Who Made Drake's Plate of Brass? Hint: It Wasn't Francis Drake

Article excerpt

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 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. …