Pre-Colonial California
Sir Francis Drake in Central California, 1579
by Justin Ruhge

The voyage of the Englishman Sir Francis Drake in 1578 from England to South America and then by way of the Straits of Magellan, discovered by the Captain of that name in 1521, was the second circumnavigation of the world, which made a profound impression on the haughty and overly secure Spanish. It led eventually to a total breakdown of English-Spanish relations and to the Spanish Armada against England in 1588. Drake was only the second European in history to visit the northern latitudes of the west coast of California, the Spanish explorer Cabrillo being the first in 1542. Drake returned to England in 1580.

During that voyage, Drake explored well to the north on the American continent to learn if there was any evidence of a "northwest" passage to the east. Having failed to find this, Drake prepared to return to England by crossing the Pacific Ocean using the many charts confiscated from the Spanish earlier during his removal of treasure from their ships in South America. To prepare for this perilous voyage, Drake spent five weeks in California cleaning and provisioning his ship and consolidating his Spanish treasure. While at a "Good Baye", diaries of the voyage tell us that Drake had his men build a fort with a wall and to place in it his ship's cannon. They built a tent village behind the walls so as to protect themselves from the Native Americans. While this was a temporary fort, it was nevertheless the first fort in California built by Europeans.

Since this voyage, the location of the "Good Baye" has been assumed by historians and navigators to be around the latitude of 38° north, just above San Francisco Bay. However, there is evidence to challenge this assumption and to look elsewhere for a fit of the rather meager data on the voyage that brought Drake to the coast of California.

Drake's reasons for coming to the coast of California were not originally based on a desire for colonization nor a mission to explore or survey the land for the Queen of England. They were to find a safe and quick way to return to England with his ship, the Golden Hinde, which was fully loaded with captured treasures from the Spanish galleons in South America. Upon returning home to Plymouth, England in 1580, Drake was knighted for the captured Spanish treasures that he brought to the Crown and his backers, crew and himself. He turned over his diary of the voyage to Queen Elizabeth who imposed a cloak of silence on the voyage as to the location, goals and accomplishments. Queen Elizabeth was embarrassed by Drake's great success and did not want the Spanish to learn that she and her court were the instigators and the profiteers from this plunder of the Spanish Ocean.

Drake had a copy of the record of the First Voyage Around the World (1519-1522), by Antonio Pigafetta, a passenger on the voyage with Magellan and only one of eight to survive. In this publication were many drawings of just what was seen on the original voyage around the world by Magellan who did not survive the voyage. Drake had a copy of this rare book with him. On Drake's voyage 60 years later, every effort was made to draw what was seen and map the course of the voyage for a similar record. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, the original Drake voyage records are still lost to history.

However, statements from other diaries and journals of members on the voyage, and a map of the voyage published in 1581 show the location of the "Good Baye" on a coast running east and west with four islands, but at the latitude of 38° instead of the 34.5° for the central coast, which these features represent.

According to these diaries and journals, Drake was looking for a safe place to stop so he could clean and reload his ship, the Golden Hinde, and to wait for calm weather in the Western Pacific. Such a "Good Baye" was found after weeks of searching somewhere on the coast of California where he and his party stayed between June 17 and July 23, 1579. Drake had captured pilots from Spanish ships on his raids along the coast of South America. These Spanish pilots had been sailing across the Pacific for years on the Spanish galleons from the Philippines to Acapulco, Mexico. From them he learned much about navigating along the coast in the northern latitudes of California and crossing the Pacific Ocean. Drake had ruled out returning home to England by way of South America and the Straits of Magellan for fear of being intercepted by the Spanish. His second option was to look for the Gulf of Anian (Northwest Passage), which many at that time believed connected the Pacific with the Atlantic Oceans. After weeks of searching in vain for such a passage in the northern latitudes of California, Drake sailed south to look for a safe harbor and to prepare for a crossing of the Pacific.

Just where on the coast of California Drake stayed has become a historical mystery ever since. As mentioned earlier, Drake's diary has been lost to the modern world. While on the coast, Drake built a fort, met the local Indians (who considered him a god and crowned him king) and claimed the land for the Queen of England, naming it New Albion because the lime stone cliffs outside the harbor reminded him of the English coast near his home at Plymouth. Drake had captured a ketch off the coast of Central America, which he used to carry some of the Spanish treasure. Before leaving the coast, this ship was emptied and burned in the "Good Baye." Drake then sailed to one of the nearby islands (St. James) where he spent a day collecting seals and birds as food for the long Pacific voyage.

Over the years many volumes have been written to identify the location of this famous visit on the coast of California. All the works have assumed that the location was in the vicinity of 38° north latitude. However, the proposed location of 38° never quite seemed to fit the reported descriptions of the location and the characteristics of the Indians. Point Reyes, Bodega Bay, Tomales Bay, Bolinas Bay and San Francisco Bay have all been considered as possible sites.

The key consideration has always been latitude. But this is suspect in itself. Latitude readings during this period could vary from one to three degrees with increasing error the farther north the readings were taken. Drake was not particularly interested in where he was but in finding a safe passage to England. Even more importantly, the maps that were published years after the Drake Voyage show the location of the "Good Baye" on a coast running east and west with islands in some maps and in some without. The first map showing Drake's voyage in 1581 was the Van Sype map which was reviewed and approved by Drake and shows the east-west coast and islands at 38°. Maps prior to this voyage, which were based on the Spanish Cabrillo expedition of 1542, show these features at 34 to 36° latitude. A map by Hakluyt of 1587 shows the east-west coast and the Santa Ynez River at 38°.

It appears, therefore, that Drake was not up north near Point Reyes but on the Central Coast of California.

Besides showing the map of the voyage, the Van Sype map depicts a harbor in which the Golden Hinde was cleaned and prepared for the trip across the Pacific. The outline of this harbor does not "fit" any of the harbors considered up north but it does fit the original shape of the Goleta Slough, located at the present day Santa Barbara Airport! The Goleta Slough was used as a harbor in the 19th century. One small ship, a cutter named Santa Barbara, was constructed there in 1829 and at least two ships went aground near its entrance.

If we assume that this location is possible, then it becomes a relatively easy task to "fit" the rest of the descriptions of the area and the Indians into the picture. Some of these descriptions are: "thick stinking fog…bone chilling cold…cold wind from the northwest…low hills covered with snow…heavy fog…could not see sun or stars…land runs northwest…Indians in a canoe…white banks and cliffs toward the sea…islands off the harbor…homes like church steeples…trees without leaves and ground without green…people live near the shore…strange conies…reed bowls that hold water…dress, manners, customs similar to the Chumash Indians that inhabited the central coast…language…poles with baskets of feathers on them."

These statements about the area of the "Good Baye" were published years after the voyage but they were known by many historians from the time of Drake's return from the voyage. Years dim the accuracy of recollections so some of the comments are puzzling. Just where the comments apply is not at all clear. However, if one considers the sum of all descriptive comments, a probable best fit to a location is possible. In this case, the Central Coast runs east to west, there are bluffs outside the harbor which have white rock, there are four islands just a day's sail away for a 16th century caravel. The patches of snow can be due to the many patches of exposed sandstone and diatomaceous rock on the coast; the fog on the coast is heavy and cold on the Central Coast during the June-July period in most years; the Chumash built excellent canoes and water tight reed bowls and their ceremonial grounds were usually marked by a pole with a basket of feathers. The reference to houses steeple-shaped may refer to the temescal or sweathouse used by the Native Americans in many areas along the coast of California. The strange conies are probably the ubiquitous prairie dogs.

All of these factors point to the original Goleta Slough as a possible location for the "Good Baye" and the first fort on the West Coast of California. Someday if the Drake diary is found maybe history will know for sure, but for now this is the most likely place to look. See Gunpowder and Canvas by the author for an in-depth presentation of the facts that may support this historical concept.

A 16th Century Drawing of the Drake's "Good Baye" and the Fort on the Shore At the Back on the Water's Edge. From the Hondius Broadside ,1595, British Library, London, England.
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Updated 8 February 2016