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Culture History
Culture: The Mystery of the Lost Drake Colony Nova Albion
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Wednesday, 19 March 2008 Written by Allen Schuh

English naval legend Francis Drake's greatest adventure was his circumnavigation of the globe in his ship the Golden Hind. Drake claimed to have set foot on the soil of North America in 1579 during his voyage. He supposedly established an English foothold (Nova Albion) on the Pacific Coast as his one positive action in an otherwise violent episode. There was never any publicly verifiable proof that he had done so. We are told the English crown confiscated the records upon his return and swore the men to secrecy. Records seized then disappeared in a fire at Whitehall. This short story reports on the location of Nova Albion, and explains why it is the only one that is entirely in keeping with the little evidence we have.

From both Spanish and English accounts, Francis Drake prowled the shores of the Pacific Ocean in 1579. The major powers were not exploring the Pacific Coast of the North American continent to advance geographic knowledge. They were primarily building empires. Juan Rodriguez de Cabrillo in 1542 sailed up the coast of California near San Francisco and discovered the Farallones a small island group west and north of the Golden Gate. Later in 1575 Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeno landed on the coast near there in what is today called Drake's Bay. He claimed the land for Spain, and named it Puerto de San Francisco. In 1579 Francis Drake landed somewhere in the area and claimed the land for England, and named it Nova Albion. This story will show the location of Nova Albion is what is now called Grizzly Island in Suisun Bay.


My Fifty-year Investigation


The mystery of the lost site of Nova Albion first caught my attention more than 50 years ago. I do not remember the source, but I had read that Drake had been so greedy in collecting Spanish treasure that he risked overloading his ship. It was suggested that he laid off his over-supply of stolen silver bars, perhaps more than 20 tons worth, that were hampering control and safety of the ship. Eventually, I came across the suggestion he left a substantial colony of 40 to 60 men, and perhaps one woman, depending upon the source, to inhabit a colony. The treasure and habitation issues could not be verified any more than other details about the journey, again because the official documents had been confiscated and destroyed. We have to depend upon what information we can gather about the conditions at the time from observations made at the time, and then make the most accurate inferences we can about the unknown things that concern us, in this case finding the location of the people and treasure.


Latitude is Estimated


A simple topic such as estimating latitude, which we now do with hand held electronic instruments that get information from multiple earth orbiting satellites, was a difficult behavioral chore that resulted only in a rough estimate in Drake's time. Longitude was even more difficult to estimate. The difficulty of knowing exact latitude and longitude is an example of the behavioral issues that need to be considered. Another issue is the impulse to jump to inferences that are not warranted. There are many in the researches and writings of investigators. Examples include the inferences that Drake landed only on the coast and met only the Ohlone people. There is no actual observation that can support either of these inferences.

The position given for Drake's anchorage by one of the two principal narratives of the voyage, Richard Hakluyt's "The Famous Voyage of Sir Francis Drake" an insert added to the 1589 edition of "Principal Navigations", a Narrative by Francis Pretty one of Drake's Gentlemen at Arms, (1589) is N 38 degrees. "The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake Carefully collected out of the notes of Master Francis Fletcher, Preacher in this employment, and diverse others his followers in the same" (1628), the other of the two major accounts, places the harbor at N 38 degrees 30 minutes. Grizzly Island is at N 38 degrees 8 minutes. The two major manuscripts that bear on the Drake mission are available through the University of California as is the observation of the Jodocus Hondius Broadside map in the Bancroft collection.

The maps that Drake may have known about before his journey would include: Sebastian Münster, Tabula nouarum infnlarum, Basle, 1544; Giacomo Gastaldi, Universale della parte del mondo nvovamente ritrovata, Venice, 1565; in Giovanni Battisata Ramusio, Terzo Volume della Navigatore et Viaggi, Venice, 1565; and Tomaso Porcacchi, Mondo Nuoua, Venice, 1576; From L'Isole piu Famose del Mondo. The progressive accuracy of these maps is a story of persistence, dedication, and of growing accuracy in the realm of cartography. In the first map, North America is barely recognizable. The west coast of North America was truly remote. For most of the early explorers, it took a year or more just to get there. The west coast of North America was literally the edge of the world and one of the last regions to be explored and mapped. Francis Drake always made it a priority to capture the maps when he raided Spanish ships so he would have known about the Farallones and any other Spanish discoveries.

