SIR FRANCIS DRAKE’S LOST CALIFORNIA TREASURE
A fascinating mass of detective work has determined, at lest to the satisfaction of the investigators, that Sir Francis Drake spent 36 days repairing his round the world ship Golden Gate in 1579.
The sleuthing is of extreme importance. It tends to prove that the great buccaneer established the first English claim to the continent of North America eight years before the colonization of Roanoke, 28 years before Jamestown, and 41 years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. It has quite another significance: There may be as much as 40 tons of gold, jewels and other treasure buried at the landing point which makes the site of more than passing interest.
A unique group called the Drake Navigators Guild, based in Marin County in northern California’s verdant Redwood Empire, is sifting the clues in an effort to unlock the puzzle.
An exciting piece of the jigsaw fell into place in 1937 with the dramatic announcement: "One of the world’s long-lost historical treasures had been found!" Despite the import if that statement, one mystery was solved but others were created which still puzzle historians.
The curious story begins in 1579 with a treasure-laden English Sea vessel and reaches a high point, but not its climax, in 1937 with the help of a flat tire.
For centuries historians have speculated on just where England’s greatest se captain stopped to clean, caulk and pitch his ship on the California coast, between June 27 and July 23, 1579. Though Drake’s log has been lost, his scribe, Francis Fletcher, reported that a "convenient and fit harborough" gave haven to the small craft, then a year and a half out of Plymouth and heavy laden with jewels captured in fierce fight s with Spanish treasure galleons off Peru and Panama.
On a foggy day in June the little ship Golden Hind was sailing southward along what is now the coast of Marin County in California, looking for a place to anchor. The captain—the vigorous, swashbuckling, 30-year-old Francis Drake—was in the process of following through on a difficult and disappointing decision. He had decided that in order to get out of the Pacific Ocean and back to England he would have to sail westward and around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, and extremely long and arduous voyage, first carried out by the Portuguese under Magellan some fifty-odd years earlier.
Drake had sailed from his hometown of Plymouth, England, late in 1577, with five small ships. The objective of this little fleet, although never definitely clarified, was probably to open trade with the Moluccas or Spice Islands in the South Pacific, as well as to attack Spanish commerce. After passing through the Straits of Magellan and, reaching the Pacific with his one remaining ship, the Golden Hind, Drake found the Spanish ports and ships, completely defenseless. In keeping with the spirit of the age, he carried out a succession of piratical attacks and filled his vessel to overflowing with Spanish treasure.
Off the coast of Peru, for example, he seized the Cacfuego, so heavily laden with Peruvian silver that her capture alone gave the Golden Hind a rich cargo. His voyage now financially successful, Drake sailed on up the coast. Plundering and terrifying the Spaniards as he went. Rounding Lower California, he pushed northward until the blinding fogs of the Pacific Northwest caused him to turn back to seek a safe port in which to recondition his hip and rest his crew.
Thus on the 17th of June 1579, Drake spotted some white cliffs, and behind them a bay. The Golden Hind sailed in and dropped anchor. Having gone ashore, the crew promptly set up tents and began the construction of a stone fort at the foot of the high, barren hills. The fort turned out to be unnecessary. Though the natives approached in numbers, the only alarming thing about them was their wearing apparel, which consisted solely of black and white face paint. Drake hastily ordered a general issue of clothing for the natives.
During his visit, the English buccaneer maintained friendly relations with the Indians, met with them at various times and listened to their speeches and ceremonies. And to the delight of the natives, the Christian also conducted solemn services.
Fortunately for history, voluminous notes on the voyage were kept by some of Drake’s companions, principally Francis Fletcher. Later the notes were compiled into a narrative entitled "The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake." And while Drake directed the re-provisioning and repairs to ship, Fletcher jotted notes, which provided tantalizing clues to the harbor’s exact location. The captain, he said, decided to call the land "New Albion" partly because of the white cliffs which resembled those around Dover. And he claimed this "New England" for Queen Elizabeth I by nailing to "a great firme post" a "plate of brasse" upon which was inscribed a legend.
Fletcher put it this way: ". . . where-on is engraven her Grace’s name and the day and yeare of our arrival there, and of the free giving up, of the province and kingdom, both by the King and the people, into her Maiejaties and hands, together with her highnesse picture, and armes in a piece of six pence currant English monie, showing it selfe by a hole made of purpose through the pate; underneath was likewise engraven the name of or generall."
His document went on to say that the sea-weary sailors admired the "goodly country and rich soyle." Fletcher also described the trees, plants, and herds of fat deer, squirrels and other animals as well as natives encountered during their brief stay.
Finally, after five weeks ashore, refitting and careening the ship, Drake sailed on and headed for the East Indies. He arrived home a year later, September 26, 1580, when he entered the Plymouth harbor to the astonishment of his neighbors. In his three-year voyage, he had crossed the Pacific and circumnavigated the globe, the first Englishman to accomplish such a feat. The grateful Queen knighted him for his exploits, while Britons hailed him as the most famous man of his time. Now the Pacific Ocean could no longer be considered a closed Spanish Sea.
Thirteen years later, three years before Sir Francis died off the Panama Coast in 1596, a London map-maker, Godo’s Hondas reproduced an embellished chart of Drake’s world girdling voyage. In one corner appeared a cove labeled "Portus Novae Alionis," or Port of New Albion, the California careenage. Using this as a base, students tried for generations to find a cove that matched it along California’s 800-mile coastline. Nothing conclusive came of these efforts.
