Who Made Drake's Plate of Brass? Hint: It Wasn't Francis Drake
Von der Porten, Edward, Aker, Raymond, Allen, Robert W., Spitze, James M., California History
A brass plate engraved with Francis Drake's claim to vast reaches of North America became this state's greatest historical treasure when it was found and authenticated in the late 1930s. The plate would become California's greatest hoax when it was retested forty years later. In those four decades it distorted the record of Western American exploration history and acquired a complex history of its own. That long-hidden story involves the interplay of misguided humor, wish fulfillment, fear of consequences, failure of courage, and perhaps a bit of malice, that enmeshed both hoaxers and victims. Despite the plate's more than six decades of fame and notoriety, who made the plate, why it was made, and why the hoax lasted as long as it did have never before been made public.
The hoaxers hid their participation, but they left a faint trail that could still be followed when the authors and their colleagues began an intensive search in 1991. No single piece of evidence revealed more than a fraction of the whole story, but first-, second-, and even third-hand memories, most recorded twenty to forty years or more after the events they describe, combined with a spoofing letter and an enigmatic book by a roisterous fraternity, built a body of interlinking evidence that led to this reconstruction of the plate's story.
FRANCIS DRAKE'S PLATE OF BRASS
Francis Drake landed and built a fortified encampment in California in the summer of 1579 to repair and reprovision his ship, the Golden Hind, during his voyage around the world. Before he left, he
setup, a monument of our being there; as also of her maiesties, and successors right and title to that kingdome, namely, a plate of brasse . . . whereon is engraven her graces name, and the day and yeare of our arrivall there, and of the free giving up, of the province and kingdome, both by the king and people, into her maiesties hands: together with her highnesse picture, and armes in a piece of sixpence ... shewing it selfe by a hole made of purpose through the plate: underneath was likewise engraven the name of our generall &c. (1)
This was the first English claim to the land that would become the United States of America.
Drake's plate and the post on which it was mounted vanished after he sailed off across the Pacific, but its memory survived in the accounts of the voyage, and scholars of exploration were well aware of it. Among them was Herbert Eugene Bolton, Sather Professor of American History and Director of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, who enjoyed an international reputation for his scholarship on the American West. (2) By the late 1930s, Bolton had long "been telling my students to keep an eye out for Drake's plate and the silver sixpence bearing the image of Queen Elizabeth." (3)
Among his many activities, Bolton was Grand Royal Historian of the Yerba Buena (San Francisco) Chapter of the Ancient and Honorable Order of F Clampus Vitus (ECV), a fraternal order with Gold Rush antecedents that had been revived exuberantly in 1931-1932 by lawyer and writer George Ezra Dane and others enthusiastic about preserving Westem lore. (4) ECV defines itself as dedicated to the erection of historical plaques, the protection of widows and orphans, especially the widows, and having a grand time while accomplishing these purposes. Virtually all California's male historians of the American West, historical society leaders and journal editors, bibliographers, artists, fine press printers, and collectors of Western Americana joined the group. Spoofing its own members was an accepted part of Clamper fun, and the distinguished Professor Bolton was a tempting target. In this spirit, Dane organized a plot to re-create Drake's plate of brass, involving George H. Barron and a group of his friends and acquaintan ces. (5)
George Haviland Barron was curator of California history at San Francisco's de Young Museum until 1933 and an active member of the California Historical Society. (6) According to Lorenz Noll, an art dealer and restorer who was part of the plot, Barron designed the new plate of brass. (7) He borrowed most of the text from the most detailed account of Drake's circumnavigation, The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake, first published in 1628 and available in reprints in the early 1930s. (8) With a few exceptions, he used twentieth-century phraseology and spelling, although he substituted the letter V for the letter U in the same fashion as The World compassed. (9) Barron, who lived in Oakland, bought a piece of one-eighth-inch-thick commercial rolled brass, apparently a few miles away at an Alameda ship chandlery, where a metal worker cut it to size on a guillotine shear. (10)
Barron's friend and neighbor George C. Clark, an inventor, art critic, and appraiser, and part of a "bohemian" artists group, designed the plate's layout and incised the lettering. (11) No guide lines were used, so the crudely shaped letters wander over the surface of the plate. Most of the letters are uppercase, a few are lowercase, and their style does not match Elizabethan forms. (12) An artificial patina was applied to the plate. George Clark, who created the plate, cut a capital "G" within a "C" slightly above and to the left of the name "Francis Drake." This combination has generally been read as an abbreviation for "Captian General," which was not the usual Elizabethan usage, but Clark reportedly told his wife that they were his signature, which guaranteed that the plate would be recognized as a practical joke.
