Brief Sampling of Evidence: General Geographic Evidence

The accounts give few geographical descriptions of Drake’s New Albion. Many of them are subtle, and taken together, they only indicate a general region of the landing site. Some of the geographical features may apply to several sites, but it is necessary to consider the evidence to focus the search for a particular area. Even though a few references are wanting and imprecise, they are all readily identifiable at Drakes New Albion location. All contemporary Drake accounts describe geography which is in perfect concert with the National Historical Landmark designated district at Point Reyes, California.

This video shows weather and whitecliffs at Drakes Beach.

White Banks and Cliffs

The World Encompassed, Carta Particolare, and The Famous Voyage all record this significant feature. The Famous Voyage also states Drake so named the land for the white cliffs:

Our general called this country Nova Albion (New Albion), and that for two causes the one in respect of the white cliffs, which lie towards the sea: and the other, because it might have some affinity with our country in a name, which sometime was so called.

The World Encompassed also records that Drake named the land Nova Albion with respect to the white banks and cliffs:

This country our Generall named Albion, and that for two causes; the one in respect of the white bancks and cliffes, which lie toward the sea; the other that might haue some affinity, euen in name also, with our own country, which was sometime so called.

A good friend of Drake, Robert Dudley, originally wrote using Italian in Carta Particolare, Chart No XXXIII, this English version:

He called it New Albion in honor of his own country England, which in ancient ties had been called Albion because of the white cliffs and the coast where it was first discovered.

Albion, an archaic name for England, means white in Latin, and the name was given to England for the white cliffs which border the English Channel. White cliffs would have been a familiar and welcome sight to an English mariner who was far home.

The 1917 edition of the United States Coast Pilot describes Drakes Bay and also notes white cliffs.

Drakes Bay affords shelter in northwesterly weather in 5 to 6 fathoms, sandy bottom. From the western headland, which is the eastern termination of the ridge forming Point Reyes, high white cliffs extend northward and eastward in a gentle curve for 6 miles, terminating in high white sand dunes.

Miles of bold white cliffs line Drakes Bay, most of which lie toward the sea. The white cliffs and banks are not directly related to the careenage basin, Drake’s Cove, but certainly were near enough to inspire the naming of the region. The cliffs must also bear close likeness to the white cliffs of England.

What is also important to focus site identification is that the white cliffs are located almost entirely on the northwest side of Drakes Bay. It is difficult to see them from a vessel at sea telling us that Drake had to observe these cliffs from a relatively close proximity. In addition, the bancks are mentioned. These are lesser facings on the Bay and Estero. Any site claiming to be New Albion must have these cliffs and banks in close proximity as mentioned in the contemporary accounts of Drake’s voyage.

White cliffs at Drakes Bay match the those described in the contemporary accounts of Drake’s landing. The striking resemblance is evident at Drakes Bay at Point Reyes with the Seven Sisters cliffs in England.

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Seven Sister, England
Drakes Bay, California


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White Banks and Cliffs—view from the Estero and south across the Bay

Farallon Islands

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This map shows Drake’s New Albion arrival and departure routes. He was coming from the north where he anchored briefly at Cape Arago in Oregon. Without going ashore, he then set sail south until he rounded the geographical structure Point Reyes, sailed into Drakes Bay and then sought haven in Drake’s Cove. His route out of the Bay took him to the Farallones where he topped off his meat supply for the sail across the Pacific.


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The Southeast Farallon Island research station is and Farallon Island Light are seen from Mirounga Bay.


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This map shows Drake’s probable route when he visited the Coast Miwok at their villages across Inverness Ridge. The route depicted is that of a trail that existed in the 16th century. Today a road across the ridge closely follows much of the original trail.

The Farallon Islands are the only island group which exist off the Northern California coast. John Stow, in his 1592 book, The Chronicles of England, provides a record of Drakes’s course when he set sail from New Albion: from thence setting his course southwest. It is significant that the landmark Drake encountered on this course is described in The World Encompassed:

Not farre without this harborough did lye certain Islands (we called them the Ilands of Saint James) having on them plentifull and great store of Seales and birds.

Certain elements of this statement provide several clues which enable identification of the Islands:

  • There was more than one island.
  • They lay outside the harbor at a relatively close distance.
  • They provided a rookery for large numbers of seals and birds.
  • They were sizeable and substantial enough to be properly named as islands and not termed with a diminutive such as rocks or other class of lesser landform.

These elements all apply to the Farallon Islands (also known as the Farallones) which Drake named the Islands Of Saint James. They lie directly along the southwest course into the Pacific Drake had set when leaving the Bay. Backtracking from the Farallones along Drake’s course takes one directly to Drake’s Bay and straight to the white cliffs.

