Shards & Crackpots at Drakes Bay

The Drake Navigators Guild, The National Park Service and the Press Democrat

A Crackpot
Soon to be declared a National Monument?

The Drake Navigators Guild, long-time patriots of Drakes Bay, intellectual successors to the intractable 19th century Drake anchorage fanatic George Davidson and all-around experts at manipulating evidence and opinion in ways that would make a back-room lawyer blush, are at it again. This time the DNG has revived a long-standing (and shameful) symbiotic relationship with the National Park Service (NPS) and with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, a regional daily newspaper owned by the New York Times, and has orchestrated a theatrical production headlined "The Final Word on Golden Hind" on the front page of the newspaper's April 21, 1998 edition (and in the accompanying web edition). April 1st would have been a more appropriate date.

This web site already contains a page dealing with the Press Democrat, and a series of pages dealing with the landing controversy, Drake's Bay and the Drake Navigators Guild . Quite a few of the 1,000 or so weekly visitors to this site have a look at those pages - perhaps the only real public and non-partisan challenge to the DNG's confused and confusing postulations (and posturing). However, the Guild response has been only to sink into more and more obscure and obscuring rhetoric and crackpot publicity projects (including involvement with an individual bent on robbing Drake's grave and with a group embroiled in a controversy about who discovered Cape Horn).

Here then is what amounts to a press release, gullibly presented as "news" by the Press Democrat. This text is taken from the web version, which differs only in very minor detail from the printed rendition. The quoted material is inset and in the smaller typeface, while my interspersed comments extend to the left margin. The article is presented in its entirety - something normally not necessary, but essential here in this attempt to rebut this foolishness and, hopefully, to demonstrate to the National Park Service that the proposed "official" designation of Drake's Estero as the Golden Hind's lost harbor is premature and ill-advised.

The final word on Golden Hind

U.S.: Drake beached ship at Drakes Bay

Apr. 21, 1998

By Bob Norberg

Press Democrat Staff Writer

The second line, above, contains the first misleading remark; thankfully, no such statement has yet been made by the "U.S." See this site's page on the Press Democrat for more of Mr. Norberg's spectacularly inaccurate reportage.

Exactly where on the West Coast English pirate and explorer Sir Francis Drake beached the Golden Hind to make repairs 420 years ago has been the subject of contentious debate for almost five decades, but now the federal government is getting ready to issue the final word: It was Drakes Bay.
"Sir" Francis Drake didn't beach the Golden Hind anywhere - he was not knighted until after the voyage. Drake was not a pirate, as all but the most superficial commentators agree, in that he was acting at the direction of his government. He landed on the North Coast in 1579, 419 - not 420 - years ago and the location of his anchorage has been intensely debated in California for well over 100, not less than 50, years. It is the Drake Navigators Guild (DNG), that has been active for nearly five decades, with its booster-club patriotism, skilled media management, highly misleading presentations of "evidence," celebrity figureheads and manipulation of naive government agencies.
The National Park Service is expected within the next year to bestow National Historic Landmark status on Drake's Cove, just inside Drake's Estero, marking it as the place where Drake sought refuge to repair his ship and replenish his supplies.
The National Park Service, at least in the region in question, has been led by the nose by the DNG for a long time and the two have become cozy bedfellows. It can only be presumed that the NPS's seemingly endless pandering to the DNG, now apparently about to reach a peak, is a direct result of a desire for publicity, funding and so forth, because any objective examination of the evidence (once viewed without donning the Guild's taped-together spectacles with their thick, cracked lenses) still leads to the same conclusion reached by the State of California's Sir Francis Drake Commission in 1978: No one knows where Drake landed. The NPS clearly has a vested interest in placing Drake on "their" property, and from here it looks very much like history is being sacrificed for what amount to political ends.
Maritime historian Kevin Foster said the final piece of evidence needed to settle the historic debate was an accurate dating of hundreds of pieces of porcelain shards found on the beaches of Drakes Bay, providing the archaeological evidence, certified in January by the Society of American Archaeologists, that Drake was there.
Note the use of a classic propaganda technique here: A "final piece of evidence" implies that that there are others; there are none of any substance - there is only conjecture, most of it based on nothing more substantial than opinion and much of it based on outright errors, some of which are too convenient to be discussed in polite terms.

As for the "certified" nature of this evidence, we have yet to examine the report of the archaeological association. However, the claims as expressed above and below can be addressed regardless of whether the shards are definitively dated or not, as will be seen.

