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Unsolved Northwest mysteries

Some of our region's archaeological cold cases are tough to crack, from Sir Francis Drake's landing site to the source of beeswax on the beach, from strange clay balls to the "Lucy" of Indian basketry.
Sir Francis Drake's West Coast harbor provokes ongoing debate

Sir Francis Drake's West Coast harbor provokes ongoing debate Library of Congress

If archaeologists turn muck into gold, they are also often left with unanswered questions. Such is the nature of inquiry: One question inevitably leads to another, one answer demands the next. Is it science, or a hall of mirrors?

The Northwest has its share of mysteries, and archaeologists are the ultimate "cold case" detectives, trying to solve them, sometimes millennia after the fact. A couple of examples of as-yet-unanswered questions were outlined at the Northwest Anthropology Conference at Central Washington University, which I attended last week. About certain subjects, I left the conference with more questions than answers.

For example, take the notable Elizabethan privateer and explorer Sir Francis Drake. He was the first Englishman to camp out in what was to become America, and that event in 1579 turns our history on its head. We all know that America was settled by the Pilgrims in their inexorable march from East to West, from Plymouth to the Pacific, at least so traditionalists like the Texas School Textbook Committee would have you believe. But in fact, Britain's first claim was established on the West Coast, by Drake, who claimed the continent, from West to East, for England, and dubbed the new land Nova Albion.

Just where that claim occurred has been debated for many decades. The officially accepted version is that Drake sailed as far north up the coast as southern Oregon, turned back, holed up just north of modern day San Francisco at what is now called Drake's Bay, claimed the land for the Virgin Queen, read from the Book of Common Prayer, met the local Indians, fixed his boat, then headed across the Pacific to finish sailing around the world. In this version of events, British America actually began in California, so the Pilgrims and Jamestown folks were merely chasing Drake's Golden Hind end.

But that version of history has been hotly contested. Despite a fair amount of documentary and archaeological evidence, Drake's West Coast harbor has been placed, according to various alternative theories, anywhere from Alaska and British Columbia to Washington and Oregon. Part of the trouble is how far north Drake actually sailed. A major account of the voyage and testimony from Drake's cousin, who was along, say they reached 48 degrees, putting them off the Washington coast. They were turned back, in part, because of lousy June weather, which tends to add to this account's credibility: who hasn't faced yuck off the coast in summer?

Recently, a book by author Garry Gitzen, proposes that Drake's landing spot was in Nehalem Bay in Oregon. The book received praise in a review published in the Oregon Archaeological Newsletter, so it can't be dismissed as merely hawking a maritime Bigfoot legend, though Drake's Bay believers warn of buying into "conspiracy" theories.

The California view was strongly defended at the conference by Drake researcher Ed Von der Porten, who told the archaeologists that all of the evidence, including artifacts (iron, stoneware, lead and Chinese Ming porcelain that made its way on shore), maps, navigational calculations, etc. lead to the conclusion that Drake's Bay was the place. It even has the white cliffs, like Dover, that inspired the Nova Albion name, the ancient name the Greek's legendarily gave to Britain long ago.

It should be noted that one of the chief advisers on such matters to Drake's boss, Queen Elizabeth, was the alchemist/spy/mathematician John Dee, who wrote a white paper for her majesty outlining Britain's right to the New World. It was based in part, he wrote, on the fact that long before Francis Drake, King Arthur himself had made his way to the new continent after a trek through the snowy Arctic. With such ideas, Britain pooh-poohed Spanish claims to the New World.

Von der Porten, who has spent over 60 years researching Drake's landing, has extra credibility because he has also helped debunk an artifact (the purported brass plaque left by Drake) as nothing more than a hoax, even though the plaque appeared to support the California claim (he says he has a book coming out on that topic in the near future, one that identifies the hoaxers and their motives).


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Mar 30, 7:18 a.m. Inappropriate

Small correction: It's spelled Nehalem Bay. Great article.

psnewman

Posted Tue, Mar 30, 7:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the correction. I must have been thinking of Washington's Newhalem.

