Francis Drake and the Native People of Nova Albion

...a remarkable meeting

North Coast Native Houses

The following brief excerpts are from two chapters of my forthcoming book Francis Drake in Nova Albion - The Mystery Restored, in which the importance of the descriptions of the Indians of Nova Albion in the early narratives is discussed in detail, along with the effects of corrupt modern transcriptions of those narratives on the question of exactly who these people were.

Francis Drake and his crew were fascinated by the friendly Indians* of Nova Albion; the fascination was mutual, and contact was extensive. As a result, the narratives of the voyage contain a great deal of detailed information on the Indians. The Nova Albion passages of the World Encompassed are filled with details about the Indians, more than about all other subjects combined. It is the existence of these descriptions that proves that Drake ever set foot on the Northwest Coast (not that many have doubted that he did, but the idea has been voiced); everything else said about the region could have been fabricated in a London pub, but the information about the native people could only have come from the sort of contact described. Some of what is essentially the same information is found in the shorter "Famous Voyage," while the remaining pertinent accounts, the "Anonymous Narrative," John Drake's depositions to his Spanish captors, and the "Madox Diary" are more sparse in their descriptions of the Indians. No artifacts or sketches of the Indians are known to have been brought home by Drake, so everything that has been conveyed to us from the circumnavigators about the people they met in California in 1579 is contained in these accounts. Any attempt to decipher the mysteries surrounding Drake's visit must start, if not with the original documents and publications, at least with true copies of this source material - an obvious prerequisite for success which has been surprisingly elusive.

Cultural details aside, the remarkably harmonious nature of this first encounter of Europeans and native northern Californians deserves more attention than it has received. The way that Drake treated these people stands in sharp contrast not only to the later tragic destructions of native cultures, but to common practices of the day. Virtually at the same time as Drake was in California, English explorer Martin Frobisher was hunting down and killing Inuits in the Atlantic Arctic just to get a closer look at them. Drake's actions and attitudes could be viewed as nothing more than pragmatic self-interest; a brilliant tactician would hardly surround himself with hostile natives if that could be avoided. But that Drake's demeanor was more than a momentary convenience is evident from his reaction to several earlier incidents in South America. Even when his men had been attacked and killed and he himself had been wounded, Drake took no punitive action, as in an instance in South America when the Golden Hind was in position to devastate, with her heavy ordnance, a beach full of Indians celebrating a fatal ambush. One can hardly imagine what would have befallen a native who snatched a hat from the head of a Spanish Conquistador, as one Patagonian did from Drake's.

Drake did not put the Indians of Nova Albion to work or try to buy them. He allowed them to come and go as they pleased and treated them with interest and respect. For their part, the Indians were so taken with the English that

they oft-times forgate, to provide meate for their owne sustenance; so that our generall (of whom they made account as of a father) was faine to performe the office of a father to them, relieuing them with such victualls, as we had prouided for our selues, as, Muscles, Seales, and such like, wherein they tooke exceeding much content ....
There was no trading in the usual sense of the word. Drake gave gifts, and the Indians gave gifts, without either having been asked. The Indians even returned things that had been given to them:
Our General hauing now bestowed vpon them diuers things, at their departure they restored them all again; none carrying with him any thing of whatsoeuer hee had receiued, thinking themselues sufficiently enriched and happie, that they had found so free accesse to see vs.
Occasional lascivious and totally insupportable suggestions to the contrary, there is no evidence that any sexual contacts, permissive or otherwise occurred. (The Spanish remarked, in still existing documents, that Drake's men had not molested the native women of New Spain either.) The World Encompassed states (in an incredibly convoluted sentence) that a reason for giving clothing to the Indians was so that no "cause of the breach" of the peace would be "on our part given."

The behavior of Drake and his men was such that after nearly six weeks the "free and loving nature" of the Indians did not change. There is not the slightest hint in the narratives of anything but harmony (although Drake took standard military precautions against anything unexpected).