The shards have been brought into the debate for years and they prove nothing. They at best constitute highly circumstantial evidence. To be fair, it is in fact possible to construct a scenario which favors Drakes Bay and involves the porcelain. However, such a construction works well only when carried out superficially; the more known details one tries to incorporate into the scenario, the shakier it becomes. The standard DNG solution is simply to not mention the problems. Meanwhile there are perfectly reasonable alternative explanations for this "final piece of evidence" which hold up quite well - well enough to deny the term "final evidence" to anything having to do with the shards.

"You can make an argument for a lot of other sites, but when you put it together with the archaeological evidence, this is the only spot it can be,'' said Foster, a member of the National Maritime Institute in Washington.
What "it" is this that is being "put together" here? There is no "it" other than the same old song-and-dance illuminated by sections of this web site.
Foster said there are still formal steps -- the nomination will be reviewed by a park service advisory board and the park service commission before final action by the secretary of the interior [sic]. But this is the strongest argument ever made and, bolstered by the archaeological evidence, Foster said he considers landmark status a certainty for the first time since it was first proposed after World War II.
Mr. Foster may be a maritime expert in Washington (we don't really know - all we're told is that he's a "historian" and a "member" of the National Maritime Institute - which I hope isn't a replay of the DNG tactic exercised before the 1974-78 California Sir Francis Drake Commission, in which a parade of "maritime experts" included yachtsmen and such), but Mr. Foster had best do a bit of homework on Drake in California and avoid the shadow of the DNG in the process. Wherever the tracks of the DNG are to be found, there usually lurks gross historical inaccuracy. Close to home, for example, Mr. Foster need look no further than to the Smithsonian's magazine - in which, last year, ex-journalist Simon Winchester, after consulting with the DNG, published an article on Drake filled to the brim with major blunders .
"This adds credence to our story -- we always felt that it was the spot,'' said Don Neubacher, superintendent of the Point Reyes National Seashore, which encompasses Drakes bay [sic] and estero [sic]. "That was a big event, the first European interaction with Native Americans on the West Coast.''
What exactly are Mr. Neubacher's qualifications as an historian? Who knows, but his patently ridiculous statement claiming "first European interaction with Native Americans on the West Coast" does not exactly establish his credibility. As every California grammar school student knows, the Spanish, unfortunately, had already interacted all too much with West Coast Native Americans by the time Drake arrived. It was in the Northwest, certainly not the West Coast, that there had been no prior known contact.

As for Mr. Neubacher's eternal feelings "that it was the spot," it's nice that he chooses to share his emotions about "his" back yard with us. However, we are paying him to run a park, not to cavalierly inject his emotions into what is, occasionally at least, a serious debate on a very significant historical event.