For the purpose of identifying the location of Nova Albion there is one specific map of importance. It is known as the Jodocus Hondius Broadside map of circa 1595, completed after Drake returned to England. Specifically the upper left corner of the map shows Drake's ship the Golden Hind in an aerial view of Portus Novae Albionis the name for Drake's harbor. The inset is the only graphic depiction of Drake's harbor that contains details. The map contains another detail that is supremely important; it shows accurately the location and the configuration of the San Francisco Bay area. You have to take into account that Drake was a pirate by occupation and he had broad experience in finding coves and inlets in which to hide as he did so often in the British West Indies. Any account of Drake must include that he knew the Bay and Delta of the San Francisco Bay Area. You can see the map at the website for the Bancroft library University of California.

I will show that the area of the San Francisco Bay Delta known as Grizzly Island is that location. It resembles the area on all maps that I know of including those commercially produced for fishing, or those supplied by official governmental units, and the site is easily verifiable for yourself by selecting the coordinates on any aerial view with the web search engine of your choice. Try Topozone at latitude N 38 degrees 8 minutes and longitude W 122 degrees, use 1:200,000 resolution. By any commercial or governmental source allowing for tidal levels, even without allowing much for erosion and accretion over 400 years, the resemblance of Grizzly Island to Drake's Harbor exceeds ninety five percent.

In the two major manuscripts that bear on the Drake mission there is a description of the landing zone by Francis Fletcher, Preacher, who accompanied Drake. I offer my edited excerpted version of his narrative for your attention because the English of the time is a bit different than of today as readers of Shakespeare are familiar. These excerpts are presented in a sequence that corresponds to the original text followed by my commentary.

Narrative says: Whereupon we thought it best for that time to seek the land, and did so, finding it not mountainous, but low plain land, till we came within 38 degrees towards the line. (Grizzly Island is at 38 degrees 8 minutes.)

Narrative says: In which height it pleased God to send us into a fair and good bay, with a good wind to enter the same. (In open sea, he would not need a good wind. Drake needed a good wind to enter the Golden Gate because of the flow of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers against him, plus the tidal action can be considerable, and a good wind would be needed to overcome the flow.)

Narrative says: In this bay, we anchored; and the people of the country, having their houses close by the water's side, showed themselves unto us, and sent a present to our General. (They are at or near 38 degrees, in a bay, with a wind blowing into the bay, people live there in houses. This fits Grizzly Island in Suisun Bay and the people are delta Patwin, not coastal Ohlone. Both are of the Penutian language family.)

Narrative says: The next day after our coming to anchor in the aforesaid harbor the people of the country, having their houses close by the water's side, showed themselves unto us, sending off a man with great expedition to us in a canoe. (A one-man canoe would be appropriate in the Delta but not likely in open sea of the coast.)

Narrative says: Who being yet but a little from the shore, and a great way from our ship, spoke to us continually as he came rowing on. (After anchoring, the Golden Hind remains at anchor for a day waiting for some response from the natives. They are perhaps three-quarters of a mile from shore. That would be about where the Golden Hind is shown in correct proportion in the inset of the Portus map.)

Narrative says: The 3 day following, viz (in other words) the 21 (of June 1579) our ship having received a leak at sea, was brought to anchor nearer the shore, that her goods being landed, she might be repaired. But for that we were to prevent any danger, that might chance against our safety, our General first of all landed his men, with all necessary provision, to build tents and make a fort for the defense of ourselves and goods, and that we might under the shelter of it, with more safety whatever should befall, end our business. (There is a leak, we do not know its cause or size, that needs repair. The men and goods are removed to lighten the ship. But it does not say the ship was careened, i.e. pulled onto the shore and rolled on its side to scrape the hull of barnacles or to make the repair.)

Narrative says: When they came unto us, they greatly wondered at the things that we brought. (The signs are at first misinterpreted but peace is maintained and there is careful mingling of the two peoples.)

Narrative says: But our General according to his natural and accustomed humanities courteously entreated them. And liberally bestowed on them necessary things to cover their nakedness. (The description of the physical appearance of the people is not specific as a clue to us which tribe they were. All of the people that Drake may have contacted would be of about the same language group and share the same social customs, social structure, appearance, housing arrangements, and even diseases and injuries. While considerable description of the people is in the narrative, it will not differentiate which group is represented.)

