Drakes role in local history
Published: Monday, January 21, 2013 at 2:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 2:23 p.m.
Over the holiday season I had the good fortune to spend a few weeks in the vicinity of Antarctica, Cape Horn, and the Falkland Islands. During this sojourn, which included sailing through the Straits of Magellan and crossing Drake’s Passage, considered the roughest seas of the world, we were treated to learned presentations on several notable explorers of that region.
One of those stalwarts was England’s Sir Francis Drake, who executed the second circumnavigation of the globe (and was in fact the first head-of-expedition to complete the trip himself, Magellan having died en route) and was the discoverer of Drake’s Passage, the key route around the Horn.
Hearing all this, I was reminded that Drake is an important part of our own local history and that oddly enough, not that many people are aware that one of the most eminent explorers of all time actually spent 36 days just a short distance from Petaluma. In June, 1579, about 270 years before Petaluma was settled, after Drake had successfully navigated his way around the tip of South America, he was off the northern California coast and had need of re-provisioning and repair of his ship, the Golden Hinde.
Where did he land? If there had been early agreement as to Drake’s landing spot early on, that place today might be as famous as Plymouth Rock. But, there were rival claimants. Foremost was Drake’s Cove at Point Reyes National Seashore. Another claimant was Bodega Bay. There were others further north, and then, a claim was made to a couple of sites inside San Francisco Bay.
In 1949, a group called the Drake Navigators Guild was formed in San Francisco, and its head was none other than famed World War II hero Admiral Chester Nimitz. Another was Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morrison, whose two-volume “The European Discovery of America” still stands as one of the best narrations of new world exploration. A key figure in this group was Raymond Aker, who became determined that Drake landed at Point Reyes, and spent decades accumulating data to support his contention.
It would take almost half a century for Aker’s efforts to bear significant fruit. As far back as 1978, Aker and the Guild made a concentrated effort to get the State of California to support Point Reyes as the official landing site, and a two-day gathering of historians and state officials was convened at the town of Point Reyes. However, the Guild had formidable opposition in the form of a man named Robert Power, the owner of the former Nut Tree, a major tourist stop on the freeway near Vacaville.
Power was a major contributor to key state elected officials, and he was a staunch supporter of San Francisco Bay as the actual site. His influence in the various reaches of state government was sufficiently strong that the group adjourned in 1978 without affirming Point Reyes as Drake’s landing spot.
Power died in 1991, and Aker died in 2002. The battle was continued by Santa Rosan Edward Von der Porten, who is still listed as head of the Drake Navigators Guild on their website. I had the opportunity to speak with Von der Porten a decade or so back when he appeared at the Petaluma Historical Museum. He said then that although Power was gone, his influence remained and securing state support for the site remained a major challenge.
However, the federal government finally decided to act. In late 2011 the National Parks Advisory Board’s Landmarks Committee unanimously recommended recognition of the Drakes Bay Historical and Archaeological District nomination and a month later, the National Parks Advisory Board cast a unanimous vote in favor of the National Historic Landmark designation. From there, it went to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar for his signature this past October. It is now official — Drake landed at Drake’s Cove at Point Reyes.
Drake’s voyage was one of the most significant ever completed on this planet, and for those of us here in Petaluma, it is just a short drive away to see where a portion of it took place.
(Donn Bennett, business writer and consultant, has been involved with city planning issues since the 1970s. His e-mail address is email@example.com.)
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