Brief Sampling of Evidence: Flora and Fauna Evidence

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Elk at Point Reyes

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A pocket gopher—Drake’s strange kind of conie—with the especially pronounced cheek pouches on either side of his chin, a bagge, into which he gathereth his meate as described in The World Encompassed.

The flora and fauna descriptions given of New Albion are mostly indistinct and counterparts can be found in a wide ranging area on the west coast. Standing alone, they are not particularly useful in determining Drake’s landing. However, they must be identifiable and present to confirm Drake’s New Albion.

There are a dozen period document geographical descriptions that correlate and determine the Point Reyes area:

  • An infinite company of very large and fat deer.
  • A strange kind of conie.
  • Muscles, seals and such like.
  • Birds and fowles.
  • Fish described as being like a pilchard.
  • Fish taken near shore.
  • Trees without leaves.
  • Stocks of wood.
  • Pricking bushes.
  • Bulrushes and rushes.
  • A certain fine down.
  • A root called Petáh.

Large and fat deere and the strange kind of conie:

All contemporary accounts provided descriptions relating to plants and animals which are in accord with those at Point Reyes. Two animals are particularly mentioned in The World Encompassed: very large and fat Deere and multitudes of a strange kinde of Conies. Both of these animals were unfamiliar to the English. Because the conie is described as strange, it must have been especially unfamiliar to the Englishmen. The large and fate deere were elk and the conies were pocket gophers, Thomoys bottae bottae. Both of these animals are still abundant at Point Reyes.

An exhaustive Guild research by project Robert Allen and Robert Parkinson—summarized and reported in a 49 page document published by the Guild—determined the conies are pocket gophers. The research, which included extensive field work, is the most detailed study made regarding the matter of the conies. Dr. Robert T. Orr, Curator of Birds and Mammals at the California Academy of Sciences reviewed and assisted with the manuscript. Allen and Parkison’s work is impressive even to the extent that it is recognized for its fine quality in Great Explorers: The European Discovery of America, written by Pulitzer Prize winning historian Admiral Samuel Morison.

Allen and Parkinson also relied on four period documents: The famous voyage of Sir Francis Drake in the South Sea, and there hence about the whole Globe of Earth, begun in the yeare of our Lord 1577 by Richard Hakluyt, The World Encompassed generally regarded as authored by Francis Fletcher, Annales Rervm Anglicarvm et Hibernicarvm, regnante Elizabetha, ad annvm Salvtis M.D. LXXXIX by William Camden, and Carta Particolare, No. XXXIII by Francis Drake’s friend Robert Dudley.

Briefly, the pocket gopher is in thorough accord with the description given by the author of The World Encompassed. This description includes several details: they were strange to the Englishmen, there was a multitude of them, they were but small, had a tayle like a rat, had feet like the paws of a moale, under his chin and on either side, he hath a bagge, into which he gathereth his meate, when he hath filled his belly abroade, and lives in a burrough. The quantity of these animals was tremendous, so much so that The World Encompassed tells us that the Conies were so prevalent that they outnumbered the Deere which were estimated to number in thousands. Gopher holes still pockmark the area today.

Similar, detailed descriptors of the seemingly unusual animal are found in Haklut’s, The Famous Voyage and de Bry’ Americai, achter Teil. All of these descriptors uniquely fit the pocket gopher.

Other animals have been proposed as the conie but without satisfaction and so ultimately rejected. The squirrel, an animal prevalent in the area, was one animal considered and studied by Allen and Parkinson. It stood out as definitely not Drake’s conie for physical, anatomical reasons. Additionally, squirrels were known in England, certainly not something that was strange.

Only the pocket gopher can be accurately ascribed to the period document’s descriptions, and it is an animal that is still plentiful at Point Reyes.

Muscles, seales, and such like:

The World Encompassed mentions such victuals as we had prouided for our selues, as Muscles, Seales, and such like, . . . . The mention of muscles is to be expected as a variety of shellfish abound in Drakes Estero and the neighboring Limantour Estero. The amount of shells found in the Coast Miwok middens attest to their consumption. Muscles would have been easily available for the Golden Hind’s crew. Additionally available were seals. Today, harbor seals can be found in a couple of hundred or more in the Estero. Bone fragments of seals are also indicative of Coast Miwok use as they are also found in middens.