The only thing that disturbed the Protestant English was that the Indians "conceiued of vs, that wee should be Gods" and insisted on making sacrificial offerings (of inanimate nature) to them, and engaged on occasion in bloody self-abuse. ("We groaned in spirit to see the power of Sathan so farre preuaile, in seducing these so harmelesse soules ...) Sometimes such potentially convenient beliefs were induced by Europeans, but Drake and his men, rather than taking advantage of, or even encouraging, this view of them by the people, used "all meanes possible, gently to intreate them" that they "were no Gods but men." It could not have escaped Drake that changing the Indians' perceptions might have been dangerous; that such thoughts were in his mind is illustrated by the comment that he accepted his "crowning" in part so

that he would not giue them any cause of mistrust, or disliking of him ....
In the end the English were unconvincing; the Indians stopped making offerings for a time, but resumed as Drake's departure became imminent, and the Golden Hind sailed away in sight of burning sacrificial fires. She also sailed away from one of the most successful meetings of totally differing cultures ever to occur.

An old misconception now thankfully fading rapidly is that the Indians of coastal Northern California in general and the Pomo in particular were naked homeless savages, aimlessly wandering about the region with little more purpose than grubbing for roots and berries, and having little more culture than the animals with which they shared the forests. In fact, as hunters and gatherers in a rich and temperate area they moved about rhythmically within well defined boundaries, taking advantage of local seasonal abundances of food and other necessities, and of the considerable differences of climate that occur over small distances within the region. Few of the more immediately visible elements of day-to-day Pomo culture were impressive to the European eye, even in Drake's time: very basic tools, weapons, clothing and housing, no agriculture or animal husbandry, no gold, silver or gems - in short, nothing a European would want or envy. However, a closer look, if allowed, would reveal signs of the true wealth of the Pomo: exquisite drilled shell disk bead necklaces, finely crafted knit caps wrought with feathers, and most of all among these and other objects the incredible ceremonial baskets - the finest in the world. These things shimmered (when they were seen at all) on the surface of a sophisticated and complex social and spiritual life which was invisible to most strangers. But Drake and his companions seem to have had an inkling of the hidden nature of these people and in spite of their problems as Protestant Christians with some of the ritual behavior, they could not conceal in their descriptions fascination, admiration, respect and love for them. It may be from such recognition more than anything else that the success of the meeting stemmed.

Following the Indians in the Search for Drake's Lost Harbor

After more than one hundred years of attention not a shred of solid evidence has linked Francis Drake to the San Francisco region, let alone Drakes Bay. Objective analysis of other already proposed sites and identification of sites not yet considered is long overdue. Such efforts must necessarily consider how the descriptions of the Indians found in the narratives - the "Famous Voyage" of 1589 and the World Encompassed of 1628 - correspond to whatever is known about the native history of any suggested site.

Popular consensus has it that the Indians Drake spent nearly six weeks with were the Coast Miwok. This belief is based in large part on selectively presented quotations of the great anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, who, writing in his monumental 1925 work Handbook of the Indians of California, says that there is

tolerable reason to believe that the Indians ... were ... Coast Miwok.
What is seldom mentioned is that this statement was made in an overall context in which Dr. Kroeber accepted that Drake had landed in the San Francisco Bay region; in other words, Dr. Kroeber was saying that, given that Drake was in the area, he must have met with the Miwok rather than, say, Wintun or Costanoan people. This becomes clear when the reason for his choice of the Miwok is examined; for example, in the same work he writes: can be said that in general the culture described agrees very closely with that existing among the Pomo and their neighbors...
It is the similarity of Miwok to Pomo culture that led to his identification. He refers extensively to Pomo, not Miwok, culture. Dr. Kroeber's analysis of what he mistakenly thought to be an accurate transcription of the observations made by the English explorers is the subject of a chapter of my book. A later case for the Coast Miwok identification was based on an analysis of language by anthropologist Dr. Robert F. Heizer; this is also discussed in the book. Here, on this web page, only a few points are presented which indicate that while it is certainly possible that Drake indeed met exclusively with this group the evidence is hardly overwhelming.

