Could Sir Francis Drake have discovered San Francisco Bay 190 years before history books say Gaspar de Portolá did? Amateur historian Duane Van Dieman has evidence—"a discovery," he calls it—that he says may upend the accepted wisdom about Drake's circumnavigation of the globe more than 400 years ago.
The location of Drake's fateful landfall in 1579 has been debated for nearly years. The commonly accepted site is Drakes Estero in the Point Reyes National Seashore. The location was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 2012 as the "most likely" site of Drake's California landing. But Van Dieman never bought the Drakes Estero location and spent 10 years researching other sites.
"Someone has got to find this," he said as he began his quest in 2001. "Why not me?"
He said he stumbled on the location a decade ago after he had given up his search, but he kept it a secret as he tried to prove and disprove his theory. But now he's ready to go public. Van Dieman believes Drake landed in a tidy cove just east of Highway 101 in Mill Valley, making him the first European to enter San Francisco Bay.
The jury is still out but, this much we know for sure. In 1579, Capt. Francis Drake, sometimes referred to as "the Queen's pirate," led his crew of the Golden Hind northwest from South America in search of a way back home to England. The ship was laden with 40 tons of silver and assorted booty, including 26 tons of silver stolen from a Spanish galleon nicknamed Cacafuego (a derogatory term that meant "braggart" or, literally, "fireshitter") off the coast of Peru. Drake was apparently a polite pirate. After looting the ship, he invited the officers and first-class passengers on the Spanish ship to dinner and sent them off with parting gifts befitting their rank and notice of safe passage.
Drake was eager to present his treasure to Queen Elizabeth I and receive the fame and fortune that surely awaited him. Having rounded the tip of South America through the Straights of Magellan on his way up the coast of the Americas, Drake was hoping to find the fabled Northwest Passage through Canada and back to the Atlantic Ocean. That was not to be.
Drake reportedly got as far north as British Colombia before deciding to turn around in icy weather, with a leaking hull to boot. He needed to find a safe harbor to make repairs for his return voyage. He would go on to be the first captain to circumnavigate the globe and return home. (Ferdinand Magellan was the first to circle the earth, but he never made it home; some of his crew did).
But first Drake had to fix his ship.
The coast of what is now Canada, Washington, Oregon and Northern California proved too rocky and dangerous to drop anchor. But according to an account compiled by Drake's nephew in 1628, as the captain and company sailed south, they "fell with a convenient and fit harbor and June 17 came to anchor there."
But where exactly Drake landed and spent the next five weeks is one of the world's great riddles. Original maps and logs from Drake's voyage burned in the Palace of Whitehall in 1698. A map of the Marin County coast reveals the accepted wisdom in the place names Drakes Bay, Drakes Estero and Drakes Cove. The Drake Navigators Guild, a private research organization founded in 1949, spent years studying the Drakes Estero site and was instrumental in securing federal recognition of the site as a national landmark.
In a 2012 story in the Press Democrat following the dedication of the site by the U.S. Department of the Interior, the late Edward Von der Porten, maritime archeologist, historian and president of the Drake Navigators Guild at the time, said the official recognition ended the debate. "Were there any scholarly debate, this would not have happened," he was quoted as saying.
Mike Von der Porten, vice president of the guild and Edward Von der Porten's son, says there are some 50 data points that indicate the mouth of Drakes Estero was where the privateer found safe harbor and peacefully interacted with the native Miwok Indians, making the expedition the first time English was spoken in what would become the United States.
"It all comes together," says Mike Von der Porten.
He argues Drake could not have found San Francisco Bay because it was too foggy to see, and if he had, he would have explored it and told the world about it. He scoffed at Van Dieman's theory.
Case closed? Not by a long shot.
In addition to the National Park Service's hedge that Drakes Estero is "the most likely site" of the landing, the Press Democrat article quotes a National Parks spokesperson who says the designation "should not be interpreted as providing a definitive resolution of the discussion." (Mike Von der Porten says the spokesperson "wasn't the most knowledgeable" and his quotes "continue to haunt us.")
The Wikipedia entry for Nova Albion, the term that Drake gave to the region that means "New Britain," lists 20 different "fringe theories" that locate Drake's fateful landfall at different spots in San Francisco Bay, Bodega Bay and as far north as British Columbia. Some seem easily dismissed.