being delayed over a month by severe storms, Sir Francis
Drake set sail from Plymouth, England on December 13, 1577.
Whether or not he actually intended to circumnavigate the
globe is uncertain (Whitfield, 38). Nevertheless, almost
3 years and 36,000 miles later, Drake's ship, the Golden
Hind, returned to England having done just that. One
of the most debated episodes of this entire voyage was Drake's
visit to California and his founding of Nova Albion—New
Albion. In his naming of the territory, Drake was following
the fashion of the times, since Albion was the classical
name for England and he was claiming the land for the English
monarch, Elizabeth I.
all good historical stories," Peter Whitfiield writes,"that
of Drake's visit to California has thrived on its mysteries"
(Whitfield, 67). According to The World Encompassed
(1628), Drake sailed 2500 miles along the California
coast, all the way up to 48° latitude—very close
to what is now Seattle, Washington. He then, supposedly,
dropped down to 38 ° latitude, near present day San
Francisco. Here he made anchor for 5 weeks. During that
time, the local Indians treated Drake and his men with great
respect and generosity, almost as though they were "gods."
Scholars have speculated that the location of New Albion
may have been Drake's Bay, north of San Francisco.
In 1936 someone found a crudely
chiseled brass plate on a ridge overlooking San Francisco
Bay, purportedly the one left by the Drake expedition. The
plate became a prominent exhibit at Bancroft Library on the
University of California campus at Berkeley. Years later the
plate was exposed as a hoax but the perpetrators were never
identified. On February 18, 2003, Kathleen Maclay, from campus
media relations, reported that new researchers, while lacking
a "smoking gun," now believe the hoax was perpetrated
by some members of the California Historical Society, an art
restorer, and a former director of the Bancroft LIbrary—all
as an "insider's joke."
No matter where Drake actually
made landfall, his California visit was important for more
reasons than glory and empire. As
Robert Heizer, a leading authority on California Indians,
points out, Drake was "the first Englishman to see and
describe the Indians of Upper California" (Heizer, 251).
Heizer believes that Drake encountered the Coast Miwok Indians.
The culture of the Coast Miwok and the Pomo, historically
the major Indian group in what is now Mendocino County, are
"almost indistinguishable" (Heizer, 278). Perhaps,
in one passage from The World Encompanssed that Heizer
includes in his article, we get the only glimpse we will likely
have of what the early inhabitants of MRC land might have
been like at the time of European explorers.
|They are a people of
a tractable, free, and loving nature, without guile or
treachery; their bowes and arrowes (their only weapons,
and almost all their wealth) they use very skillfully,
but yet not to do any great harme with them, being by
reason of their weakenesse, more fit for children than
for men, sending the arrow neither farre off, nor with
any great force: and yet are the men commonly so strong
of body, that that, which 2. or 3. of our men could hardly
beare, one of them would take upon his backe, and without
grudging carrie it easily away, up hill and downe hill
an English mile together: they are also exceeding swift
in running, and of long continuance; the use whereof is
so familiar with them, that they seldom goe, but for the
most part runne. One thing we observed in them with admiration:
that if at any time, they chanced to see a fish, so neere
the shoare, that they might reach the place without swimming,
the would never, or very seldome misse to take it. (Heizer,
As for Drake himself, one
of his biographers says that we will never know him with real
intimacy—as is the case with many heroes, even those
within our own times. Was he a fearless explorer or just a
pirate? A leader or a loner? "One of the problems with
Drake is that we have virtually no words of his own or documents
from his own hand, " writes Peter Whitfield. "The
man's personality, his inner life, his ideas and motives,
are hidden from us: all we have are his actions, and their
interpretation is open to deep disagreement." (Whitfield,
8) History, of course, is as much about enigmas as undisputed
dates and facts—perhaps more so!
Heizer, Robert. Francis Drake
and the California Indians, 1579. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1947. From University of California Publications
in American Archaeology and Ethnology, 1946,Vol. 42, No. 3,
Whitfield, Peter. Sir Francis
Drake. New York: New York University Press, 2004.