Brief Sampling of Evidence: The Latitude Evidence


Drake’s latitude measurements should be understood as having minimum error, and one needs to know that he consistently showed superlative navigational skills. His latitude measurements were well within the standards for his sailing era.

Whenever possible, the latitude of any place of navigational importance was always established by celestial observations taken on shore using the astrolabe or quadrant to eliminate the inherent errors of the cross-staff and those occasioned by ship’s motion. These types of observations taken by Drake reveal the precision with which he used his navigational tools. For example, at Guatulco the true latitude of the port is 15° 44½' north whereas the latitude value Drake would have read is recorded in The World Encompassed. It gives his incredibly close latitude reading as 15° 40'.

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Detail of the French Map, ca. 1581, showing Drake’s most northern and southern latitudes.

Almost all of the period sources provide a latitude value for Drake’s landfall (his first nearing or sighting land) and his actual anchorage and encampment in the port, Nova Albion. Unfortunately, they lack agreement. For more than a decade after Drake’s return to England, his initial landfall was placed at 48°, and some accounts put his port there, too. Others placed it a little lower, but still far north of its true location. The only contradiction at the time to these earliest records are shown in the French and the Dutch Drake Maps published on the Continent—not England—which was outside of Queen Elizabeth’s sanction. They show a ship standing in toward the shore in a position of 44° latitude at the highest point of Drake’s track on the northwest coast, and his port at 38½ °.

In the 1590’s, the latitude of both Drake’s first landfall and his later port at Nova Albion (New Albion) were greatly reduced from the earlier figures by such eminent geographers, cartographers, and historians as Stow, Hakluyt, Camden, and Hondius. Significantly, this was after the English decisively defeated Spain’s invasion fleet, the Invincible Armada, which suffered such destruction that Spain never seriously threatened England again.

At this point, details of Drake’s Pacific raids on Spanish colonies no longer needed to be suppressed. From the number of sources giving the higher incorrect latitudes, it is evident that a policy of obfuscation and secrecy had been set by Queen Elizabeth very soon after Drake’s return. This policy served the purpose to deliberately obscure the true latitudes of Drake’s landfall and port from Spain.

Other details of Drake’s activity on the Pacific coast were also probably never made known publicly as a measure meant to protect his tenuous claim on the North American continent long enough for England to reinforce it by other expeditions. A logical solution to the delicate claim was to misreport the landfall farther north so to place the New Albion claim in a defendable latitude. The general details of course and distance run to the south along the coast were known to every seaman who had been with Drake at New Albion, and that much information could easily fall into the hands of the Spanish ambassador, Bernardino de Mendoza, through his agents. But few, if any, of the crew would have been certain about such things as latitudes.

The Sources And Their Latitude Values:

The Anonymous Narrative probably reflects the early, initial official information: Drake came to 48° and then turned back to 44°. These latitudes are backed in some measure by John Drake’s testimony. (John Drake, young relative of Francis Drake, crewed on the Golden Hind and was taken prisoner years later in South America.) However, his testimony too is inconsistent. When questioned by Spanish inquisitors in 1584, John Drake indicated latitudes of 48° for first landfall and 44° for the New Albion port. However, in a similar testimony taken later by the Spaniards, he verified that landfall was made at 44° after the wind had actually changed their course from a height of 48° when they were still out to sea. From that 44° landfall, John Drake indicated that they sailed south for their California port.

There was good reason for trying to keep Drake’s New Albion claim open; namely, his voyage was only the beginning of a national expansion project across the globe. And this included far east Pacific concerns. Drake’s New Albion claim was significant as it insured English control of the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Had the English actually found that a northern, warm-water passage existed between the two oceans (as conventional wisdom maintained at the time), England would have been a tremendous threat to Spanish commercial success across the Pacific. Such a discovery would have been a geo-political game-changer as it altered the balance of power.

The most significant account of latitudes is Hakluyt’s Famous Voyage, issued sometime before 1594. For Drake’s most northern latitude, he is the first to record 42°, and he later revised it to 43°. Most importantly is that he clearly stated the latitude of 38° for the New Albion port. Hakluyt would have been well aware of previously reported higher latitudes, and this indicates he rejected their accuracy.

William Camden— the leading historian of Elizabethan England—in Annales Rervm Anglicarvm, begun in 1596 or 1597, also expressed the 38° measure for Drake’s port, New Albion. Surely, he too was aware of the earlier, inflated latitudes and deemed it necessary to record them differently as 38°. Furthermore, Camden was in a good position to obtain his facts directly from Drake, and by way of an introductory statement concerning the background of Drake’s voyage, he states this about the information he revealed about Drake: . . . that I may report no more than what I haue heard from himselfe.

In 1628, Drake’s nephew, also named Sir Francis Drake, published The World Encompassed, which was based heavily on notes from the voyage’s chaplain, Francis Fletcher. It included information from others on Drake’s circumnavigation. It states that on June 3, Drake reached 42° latitude and went two degrees further north. This brings the northern landfall to 44°, the highest point reached before the intense cold and the adverse winds turned him and forced him south.

In The World Encompassed, the higher value of 48°—as is in the earliest sources—is also recorded for Drake’s most northern latitude—and so is an even 38° for Drake’s port, New Albion. However, they both appear to be crudely edited into the account.

