Brief Sampling of Evidence: Ethnography of The Coast Miwok

In June 1579, Coast Miwok were the first indigenous people of California to make contact with Francis Drake, and this is a fact noted by both descendants of the original inhabitants and non-native peoples. Drake’s contact with the Coast Miwok people was an immensely friendly time in which the two groups of strangers viewed each other with deep interest and wonder. It was .lso a time of cultural misunderstandings and a time when the encroachment of the Coast Miwok land began.

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This Pomo fully feathered basket is extraordinarily similar to the Coast Miwok basket described in The World Encompassed. The Pomo were a neighboring tribe to the Coast Miwok and of similar culture in certain ways, including their baskets.

The English descriptions of the indigenous people they encountered at New Albion is so detailed that distinguished historians and ethnographers have firmly identified the Coast Miwok as those people Drake met. This identification is not only confirmed with the 38° latitude—the latitude of Drake’s landing which is recorded in period records similarly coincides with the Coast Miwok homeland—it is also confirmed by the detailed accuracy in which the period accounts describe the Coast Miwok people and culture. Francis Fletcher, the chaplain from Drake’s crew and generally accepted as the author of The World Encompassed, recorded and described the people’s actions, appearances, ceremonies, artifacts, and even words so well that the Coast Miwok are specified with confidence.

Artifacts described by the writer of The World Encompassed are in very close harmony with the Coast Miwok way of life. The basketry alone is explicitly telling in the manner it restricts Drake’s landing to a Northern California site. The especially rare, unique feathered baskets (information about them is found on another page in this section) that the records describe undoubtedly determine a narrow range along the California coast where Drake landed. The Coast Miwok are within that narrow range.

And while the basketry studies are indispensable when focusing a range, several other aspects of ethnographic study stipulate the singular, specific people—the Coast Miwok. Using a number of elements of Francis Fletcher’s description of the indigenous people Drake encountered, researchers established that Drake specifically met and interacted with the Coast Miwok. In fact, the whole of the ethnographic evidence is so strong and concordant it is virtually conclusive that Drake landed in Coast Miwok inhabited territory.

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This image is of Julia Parker who is of Coast Miwok and Pomo heritage. She is a master basket maker of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The Coast Miwok people lived in village communities which ranged from 75 to several hundred people and would have been located in a sheltered place with close access to fresh water and food sources. The Coast Miwok economy was mostly based on hunting, fishing, and gathering.

The World Encompassed recorded that one of their villages was only three-quarters of a mile away from Drake’s campsite. Archaeologists have found that location, a village site with sixteenth-century artifacts three quarters of a mile away from Drake’s Cove. And just as The World Encompassed recorded, it is within shouting distance. Shouts can be heard from that site all the way to the Cove.

Very significantly, no other native village archaeological site outside the Point Reyes area has yielded 16th century artifacts.

Shortly after Drake landed, the Coast Miwok visited the English encampment daily. On the memorable day when they crowned Drake, multitudes from numerous villages arrived. The descendants of the Coast Miwok acted strangely in the Englishmen’s eyes: they wailed, moaned, and deeply scratched themselves causing blood to flow. Drake’s crew acted to stop them; it pained the men to see the Coast Miwok hurt themselves in such a manner. They mistook this, and other of the Coast Miwok actions, as acts of worship. They believed the Coast Miwok regarded the crew as gods, a perspective that we now know was not held by the people toward Drake’s crew.

This self-wounding custom is recognized by both contemporary Coast Miwok descendants and ethnographers. In reality, the Coast Miwok regarded the Englishmen’s presence as the return of deceased ancestors. The act of self-laceration was actually a sign of mourning—a mistaken mourning directed at the crew as ghosts of ancestors returning to their home, a type of friendly spirit returning for a visit. To them, this made sense. It was a logical way to understand the mysterious English strangers, beings who were in every aspect utterly alien to the Coast Miwok.

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This Ray Aker map shows the likely route Drake took when visiting the Coast Miwok inland villages.

Importantly among all the ethnographic observations regarding this situation is that descendants of the Coast Miwok too ultimately recognize and affirm the matter. Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, described the Englishmen’s mistaken impressions in a 2016 interview in The Point Reyes Light.

So it’s very interesting that when the white people and Drake landed here, we thought the dead were returning. After all, they were pale-faced, they looked sickly, and when they came ashore they smelled terribly.

