The Sir Francis Drake Commission

...histrionics at Drakes Bay

Left: The commission, as perceived by some of those whose hopes of having their pet theories endorsed were dashed by its unexpected pragmatism...

In 1974, the State of California established a "Sir Francis Drake Commission" to investigate and adjudicate various claims of Drake's having slept here or there. The commission met often over lunch at country clubs and fine resorts, had a very nice medallion struck, and eventually conducted hearings aboard a U.S. Navy man-of-war. However, after four years of this, the commission refused to endorse any theory about where Drake had landed, a decision which was met with literal howls of outrage. The San Francisco Chronicle reported:

"Incredible," said some. Others called the decision "ridiculous." And still others made the immodest suggestion that the commission should "stick it" (the decision)in various places.... Raymond Aker ... president of the Drake Navigators Guild ... seemed stunned ... [Drake Navigators Guild] vice-president Edward Von der Porten ... replied, "What are we going to do? We had the major maritime authorities from all over the world here and where did they say he landed? Everyone of them pointed to Drake's Bay. And what did they do? Nothing!" he responded angrily.

Von der Porten's tirade is typical of the Guild's misleading tactics; "the major maritime authorities from all over the world" (all ten of them) included such luminaries such as a "deep-sea yachtsman" whose most relevant credential was "personal experience on board a salvage ship which entered Drakes Estero," a "former quartermaster" and "coastal yachtsman," and eight others. Among these, one of the more substantially festooned with credentials was a Dr. John Gordon, "Assistant Professor of History, Coastal Carolina College ... Lieutenant Commander, U.S.N. (Ret.), specialist in colonial and maritime history, and research associate of Admiral [Samuel Eliot] Morison," who presented the commission with this pomposity:

Research with Admiral Morison, which included documentary studies, correspondence, interviews of other researchers,two visits by sea, and visits by land to all of the proposed sites, combined with wide experience as a naval officer, yachtsman, and naval historian lead to this conclusion: I proudly concur with such men as Vancouver, Davidson, ... and the Drake Navigators Guild in the opinion that Francis Drake, knight, did indeed have his ship ... "sent" into the bay now named Drake's Bay ...
Captain George Vancouver, as even the most casual "specialist in maritime history" should be able to learn, not only did not offer an opinion of where Drake landed, but made clear his view that Drakes Bay was not a fit anchorage. Credibility aside, a look at what Van der Porten's "nautical authorities" actually said at the commission hearings reveals that six of the ten of them "pointed to Drakes Bay" specifically in contrast to the only alternatives presented them, which were limited to San Francisco Bay and Bolinas Lagoon. The San Francisco Bay case has always been weak, and the case for Bolinas Lagoon is virtually nonexistent. The Guild tactic - a classic - was to coerce the "nautical authorities" and the commission into swallowing the most palatable offering on an unappetizing platter. Some of the "nautical authorities" partook of this fare; that the commission did not speaks for its good taste. (However, had the commission appointed someone to assemble a case on behalf of, say, Bodega Bay or even Henry Wagner's Trinidad Bay theory, much of the Guild's case would have been shredded on the spot; exactly the same thing would have happened had the California Historical Society done likewise for the written so-called debate of 1974.) All of the highly entertaining records of the commission repose in several cartons in the California State Archives.

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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