Drake’s Cove wins historical landmark status
Visitors to Point Reyes National Seashore this summer will be able to stand on the officially recognized spot where Sir Francis Drake came ashore during his 16th century circumnavigation of the globe.
“The scenery is stunning,” said Christine Beekman, the seashore spokesperson who last month hiked 1.4 miles along the beach heading east from the Drake’s Beach visitor center to the site tucked behind a crooked finger of sand at the entrance to Drakes Estero.
There at tiny Drake’s Cove, beach grasses sprout from sand within the 215-acre site designated by California State Parks Director Armando Quintero last month as California Historical Landmark 1061. The designation came after a unanimous approval by the seven-member State Historical Resources Commission. But even though the vote was unanimous, not everyone buys that this is the exact spot where Drake made landfall.
The cove’s contours, hillsides and banks remain much as they were four and a half centuries ago when Drake built a fort and remained for five weeks, repairing the Golden Hind, his sturdy 120-ton ship, claiming the territory for England, amicably engaging with the Coast Miwok natives and exploring as far inland as today’s Olema Valley.
Upon departing from the cove, Drake stopped at the Farallon Islands to harvest seal meat and eggs before crossing the Pacific Ocean and completing his mission, authorized by Queen Elizabeth I, to plunder Spanish treasure along the South and Central American Pacific coasts.
Drake chose not to reverse his original voyage around the tip of South America from the Atlantic Ocean, assuming there would be hostile Spanish forces waiting for him.
“The site is little-changed from the 16th century,” according to a 30-page application for historic landmark status submitted by the Drake Navigators Guild, a private research group founded in 1949 to champion the cove as the locale of Drake’s famous landing.
The lone major change is a low sand dam across the cove built by cattle rancher William Hall in the 1940s, creating a freshwater pond where salty ocean water “used to ebb and flow,” the application said.
The dam allows visitors to actually stand where the Golden Hind found safe harbor, it said.
“It’s a very interesting site which very few people know about,” said Mike Von der Porten of Santa Rosa, vice president and archivist for the guild. “Now the task is to create more public awareness.”
The national seashore, which draws about 2.4 million visitors a year, has not decided on any memorial plaque regarding the state historic landmark, Beekman said.
Steve Wright of Orangevale, the guild president, said he was thrilled by the historical landmark designation, calling Drake’s Cove a “perfect spot,” shallow with a sandy bottom, for repairing the Golden Hind, which had been at sea for a year and a half since leaving England in late 1577.
The 18-gun warship, built for speed and durability on long voyages and rough weather, was so formidable that Drake rarely fired his cannons and the Spanish typically surrendered without a fight.
The cove was named by former U.S. Navy Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, an honorary member of the Navigators Guild who died in 1966.
Drake had been at sea for 63 days when he rounded the Point Reyes peninsula from the north and slipped into Drake’s Cove, gaining shelter from the wind afforded by the headlands.
He named the site New Albion after the archaic name for the island of Great Britain which means white, and the white cliffs of Drakes Bay reminded the English sailors of the white chalk cliffs at Dover.
Drake’s territorial claim for what was to become the United States predated English colonies at Roanoke and Jamestown, Virginia, in 1585 and 1602, respectively, and the storied Pilgrim settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620.
There is no evidence Drake intended to establish a colony at New Albion, too distant from England to be maintained, and the only physical evidence of his presence at Drake’s Cove are shards of Chinese porcelain dishes Drake took from a Spanish treasure ship.
A highlight of Drake’s sojourn in the cove was his amicable relationship with the area’s Coast Miwok inhabitants.
The guild’s landmark application said: “The interactions were friendly but neither group understood the other: the Indians believed their dead had returned from across the ocean while Drake’s crew thought their leader was being crowned ‘king.’”
The circumnavigation occurred during a cold war between Protestant England and Catholic Spain, and Queen Elizabeth I had co-sponsored the voyage that returned to England with a fortune in treasure, said to exceed the revenue collected by Parliament each year.