Saturday, October 17, 2009

CryptoWA #12 - Drake on Bellingham Bay

It's fun illustrating stories I've gathered over the years in the CryptoWA picture series, but here's one of my own. There is a bit of truth here with just enough spit and bailing wire to hold it together -- Just what a good yarn needs. This is a work of pure speculation. Still, I have to admit, I had fun concocting this one.

Sir Francis Drake, all around dashing hero and Queen Elizabeth's would-be squeeze, landed somewhere on the west coast of North America on June 17th, 1579. He stayed for over a month, repairing his ship and hobnobbing with the local populace. Drake named the land he found "New Albion," a poetic name for Olde England. Just the thing to win points with his gal Elizabeth, a.k.a. his Monarch with The Power of Life and Death.

But where was New Albion? Plenty of historians stick with the latitude given in Drake's official account, Encompassing The Globe, written in 1582. That pegs his landing at 38 degrees, 30 minutes north latitude, somewhere in northern California. Some think there is more to it than that. The true location of Drake’s landing site has been debated for centuries.

According to R. Samuel Bawlf’s book The Secret Voyage of Francis Drake, Queen Elizabeth only allowed an edited version of Drake's story to be printed. This was due to England's ongoing war with Spain, who had competing claims in that part of the world. This may also be due to Drake’s belief that he had found the Northwest Passage, which would have been a hot strategic piece of information. Drake reportedly asked to set the record straight a few years later, and was firmly denied.

Surviving hand-written records in the British Library place Drake's landing further north at 44 degrees. That puts Drake's landing site in Oregon. British historian Bob Ward enthusiastically supports Whale Cove, Oregon largely due to it's physical similarity to a map drawn by Jodocus Hondius, a contemporary of Drake's and a master cartographer who based his 1589 map on journals and eyewitness accounts.

Still, Bawlf and a number of folks in British Columbia claim the true (and concealed) latitude is closer to their neighborhood. This is supported by Richard Hakluyt's 1587 map of the New World showing Nova Albion at 50 degrees north latitude.

We may never know for sure. Drake's original logbook and artifacts from his journey were destroyed when Whitehall palace burned to the ground in 1591.

Where does this leave us?

If (and it’s admittedly a big if) the location from Drake's book is out the window, I say the whole story is up for grabs. Since Drake seems to have mapped part of the Alaskan coast with a fair degree of accuracy, New Albion could be anywhere from northern California to southern Alaska.

So, why not Washington State?

Nothing on our Pacific coast is a good match with the Hondius map, but there is a remarkably good fit near the end of the Strait of Juan De Fuca: Bellingham Bay.

It sounds odd, but it conforms with an amazing number of key elements, both on the Hondius map and in Drake's written record. High, light colored cliffs? Check. Crappy Summer weather that would depress even an Englishman? Yup. Snow-covered mountains looming in every direction, even in June? Uh huh. The Lummi tribe traditionally set up a seasonal encampment, exactly where a village is shown on a map from Drake's era.

Think about it. If Drake did find the Strait of Juan de Fuca, utterly convinced he'd discovered the much sought Northwest Passage, wouldn't he at least take a little peek? I mean, this is Mr. Adventure himself. It's hard to imagine him saying "Hey, The Northwest Passage. Make a note of it, Jimmy."

People who favor the B.C. landing site theory would agree, but I don't see geographic features that line up well with the Hondius map up that way.

And I do favor using the map by Jocodus Hondius. He was a contemporary of Drake's, had access to Admiralty records when he made the official map of Drake's voyage, and was one of the preeminent map makers of his day. Combining his map with Drake’s verbal description seems like a good way to go when unraveling this little mystery.

So, let’s start with that. Thanks to Google Earth and a rainy afternoon, I took snapshots of the five most popular spots for Drake’s landing, then tossed Bellingham Bay into the mix. Check out how they line up.

(click to enlarge)

The closest matches are B. and D. Of the rest, one is Comox in British Columbia (F) . All of the others are in the San Francisco Bay area (A, C and E).

Image D is Whale Cove in Oregon. Image B is Bellingham Bay.

Whale Cove does look pretty good, but it can be disqualified for two reasons. First, it lacks the island just outside the encircling bay shown on the Hondius map. Yes, it is claimed that a sand bar is visible at low tide, but Bellingham Bay has a real island in about the right place. The second reason is scale.

Scale is something that seldom comes up when talking about the lost bay of New Albion. Yet, Drake provided a handy measurement in his description. He mentions that his camp was “neere about 3 quarters of an English mile distant” from the indigenous settlement. According to the Hondius map, both were located along the perimeter of the bay. Whale Cove is only 1000 feet across (with very poor shelter from the ocean, I might add). That’s nowhere near big enough to fit both locations using Drake’s own words, and hardly a “goodly sized bay.”

The fact is, without frequent breaks in the cloud cover, Drake may have had little more than his best guess when it came to jotting down his latitude. So, it's anybody's guess until really compelling archeological evidence crops up. He may have spent that month in California, but I like to imagine him fetching up on the shores of this place, long before it was Washington.

And hey, at least the map is a good fit.