Skip to main content

Drake Discovers California

May 2024
11min read

deck TK

(From In Search of a Kingdom: Francis Drake, Elizabeth I, and the Perilous Birth of the British Empire

Queen Elizabeth’s favorite pirate, Francis Drake, was a hot-tempered, red-haired rogue who plundered and pillaged his way to the ends of the earth. A brash hustler who beguiled the nearly insolvent young queen of England with promises of gold and silver, and tales of heroic quests in distant lands. 

Having departed from England in 1577, he was now two and a half years into his journey, having found the gold and silver mostly by seizing it from the Spanish who had preceded him (while keeping some for himself). Once he accomplished his primary objective, he sought a “Northwest passage” to England. Instead, in June, he encountered the coast of northern California. 
 
Drake approached “that part of America bearing farther out into the west than we before imagined,” wrote Francis Fletcher, the Church of England priest who accompanied Drake and kept a diary of the voyage.  The nearer they came to shore, the colder the wind—a miserable, piercing cold. On June 5, the winds forced Golden Hind to “cast anchor in a bad bay,” the only refuge from the “extreme gusts and flaws that beat upon us.” When the winds subsided, the sailors were engulfed by the “most vile, thick and stinking fogs, against which the sea prevailed nothing” until more violent gusts blew up and cleared out the miasma. 
 
They were now at 48 degrees north, Fletcher estimated, in the vicinity of the Olympic Peninsula: terra incognita for the English. The men were “utterly discouraged,” but Drake changed his mind once again and resumed his search for the Northwest Passage. What if he had come this far only to miss it? Perhaps he needed to sail farther, and everything would be transformed. But there was no passage, no escape from their misery, only the huge expanse of the Pacific. “We had a smooth and calm sea, with ordinary flowing and reflowing,” Fletcher reported, “which could not have been, had there been a strait, of which we rather infallibly concluded, [and] then conjectured there was none.” 
 
Drake finally recognized that he had been chasing an illusion. He turned back, hugging the shore, until, at 44 degrees north, he found a cove where he could safely anchor his ship, Golden Hind. Even in June, approaching the summer solstice, every hill was blanketed with snow. Fletcher found the denuded landscape extending to the north and east dismal to behold: “How unhandsome and deformed appeared the face of the earth itself shewing trees without leaves, and the ground without greenness in those months of June and July.” Even the “poor birds and fowl” were trapped in their nests amid the icy onslaught. 
 
At last they made an agreeable landfall near present-day San Francisco. “It pleased God to send us into a fair and good bay, with a good wind to enter the same” where “the people of the country, having their houses close by the water’s side, showed themselves unto us.” These hardy inhabitants were the Coast Miwok, long established in the area. (Other Miwok clusters existed near Mount Diablo and, farther east, in today’s Yosemite National Park.) Organized and sophisticated in their fashion, they made a positive first impression on their curious visitors. 
 
“Their houses are digged round about with earth,” Fletcher wrote, “and have from the uttermost brims of the circle clifts of wood set upon them, joining close together at the top like a spire steeple, which by reason of that closenesse are very warm. Their bed is the ground with rushes strewn on it and lying about the house; they have the fire in the middest.” Their appearance was both startling and gratifying. “The men go naked; the women take bulrushes and comb them after the manner of hemp, and thereof make their loose garments, which, being knit about their middles, hang down about their hips, having also about their shoulders a skin of deer, with the hair upon it.” 
 
Drake and his crew were only the second European party to set foot in Northern California, preceded by the Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo years before, in 1542. It was difficult to know who was more amazed by Drake’s visit, he and his men or the self-sufficient Coast Miwok, whom they studied with fascination. The Miwok, in turn, seemed to regard their visitors as gods with whom they desired to have peaceful relations. 
 
The English visitors learned that acorns formed the mainstay of the Miwok diet. They were harvested in autumn, dried, and stored in eight-foot-high granaries known as cha’ka. Fashioned out of large poles, they resembled large baskets and were lined with pine needles and wormwood, whose pungent odor repelled insects and rodents. The Miwok cracked and shelled the acorns and stuffed the meat in a mortar cup to be pounded with a pestle until it achieved the texture of meal. They poured hot and cold water through the meal to leach out the bitter, inedible tannin. The meal was then sealed in a watertight container with hot rocks to cook it. 
 