The largest island, Southeast Farallon Island, is 95 acres in area and its largest hill stands 357 feet high. It is about 25 miles to these islands from Drake’s Bay and 30 miles from the Golden Gate. Today the only inhabited site is on the southeast island where wildlife and conservation researchers stay. During the early part of the nineteenth century, the Russians maintained a sea otter hunting station there and during the California Gold Rush, millions of eggs were harvested for sale in nearby San Francisco. In the early 1900s, the U.S. Weather Bureau also maintained a weather station there for several years.

The island that Drake landed on was most likely Southeast Farallon Island which is only 20 nautical miles from the mouth of Drakes Estero. It is clearly visible from the shore of the Bay. Since Drake was embarking on a tremendously long journey across the Pacific and needed a large store of food, these islands—nearby and directly on his way—provided an excellent hunting ground to top off what already carried.

Although Drake set sail from the Estero on July 23, he fell with one of the islands on July 24. This is no significance to the apparent length of time between his departure and arrival. The Golden Hind could have simply hove-to overnight for a landing the following day. It is very possible that the date could have resulted from the normal practice of the time of changing the logged date at noon when at sea on ocean voyages—a calendar day at sea changes at noon not midnight as is the typical land practice.

Significantly to site identification, there is no other such group of islands along the American coast north of the Farallones.

Encampment and Inland Sites

The World Encompassed described the land as inhospitable as it was cold, cloudy, and often hung with fog. An open and windswept country is also indicated in the account of the Indians in this description: sheltering themselves under a lee banke, if it were possible. This unpleasant climate is a very apt account of the land near Drakes Estero, especially in summer.

One who is unfamiliar with the area might be confused about cold weather during the summer months in California. Considering popular notions of surfers and sunbathers swarming California beaches, this is understandable. The reality of the California north and central coasts is such that the summer months are often very chilly. It is a time when the weather conditions of cool air temperatures above the ocean pass over the warmer land and mingle to create low hanging fog that floats and hangs across the land near the shore. That combined with a mild breeze prompts locals to wear long-pants jackets in the summer. It is not unusual for outsiders to expect warmth and find themselves unprepared for the cold conditions. In fact, some of the most pleasant weather is during the fall months when the climate combines for much temperate, sunny weather. As such, The World Encompassed is a testament to the summer weather and season in which Drake stayed at Point Reyes.

Fletcher went on about the barren landscape when he wrote:

Besides, how vnhandsome and deformed appeared the face of the earth itselfe! shewing trees without leaues, and the ground without greenness in those moneths of June and July.

Hence comes the general squalidness and barrenssesse of the countrie.

The dry weeks of summer produces a generally squalid and barren land at the shore. At Drakes Estero the Blue Blossom, though technically a large, evergreen shrub, passes for a small tree. It has a short life span and its naked form seen in the wind and fog draped with lichens emphasized the severe aspect of the land at the shore.

These descriptions portray the unique character of the Point Reyes area in which Drake landed.

Well into his stay, Drake journeyed inland to visit Coast Miwok villages located in that area. After visiting the area, The World Encompassed author found the inland country to be very dissimilar, pronouncing it farre different from the shoare, a goodly country, and fruitful soyle, stored with many blessings fit for the use of man. The inland region of the Point Reyes area is exactly as the author described. It is very different than the land along the shore due to the sheltering effects of the ridges which generally run north to south. Drake’s journey inland would have followed a Coast Miwok trail which is closely tracked by a modern road that leads from the area near the Estero, crosses a ridge, and ends in Olema Valley to the east. This journey is only a few miles—a vigorous day’s round-trip hike—from the encampment.

These positive aspects of the inland were not discernable from the encampment, so it is important to note that the same account says the inland journey wasmade vp into the land. This indicates an intervening feature—such as the high country which is east of the Estero at Point Reyes—that must be crossed to enter into the eastern valley, Bear Valley. It is this exact high country, which physically separates inland valleys from the shore, that defines and creates the warmer, pleasant location up and into the land. Even in current summer months, visitors are advised to bring jackets when visiting the areas along the shore.

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.
  • Allen Robert W.; Parkinson, Robert W., (1971). Identification of the Nova Albion Conie. Point Reyes: Drake Navigators Guild.
  • 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.
  • Farallon Islands, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Farallon_Islands/about/history.html. Retrieved 25 September 18.
  • Hakluyt, Richard (2015). The Voyage Of Sir Francis Drake around The Whole Globe. United Kingdom: Penguin Classics edtion.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot, (1978). The Great Explorers, The European Discovery of America. United States of America: Oxford University Press, Inc.
  • "Point Reyes Weather Center", ptreyes.org, Point Reyes National Seashore Association, retrieved 24 October 2018
  • Sugden, John (1990). Sir Francis Drake. New York: Touchstone.
  • Stow, John (1592). The Chronicles of England. London
  • Turner, Michael (2006). In Drake's Wake Volume 2 The World Voyage. United Kingdom: Paul Mould Publishing.
  • United States Coast Pilot, Pacific Coast (1917). Department of Commerce, US Coast and Geodetic Survey, Washington Printing Office.