Sarris further explained that the ship came from “a place where we say the dead step off to go follow the moon—the line of the moon to the land of the dead when they die.” For two people groups who were absolutely unfamiliar with each other, these misunderstandings must be expected.

While the culture of the Coast Miwok and Pomo—who were directly north of the Coast Miwok—were extraordinarily similar in several ways, the linguistic clues are so distinct that they allow for researchers to distinguish and specify Drake’s contact with Coast Miwok. At the time of Drake’s arrival, the indigenous peoples of what is now California, spoke over five dozen distinctly different languages. To give context, this was more than was spoken in Europe at the same time.

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Kroeber and Ishi

Providing further context is the experience of Ishi and Alfred L. Kroeber. Kroeber was a famed cultural anthropologist who was active during the first half of the 21st century, and working out of the University of California, Berkeley, he made numerous valuable contributions to the field of linguistics and the university a center of linguistic study. The linguistic studies at UC Berkeley were extraordinarily extensive, precise, and reliable, so much so that that they were the key to unlocking the mystery about Ishi’s tribe. This experience attests to the surpassing trustworthiness of university scholars’ studies.

Ishi, was the last surviving member of the Yahi people when he wandered into Oroville, California, in 1911. Kroeber, dispatched his associate, T.T. Waterman to investigate his identity. Sitting in Ishi’s room, Waterman used a detailed list of tribal words he had with him, and after a long time of reciting words, Ishi indicated he recognized one. Waterman knew he had finally identified Ishi’s language. Continuing in Ishi’s language, they finally confirmed the matter with amazing precision, agreeing on the meaning of siwin’i. It means yellow pine, the material making the frame of Ishi’s cot. This precision is an apt witness to Kroeber’s and the University’s surpassing linguistics expertise and reliability.

This apt witness would also identify the Coast Miwok.

That aptitude, skill, and expertise was also applied to analyze the linguistics related to the 1579 landing of Francis Drake. Kroeber himself completed an ethnographical analysis including an inquiry of words recorded in The World Encompassed: Hioh, Patah, Tobah, and Gnaah. He summarized his findings:

The ethnologist thus can only conclude that Drake summered on some piece of the coast no many miles north of San Francisco, and probably in the lagoon to which his name now attaches. He is assured that the recent native culture in this stretch existed in substantially the same form more than 300 years ago, and he has tolerable reason to believe that the Indians with whom the great explorer mingled were direct ancestors of the Coast Miwok.

After Kroeber’s analysis was published in 1925, even more linguistic information was discovered in a diary kept by Richard Madox which was found in1923. Madox, a chaplain with Edward Fenton’s expedition sent out from England to implement Drake’s trade agreement in the Moluccas, recorded some details of New Albion and a few fragments of speech and song used by the native people Drake encountered in 1579. Madox either heard or was given the information by some of Drake’s former crew members who were with Fenton.

Confirmation of Kroeber’s decisive work would come a few years later. Noted anthropologist Robert Heizer followed up, not only on the earlier research of Kroeber, but also that of Drs. Samuel A. Barrett, and William Elmendorf. He conducted further linguistic study of the native words recorded in Madox’s diary and verified Kroeber’s findings that the words recorded by Drake’s crewman were conclusively Coast Miwok. Many of the words Madox described were conclusively Coast Miwok.

Various ethnographers and historians also analyzed the initial contact of the Englishmen and Coast Miwok people. They’ve examined the description of the canow (period English spelling of canoe) described in The World Encompassed. It states that a single man rowed a canow—canoe—most of the way to the Golden Hinde which was in the bay. A single man in a canoe is extraordinarily telling.

The next day, after our coming to anchor in the aforesaid harbour, the people of the country shewed themselues, sending off a man with great expedition to vs in a canow. Who being yeat a little from the shoare, and a great way from our ship, spake to vs continually as he came rowing on.

This video shows Coast Miwok making their traditional canoe, the same they used to greet Francis Drake.


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This Morro Bay Maritime Museum interpretive panel reveals how the Salinan people greeted Cabrillo much in the same manner as the Coast Miwok greeted Drake and the Golden Hind.


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This tule boat curated at the Morro Bay Maritime Museum is the type used by many of the 16th century coastal people in what is now California.