They were endlessly loquacious, these Miwok, never giving their visitors a moment’s respite. “One (appointed as their chief speaker) wearied his hearers, and himself too, with a long and tedious oration delivered with strange and violent gestures, his voice being extended to the uttermost strength of nature, and his words falling so thick one in the neck of another, that he could hardly fetch his breath again.” 
 
When the Miwok came face-to-face with their visitors, the men placed their bows on the hillside and put their women and children behind, and walked toward Drake as if he were a god. At the same time, “the women used unnatural violence against themselves, crying and shrieking piteously, tearing their flesh with their nails from their cheeks in a monstrous manner, the blood streaming down along their breasts.” As if those gestures were not sufficiently alarming, “they would with fury cast themselves upon the ground, never respecting whether it were clean or soft, but dashed themselves in this manner on hard stones, knobby hillocks, stocks of wood, and pricking bushes, or whatever else lay in their way.” 
 
The English were both horrified by this behavior and helpless to stop it, or even understand it. “This bloody sacrifice (against our wills) being thus performed, our General, with his company, in the presence of those strangers, fell to prayers; and by signs in lifting up our eyes and hands to heaven, signified unto them that that God whom we did serve, and whom they ought to worship, was above.” Drake’s men eventually calmed the overwrought Miwok with prayer and psalms and by reading aloud chapters of the Bible, during which the Miwok “sat very attentively: and observing the end at every pause, with one voice still cried, ‘Oh, greatly rejoicing in our exercises.’ Yea, they took such pleasure in our singing of psalms, that whenever they resorted to us, their first request was commonly this.” 
 
This display of piety and self-mutilation presented Drake with a dilemma. These people might deify him one day, but they might destroy him the next. 
 
Word of the visitors bearing gifts and prayers spread, attracting the “king himself, a man of a goodly stature, and comely personage, and with many other tall and warlike men.” He wore a crown of feathers and necklaces fashioned of small bones. His followers hailed him with a title that the English took to mean king or leader. A glance at this spectacle was enough to set Drake to dreaming of an empire comprising both English and indigenous peoples, pointedly excluding the Spanish.
 
The Miwok chattered for half an hour, but their English visitors could not comprehend a word. It emerged that the populace wanted an offering from Drake to give to their king. When the gift had been conveyed, the king himself “marched to us with a princely majesty, the people crying continually after their manner; and as they drew near unto us, so did they strive to behave themselves in their actions with comeliness.
 
In the forefront was a man of goodly personage, who bare the sceptre or mace before the king; whereupon hanged two crowns, a less and a bigger, with three chains of a marvellous length. After these dignitaries came ten or a dozen people, and eventually the king himself wearing skins. He was followed by the naked common sort of people, every one having his face painted, some with white, some with black, and other colours, and having in their hands one thing or another for a present.” It was quite a procession, but there was more. 
 
The ordinary Indians mingled with the English visitors, weeping and tearing “their flesh from their faces with their nails” until copious amounts of blood flowed. The dancing and singing continued as women joined men, bearing bowls filled with drink, “their bodies bruised, their faces torn, their dugs, breasts, and other parts bespotted with blood, trickling down from the wounds, which with their nails they had made before their coming,” Fletcher noted. Drake’s men frantically encouraged them to look to the sky and pray to God, as they ministered to the Indians’ self-inflicted wounds with lotions and ointment. 
 
After they had tired themselves out, the Indians signaled that Drake should sit with them. They wanted the brave adventurer to become their “king and patron” and rule over them. After they surrendered “their right and title in the whole land,” Fletcher wrote, they would become his “vassals.” To persuade Drake, they resumed singing, a joyful melody this time, and reverently placed a crown on his head, “enriched his neck with all their chains, and offering unto him many things, honored him by the name of Hioh.” To their way of thinking, “the great and chief god was now become their god, their king and patron, and themselves were become the only happy and blessed people in the world.” 
 