Narrative says: As soon as they were returned to their houses, they began amongst themselves a kind of most lamentable weeping and crying out, which they continued also a great while together, in such sort, that in the place where they left us being never about 3 quarters of an English mile distant from them. (The distance is a clue and fits the circumstances of Grizzly Island and physical location of shore and hill areas.)

Narrative says: Notwithstanding this humble manner of presenting themselves, and awful demeanor used towards us, we thought it no wisdom too far to trust them our experience of former infidels dealing with us before, made us careful to provide against an alteration of their affections, or breach of peace if it should happen and therefore with all expedition we set up our tents, and entrenched our selves with walls of stone, that so being fortified within ourselves, we might be able to keep off the enemies if they should so prove from coming amongst us without our good wills, this being quickly finished we went the more cheerfully and securely afterward, about our other business. (There were stones not just mud, sand, and gravel. The arrangement of the stones may still be there just under the surface. The area is now occupied by the Department of Fish and Game, Grizzly Island Wildlife Complex, and the surface is relatively undisturbed.)

Narrative says: When they came to the top of the hill, at the bottom whereof we had built our fort, they made a stand. (We are not sure of the size of the fort or the height of the hill but the fort location fits with the Portus sketch and with the geographical configuration of Grizzly Island.)

Narrative says: After these in their order, did follow the naked sort of common people whose hair being long, was gathered into a bunch behind, in which stuck plumes of feathers. This one thing was observed to be general amongst them all; that every one had his face painted, some with white, some black, and some with other colors, every man also bringing in his hand one thing or other for a gift or present. Each woman bearing against her breast a round basket or two, having within them diverse things, as bags of Tobâh, a root which they call Petáh, whereof they make a kind of meal, and either bake it into bread, or eaten it raw, and broiled fishes like a pilchard. (The description of the appearance of the fish is one of the most important clues to confirm that these are delta people. The fish they are describing is the Delta smelt, a small fish endemic to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary. Typically 2 to 3 inches long, Delta smelt need fresh water and brackish habitat in order to survive and reproduce. Smelts live together in schools and feed on zooplankton. The fish begin as larvae in the fresh water of the lower San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers. When the cold rushing waters pour down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the larvae break free from their shallow nursery. They float downstream towards Suisun Bay until they reach saltier water. The majority of growth for the smelt is within the first seven to nine months of its life. Adult smelt live in Suisun Bay until the following year when they make their return journey upstream to lay their eggs. This is the single most powerful clue to this point because it suggests that Drake was not on the coast but inside San Francisco Bay, probably in the delta where the rivers meet salt water.)

Narrative says: One thing we observed in them with admiration, that if at any time they chanced to see a fish so near the shore that they might reach the place without swimming, they would never, or very seldom, miss to take it. (This suggests a calmer water habitat, as from the lower San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers, than ocean.)

Narrative says: After that our necessary businesses were well dispatched, our General with his gentlemen and many of his company, made a journey up into the land to see the manner of their dwelling, and to be the better acquainted with the nature and commodities of the country. Their houses were all such as we have formerly described, and being many of them in one place, made several villages here and there. The inland we found to be far different from the shore, a goodly country, and fruitful soil, stored with many blessings fit for the use of man. Infinite was the company of very large and fat deer, which there we saw by thousands, as we supposed, in a herd. (Drake and his entourage were probably observing Tule elk that still inhabit the area.)

Narrative says: We found the whole country to be a warren of a strange kind of connies, their bodies in bigness as be the Barbary connies, their heads as the heads of ours, the feet of a want, and the tail of a rat being of great length. Under her chin on either side a bag, into which she gathered her meat, when she hath filled her belly abroad. The people eat their bodies, and make great accomplishment of their skins, for their King's coat was made of them. (Probably he is describing the river otter, which is very much in keeping with an animal you would expect in the lower San Joaquin.)

Narrative says: Our General called this country Nova Albion, and that for two causes: the one in respect of the white banks and cliffs, which be towards the sea, and the other because it might have some affinities with our country in name, which sometime was so called. (The reference that the cliffs be toward the sea could be referring to the Marin side of the Golden Gate. It does look that way.)

Narrative says: There is no part of earth here to be taken up, wherein there is not a reasonable quantity of gold or silver. (The mother lode does drain here through both the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers.)

