Drakes Bay on way to National Historic Landmark status

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Exactly where Sir Francis Drake sought refuge from a storm on the West Coast 441 years ago has been a matter of study and often colorful debate for six decades, a debate that is about to be settled.

Professional and amateur archaeologists and historians since before World War II have promoted a number of different spots, from Drakes Bay at the Point Reyes Seashore to Campbell Cove in Bodega Bay and even places along the Oregon coast.

The debate even spurred a highly publicized hoax by members of E Clampus Vitus, a Gold Rush-era historical fraternity, who in 1936 fashioned an authentic-looking brass plate purportedly left by Drake that ended up enshrined in UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library.

Now, the federal government is about to put its official imprimatur on Drakes Bay in the Point Reyes National Seashore as the likely spot by granting it National Historic Landmark status.

“It is a significant step, It is the final step,” said John Dell'Osso, chief of interpretation and resource education at Point Reyes National Seashore.

The nomination was approved in November by the National Park Service's landmarks commission, a panel of scientists and archaeologists that gives all nominations a grueling and exacting review. It subsequently was endorsed by a parks service advisory committee.

Landmark status now awaits just one more step, the signature of Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

“They give it another look. They are looking to see if there are any flaws,” said Ed Von der Porten of San Francisco, a maritime archaeologist and historian.

In 1579 Drake, an English explorer and pirate, landed on the California coast after 63 days at sea looking for the Northwest Passage, badly in need of provisions and seeking shelter to repair the Golden Hind.

It was a hazardous undertaking that required calm water, a sandy beach and a place to build a fort for protection against Indians and passing Spanish ships.

The foundation for Drakes Bay as the landing site are Von der Porten's research tracing back to Drake some porcelain shards found at Point Reyes.

The landmarks status also would include Drakes Bay as the site of the shipwreck of the San Agustin, a Manila galleon that sank in 1595 with a cargo of 170 tons of silk, wax and Ming dynasty porcelain. It was the earliest known shipwreck on the West Coast.

Landmark status, however, may not end the debate.

“I think there will always probably be some level of uncertainty, but all that we know is encompassed in the nomination,” said Gordon White, Point Reyes chief of cultural resources.

Author and researcher Brian Kelleher of Cupertino said he still believes that Drake landed at Campbell Cove in Bodega Bay, which he promoted in his 1997 book, “Drake's Bay,” based on his interpretations of historical records and what may be a stone wall below the surface.

Kelleher is also writing a book that challenges where national park archaeologists believe the San Agustin is buried under Drakes Bay. He contends that magnetic north has migrated since the ship's navigator took bearings and the wreckage is under the sand at the water's edge.

“I believe the ship went aground on its side and did not bounce off shore and then sink in deeper water,” Kelleher said. “If I am right, most of the wreckage should still be there intact, unless there has been a tsunami in the last 400 years.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or

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