Drake thought it best to respect their wishes, partly because he and his men were dependent on them for essentials, and partly because “he knew not what good end God had brought this to pass, or what honor or profit it might bring to our country in time to come.” He took the “sceptre, crown, and dignity of the said country into his hand” and spoke of transferring it to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. The Indians circulated among the English visitors again, trying to acquaint themselves as individuals this time, “finding such as pleased their fancies,” which meant the youngest among them.
 
The Miwok women circled the young sailors and cabin boys and offered them sacrifices, all the while “crying out with lamentable shrieks and moans, weeping and scratching and tearing their very flesh out of their face with their nails.” Making the spectacle even more shocking, elderly Miwok men, “roaring and crying out,” joined the women, and despite their age, proved as violent. The sight was deeply disturbing to the English. The more experienced sailors, standing outside the circle, “groaned in spirit to see the power of Satan so far prevail in seducing these so harmless souls.” They attempted to display their disapproval, and when that failed to work, they grasped the Indians’ hands and violently shoved them upward “to the living God whom they ought to serve,” but the Indians broke free of the English and resumed their violent worship. 
 
When the Indians had “a little qualified their madness,” they displayed their infirmities to the English — “old aches” and “shrunk sinews,” sores and ulcers, and recent wounds—as they were “craving help and cure thereof from us.” They had only to blow on or touch the Indians’ wounds to cure their suffering and make them whole. Fletcher implied that the Indians’ afflictions were no less spiritual than physical. Curing one would ameliorate the other. “We could not but take pity on them,” he said, yet they needed to make the Indians understand that Drake and his men “were but men and no gods,” and as men, they had no magic, only ordinary means at their disposal such as lotions and plasters. It proved enough for the Miwok. 
 
Once this healing bond had formed, the English sailors found there was no ridding themselves of the Coast Miwok, who spent days on end in the English visitors’ shelter, bringing offerings that met with increasing indifference as time passed, “whereupon their zeal abated.” Even after the contributions ceased, the Indians persisted in crowding into the English camp, often neglecting to bring food for themselves. Drake, whom they treated as a father figure, provided them with mussels and seals, which only encouraged them to overstay their welcome. 
 
Despite these misunderstandings, Fletcher and his compatriots saw potential in their naive, energetic hosts: “They are a people of a tractable, free, and loving nature, without guile or treachery; their bows and arrows (their only weapons, and almost all their wealth) they use very skillfully, but yet not to do any great harm with them, being by reason of their weakness more fit for children than for men, sending the arrows neither far off nor with any great force.”
 
When Drake and his men had settled in, they traveled inland to inspect the Indians’ dwellings. They observed a hun’ge, a large round structure that served as the setting for a variety of social gatherings and ceremonial events to mourn the dead or to commemorate significant occasions with dance and music. The Miwok homes varied between eight and fifteen feet in diameter. They were made of cedar poles; a hole at the top let smoke escape. Drake’s crew might also have seen a large playing field called a poscoi a we’a used for a game similar to soccer, played by both men and women. (In the Miwok version, men could only kick the ball, but women could handle it however they chose.) 
 
Farther inland, Drake’s men were agreeably surprised by the change in terrain. The rocky shore gave way to a fertile forest teeming with “very large, fat deer.” There were ubiquitous small “conies” with extremely long tails, feet like the paws of a mole, and bags dangling from either side of their little chins, in which they stored meat to ingest themselves or to feed their young. The English considered them a type of rabbit. In fact, they were the rotund California beaver, Castor canadensis. The Indians consumed the animal’s entire body, and valued their skin highly, “for their king’s holiday coat was made of them.” Later, their fur would become much sought after for warm, luxurious clothing, and the beaver, once ubiquitous in the Northwest, would be nearly wiped out by the demand. 
 
