This week’s column continues the commentary on Drake’s explorations and his landing on the Sonoma coast. The Pacific Coast was known as Nova Albion, Albion referring to Great Britain and the White Cliffs of Dover. A similar landscape can be found at Pt. Reyes. Today, after years of debate, it is generally accepted that Drake’s Bay is the location of his historic Sonoma County landing.
Drake had many encounters with Spanish ships and settlements while heading north to Nova Albion. Before setting foot on Sonoma’s coast, Drake’s previous port of call was in Guatulco, Mexico, on April 14, 1579. The mayor of Guatulco, Gaspar Vargas, described Drake’s arrogance, stating that the prisoners would all be hanged if they spoke ill of the mighty sea captain.
Another prisoner, Juan Pascual, wrote “If the prisoners did not inform Drake of a water supply he would cut their heads off and that he had killed many others and it would be nothing to him to kill them all. And that on Francis Drake’s ship all him men trembled before him and when he paced the deck they passed before him trembling, with their hats in hand, bowing to the ground.”
Historians tend to think these descriptions of Drake were intended to impress upon the Spanish government how ruthless Drake was. In essence, a ploy to save face, in light of Drake’s successful pillaging of Spanish towns and ships along his Pacific voyage.
Though I somewhat promised descriptions of lurid sexual encounters during the pillaging of towns along Drake’s excursion, the Spanish had no recollections of such acts. Furthermore, because of the rather congenial relationship between Drake’s crew and the Coast Miwok, their appear to have been no such relationships, forced or permissive, between them.
It is hard to imagine, but fun to do so, the initial encounters between the Coast Miwok and Drake. Both groups gave gifts and Drake believed that the Native peoples were under the impression that he and his men were gods. Drake spent about six weeks on Sonoma’s coast before returning to his homeland.
From the pen of Drakes chaplain, Frances Fletcher, is an intriguing description of the first encounter. “The next day, after our coming to anchor in the aforesaid harbor, the people of the country showed themselves, sending off a man with great expedition to us in a canoe. 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. And at last at a reasonable distance staying himself, he began more solemnly a long and tedious oration, after his manner: using in the delivery thereof many gestures and signs, moving his hands, turning his head and body many ways; and after his oration ended, with a great show of reverence and submission returned back to shore again.”
The ship was anchored in the bay until the third day, when the crew began removing all of the goods to the shore. Once everything had been removed, the ship headed for the shore and was placed on its side, so that the crew could begin to fix a leak in the hull. This was a tricky operation, especially on our rocky coast, but ultimately was a successful endeavor.
The trade between the two groups continued throughout their visit. Drake’s crew provided the Coast Miwok with linens, cloth and shirts. The Miwok, in return, gave “feathers, cuals of network, the quivers of their arrows, made of fawn skins, and the very skins of beasts that their women wore upon their bodies.
Captain Drake and crew departed on July 23. The Coast Miwok were troubled by their departure. Fletcher describes the scene as void of “all mirth, joy, glad countenance… and with sighs and sorrowing..heavy hearts…bitter tears.” The crew, however, left clues for future historians and archaeologists, of their landing and six-week sojourn into Sonoma County. One of the primary clues, 16th-century Chinese porcelain. It is here that the great debate over the location of Drake’s landing begins.