Suddenly in 1936, a starting discovery revived interest in the Drake mystery. That was when Beryle Shinn, a 26-year-old Oakland department store employee, went pheasant hunting with some friends in Marin County. During the day they drove south from San Rafael on the Greenbrae Road, which parallels the main highway about a mile or so to the west.
At the intersection with the road, which runs from San Quentin Prison to Kentfield, Shinn’s car had a flat tire. Since it was about lunchtime, the hunters decided to picnic near where the disabled car stood. To get away from the traffic, they climbed up on the dry-grassy hill and sat down near some scattered stones. Shin idly shied some of the stones downhill towards a gully.
Running out of things to throw, Shinn looked about for more rocks. He picked up one slightly imbedded stone and saw the square end of apiece metal sticking out underneath. He picked it up. It measured five by seven inched, with small square notches on the center of the long sides, and a hoe roughly punched in one corner. Shin later explained that when he first saw the metal plate he thought it was iron and because it was abut the size to patch a hole on the inside of his automobile he tossed it into the back seat of the car.
And here the fantastically important piece of metal lay for more than a month, with no thought being given it. Then one day Shinn decided to undertake the repair work and patch that hole now that he had a suitable piece of metal for the job. While inspecting the plate, he noticed what seemed to be some writing on the face f it. Taking it into his house Shinn scrubbed it with cleanser and a stiff brush. Even with some of the patina cleaned away and the inscription apparent, Shinn couldn’t decipher it or decide what to do with it. He showed it to several of his friends, one of whom managed to decipher the word "Drake." At that point someone suggested that Shinn contact the nearby University of California, particularly Dr. Herbert Bolten, then director of the famed Bancroft Library.
"As soon as the plate was described to me, I suspected what it was," Dr. Bolten said afterwards. Naturally he was excited with the prospect of such a historical treasure being located but he went about the task of authenticating it as an able scholar would. The learned historian unraveled what at first glance was a tangles ass of threadlike engravings in the plate. When he had finished, the message that no white man had seen for 358 years lay before him.
"Bee it known unto all men by these presents June 17, 1579, By the Grace of God and in the name of Herr Majestie Queen Elizabeth and herr sucessors forever, I take possession of this kingdom whose king and people freely resigne their right and title in the whole land unto herr Majesties keeping now named by me and to bee knowne unto all men as Nova Albion. G. Francis Drake."
Though the silver sixpence had disappeared, a similar coin of the period, when inserted into the hole fitted perfectly.
Dr. Bolten announced: "Once of the world’s long lost historical treasures . . . has been found!"
Various historical societies rejoiced, then some doubt began to creep in. Was this the real Drake Harbor? The plate did seem to indicate that Drake had indeed entered San Francisco Bay and that the later Portola explorers were not the first white men, to see the Bay. But soon another curious chapter in this fabulous book of history was written.
A San Francisco chauffeur named Bill Caldeira read the account o the find. He then announced that about fours years previously he had driven his employer to a spot along the shore of Drake’s Bay to hunt. While waiting for his employer to return. Caldeiera wandered down a dirt road. He came to a cross-road about a mile or so inland from Drake’s Bay. There he cuffed over a clod of dirt, some mud fell away, exposing a piece of metal.
Caldeira thought it might be useful for repairs and washed it off in a nearby creek. When it was leaned he saw some incised writings which he later described as "foreign writings of some sort." That piqued his interest enough to show he small plate to his employer.
"Probably off some ship," he shrugged after inspecting the plate.
Here again the plate was nearly lost to posterity. It was thrown carelessly into the car, where it rattled around for several weeks. Caldeira at length tired of the noise and pitched it out near where Shinn ultimately found it (The locations don’t tally exactly, but scientists believe it may have been moved by a succession of small boys "skipping" it across the sand.)
Though he was not interested in financial reward, the plate was ultimately purchased from Shinn and intensive tests were undertaken. Examination showed that plant cells in the grooves had become mineralized, a process which takes hundreds of years. The patina from the plate matched the various soils, the metal was dated ad contemporary with Drake and an Elizabethan six pence fitted firmly in the hole.
After six months of study, a report was issued which said in part: "It is our opinion that the brass plate is safely and permanently harbored in the Bancroft Library, there are still some puzzling aspect to the find. And since there is an enormous treasure still unrecovered, there is more than a passing interest in exactly where Drake erected the great "firme post" and "brasse plate,"
Members of the Drake Navigator’s Guild have undertaken a search for the exact spot, uncovering nothing more than some pieces of the 16th century Chinese porcelain and some iron spikes, which skeptics point out might have come form other ships wrecked near the site.
A new tack was tried: the navigational approach. Drake was an expert navigator and even though he summer of 1579 had been too foggy to get a perfect "fix" he had made an accurate latitude reading which checks with the present Drake’s Bay. (or Estero). On the surface, it seems unlikely that Drake would have chosen this mall lagoon for anchorage. But by studying tidal charts for 1579 and contemporary air photos, Guild experts found that currents have shaped and reshaped the bay over the centuries so that it may very well have been the "fit harborough" shown on Hondius charts. By careful analysis and elimination, it seems likely that the site now known as Drake’s by is the authentic site of the careenage.
But to the consternation of everyone, a few months ago a sixpence clearly dated and authenticated 1573 turned up in a San Francisco coin collection. Though its discovery has not been fully confirmed at this time, it is known the ancient coin was found in Marin County between 1905 and 1915 by a resident of San Francisco who is now deceased.
But what happened to the 40 tons if gold and treasure that the journals of Drake’s voyage stated had been buried in California? Thee is no record that any such gold or treasure was unloaded in England when Drake arrived there.
So this gold must still be in California and is certainly worth trying to finding.
The West Magazine July 1965, by Felton Monroe
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