Narrative says: Before we went from thence, our General caused to be set up a monument of our being there as also of her majesty's, and successor's right and title to that kingdom, namely, a plate of brass, fast nailed to a great and firm post. Whereon is engraved her grace's name, and the day and year of our arrival there and of the free giving up of the province and kingdom, both by the king and people, into her majesty's hands. Together with her highness' picture and arms in a piece of sixpence currant English money showing itself by a hole made of purpose through the plate. Underneath was likewise engraved the name of our General. It seemed that the Spaniards hitherto had never been in this part of the Country. Neither did they ever discover the land by many degrees to the Southwards of this place. (The Spanish had been outside the Golden Gate and north but apparently not inside. It is fitting that Drake would hide in the delta during ship repairs and rest for the crew before continuing the long journey home. He knew from his days in the British West Indies that it would be prudent to do so. This is entirely within his experience to move into the bay and further up into the fresh water delta to make his repairs and preparations. As for the monument, the map suggests its location, which may put it on private land. There is still a post there made of stone not wood as might have been assumed. If anyone has already found the plate on the ground near the post of stone, they are not saying.)

Narrative says: And now, as the time of our departure was perceived by them to draw nigh, so did the sorrows and miseries of this people seem to themselves to increase upon them. The 23 of July they took a sorrowful farewell of us, but being loath to leave us, they presently ran to the tops of the hills to keep us in their sight as long as they could, making fires before and behind, and on each side of them, burning therein as is to be supposed sacrifices at our departure. (There is no mention of treasure left behind, nor of people left to inhabit a colony.)

Narrative says: Not far without this harbor rough did lay certain islands we called them the Islands of Saint James having on them plentiful and great store of seals and birds, with one of which we fell July 24. Whereon we found such provision as might completely serve our turn for a while. We departed again the day next following, viz July 25. (Without the harbor means outside the shelter, but of just the landing zone or the bay is not clear. It could have been Angel island and Alcatraz within the Bay, or the Farallones, which are just outside and north. Both choices would fit the story.)

Narrative says: Our General now considering that the extremity of the cold not only continued but increased, the Sun being gone farther from us, and that the wind blowing still as it did at first from the Northwest, cut off all hope of finding a passage through these Northerner parts, thought if necessary to loose no time, and therefore with general consent of all, bent his course directly to run with the Islands of the Moluccas. (The clue here is that he has not gone very far before heading southwest. Note that the Jodocus Hondius map shows the San Francisco Bay accurately, so we know Drake was inside, and he shows the course southwest to commence at about that point.)

In summary, it may be said that there are things not here, such as any reference to pulling the ship on shore. Could it be that just sitting in a fresh water site cleaned the bottom of the Golden Hind of salt-water barnacles? There is no reference to leaving a treasure behind. While it says the men and load were offloaded before ship leak repairs could be performed, that lifting of ballast might have been enough to raise the ship to make the repair if it had been at the water line, without having to pull it on the shore by the normal method of careening. There is no reference to leaving people behind.

Therefore, because the weight of evidence in the description of the physical features, I think we can accurately identify the location of Drake's landing zone as the harbor off Grizzly Island, in Suisun Bay, east of San Francisco at latitude N 38 degrees 8 minutes and longitude W 122 degrees. There is no evidence in the narrative that contradicts this claim.

The exact location of the plate can be anticipated to be buried at: N 38 08 28, W122 00 52.7. Select the coordinates for an aerial view with the web search engine of your choice. You are looking at the mounds between the two parallel roads, a short distance from the water's edge. These roads slope to the left facing North. Note that the mound on the left resembles Ireland and the mound on the right resembles Albion (England). Drake, the serious navigator and chartist he was, would not have missed the coincidence of their resemblance. The location of the post is at the southern boundary of the mound. Because this land is off limits to visitors digging, I do not anticipate finding the plate of brass. But it was there.



Allen J. Schuh, Ph. D., is retired. His academic degrees are A. B. 1963 San Diego State University, M.A. 1965 University of California, Ph.D. 1971 Ohio State University. During the 1960s he served in the US Navy. He was primarily employed as a college professor. He published several dozen scholarly papers and a textbook. He maintains membership in scholarly and professional associations including The Institute of Operations Research and Management Sciences (INFORMS), and American College of Forensic Examiners.

Copyright © 2008 Allen J. Schuh