What exactly is New Albion?
The detail of this his 1660 map, by Nicolaes Visscher I, is generally of North America and identifies California as an island. The label Nova Albion, printed just above P. de los Reyes—Point Reyes—is near 38° north latitude.
This 1651 John Ferrar map depicts New Albion, shown with Drake’s image, as only a few days hike from Virginia. He puts identifies New Albion at 37°. This map has an unusual orientation of west at the top, similar to the John Smith 161 map, Virginia, which shows much of the same area near the Atlantic coast and corresponding orientation.
New Albion defies exactness. A precise description is difficult.
New Albion is many things: a territory, a discovery, a legal claim, a traditional homeland, a modern homeland, an inked name on maps, and a grand idea. It is part of a journey and bold adventure that made a man famous, a king furious, and a queen delighted. It is a place where strangers became friends and soon parted. It is the beginning of an upstart nation’s rise to power and the foreshadowing of the tragic decline of an entire people.
New Albion is an amazing story of how the human spirit interacts with the currents of history. And even with all of this, New Albion is still much more.
When Francis Drake rounded a point in 1579, he and the crew were grateful to be sent into the bay that now bears his name. The sole inhabitants of the immediate area were the Coast Miwok people. Fully astounded and awestruck from where these strangers—these aliens—came or who they were, the Coast Miwok held a magnificent ceremony and crowned Drake just as if he were king. With this highly uncertain act, Drake named and claimed the land Nova Albion, New Albion, for his queen, Elizabeth I. He recorded the claim on a plate of brass and pronounced it to the world by nailing the plaque to a post. Of course, this claim came without full disclosure to the Coast Miwok; sadly—though it would be a centuries long process—this claim forecast the encroachment on their homeland, a delayed encroachment that would eventually yield devastating effects.
The original name Nova Albion, translated literally, means New White. Of course, this may seem an odd moniker. But, to Drake it made a lot of sense. Nova translates as New. And Albion, a Latin derivative meaning White, was a very early name cartographers assigned to England. It was a nod to the white cliffs on its eastern coast. The white cliffs at Point Reyes, which are strikingly similar to those in England, were the inspiration for Drake’s name for the land. The white cliffs were undoubtedly a welcome site for travel weary, homesick sailors.
No exact boundaries were ever established for New Albion, so maps vary as to how far the claim extended. Some show it as a general west coast region while others extend it well east across the North American continent. Others show it as part of the island of California. Detailed charting and surveys would not take place until many years into the future, so there was much mystery to this land.
The bronze plaque, before installation at Point Reyes National Seashore, proclaims the NHL recognition of Drake’s New Albion.
Boundaries did not really matter; the fact that it was there—there on the maps near 38° on the North American continent—was all that really mattered. England had challenged Spain, staked its claim, and revealed their intentions. World history was changing in a big way. This act encouraged the later east coast colonies most Americans know: Roanoke, Jamestown, and Plymouth. This, England’s bold challenge in a foreign land, was part of a series of events, many of them involving Sir Francis Drake, that sparked and formed the basis of the country’s national expansion and rise to eventually become the British Empire.
It is also a place where Sebastián Rodríguez Cermeño made an ill-fated landing in 1595 when his ship dragged her anchors and sunk in a terrible storm. And it is where Cermeño and his surviving crew showed their astonishing mettle by constructing a small boat and audaciously sailing it to safety in Mexico.
Today the area is not known as New Albion, rather it is mostly known to as Point Reyes. It is a coastal environment and home to several small communities, all within a close area dangerously bisected by the San Andreas fault. Point Reyes National Seashore covers much of the land where Drake and his crew camped. The National Historic Landmark is on Seashore property, and it officially names the area Drake’s Bay Historic and Archaeological District, identifying it as Drake’s landing site and place of the New Albion claim. Today, this land is a serene place, and a scenic 30 mile drive north from the Golden Gate Bridge will take you into the heart of its beauty.
So, New Albion is many things, all part of the magnificent story of this historic place of great human significance.
This is a 21 minute tour of Point Reyes, the area where Drake landed and expolored.
This video, produced by the National Park Service, is about the Point Reyes wilderness area.
This is a short, unnarrated video showing Point Reyes National Seashore lands. The National Historic Landmark, the Drakes Bay Historic and Archaeological District, is within this area.
This Beautiful Places video is a short narrated overview of the Point Reyes area, the place Drake called Nova Albion.