In all, the land was so fair, the inhabitants so well-disposed and peaceful, that Drake named the country New Albion, using the ancient term for England, partly in recognition of the white cliffs overlooking the sea (the cliffs reminded him of the coast of England), and partly from a growing conviction that the land was free of Spanish taint. “The Spaniards never . . . so much as set a foot in this country,” Fletcher noted with satisfaction. They remained “many degrees southward of this place.” (The English, of course, had landed here by accident and would have preferred to be navigating the mythical Northwest Passage.) 
 
To commemorate the discovery of “New Albion,” Drake set up “a plate of brass, fast nailed to a great and firm post.” This was more than a mere marker. It was a “monument” proclaiming “Her Majesty’s and successors’ right and title to that kingdom.” The plate contained the queen’s name, the date their ship arrived, and most crucially, “the free giving up of the province and kingdom, both by the king and the people, into Her Majesty’s hands.” The plate also included “Her Highness’s picture and arms,” a piece of sixpence affixed to the plate, and under it all, the name of their general, Francis Drake. 
 
“The Spaniards hitherto had never been in this part of the country,” Francis Pretty recorded with satisfaction. “Neither did ever discover the land by many degrees to the southwards of this place.” England finally had the beginnings of an empire after years of deference to Spain. Drake was still a pirate, but he was becoming much more, a marauder with a mission, a vision. For the sailors who had come so far and risked so much, New Albion served as a charter for the future of their kingdom. 
 
When it became apparent to the Miwok people that Drake and his company were preparing to leave, Fletcher observed, their “mirth, joy, glad countenance, pleasant speeches, agility of body, familiar rejoicing with one another, and all pleasure whatever flesh and blood might be delighted in” were replaced with “heavy hearts and grieved minds . . . woeful complaints and moans, with bitter tears and wringing of hands, tormenting themselves.” The Coast Miwok, as Drake had learned by now, were nothing if not histrionic. 
 
The men now considered themselves forlorn “castaways” whom the “gods were about to forsake.” But Drake indicated he was resolved to move on. In desperation, the Miwok tried to secure a promise that the English would return. To symbolize this wish, “they stole upon us a sacrifice, and set it on fire ’ere we were aware, burning therein a chain of feathers.” Not knowing what else to do, the sailors all fell to their knees and started singing psalms and praying, a gesture that convinced the Indians to suspend their sacrifice, “suffering the fire to go out.” Then they imitated their visitors as they “fell a-lifting of their eyes and hands to heaven, as they saw us do.” Together, they prayed to their separate gods. 
 
On July 23, Golden Hind spread sail, caught a fresh breeze, and glided out of the harbor, ending the five-week idyll in San Francisco Bay. The Miwok, bereft, ran to the hilltops so they could watch the Englishmen in their ship for as long as possible before they disappeared into the haze. (The separation might not have been complete. It appears that Drake took several Miwok with him to present to the queen.)
 
The following day, Golden Hind, with about sixty men, arrived at what is now called the Farallon Islands — the name comes from the Spanish farrallón or “sea cliff”—about thirty miles off the coast of San Francisco. It would be a stretch to call them islands; they are volcanic sea stacks, jagged rock outcroppings surrounded by shoals. At the time Drake visited, even the Indians avoided them, calling them the Islands of the Dead in the belief that only spirits of the departed dwelled there. 
 
Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo was said to have skirted these islands in 1542 when he explored the coast of Northern California, but Drake was the first navigator to land there. On arrival, he began provisioning for the voyage ahead with the seals and birds his men found. 

The next day, they headed west into the never-ending Pacific. Drake still had Antonio Pigafetta’s crude but relatively accurate account of Magellan’s voyage with him, and it warned of the heat, thirst, scurvy, and disorientation they had endured for ninety-eight days before they made their first landfall. Benefiting from Magellan’s mistakes, and commanding a superior vessel, Drake covered a similar route in just sixty-eight days, with little recorded harm to his crew.

(C) Laurence Bergreen

Laurence Bergreen is an award-winning biographer, historian, and chronicler of exploration. His books have been translated into more than 25 languages.  For more, see www.LaurenceBergreen.com.

1

 

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate