Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2005 Issue

Exhibit Recognizes Francis Drake, First Englishman to See California

A0302

The fake brass plate supposedly left by Drake


In 1573, he raided Spanish interests in Panama, capturing a huge load of silver. However, for Drake this was the start of even bigger ambitions. From the mountains of Panama (supposedly perched in a tree) Drake saw the Pacific, and determined to be the first Englishman to sail its waters. He later put together a plan, and Elizabeth financed him, providing five ships.

Drake and his fleet set sail from Plymouth, England in 1577. After various stops and minor plunders, Drake, with a reduced fleet of three ships, crossed the Straits of Magellan in early September of 1578. They were welcomed to the Pacific by terrible storms. One ship was lost, and another returned to England. Drake was left with just his own ship. No matter. He proceeded up the coast of South America, surprising numerous Spanish vessels, and making off with enormous quantities of gold, silver, and other riches. But this is not what we would like Drake to be remembered for. What comes next is more worthy of recognition.

Drake continued up the Pacific coast, but as to whether he had ulterior motives besides escaping the Spanish, and where exactly he landed remain a mystery. He is clearly the first Englishman to visit the west coast of what is now America. Somewhere along the coast, he pulled into an inlet where he stayed about a month to repair his ship. He named the land "Nova Albion," or New England, and claimed it for the Crown. Yes, the original New England was on the west coast, not the east. The big question, and topic of longstanding dispute, is just where is that cove. It is debated to this day.

Drake recorded the location where he stopped as latitude 38 degrees 30 minutes. An illustration of this bay shows up in a corner of a map of Drake's journey by Jodocus Hondius in 1596. Here are the problems. Drake's measurements of location were good, but not always perfect. There could be discrepancies. Nothing in the area looks quite like the bay shown on the Hondius map, but no one knows whether Hondius' representation was meant to be perfectly accurate or just a general idea. And then there is the question of subterfuge. Drake may have been looking for a northwest passage back to England, and if so, he may have deliberately faked the location of his stay to throw off the Spanish. Some people think he may have stopped much farther north than he claimed.

Rare Book Monthly

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