Drake Lands in Northern California Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Francis Drake arrived in Northern California and claimed the land for England. Drake’s was the first English land claim in North America.

Summary of Event

On November 15, 1577, Francis Drake, commanding five ships, set sail from Plymouth, England, obeying Elizabeth I’s order to “encompass the world.” Before the voyage was completed, the sole surviving flagship, the Pelican, later renamed the Golden Hind, had circumnavigated the globe. Rounding the Strait of Magellan, Drake navigated up the western coast of South America to Peru, plundering Spanish ships and settlements along the way. Heavy with Spanish gold, silver, trade route maps, and occasionally human captives, his ship cruised up the North American coast past Mexico and California, going as far north as Oregon. Inclement weather forced him back south to what is today Marin County, California. There he anchored for repairs before setting sail across the Pacific Ocean. Drake, who eight years later was to play an important role in England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada, reached as far as the Pelew Islands (Palau) before returning home to Plymouth, England, in 1580 by way of Ternate (in the Moluccas), Java, the Cape of Good Hope, and Sierra Leone. Exploration and colonization;England of North America Drake, Francis Elizabeth I Fletcher, Francis Frobisher, Sir Martin Philip II (1527-1598)

For the significance of Drake’s 1579 excursion to California to become clear, the political situation in England must be understood. Thirty-five years earlier, Prince Philip of Spain had become king consort of England by marrying Queen Mary I. When his reign ended upon Mary’s death in 1558, he attempted to maintain his powerful position by marrying the new monarch, Mary’s sister Elizabeth I. After Elizabeth rejected his marriage proposal, Philip canceled all commerce, including trade treaties, between England and the Spanish colonies. Thus, finding new English trade routes in the South Pacific became paramount for England’s economic survival. Discovery of the Northwest Passage, formerly thought of as a possible route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, seemed the most expedient way to accomplish this goal.

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In 1576-1578, Martin Frobisher explored northeastern Canada seeking the Atlantic entrance to the Northwest Passage. Drake’s voyage was, in part, an attempt to discover the passage from its Pacific end. It was in making this attempt that Drake found “a faire and good baye” in California. It was popularly believed at that time that the west coast of North America ran in a northeasterly direction until the passage was reached. After reaching at least 40 north latitude (possibly as far as 48 north latitude), Drake concluded that the passage did not exist, or, if it did, that it would be unnavigable. Backtracking to approximately 38 north latitude, the Golden Hind dropped anchor on June 17, 1579.

The exact location of Drake’s anchorage remains controversial. It was not far from modern-day San Francisco, and it is likely that it was the unsheltered bay known as Drake’s Bay, behind the hook on the end of the Point Reyes Peninsula. Scholars continue to argue, placing Drake’s landing at various points around San Francisco, including Drake’s Bay, San Francisco Bay, Bodega Bay, Drake’s Estero, Bolinas Lagoon, and Tomales Bay. However, a geographical feature chronicled in the journal of Drake’s chaplain, Francis Fletcher, may provide evidence that Drake’s Bay was in fact the original landfall site. Fletcher recorded that, because of its similarity to England’s white banks and cliffs, Drake renamed the country New Albion (New England). A line of white diatomaceous shale cliffs stretches for miles across from Drake’s Bay. Although not as striking as the English chalk cliffs, these are the only white cliffs now in the area.

On shore, Drake erected a commemorative metal plaque, rediscovered in 1936 by a group of picnickers at Greenbrae Hill overlooking Point San Quentin, which reads:

Be it known unto all men by these presents, June 17, 1579, by the Grace of God in the name of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of England and Her successors for ever, I take possession of this Kingdom, whose king and people freely resign their right and title in the whole land unto Her Majesty’s keeping, now named by me and to be known unto all men as Nova Albion.

The rediscovery of this commemorative brass plate at Greenbrae Hill fueled the controversy over Drake’s actual landfall site and added credence to the claim that San Francisco Bay was the anchorage location. A comparison of modern charts to explorer Jodocus Hondius’s 1589 commemorative Drake and Cavendish World Map supports this claim. In addition, the chaplin Fletcher’s description of “Barbarie Conies” and “Deere” in the area better reflects the ecology of Greenbrae than that of Point Reyes. Significantly, if Drake anchored in San Francisco Bay, he would have been the first European at this geographical site, antedating Gaspar de Portolá’s land expedition by 190 years. The inhospitable coastline, prevalent fog, and narrow entrance long prevented earlier explorers such as Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who had charted the entire coast of California by 1542, from finding the Golden Gate.

Anthropologists have determined from fragments of speech recalled by one of Drake’s crew that the people encountered by Drake were Coast Miwoks who lived in the area now occupied by Marin and Sonoma Counties, north of San Francisco. The native people left no record of their first impressions of Drake and his crew, but according to Fletcher, they were happy upon the arrival of the British, referred to Drake as “Hich,” or king, gave over their land voluntarily, and were saddened when the British left.

Drake’s crew spent six weeks coping with a cold, foggy summer in California and repairing the leaking Golden Hind before setting sail on July 23. They stopped briefly at the Farallon Islands to replenish supplies before riding the northeast trade winds across the Pacific Ocean bound for the Moluccas (Spice Islands).

Significance

It was not until Francis Drake returned to England in 1580 that the true significance of the California expedition began to develop: The Spanish ambassador to Elizabeth’s court, Don Bernardin de Mendoza, pronounced the goods that Drake brought home Spanish property and demanded their return to the Spanish crown. In the document that was to become England’s central expansion doctrine for the next three centuries, Elizabeth claimed that since the Spaniards had prohibited commerce with the British, England had been forced to take its own exploratory steps. Because Protestant England was not under Rome’s jurisdiction, she continued, it need not honor Spain’s papal title to the New World. England was suddenly a colonial power in its own right, in a position to explore and claim land in the Americas. By 1609, the Virginia Charter extended to the Pacific Ocean and included Drake’s Nova Albion.

Until Drake claimed possession of the Miwoks’ coastal lands, there was no English interest in North America. Indeed, until Drake’s action, no non-European was ruled by an English sovereign. That situation quickly changed in the wake of the colonial doctrine declared by Elizabeth to the Spanish ambassador. Sir Walter Ralegh’s Roanoke Colony was founded just six years later, in 1584, and the permanent Virginia settlement came twenty-three years after that. Thus, Drake not only established the first nominal protectorate colony of the British Commonwealth of Nations but also motivated his monarch to enunciate and follow the policy that was to lead to the creation of that commonwealth. This milestone marked the beginning of Great Britain’s worldwide system of empire, which acknowledged local authority but maintained jurisdiction under the British crown.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bawlf, Samuel. The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, 1577-1580. Vancouver, B.C.: Douglas & McIntyre, 2003. Reveals evidence that Drake’s secret mission on his circumnavigation of the globe was to explore the Pacific Northwest in an attempt to seek out the Northwest Passage. Beyond this new information, the book provides a multifaceted portrayal of Drake himself, reconciling his religious convictions with his ruthless acts of piracy. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coote, Stephen. Drake: The Life and Legend of an Elizabethan Hero. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Biography combines novelistic dramatization of Drake’s life with important analysis of the way his legend became a national symbol through which England understood itself and its global actions. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Drake, Sir Francis. The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake. Reprint. Cleveland: World, 1966. Offset edition of the Huntington Library copy of the first edition (London, 1628). Recounts the complete circumnavigation, including the six weeks spent in Marin County. Based on the Fletcher’s journal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dudley, Wade G. Drake: For God, Queen, and Plunder. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’, 2003. This entry in Brassey’s “Military Profiles” series examines Drake’s naval career and his role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jenkins, Dorothy G. “Opening of the Golden Gate.” In Geologic Guidebook of the San Francisco Bay Counties: History, Landscape, Geology, Fossils, Minerals, Industry, and Routes to Travel. San Francisco: California Division of Mines, 1951. Detailed natural history of San Francisco Bay counties. Illustrations include Drake’s brass plate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kelleher, Brian T. Drake’s Bay: Unraveling California’s Great Maritime Mystery. Cupertino, Calif.: Kelleher & Associates, 1997. Extremely technical and detailed discussion of where Drake claimed to have landed in California, where he most likely actually landed, and the reasons for the discrepancy. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kelsey, Harry. “Did Francis Drake Really Visit California?” Western Historical Quarterly 21, no. 4 (1990): 444-462. A scholarly article that discusses the uncertainties and contradictions inherent in nearly every aspect of accounts of Drake’s voyage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Power, Robert H. Francis Drake and San Francisco Bay: A Beginning of the British Empire. Davis: University of California Press, 1974. Short, scholarly work that posits San Francisco Bay as Drake’s landfall site. Emphasizes the influence that the Coast Miwok people had on British expansion policies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Neville. Francis Drake. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973. Readable account of Drake’s life and the historical forces that shaped it. Many illustrations, no index.

June 7, 1494: Treaty of Tordesillas

1519-1522: Magellan Expedition Circumnavigates the Globe

Apr. 20, 1534-July, 1543: Cartier and Roberval Search for a Northwest Passage

June 27, 1542-c. 1600: Spain Explores Alta California

July, 1553: Coronation of Mary Tudor

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

Feb. 25, 1570: Pius V Excommunicates Elizabeth I

June 7, 1576-July, 1578: Frobisher’s Voyages

July 4, 1584-1590: Lost Colony of Roanoke

Sept. 14, 1585-July 27, 1586: Drake’s Expedition to the West Indies

Dec. 31, 1600: Elizabeth I Charters the East India Company

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