Birds and fowles:

The poore birds and foules not daring (as we had great experience to obserue it), not daring so much as once to arise from their nests after the first egge layed, till it with all the rest, be hatched and brought to some strength of nature, able to helpe itselfe.

Because this description of the birds resides as part of the commentary of the cold, unpleasant nature of Drakes Bay, it is likely they inhabited the area near the shore. Nevertheless, positive identification is difficult. One bird may be the California Valley quail whose hen will not leave the nest until an intruder or predator is quite close. This fowl’s commonality in the area would have made it frequently seen by the crew.

Other possibilities include seabirds such as the Brant cormorant and the California murre. The large birds would have rookeries easily accessible near where the point meets the ocean. Foraging crews could have gathered significant amounts of eggs. The murr’s egg was heavily marketed in San Francisco during its early days.

Fish like a pilchard:

Fletcher described women coming from the inland and visiting Drake’s camp on June 26. Among the items the brought were baskets containing what he described as broiled fishes, like a pilchard. In Britain, a sardine is called a pilchard. What Fletcher saw were likely herring taken from nearby Tomales Bay. They are still caught in large numbers there today. A pilchard resembles the herring and attains a length of eight to ten inches. It is also possible that the fish were a smelt, another fish in the area.

Fish taken near shore:

One other account of fish is recorded in The World Encompassed. An unusual method of fishing was recorded; unfortunately, the precise method of catching a fish is not described, but the Englishmen’s high regard is clear.

One thing we obserued in them with admiration, that if at any time they chanced to see a fish so neere the shoare that they might reach the place without swimming, they would neuer, or very seldome, misse to take it.

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This scale illustration is of the head portion of a type of gaff once used by California indigenous peoples.

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California skates and leopard sharks fish are common in shallow California coastal waters. Their remains have been found in Coast Miwok middens.

That statement is made in context with the physical strength and agility of the Indians, and since no fishing implement is indicated, such as a net or spear, it can be appropriate to consider that that the fish might have been caught with bare hands. This is certainly a remarkable trait Drake’s crew would find worth recording, and it is known that bare hand fishing by diving or plunging into streams was a sport practiced by some of the California indigenous peoples.

Another method is also plausible: taking fish with a gaff which was common throughout many parts of California. The gaff was a new experience for the Englishmen, and it too would have been worthy of note. This long, slender pole had sharp prongs on the end. Additionally, some poles were equipped with a toggle head operated by a stout cord. These would firmly secure even a moderately large fish.

While details lack in The World Encompassed as to exactly how the Coast Miwok did land fish, we know—from both The World Encompassed and archaeological finds—that they did, and we know the Estero is ideal for either of these methods. Shallow sandbanks make for stalking and wading to hunt. The clear water makes it easy to see fish, including the California skate (Raja inornata), sometimes referred to as a ray, and leopard shark (Triakis semifasciata) that feed on shellfish in the shallows. Having rough skins, they are easy to grip, and they would also be easy to gaff. Besides this, both skate and shark remains have been found in Coast Miwok middens.

This video, taken at Drakes Estero, shows how thickly the sharks can swarm.

This video, taken at Drakes Head, shows a skate and shark in the shallow waters.

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This 2019 photo of a 20th century burn shows trees without leaves.

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Down of the Rafinesquia californica.

Trees without leaves:

Fletcher wrote of trees without leaues when describing the inhospitable nature of the area near the camp. The Blue Blossom (Caenothus thyrsiflourus) is a very large shrub that grows into the size and shape of a small tree. With its short lifespan, it dies and leaves an austere, even haunting form of barren trunk and branches. Another possible explanation for trees without leaves is that the crew saw large areas which were burned by forest fires. Burn scars from large scale forest fires could have been unusual and notable to the crew.