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This detail from Dudley's Chart No. 85 shows Nova Albion at 38°. Also evident at Nova Albion is a geographical feature labeled La Punta, The Point. The feature is now called Point Reyes. The faint latitude line accurately projects the position of the white cliffs which period chroniclers indicated did lie toward the sea.

Drake’s good friend, Robert Dudley, wrote Arcano Del Mare which was published after his death in 1646-1647. Dudley was in a position to learn intimate details from Drake. His charts record 44° for Drake’s highest latitude and 38° for his port and encampment at New Albion.

The World Encompassed also gives a New Albion latitude measured at 38½°. Even though slight, this is a contradiction to many of the other accounts which recorded 38°. In this, the actual latitude status is almost conclusively resolved in favor of the 38° value—Hakluyt had the same access to the source as did the compiler of The World Encompassed, and Hakluyt rejected the 38½°, favoring 38°. Hakluyt is also supported by Stow, Camden and Dudley who each seem to have first-hand sources. Additionally, the discrepancy in the latitude of Drake’s port can the accounted for by the probability that the 38½° reading was taken at sea and the 38° measurement resulted from readings taken from land which had increased reliability and accuracy.

Other Considerations:

At this time of year, atmospheric and celestial conditions were optimal. As a navigation practitioner, Drake’s skills were proclaimed by both him and his contemporaries. He was the most competent seaman of his day. Also, his equipment—particularly the astrolabe—was likely to have been the best available.

One must also consider that the latitude of New Albion was the only port discovered on the American northwest coast in well over 300 miles of coastal navigation. It was also his departure point for his journey across the Pacific. Thus, it was critically important that his specific latitude be measured with close, fine accuracy. And there are other considerations which true them with the written evidence for 38° latitude and substantiate it as accurate.

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A light fog shrouds the white cliffs of Drakes Bay at Point Reyes.

First, the weather conditions are just as described in period documents. The World Encompassed notes the prevailing fog and the air as noticeably cold near the shore. However, it also records that the inland was far different when Drake hiked up and into the land. Here is was far different—warm, sunny, pleasant. These conditions are exactly as are at Point Reyes near 38° latitude in the same summer months as when Drake visited. The weather details from 1579 are a perfect match for the Point Reyes area.

Hakluyt and the author of The World Encompassed (generally regarded as Francis Fletcher) also wrote that Drake named the land for two reasons, one being the white cliffs and the white banks which lie toward the sea. White cliffs and banks are dominant and dramatic at Drake’s Bay at the 38° area. Additionally, they—as stipulated in Hakluyt’s account—lie toward the sea. They too substantiate the 38° latitude value.

One must also remember that Drake sailed past hundreds of miles of coast before choosing his port: he required a suitable careenage site. Additionally, the mention that white cliffs lie toward the sea imply an inner harbor. The Guild studied careenage sites throughout the world to determine their suitability, and with help from outside sources, including the assistance of Professor Alexander from UC Berkeley, confirmed that the word Portus, which is used on the Hondius Inset showing Nova Albion, indicates a protected inner harbor within a river or estuary. All of these exist at 38° latitude at the careenage basin within Drake’s Estero is Drake’s Cove, so named by Admiral Nimitz. Additionally, Guild studies show that the Hondius Inset of Nova Albion, strictly correlates to the careenage basin identified by the Guild as Drake’s Bay. And the Estero at near 18 feet deep was plenty deep to for the deeply laden draft of the Golden Hind to navigate. Cermeño, a few years later, recorded such depth soundings at the mouth of the Estero. These many details are further validation for the mark of 38° so often indicated in period records.

Drake’s stop at the Farallon Islands also support the lower latitude for Drake’s New Albion port and encampment. No other such islands exist north of the Farallones to the Canadian border. He would not have known of, seen, nor let alone sail to them, from any latitude well above 40° that might be suggested for his port and encampment site. They are visible from Drakes Bay and Point Reyes which are at or near 38° latitude.

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This fully feathered basket is strikingly similar to the one described by Fletcher. It is curated in the Marion Steinbach Museum

In The World Encompassed, Francis Fletcher described a unique basket, now of a class of baskets known as fully feathered baskets. He described the baskets as wrought vpon with the matted downe of red feathers, distinguished into diuers works and formes. These uniquely distinguished baskets were made in only a narrow range along the California coast by a few tribes, only two which had traditional homeland territory along the coast: the Pomo and Coast Miwok. The 38° latitude value is in the midst of this range.

Diverse and numerous points of evidence—very specific points of evidence—show that Drake landed in Coast Miwok territory. This is an overwhelming probability and almost conclusive. Ethnography studies by numerous renowned scholars have been precise in identifying the Coast Miwok people as those who encountered and interacted with Drake and his crew. The Coast Miwok territory and traditional homeland ranges slightly north and south of 38° latitude.

The Conclusion:

All in all, the weight of the evidence for Drake’s first landfall on the American northwest coast is between 43° and 44°. And the evidence supports the measure of 38° for his port, New Albion.

  • 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.
  • Aker, Raymond (1978). Francis Drake At Drakes Bay, Palo Alto: Drake Navigators Guild.
  • Aker, Raymond; Von der Porten, Edward (2010). Discovering Francis Drake’s California Harbor. San Francisco: Drake Navigators Guild.
  • Nimitz, Chester W., "Drake's Cove", Pacific Discovery, California Academy of Sciences, Vol. 11, No. 2, 1958.