In 1579, Drake landed on the West Coast after 63 days at sea looking for the Northwest Passage, badly in need of provisions and needing shelter to beach the Golden Hind for repairs. It was a hazardous undertaking that required a sandy beach and calm water.
We're back to reporter Norberg's version of history, it seems. It was 62, not 63, days and while Drake well may have been looking for the Northwest Passage this is not altogether certain (and he certainly didn't spend any significant time doing so). There is not one word in any narrative implying that there was any shortage of provisions. Since we know nothing whatsoever about the exact nature of the repairs required by the Golden Hind, or about how they were eventually carried out, the stated requirement of a sandy beach is a pure conjecture (albeit a reasonable one).
He had with him a 40-foot tender that was captured from the Spanish and while ashore built a stone-walled fortress for protection against the Native Americans they had encountered.
Here speculation is followed by a distinctly misleading image. There is only the slightest evidence that Drake had another vessel with him at this point, and there are many direct indications in the narratives, not to mention logical reasons, to presume that the Golden Hind was alone in Nova Albion. The descriptions of the encampment do not at all translate to "stone-walled fortress." To the contrary, logical interpretation of the narratives provides a picture of an encampment surrounded by a simple ditch-and-bank - a picture also presented graphically in the only contemporary drawing of (perhaps) the camp, and one which in no way evokes a "fortress." Finally, the fortification may have been intended more for protection in case of Spanish discovery than against the natives - in which case certain other factors distinctly unfavorable to the Drakes Bay area come into play.
Over the years more than a dozen sites have been offered as the landfall along the coasts of Oregon and California, accompanied by often emotional arguments.
Emotions are often used as a substitute for logic and scholarship and the most emotional arguments of all, with many of the emotions expressed being of a distinctly unsavory nature, have been made by the Drake Navigators Guild.
The debated [sic] has ranged from the logical to the absurd...
...and includes a brass plaque found in the 1930s that was purported to have been left by Drake but which turned out to be a hoax.
But which the DNG long used to place Drake in the vicinity, and which still has residual effects.
The most recent theory was set forth a year ago by Cupertino author Brian Kelleher, who is proposing Campbell Cove in Bodega Bay.
Bodega Bay was first proposed in the middle of the last century, as well as in the early years of this one. It has never, until now, had a serious champion which is a shame because it is possible to make a very strong case for it - a stronger one than can be made for points south.
But Foster said most maritime historians and archaeologists have felt Drakes Bay was the most likely site, based upon more than two dozen descriptions by Drake and his crew of the surrounding land, by the longitude and latitude readings and by crudely drawn maps.
Well, there goes Mr. Foster's credibility, at least as demonstrated here. What maritime historians? What archaeologists? What two dozen descriptions? What description by Drake? What longitude (!!) readings? What latitude readings? What maps? What utter nonsense! There are in essence two, not two dozen, more or less contemporary descriptions of the landing area, and "description," in any topographic sense, is a barely applicable term to these narrations. There is not one descriptive word about the area that can be attributed to Drake himself (nor am I aware of any claim of one). No one sailing in the 16th century had anything but the vaguest idea of their longitude, nor is longitude mentioned in any narrative. As for latitude, there are three for the anchorage site given by the narratives, among many incorrect ones for other known locations; the only one of these three that matches Drakes Bay comes from a version of the narratives which contains only seven latitudes altogether, all of which have been rounded off to full degree figures. Finally, the only surviving map that purports to depict the lost harbor contains a plan of the port that simply does not fit any feature in the vicinity of Drake's Bay - and which, by the way, has been presented repeatedly, in print, in an inaccurate and corrupted rendition by, among others, the Drake Navigators Guild.
The turning point in the debate is found in the archaeological evidence amassed over the past 50 years, consisting of 800 shards of broken porcelain. Ed Von der Porten of San Francisco, a maritime historian and archaeologist, worked with Clarence Shangraw, former director of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, to establish the time period when the porcelain was being mass produced by Chinese workers. They did this by simply examining the pieces and comparing them to known Chinese porcelain from the 1500s. Von der Porten said 77 pieces of porcelain identified as being from the Drake era were found in Native American garbage heaps. Under a microscope, they had sharp edges and breaks and showed no signs of being exposed to the ocean or surf.
It is interesting that Mr.Von der Porten is not identified as a long-time major player in the DNG. The business of broken porcelain shards showing no sign of "having been exposed to the ocean or surf" is very neat - the implication is that this porcelain did not wash up on the beach from the sunken San Agustin and was therefore carried ashore - by Drake and company, of course. The DNG has touted these sharp-edged shards for years, and, oddly, continues to do so in spite of the newly claimed evidence of manufacturing dates. Perhaps the DNG imagines that, as has been the case so often, no one will look into other probabilities or that no one has the knowledge (or gall) to dispute these convoluted claims. A look into the records of the wreck of the San Agustin is enlightening: The San Agustin did not sink offshore; rather she was driven onto the beach. Her captain, Rodriguez Cermenho, shortly thereafter retrieved from a native village timbers the inhabitants had salvaged from the wreckage (an operation which resulted in active hostilities - in stark contrast to the demeanor of the natives met by Drake sixteen years earlier). The record also refers to goods salvaged from the wreck to be used for barter with the natives. So, in direct contradiction to the misleading implication thrown up by the DNG, there is no mystery at all presented by some shards being surf-worn and others not.

But what of the dating? Even if the date of manufacture has been established beyond question - and that is at the moment a very big "if," notwithstanding the involvement of various authorities, in light of the proven ability of the DNG to manipulate data and evidence - all that is suggested is that one part of the San Agustin's cargo was salvable and another was not. It is not necessary to postulate any third party to account for the items of differing ages. Manilla galleons did not carry monolithic cargoes and it is certainly not beyond reason that some quantity of an imperishable commodity such as porcelain would bounce or languish around for 16 years among the numerous Europeans in the Far East trying to make their fortune by placing a bit of cargo on a Manilla galleon. According to (real) historian Charles E. Chapman, the San Agustin's last departure from Manilla was highly unusual; the Spanish wanted her to make a reconnaissance of the North Coast, and because of the added expense apparently went into partnership with the Portugese Cermenho, who became her captain. Cermenho was given a lot of precious cargo space, and who knows what was put into that space by him, or to whom among the crowd of resident Europeans he might have offered a long awaited opportunity to finally ship some older stock. This is of course speculative, but no more so than any other scenario.

