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Drakes Bay at Point Reyes named national historic landmark

Edward Von der Porten, left, Raymond Aker and Bob Allen of the Drakes Navigator Guild look over Drakes Cove at Point Reyes National Seashore in 2001.

PD File, 2001
Published: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 at 5:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 at 5:23 p.m.

Drakes Bay in the Point Reyes National Seashore on Wednesday became one of America’s national historic landmarks, but the coveted designation did not exactly settle the debate over where Sir Francis Drake landed in 1579.

Drake Navigators Guild, a private research group that singled out the bay as Drake’s landing point 60 years ago, said the landmark status “gives formal recognition” to their long-held premise.

Edward Von der Porten of San Francisco, the group’s president, said the designation — announced by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar — was tantamount to official confirmation.

“We’re very pleased the National Park Service has chosen to say yes,” Von der Porten said in a telephone interview from London. “Were there any scholarly debate, this would not have happened.”

However, the Interior Department’s announcement describes the 5,965-acre Drakes Bay landmark area as the site of the “earliest documented” contact between Europeans and California Indians and the earliest recorded shipwreck on the West Coast, referring to the San Agustin, a Spanish galleon that sank in 1595.

A Park Service report calls it “the most likely site” of Drake’s California landing during his circumnavigation of the globe.

The landmark designation is “an important aspect of the ongoing debate” over Drake’s landing point, Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst said.

But the landmark nomination form “does not address the controversy regarding his landing site” and the designation “should not be interpreted as providing a definitive resolution of the discussion,” he said in an email.

Von der Porten said that a host of experts agrees on Drakes Bay as the landing site, and if there were any “serious debate” it “would have stopped the nomination cold.”

Drakes Bay is the answer to the Drake landing question “until somebody can prove otherwise,” said Von der Porten, a maritime archeologist and historian who joined the guild in 1956. “That’s what science is.”

Drake, an English explorer and privateer, made a California landfall after 63 days at sea, sorely in need of provisions and a safe, sandy spot to repair the Golden Hind.

He built a fort and remained there for 36 days, and reported good relations with the Native Americans. Porcelain shards found at Point Reyes are part of the evidence that Drakes Cove, at the mouth of Drakes Estero, was the place.

Alternative locations, including Campbell Cove in Bodega Bay, are proposed by “one or two people,” rather than a broad consensus of experts, Von der Porten said.

What’s not disputed is Drakes Bay’s value as a site for continued archeological investigation of the earliest West Coast contact between Europeans and Indians.

“There are few places in the United States where it is possible to learn about this initial contact and its consequences,” a Park Service report said.

The landmark designation does not affect the commercial oyster farm in Drakes Estero, the Park Service said.

Among the 26 historic landmarks announced Wednesday were four others in California: the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene; Knight’s Ferry Bridge in Stanislaus County; and the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in both San Francisco and Los Angeles.

They now are among 2,527 national historic landmarks.

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)

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