than on these few web pages. Thus there may be references here not fully explained, or answers missing their questions. Also lacking here is documentation, provided in the book by 782 endnotes. - Oliver Seeler

Nova Albion Research
Copyright 1996 by Oliver Seeler
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