Stocks of wood:

Fletcher recorded the alarmingly harsh form of self-injury, a kind of ritual torment which the Coast Miwok people performed on themselves when nearing Drake’s camp. In addition to deeply scratching themselves with their fingernails, he wrote that they dashed themselues in this manner on hard stones, knobby hillocks, stocks of wood, and prickling bushes . . . .

These stocks of wood and pricking bushes must be immediate to the specific area and precise site of Drake’s camp. The stock denotes a bare, standing stem of a tree or stout bush—in this case rather low and not much more than waist high. Bushes such as this are still common near Drake’s Cove: dead stocks of Blue Blossom and Coyote Bush.

While the California Wild Rose and Gooseberry are certainly pricking bushes and present at Point Reyes, they are not so common and usually in thickets. The Salmon-berry is the likely plant Fletcher saw. It is abundant at Drake’s Cove and the Estero. As a member of the rose family, it easily renders scratching and even lancing injuries.

Bulrushes and rushes:

Bulrushes are mentioned as an article of women’s clothing in both The Famous Voyage and The World Encompassed. The cat-tail (Typha latifolia)—known as a bulrush in England—is commonly found in the marshes and lagoons around Drakes Bay. Accounts of rushes also appear as being strewn over the Coast Miwok house floors as a floor covering and also as use for a bed covering. Coast Miwok canoes were made of rushes, a reed like plant which would correspond to the tule. Of the six varieties growing in the area, the most common is the Scirpus paludosus.

It is quite plausible that Drake had his men use torches of cat-tail or tule to do what is called bream: burn off marine growth on the bottom of the Golden Hind. It may be in part to this, as well as the tremendous loads of firewood the crew used, that Fletcher made this reference in The World Encompassed. He stated that the Coast Miwok had a remarkable strength

that which 2 or 3 of our men could hardly beare, one of them would take vpon his backe, and without grudging carrie it easily away, vp hill and downe hill an English mile together.

A certain fine down:

Fletcher recorded a remarkably detailed passage about a fine down which grew on an herb similar to the English lettuce. It was laid on net caps of the Indian king’s guards.

. . . some hauing cawles likewise stucke with feathers or couered ouer with a certain downe, which growth vp in the country vpon an herbe much like our lectuce, which exceeds any other downe in the world for finenesse, and being layed vpon their cawles, by no winds can be remoued. Of such estimation is this herbe amongst them, that the downe thereof is not lawfull to be worne, but of such persons as are about the king (to whom also it is permitted to weare a plume of feathers on their heads, in signe of honour), and the seeds are not vsed but onely in sacrifice to their gods.

This down did not come from the area at Drakes Bay as it was said to grow vp in the country. We know this seeded plant with extraordinarily fine down looked much like our lectuce. This fits exceedingly well with Rafinesquia californica. Like the wild Prickly Lettuce native to England (Lactuca serriola or Lactuca virosa), this plant has the same tall, slender stems, white milky sap, and leaves. It is found across the Inverness Ridge—up in the country—in the Olema Valley.

Rafinesquia californica produces a very fine and soft pappi (fine hairs or bristles found in plants like dandelions and thistles), but a pappus has a trait not shared by the English wild lettuce. This trait is important in consideration that no wind could remove it from the Coast Miwok cawles (close fitting caps often fitted over a hair bun). That is because the structure of the pappus is such that they interlock with one another. The Rafinesquia californica pappi have a very tenacious holding power and would have worked very well on the net cawles worn by the Coast Miwok. Under such circumstances, they are not at all easily removed by the wind.

A root called Petáh:

Fletcher described a root in The World Encompassed. It was brought by the Coast Miwok women. He said it was a roote the call Petáh, whereof they made a kinde of meale and either bake it into bread, or eate it raw. The plant is easily identifiable as it is a common native plant of the Point Reyes area and well into the interior country. It is known by several common names: Squaw Potato, Bread-root, Indian Potato, and Yampa. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the Range Plant Handbook, describes uses similar to those described by Fletcher. It is boiled or prepared with other vegetables, eaten raw, or ground into flour and baked. The plant grows on the Olema Valley and on the hills near Drakes Bay and Drakes Estero.

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