The great Drake brass plate hoax
Etching of Francis Drake being knighted by Queen Elizabeth
Last of a series
Much of the problem in determining the route of Francis Drake’s travels and the location of landfalls, is that upon Drake’s return to England, Queen Elizabeth clamped a veil of secrecy over much of the enterprise, and in particular any journey into the northwest.
If there was a northwest passage she did not want anyone – particularly the Spanish – to know about it. Adding to the confusion were several maps made by cartographers which were a mixture of fact, hearsay, speculation and political correctness.
But despite the royal gag order, there were some reports by members of the crew, plus testimony the Spanish inquisitions had squeezed from prisoners. Acceptance of Drake’s Bay as the probable site of Nova Albion was reinforced in 1933 when a chauffeur, driving for a party of hunters, found a blackened piece of brass beside a road just east of Drake’s Bay. He put it in the auto’s side door pocket, then a week later tossed the plate away at the mouth of Corte Madera Creek, beside Highway 101 in Marin County. On April 6, 1937, a motorist had a flat tire at that spot and picked up the plate to provide a solid surface for the jack to lift up his car.
Then he put the plate in the trunk where it lay for months until he examined it closely, cleaned it off and read an etched declaration dated “June 17, 1579” and signed “Francis Drake.” He took it to Professor Herbert Bolton of the University of California, a noted expert on California history. After exhaustive study by metallurgists and museum curators, the plate was declared legitimate, with Dr. Bolton its principal advocate, although some English scientists still insisted they had their doubts. The plate was displayed at the university as one of its most remarkable historic artifacts.
So the matter remained until the late 1980s when some doubters suggested further tests. New scientific methods revealed that the brass alloy was not developed until a time later than the date on the plaque, and there was an anomaly in the language in reference to her “majestie.”
After this successful challenge, several now-aging students of Dr. Bolton’s history class confessed that they had perpetrated a hoax, creating the plate and placing it where they were sure it would eventually be found. They had succeeded beyond their wildest expectations.
Drake had sailed north past the fog-shrouded Golden Gate to San Francisco Bay, and continued past much of the Oregon coast in 1778, searching for a likely opening to the Strait of Anian. Apparently he halted and went ashore at some unknownplace in Oregon, possibly Nehalem Bay south of the Columbia River. Giving up on the hunt for the legendary Northwest Passage, he reversed course and sailed south before finding the entrance to Drake’s Bay.
In 1980 Bob Ward, a British engineer, compared a drawing supposedly based on Drake’s reports with the West Coast map, and hypothesized that the landing was at Whale Cove, Oregon, at 44 degrees, 45 minutes.
There is no physical evidence of the careening or contact with indigenous people at the competing sites. It seems obvious that Drake touched land at several locations and traveled as far north as the weather would allow.
Drake made a detailed report in person to Queen Elizabeth. And she was not telling. Drake’s son, John, later captured by the Spanish, told them of his father’s northern exploits with latitudes as he remembered them, but these reports do not clear up the issue. The eventual report of Drake’s trip describes the waterproof baskets decorated with feathers created by the natives living in the area of Drake’s Bay. These were a specialty of the Pomo natives in the Drake’s Bay area, which supports the belief that it was the actual landing place.
If Chaplain Fletcher’s narrative is correct, Drake sailed from the west coast on July 29, 1579. He immediately steered southwest across the Pacific, reached the Celebes and Java, crossed the Indian Ocean, rounded Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and sailed into Plymouth, England on September 26, 1580, the first Englishman to circle the globe, for which Queen Elizabeth knighted him, both for his exploratory accomplishments and the Spanish treasures delivered to the royal exchequer.