This is very significant as the Coast Miwok constructed small tule reed canoes which were well seaworthy enough to navigate Drake’s Bay. It is also important to know their canoes held only one person, just as Fletcher described and is noted in Heizer’s work. These reed canoes were worthy crafts, and have been so demonstrated. Guild member Bob Allen constructed a reed canoe using traditional techniques and tested it in the expansive San Francisco Bay when he rowed it across Raccoon Strait from Angel Island to the Tiburon Peninsula. Saltwater kayaks such as this were used by various tribes from the Coast Miwok in Northern California to those coastal people who lived hundreds of miles to the south.

The World Encompassed continued telling how the Coast Miwok man came a second and third time. Feeling perfectly safe, Drake offered him goodwill gifts, trying to entice him to row closer. When the man continued to show his anxiety and hesitation to come close, a hat was thrown to him as a gift. After accepting the goodwill gift from the third trip, the Englishmen attracted a thick crowd of curious visitors who rowed to them in these canoes. The account tells us that the visitors gazed upon the Englishmen with wonder and admiration:

Our Generall (Drake) intended to haue recompenced him immediately with many good things he would haue bestowed on him; but entering into the boate to dliuer the same, he could not be drawne to reciue them by any meanes, saue one hat, which being cast into the water out of the ship, he tooke vp (refusing vtterly to meddle with any other thing, though it were vpon a boared put off vnto him) and so presently made his returne. After which time our boate could row no way, but wondering at vs as at gods, they would follow the same with admiration.

Subsequently, Drake moved the Golden Hind, anchoring in the Estero and unloading the cargo. All the friendly, welcoming, and curiosity extended to the Englishmen from the Coast Miwok would continue and increase in the coming days.

Some years later, Sebastián Rodríguez Cermeño recorded a very similar account of this type of canoe in 1595 when he too was in Drake’s Bay. Even today, one may kayak safely in the area.

The single-man reed coastal-canoe was definitely not typical of the Pacific coast very much north of Drake’s Bay. Other indigenous peoples only as far as north so to still be in California plied the coastal waters in wooden dugout canoes which held several men. Often the European ships were met with assertive force and sometimes violence. This is distinctly different from The World Encompassed account in important ways. Bruno de Hezeta’s account of his approach to the open bay at Trinidad, California, records several wood canoes holding a numerous number of men who went and came to his ship without fear. Such wooden boats were used by the native peoples in the coastal regions well above what is now California.

Any such description of these type of wooden boats being used to greet Drake is directly and distinctly at odds with the information penned in the period account The World Encompassed.

Robert Heizer considered much other ethnographical evidence, including The World Encompassed descriptions of housing, ceremonies, basketry, and adornments. Heizer summarily stated, “From a comparative analysis of the detailed descriptions of the native ceremonies, artifacts, and language I concluded that in the fullest authentic account, The World Encompassed, it is the Coast Miwok Indians that are referred to.” In their 2012 book, California: An Interpretive History, James Rawls and James Bean write that the Coast Miwok have clearly been identified as those people with whom Drake interacted.

And these are only some of the many historians and archaeologists across the world who have held that same conclusion.

Quote Sources
  • Aker Raymond, (1976). Report Of Findings Relating To Identification Of Sir Francis Drake’s Encampment At Point Reyes National Seashore. Palo Alto: Drake Navigators Guild.
  • California Indians Language Groups, California Department of Parks and Recreation, retrieved 17 August 2018
  • Drake, F., Fletcher, F., & Vaux, W. S. W. (1854). The World encompassed by Sir Francis Drake: Being his next voyage to that to Nombre de Dios : collated with an unpublished manuscript of Francis Fletcher, chaplain to the expedition : with appendices illustrative of the same voyage, and introduction. London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society. Elibron Classics edition (2005).
  • Heizer, Robert (1947). Francis Drake And The California Indians, 1579. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.
  • Heizer, Robert; Elmendorf William, “Francis Drake’s California Anchorage in the Light of the Indian Language Spoken There,” Pacific Historical Review, XI (1942) pp. 213-217.
  • Kimmey, Samantha. “Differing Takes On A Historic Landmark,” Point Reyes Light, October 27, 2016.
  • Kroeber, Alfred (1925). Handbook of the Indians of California. New York: Dover Publications.
  • Rawls, James; Bean, Walton (2012). California: An Interpretive History. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
  • MPH Incorporated for The History Channel (1995), Ishi, The Last of His Kind. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYAUYMRTeYg&feature=youtu.be. Retrieved October 11, 2018