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Drake’s Cove wins historical landmark status

Getting to Drake’s New Albion

The easiest route to Drake’s Cove is a mostly gentle 1.4-mile hike along the beach heading east from the Ken Patrick Visitor Center at Drake’s Beach.

The way is typically open from May to October — as winter weather can wash out much of the sand — and hikers must start out on a receding tide to avoid difficulties on their return at high tide.

The Drake Navigators Guild Facebook page, which posts the conditions, currently says the beach access is “largely cut off for the year.”

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.

Getting to Drake’s New Albion

The easiest route to Drake’s Cove is a mostly gentle 1.4-mile hike along the beach heading east from the Ken Patrick Visitor Center at Drake’s Beach.

The way is typically open from May to October — as winter weather can wash out much of the sand — and hikers must start out on a receding tide to avoid difficulties on their return at high tide.

The Drake Navigators Guild Facebook page, which posts the conditions, currently says the beach access is “largely cut off for the year.”

Drake was knighted by the queen aboard the Golden Hind, and he later became mayor of Plymouth. As an English vice admiral, he helped lead the attack on the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The state historical landmark status came as a delayed segue to designation in 2012 of a national historic landmark that applied to the existing 5,965-acre Drake’s Bay Historic and Archaeological District.

A National Park Service report at the time called it “the most likely site” of Drake’s California landing and “an important aspect of the ongoing debate” over the location.

Mike Litterst, a Park Service spokesman, said the designation “should not be interpreted as providing a definitive resolution of the discussion.”

Even now, neither of the Drake’s Cove advocates is claiming outright victory.

“This continues to settle the debate,” Wright said, calling the evidence for his contention “overwhelming.”

Those who back other sites had a chance to come forward during the public comment period on the 2012 and 2021 landmark nominations and none did, he said.

Still, Wright said, “Contrary theories have come and gone, and they always will.”

Campbell Cove in Bodega Bay, with dedicated advocates who lack the scope of the Navigators Guild, is among the alternative sites.

“Almost every year someone comes up with an idea that Drake landed in my backyard,” Von der Porten said.

However, concerns about Drake’s role in the slave trade that flourished in his era prompted a name change in May for Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo.

It became Archie Williams High School, named after a longtime math and computer science teacher who won a gold medal as a sprinter at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Germany, with Adolf Hitler in the grandstand.

Williams, who died in 1993, later served during World War II with the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

A 30-foot steel sculpture of Drake was removed last year from Larkspur Landing by the ferry terminal.

In the 1560s, Drake joined a cousin named John Hawkins on some of Britain’s earliest slave trading voyages to Africa, bringing their captives back for sale to plantations in the Spanish Caribbean, a practice illegal under Spanish law, according to the History television network.

The man revered as a British hero participated in two voyages with Hawkins, Van der Porten, treasurer of the Sonoma County Historical Society, wrote in a Press Democrat Close to Home column in September, 2020.

But after surviving an attack by Spanish ships at a Mexican port in 1568 — which Van der Porten described as “Spanish treachery — Drake’s words and deeds related to slavery changed, he wrote.

At Panama in 1572, Drake developed an alliance with escaped Spanish slaves and one of them joined his crew, returned to England and “chose, as a free man,” to set sail on the circumnavigation, Van der Porten wrote.

Those escaped slaves helped Drake get rich, leading him across the Isthmus of Panama and showing him where to waylay the Spanish mule train, according to Michael Turner of England, author of a five-book series on Drake and founder of The Drake Exploration Society, which collaborates with the Drake Navigators Guild.

“So to label Drake a slave trader is rather crude,” he said. “It doesn’t do justice to the nuances in Drake’s life.”

In 1585, when his Black messenger was slain by a Spanish soldier, Drake had two innocent friars hanged in retribution, and his demand for justice prompted the Spanish to put the soldier to death themselves, Von der Porten’s column said.

Drake wasn’t perfect, but in 16th century terms he was “one of the most decent, multicultural personalities” and even under “21st century progressive values, Drake shines,” Von der Porten wrote.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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