The Coast Miwok inhabited a small territory, essentially consisting of the peninsula opposite San Francisco which is formed by the Pacific, the northwest shores of San Francisco Bay, and the Golden Gate. This territory encompasses all of what is now Marin County and a small part of Sonoma County to the north. It also includes almost all of the proposed sites of Drake's anchorage that have been argued and agonized over for the past century. Proponents of Drakes Bay, Bolinas Bay, San Quentin Cove, Olomp-ali, and Bodega Bay can either accept the Indians as Coast Miwok or fold up their tents and go home. Thus, debate among boosters of these sites never has included discussion of who else the Indians might have been. They might have been Pomo.

The Coast Miwok, their name and their ancient origins from the east aside, had much in common with their northerly Pomo neighbors. Dr. Kroeber writes:

Culturally, the Coast and Lake Miwok were tributaries of the Pomo, not of their own Valley and Sierra kinsmen.
The Pomo were not a homogeneous group. Major divisions defined by anthropologists include among others the Northern Pomo, the Central Pomo, and the Southern Pomo. These categorizations are still broad; further subdivisions down to the level of "tribelet" can and have been made, and cultural characteristics sometimes varied over short distances. Seven distinct languages were spoken by the Pomo. Several of the major groups held coastal territory; the exact boundaries between them are still being defined, as will be seen. The overall coastal territory of the Pomo began where Coast Miwok territory ended at Duncan's Point in Sonoma County, a bit south of the Russian River and just north of Bodega Bay. Pomo territory continued north along the coast to about Westport, above Fort Bragg in Mendocino County.

Unfortunately, the habit of the early Spanish California missionaries of creating "communities" of displaced Northern California Indians without regard for their origins precluded the collection at that time of much meaningful cultural data, some of which might have shed light on Drake's visit. Some significant work was done by the Russians at Fort Ross in the early nineteenth century, but was limited largely to the local peoples, the Southern Pomos of the Russian River area. Next came the Euro-Americans, whose interest in the Indians consisted almost exclusively in getting rid of them, either by murder or by confinement to reservations. Some Americans recognized that they were witnessing the rapid destruction of ancient cultures and tried to preserve what they could. For example, Dr. John Hudson of Ukiah abandoned his medical practice in order to devote himself to recording what was left of Pomo culture, and singlehandedly collected a good part of the information on which today's knowledge of these people is based. Nevertheless, by the time modern professional anthropologists and ethnologists began to look, much knowledge of what turns out to have been an extremely sophisticated culture had been lost forever.

Not all of the missing pieces of Pomo culture are gone; some are just buried. A steady trickle of information about the Indians of Northern California has been coming from the tedious, difficult, and expensive work of archaeologists (with no particular interest in Drake) as they excavate the traces of vanished cultures, sometimes from places that had been occupied for over fifty centuries. The results of such work can sometimes be applied to the search for the lost harbor.

The foregoing only scratches the surface of the complexities involved in trying to analyze who the primary native hosts of the circumnavigators might have been. Almost any of the topics mentioned, and quite a few others, can be used as evidence for or against particular proposed harbor sites. Overall, the evidence when stripped of accompanying preconceptions seems to favor more investigation of the Pomo than has previously been undertaken. At the same time, nothing has surfaced to preclude the Miwok having been the first California natives to have been visited by European explorers. Proof, in either event, remains elusive.

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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*Footnote: The term "Indian" is out of favor in some quarters in referring to Native American people. This writer is sensitive to the reasons for this; however, because the term is used so extensively in the material quoted it is used throughout the book (and this web page) in the interest of consistency and clarity, with apologies to anyone who might feel offended. O.S.
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