Edward von der Porten (October 29, 1933—April 9, 2018)
During his time as a researcher and scholar, Ed von der Porten was one of the most articulate, dedicated, and active maritime historians and archeologists in North America. He was a stickler for facts and used them to vigorously defended his opinions and judgments.
Born in New York City in 1933, Ed Von der Porten spent his younger years in New York before following his parents to San Francisco as a young adult. He graduated from San Francisco State College, earning a B.A in 1955 and a M.A. in 1965. He was an internationally recognized expert on Sir Francis Drake, Nova Albion (New Albion), Ming porcelains, the World War II German Navy, and early Manila galleon history.
Von der Porten was an extensively published maritime history author. Perhaps most notably, he wrote a comprehensive German naval history of the Second World War which was first published in 1969. A revised edition, one extensively illustrated with photographs, was published in 1976. Authoring the book’s forward, Grand Admiral Karl Döenitz wrote, “I hope this excellent book receives wide circulation.” Von der Porten also penned an article on the Hanseatic League which was published in 1994 by National Geographic, and he served as a consultant on nautical archaeology for the magazine. His book, Ghost Galleon, was published in 2019.
Von der Porten’s knowledge of maritime matters was such that he was often a speaker and consultant to historical, archaeological, and maritime associations and museums in the United States and abroad. He was director of the Treasure Island Museum on Treasure Island and responsible for interpretive exhibits on the National Historic Landmark, the Jeremiah O’Brien Liberty Ship, which is currently berthed in San Francisco.
While teaching archaeology at Santa Rosa Junior College, he also conducted field research in the Point Reyes area. When Von der Porten taught at the college, Native American middens at Point Reyes were being destroyed by bulldozing. Responding to the matter, Von der Porten established the archaeology department at Santa Rosa Junior College. Most recently, he did extensive research and field work and on a lonely Manila galleon wreck, the San Juanillo (originally thought to be the San Felipe) which lies on a remote beach and shallow surf zone in Baja.
Von der Porten was also a tireless researcher into the mysteries surrounding Drake’s Plate of Brass. He correctly maintained the Plate’s discovery was insufficient in and of itself. “Such a lone find is nearly meaningless in the nature of archaeological evidence,” he stated. The item’s authenticity was proven false in 1977. Along with other Guild members, Von der Porten investigated and documented the process and motives of the Plate’s forgery.
Von der Porten joined the Drake Navigators Guild in 1956 and soon became its vice-president. Upon the death of the Guild’s president, Ray Aker, he was elected to be the president, a position he held until his death in April 2018. Von der Porten took an active lead in the archaeology of the Point Reyes and along with Clarence Shangraw conducted definitive research attributing two 16th century cargoes of Ming porcelains. Von der Porten spearheaded the Guild efforts that resulted in the 2012 National Historic Landmark designation as the place where Drake careened the Golden Hind. While his expertise and academic reputations were numerous and strong, his expertise about Nova Albion was paramount.
Perhaps most importantly, he also quietly mentored and inspired others to carry on after him.
- Gough, Barry. Edward Von der Porten: A Tribute. Argonauta, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, Summer 2018
- Von der Porten, Edward (1976). Pictorial History of the German Navy in World War II. New York: Thomas Crowell Company.