Drake Sees the White Cliffs of California?!

Having failed to find a western entrance to the fabled Northwest Passage, in the summer of 1579 Drake searched the west coast of North America for a suitable place to cleanse his hull and ready his ship for the long sail across the Pacific Ocean and his return to England. His ship’s hold cradled a fortune in silver and gold. He’d be a wealthy man if he could return it to England.

Unfortunately, after a drive along the present-day coast of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California this past Spring, I can confirm the coast is treacherous, with few sheltered bays. Hence, Drake was relieved when on June 17th he sighted a protected bay with white cliffs reminiscent of the Seven Sisters of Dover England. He named the land Nova Albion, New England, and upon further exploration decided to careen his ship, the Golden Hind, there. He would stay for thirty-eight days, during which time he and his crew had fascinating interactions with the natives

Where was Nova Albion? Much ink and even books has been written in attempts to answer this question. For many, including myself, the most likely site for the careening is Drake’s Estero, a small inlet of Drake’s Bay in today’s Point Reyes National Seashore just north of San Francisco Bay. The following picture was taken from the headland southwest of Drake’s Estero, and is similar to what Drake might have seen when approaching the anchorage over four hundred years ago.

It’s easy to see how he might associate this sight with the cliffs of Dover.

The geographical argument for Drake’s Bay for Drake’s stay is strong, but not irrefutable. However, the ethnographic evidence is compelling in my mind. This is found in Robert F. Heizer’s excellent Francis Drake and the California Indians, written in 1947 and published by the University of California Press. Heizer was a professor who specialized in the archaeology and ethnology of the Native Americans of northwest America. He makes a persuasive argument that Drake interacted with the Miwok Tribes of the California coast, which means Drake either careened his ship at Drake’s Bay or Bodega Bay, with the former being more likely. He gives many reasons. For example, the native huts with recessed floors described by those with Drake are not found in Oregon or further north.

Point Reyes National Seashore is a rugged, windswept, but starkly beautiful place. I enjoyed my short stay there, and encourage you to visit it should you have the chance. I only spent part of a day there, and hope to go again and hike the trail to Drake’s Estero to walk the same shore that Drake and his men did.

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