Mendocino Redwood Company

Sir Francis Drake

After 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.

"Like 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, 290)

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!

Author: DMS

Secondary Sources:

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, pp. 251-302.

Whitfield, Peter. Sir Francis Drake. New York: New York University Press, 2004.



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