Brief Sampling of Evidence: Fully Feathered Baskets

California Indian basketry, one of the world’s great textile traditions, does much more than resonate artists’ masterful technique and creativity—these masterpieces are also voices penetrating deeply into cultural traditions and history.

Of great significance to locating Francis Drake’s 1579 New Albion site are the fully feathered baskets described in The World Encompassed, the most comprehensive account of Drake’s circumnavigating journey. These renowned baskets were beautifully and uniquely fabricated by only a limited number of people groups in Northern California including the Coast Miwok who resided precisely where Drake landed. They, along with other tribes who reside in Northern California, have long designed and made baskets that have earned worldwide recognition, honor, and respect for their fine work and beauty. For generations, both women and men have created baskets of superlative technical and aesthetic distinction, especially these fully feathered baskets. Fully feathered baskets have been a key to locating Drake’s 1579 New Albion claim.

Card image cap

This is one of William Benson’s fully feathered baskets—shown in the inverted position—curated by the Smithsonian Institution.

Card image cap

Basket curated at Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park. This worn basket is from a private individual donation, tribal origin unknown.

Card image cap

This Pomo basket is curated at the Marion Steinbach Museum. The dimensions show the relatively moderate size of the basket. A moderate size is typical of fully feathered baskets. The tight weave is evident in this view.

Critically, fully feathered baskets are a specific indicator of the region—a narrow range—in which Drake landed. The coastal shores of this narrow range stretch from the Golden Gate to the area near the Russian River, and the location of these artifacts preclude all other sites outside of this locale—these baskets had no counterpart outside of the few California tribes who made them and were not made anywhere in the world except this limited Northern California region.

What is not so obvious when studying these baskets as artifacts is the spirit in which they were created and exist. That spirit includes a process of teaching, learning, and promulgating a precious craft. This basket making craft is a community tradition that the native California Indian people have done for generations—and still do today—that is an expression of their identity.

The cultural tradition of basket making is one that requires a long apprenticeship to achieve proficiency. It takes a long time to master materials, techniques, and aesthetic designs. While baskets are studied as artifacts and appreciated as art pieces, many were tools—functional and utilitarian. Others fulfilled economic or social obligations.

While there were some twentieth century exceptions, men generally made openwork baskets. These were mostly functional baskets such as one which might be used as a trap. Women were specialists in the coiled and the intricately designed twined types of baskets. Several factors determine how much time it takes to complete a basket including size, stitching fineness, chosen technique, and material preparation. For example, a watertight cooking basket can take months to craft while an openwork woodpecker trap can be fashioned in less than an hour.

In the late 1880’s, daily basket use declined while simultaneously becoming one of the most coveted art forms in America. Individual basket makers responded and a thriving commercial market developed for these baskets. This initial market period persisted into the 1930’s. This opened a special opportunity for women to earn money during a time when occupational choices for them were rather limited. It also increased the demand for finely worked baskets while decreasing the demand for those which were functional, utilitarian.

This also resulted in fewer men making baskets. However, some men like William Benson, who with his wife Mary Benson, saw and were motivated by the commercial opportunities and developed the skills necessary to produce fine examples of all basket types which had been traditionally made by women. William was a Pomo elder and historian who excelled at all aspects of his cultural art and partnered in the art with Mary who was the daughter of Pomo master basket weaver Sarah Knight. Mary was especially known for excelling in the full range of basket techniques, and both Benson’s are immensely and widely respected for their traditional basketry. Among the museums in which the Bensons’ work is curated are the Smithsonian Institution and the National Museum of the American Indian. These are just a few of the people who perpetuated traditional California Indian baskets by making them for a commercial market that thirsted for authentic, traditional baskets.

Card image cap

This basket is almost exactly as the one described in The World Encompassed. It is curated in the Marion Steinbach Museum and is of Pomo origin.

Among the people most active in preserving the traditional basketry culture from this California region near Drake’s landing, were Annie Burke and Elsie Allen. In the mid-twentieth century, Annie Burke defied the tradition of burying all of a deceased woman’s baskets with her. Annie instructed her daughter, Elsie Allen, to preserve them when she died. Elsie did so and then began years of supplementing it with her own baskets and the many works of others. Because of this, many of the existing curated fully feathered baskets are due to their early efforts.

These fully feathered baskets are of particular and significant interest to those who study Francis Drake’s 1579 New Albion claim. The famed baskets are beautifully colored with a striking mat of feathers which are sometimes even iridescent. Along with the Coast Miwok with whom Drake interacted, only four other people groups—all who resided in Northern California—made these baskets: Pomo, Lake Miwok, Wappo, and Patwin. These groups all lived in an area concentrated near where Drake careened his ship. The coastal shores of this area—inhabited only by the Coast Miwok and Pomo—range roughly from the Golden Gate north to Fort Bragg, California. This one item compels historians to identify a specific length of North American coast to refine their search for Drake’s anchorage. They must concentrate their efforts within that narrow area.

This is because the earliest written account of California Indian baskets, including the fully feathered baskets, were recorded by Francis Fletcher, Drake’s chaplain. His description appears in the period publication of Drake’s voyage, The World Encompassed.

Their baskets were made in fashion like a deep boale, and though the matter were rushes, or such other kind of stuffe, yet was so cunningly handled, that the most part of them could hold water : about the brimmes they were hanged with peeces of the shels of pearles, and in some places with two or three linkes at a place, of the chaines forenamed : thereby signifying that they were vessels wholly dedicated to the onely vse of the gods they worshipped ; and besides this, they were wrought vpon with the matted downe of red feathers, distinguished into diuers works and formes.

The last part of the paragraph is of particular importance: they were wrought upon with the matted down of red feathers, distinguished into diverse works and forms (modern spelling used). Baskets with predominately red feathers, such as Fletcher’s description wrought upon with the matted down of red feathers, are often referred to as sun baskets.

Sometimes, adornments would be added to these baskets. Traditionally, these decorative materials included clamshell disk beads, magnesite beads, and (well after Drake) glass trade beads. Non-native basket collectors will often label those fully feathered baskets—those also adorned with shells and beads—as jewel baskets. In addition to shells—such as white clamshell beads which were a form of currency—the precious mineral magnesite might be also used. It is often referred to as Pomo gold. Such baskets, like jewels, shine with beauty and were a treasured form of wealth. These types additional adornments are clearly described in The World Encompassed :

About the brims they were hanged with pieces of the shells of pearls, and in some places with two or three links at a place, of the chains forenamed : (modern spelling used).

Before these decorative materials were added, the feathers were woven into the fabric of the basket. To smooth them into a mat, various techniques were employed. The feathers used included quail topknots (black), meadowlark breast feathers (yellow), mallard neck and head feathers (green), acorn woodpecker head feathers (red), and bluebird and jay breast feathers (blue). As twentieth century laws encroached to limit feather choice, basket makers incorporated other feathers such as those from a pheasant.

Card image cap

This Pomo fully feathered basket is curated at the Marion Steinbach Museum.

Card image cap

This Pomo basket is curated at the Jesse Peter Museum and displayed in the inverted position.

These baskets are rare. One reason for this is that these baskets were very personal and traditionally destroyed at the owner’s death. Additionally, the Coast Miwok were missionized by Franciscan priests from Spain which resulted in much of their traditional culture being destroyed. Fortunately, even though they are rare, the baskets from these peoples who made them are curated in museums across the globe and reside in private collections. And that this tradition has been passed to contemporary basket makers, we have key evidence helping to locate Francis Drake’s 1579 landing in California.

  • Abel-Vidor, Susan; Brovarney, Dot; Billy, Susan (1996). Remember Your Relations: The Elsie Allen Baskets, Family, and Friends. Berkeley, California: Heyday.
  • Bibby, Brian. Didactic Panels from "American Masterpieces: Artistic Legacy of California Indian Basketry," The California Museum (Sacramento) March 14, 2009-March 30, 2010.
  • Bibby, Brian (2012). Essential Art: Native Basketry from the California Indian Heritage Center. Berkeley, California: Heyday.
  • Drake, Sir Francis, (2005) 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, by W. S. W. Vauz, esp., M.A. Boston: Adamant Media Corporation.
  • Heizer, Robert (1947). Francis Drake And The California Indians, 1579. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.
  • Hudson, Travis; Bates, Craig (2015). Treasures from Native California: The Legacy of Russian Exploration. London and New York: Routledge.