Another 200 pieces of porcelain identified as being from a later period were from the cargo of the San Agustin, a Manila galleon that wrecked in Drakes Bay 16 years later, and the pieces all showed signs of being worn by the sand and surf. It was the first time the time differential could be made, with the dating within a two-year window, Von der Porten said.
Other scenarios? Here's one: Notwithstanding that there is not a shard of evidence that Drake left anything whatsoever behind in Nova Albion, other than perhaps the still-missing metal plate, and ignoring the mention made in the major narrative that the natives would accept no gifts from Drake and returned everything given to them, let us speculate that some of his visitors carried off whole or broken porcelain. But who might they have been? The narratives repeatedly comment on the great numbers, increasing as time went on, of visitors. It is known that rapid long-distance travel by native individuals and groups was routine, and it is generally accepted that travel and trade across territorial boundaries was normal among the various Pomo and Pomo-like (meaning here Coast Miwok) groups up and down the coast. So it is not at all far-fetched to see a Coast Miwok contingent visiting Drake in, say, Central or Southern Pomo territory and returning home with items the local inhabitants were, perhaps for spiritual reasons, unwilling to accept. This is not a proposal but simply a speculation that demonstrates that even if the claims about the porcelain shards are correct - that is, that some of the porcelain found near Drakes Bay originated with Drake - it may mean nothing more than that he was visited by a delegation from that place.
To verify the dates, Von der Porten said they went back and matched porcelain of the cargoes of Drake and the San Agustin and other shipwrecks that occurred in 1600, 1613 and 1643 in other parts of the world.
It would be interesting to know exactly how Mr. Von der Porten "matched" the "cargoes of Drake" with anything. Perhaps this is some sort of editorial error...
"We were looking at design changes and we laid those out and made charts, and we looked at what showed up in quantity in each cargo,'' Von der Porten said. The researchers were able to document the dates through changes in the design of the bowls and plates over the decades."It was significant,'' he said.
Significant of what? That pottery designs change? It does not follow that older pottery simply vanishes, or is all sold at once. Warehouses full of unsold goods have always been around - items tied up in ownership squabbles, of inferior quality, of ugly design - whatever. Perhaps someone in a hurry bought some older ware in an out-of-the-way retail shop, or from an estate or such, and secured last-minute deck space for a few crates - only to have them dashed onto the beach during the grounding, while the newer ware remained buried in a hold. There are many scenarios, and none prove a thing ...
The work was studied by the Society of American Archaeologists, a peer review completed in January that was instrumental in getting the park service to move ahead on the landmark nomination.
It remains to be seen exactly what this body studied, and how it relates to the many questions that must be answered in order to apply this theory correctly - questions often far outside the scope of practice of archeologists.
"All of the evidence points to Drakes Bay,'' said Raymond Aker of Palo Alto, chairman of the Drake Navigators Guild, which has been working since 1949 to prove Drakes Bay was the landfall. "I will be glad to see this put to rest.''
So ends the sorry piece, with the comment that the Drake Navigators Guild "has been working since 1949 to prove Drakes Bay was the landfall." That remark goes to the heart of this affair. The Drake Navigators Guild has never been interested in unearthing the truth, but only in shoring up its own parochial preconceptions. Evidence is sought, interpreted and viewed not with the idea that it should lead to the development of a conclusion, but rather that it must fit these preconceptions - and if it doesn't fit, well, fetch a bigger hammer, Ed. In this the DNG is no different than any other group of "true believers" including the proponents of most other suggested locations of Drake's lost harbor. Unfortunately, the DNG has in the course of a long history of muddying the waters around the Golden Hind also become highly adept at various forms of intimidation and ingratiation. Now we are to be treated to the spectacle of the National Park Service, already compromised by past symbiotic association with this Marin County booster club, jumping on the rickety bandwagon in a transparent attempt to garner fame and fortune (not to mention tax dollars); I predict that this, if carried out, will prove to be a most embarrassing episode (far from the first around Francis Drake), for the emperor still has no clothes.

Note: I have had no direct dealings or contact whatsoever with the DNG, the NPS or any of the individuals mentioned above during (or before) my nearly ten years of investigations into matters pertaining to Drake. (I've kept it that way intentionally of late, though I would always consider an offer of a formal face-to-face debate.) I also hold no conviction about the specific location of Drake's lost harbor (though I have my own list of probabilities) and consider just about anyplace that meets certain nautical and cultural criteria a possible anchorage site - including Drake's Bay.

Author's Note: Some 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 1998 by Oliver Seeler
Please feel free to send your comments to

Return to the main Drake page...