Smoke and Mirrors...

Chicanery and Deception at So-called "Drakes Bay"

In addition to the notes below, addressed here are: Illustration: This is so-called "Drakes Estero," an estuary at Drakes Bay. The Drake Navigators Guild holds that this was where Drake harbored. Among the "evidence" for this contention is the supposed similarity between a now changed portion of this estuary, with its transient sand bars and eroding shoreline, and a small sketch map commonly known as the "Portus Plan" from the circa 1595 "Broadside Map" of the circumnavigation by Jodocus Hondius. To fit the "Portus Plan" to Drake's Estero requires, among many other things, not only the application of imaginary features to the present geography, but also requires the plan to be rotated. An illustration and a few further comments on the "Portus Plan" are included under its own page heading here, and a detailed analysis of it comprises a chapter of my forthcoming book Francis Drake in Nova Albion - The Mystery Restored.


The events after Drake's return to England in 1580 are cloudy, primarily because of Elizabethan secrecy, which was largely the result of looming war with Spain. This affected all later efforts to track the Golden Hind in Nova Albion, because no official account of the voyage was ever released, no documents from the Golden Hind ever surfaced, and the story of the voyage was not even outlined in private print until nearly ten years had passed.

When the story finally began to be told, a still ongoing tradition also began, one which is a central subject of this investigation. The early narratives of Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the world have been called untrustworthy because truth and accuracy sometimes seem to have been sacrificed to concerns about the fortunes of England, or Drake, or the narrators. Maybe so, but as soon as the stories of the "famous voyage" appeared in print, historians began muddying the waters around the Golden Hind, sometimes by carelessness, sometimes by honest but mistaken analysis, and sometimes by what can most simply be called fraud. This process has not only continued to the present, but the obfuscation has intensified during the past hundred years or so; the result is a milieu into which errors of fact and logic can blend unnoticed and unchallenged, and is a perfect setting for chicanery and illusion; it has become almost impossible for the modern reader to separate truth from fiction or reasonable speculation from wild fantasy.

This work was stimulated by a nagging doubt that Drake ever set foot in the San Francisco area. The patently fraudulent Plate of Brass, the apparent nautical and tactical unsuitability of Drakes Bay, the absence of any hint of San Francisco Bay in the narratives of the voyage, the lack of any reasonable match to what is thought to be a contemporary sketch of the Golden Hind's harbor, the reports of the first Spanish visitors - sixteen years after Drake was in the region - who found hostility, fear, and no trace of Drake's presence among the Indians, and the failure to uncover any solid archeological evidence in spite of intense efforts were all bothersome. Nevertheless it seemed that what evidence had been gathered for a Bay Area landing was substantial; the identification of the Indians met, the location of the Farallon Islands, the white cliffs, and the latitudes published in the narratives all appeared to favor a Bay Area anchorage.

On closer examination two things emerge. One is that the evidence favoring the San Francisco Bay area in general and Drakes Bay in particular is even weaker than it first appears. The emperor has very few clothes. The other is that the perception by what might be called the interested public, that Drake landed somewhere just north of San Francisco, has been not so much the result of legitimate research as of highly selective interpretation and presentation of evidence - evidence, moreover, that sometimes has been insupportably speculative and that sometimes even seems to have been fabricated, beginning in the early seventeenth century with the naming of "Drakes Bay." As can be seen, albeit briefly, on these pages, manipulation and obfuscation continue to the present - particularly among the modern zealous patriots of Drakes Bay and Drakes Estero.

Who Cares?

Beyond merely satisfying historical curiosity, why does it matter exactly where in Nova Albion Drake stayed? The question is not common, perhaps because the answers are sometimes less than flattering. Provincial pride and personal fame have been, and continue to be, major motives in the search for the lost harbor. A tinge of commercialism is found now and then, both in regard to the selling of publications and in the promotion of proposed locations as parks or protected open space, and lately in the hawking of real estate. Even bizarre claims of buried treasure have occasionally been heard.

More legitimate reasons can be found: At one time Drake's movements along the North American coast became an issue in a boundary dispute between the United States and England. Drake's harbor was the site of the first Protestant services held in North America, which may be of interest to religious historians, as might be the site of the first English presence in the region to Anglophiles. All told, this does not add up to much, but there are further reasons why the continued pursuit of the Golden Hind is justified.

Viewed from the present, when the world seems more divided than ever, and looking back at a time when European exploration and expansion was characterized by the utterly ruthless exploitation of native populations, Drake's visit with the people of Nova Albion is striking for its harmonious nature. It may be a hopeless quest, and it is one not addressed in this work, but it is possible in light of ever more intense archeological and anthropological investigations of the original Californians that some valuable insights into the more subtle mechanisms of this remarkable meeting can be gained. However, the implications of this encounter cannot be fully discussed without knowing exactly which of the diverse native Californians met with Drake; this in turn depends on exactly where he was. This is in a sense an inversion of the usual purpose of an investigation of who the described people were; attempts to identify the group have traditionally been used to support a location, rather than the other way around. Perhaps who rather than where is the more important historical question.

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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