Then one of the conspirators, most likely Dane in collaboration with Lorenz Noll and Western history author and artifact dealer Albert Dressler, who were familiar with fluorescence, labeled the plate as a Clamper prank by daubing or painting the letters ECV on the back of the plate with transparent fluorescent paint. (13)
The year in which the plate was made, and how, when and where the plate was planted are among the most obscure parts of the plate story, with conflicting evidence pointing to dates more than two years apart and to two locations. (See "When Was the Plate Created?") The story of its discovery is much clearer.
DISCOVERY--AND AN EXPENSIVE COMMITMENT
A young shop clerk named Beryle Shinn was driving on the San Rafael-San Francisco Road just north of the San Quentin-Kentfield Road crossing on a Sunday in late June or early July 1936. His car had a flat tire and he pulled over to the side of the road. He later described climbing to the top of a nearby ridge, which provided a panoramic view, and there finding the dirty plate partly covered by a rock alongside a rocky outcrop. (14) He carried it to his car where it remained for several months. Finally, he found it again and noticed that it had an inscription on it. He scrubbed it, revealing the date "1579." One of his friends, a part-time co-worker at Kahn's Dry Goods Store in Oakland and a student at the University of California, identified the word "Drake." (15) At the unidentified friend's suggestion, he took the plate to Professor Bolton in early February 1937. (16)
Herbert E. Bolton was sixty-seven years old and near the end of his distinguished career interpreting early California history. The sudden appearance of the plate fulfilled a dream he had long communicated to his students: to find the document that attested the beginning of English colonialism in the United States. Bolton was elated by the find, immediately accepted it as genuine, and determined to acquire it for the Bancroft Library Fearing that Shinn would sell or auction the plate, or move it out of the state, Bolton contacted the president of the California Historical Society, Allen L. Chickening, to persuade him of the plate's importance and ask him to raise funds to purchase it.
On February 28, Bolton and Chickening took Shinn to his Greenbrae find site and, over lunch on the ferry back to Richmond, negotiated to purchase the plate. Chickening suggested that he could raise $2,500, but he and Bolton strengthened the deal by offering to assume all risk regarding authenticity and possible legal complications. The next day, Monday, March 1, Shinn went to Bolton's office to take back the plate, ostensibly to show to an uncle, but failed to come back to the university with it on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. By the time he returned it to Bolton and Chickering on Friday, the thoroughly concerned Chickering had raised the offer to $3,500 and had written an acceptance of all risks of disputed ownership and possible fraud into the sales contract. The deal was completed that day, and the plate was given to the University of California. (17) Bolton and Chickening had committed themselves, the donors, the historical society, and the university to the plate without subjecting it to any scienti fic testing. They had left themselves no recourse should the plate prove to be fraudulent.
"AUTHENTICITY ... BEYOND ALL REASONABLE DOUBT"
Bolton was keeping university President Robert Gordon Sproul informed of developments and promised that appropriate analyses would be performed before the plate was announced to the public. The only analysis turned out to be his own comparisons of the inscription to descriptions of the plate in sixteenth-century accounts of Drake's voyage. He arranged to have the California Historical Society publish the find in a volume called Drake's Plate of Brass: Evidence of His Visit to California in 1579, at the same time as the public announcement at a luncheon meeting of the society to be held a mere month later, on April 6, 1937. (18) He led off with, "One of the world's long-lost historical treasures apparently has been found!" and went on to an enthusiastic endorsement, leaving little room for later correction, with the statement, "The authenticity of the tablet seems to me beyond all reasonable doubt." (19)
Less than a week later, chauffeur William Caldeira came forward to claim that he had discovered the same plate on the Point Reyes Peninsula near the shore of Drakes Bay in western Marin County in 1933 and later discarded it more than twenty miles away, near Shinn's discovery site at Greenbrae in eastern Marin. (20) Drakes Bay was the long-established Drake landing site, so Caldeira's statement gave added credence to the story and apparently eliminated the possibility that Shinn was involved with creating a forgery.
A TANGLED WEB
Bolton's bold public announcement of the plate's discovery may have caused initial elation among the …
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Publication information: Article title: Who Made Drake's Plate of Brass? Hint: It Wasn't Francis Drake. Contributors: Von der Porten, Edward - Author, Aker, Raymond - Author, Allen, Robert W. - Author, Spitze, James M. - Author. Magazine title: California History. Volume: 81. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring-Fall 2002. Page number: 116+. © 2009 California Historical Society. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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