Posted Tue, Mar 30, 8:03 a.m. Inappropriate

Another unsolved Northwest archaeological mystery: Kennewick Man. It looked as though "science" was about to announce there were people of European descent here prior to "native" tribal peoples. But, then, the politics of social justice interceded and Kennewick man was locked up, the scientific pursuit of information shut down.

BlueLight

Posted Tue, Mar 30, 10:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Smart provocative piece. Always interesting to see how far back we really can see. I think my favorite tale of the distant past has to do with Dead Man's Point in Bellingham where early settlers found Spanish helmets and armor burried in the sand. The story emerged from native oral tradition that the crew from a galleon fought to the last against native forces(maybe North Coast warriors). Hard to date but must have been during the Perez/Heceta period. Something Quixotic about rusted Spanish armor in our part of the known world.

Artifacts

Posted Tue, Mar 30, 11:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Artifacts: Spanish armor, indeed And here's a story about Spanish musket balls. My father worked summers in a logging camp near Neah Bay in the 1930s. He told of two loggers coming into camp showing off a musket ball they found embedded in an old growth tree they had cut down. You could see where the saw had bit into the ball. My dad, a college boy, knew that there had been a Spanish settlement at Neah Bay in the late 1700s (it was the first permanent European settlement in what became Washington). He convinced the loggers to show him the tree where it came from, a sure enough when he counted the tree rings where the tree had grown around it, it dated to that period. He showed too much interest in it, tried to buy it off them but they wouldn't sell. They later went on a drunk and lost or traded it away for booze. I wonder if that relic is sitting in a shoebox in Port Angeles somewhere.

Posted Tue, Mar 30, 12:06 p.m. Inappropriate

As much as I completely disagree w/ your politics, Knute, I do appreciate your love for the history and tradition of the PacNW. As a history and archaeological buff, I loved this article - fascinating read. As a seattle-transplant from back east I wasn't yet aware of most of what you covered. Are there some books/journals you recommend reading for further background?

tsawicki

Posted Tue, Mar 30, 2:21 p.m. Inappropriate

What a marvelous and fun way to earn a living and add to your readers' knowledge in the bargain! Congratulations Knute. BTW: I applaud your politics wholeheartedly.

boboh7

Posted Tue, Mar 30, 8:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Nice article, Skip. The once definitive historical (as opposed to archeological) work on the shipwrecked Spanish galleon argues that it was the San Francisco Xavier that came ashore in 1707, not the 1693 vessel. The same authority suggests that the 1693 vessel may have burned. Warren L. Cook, FLOOD TIDE OF EMPIRE: SPAIN IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST (1973). Has Cook been superseded?

ProfFool

Posted Wed, Mar 31, 8:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Scott Williams, the principal investigator in the Beeswax Wreck Project, replies to ProFool's query:

Cook's reference that the de Burgos might have burned is based on a collection of stories written by an American living in the Philippines in the early 1920s, who claims to have translated old letters from the Manila archives, one of which included the story of burned timbers and surviviors turning up years later. But that same collection includes some pretty fantastic (and rather dubious) stories, and no references to the dates or authors of the supposed stories. Other documents from archives say the Spanish spent years searching for the ship, and never found a trace of her.

Cook's work is great, but like the rest of us he was only human and some errors crept in, for example, the date of 1707 for the Xavier: she actually was lost in 1705, as the Spanish records make clear (Cook cited a later French account, which is why the date is wrong).

So, if we are interpreting the archaeological and geological evidence correctly, then yes, we're superceding Cook's idea. But archaeology is almost as much art as it is science, and so there's always room for doubt.

Posted Wed, Mar 31, 9:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Good article. One small correction, John Drake was the cousin, not nephew, of Francis Drake. John Drake gave two depositions to the Spanish Inquisition in 1584 and 1587. Both times he said they came in at 44 degrees N. latitude and went to 48 degrees. The minister who was with Drake on his voyage, Francis Fletcher's "The World Encompassed by Francis Drake" states they went to 48 degrees N. latitude. Mr. Von der Porten is incorrect when he says it was a misprint. It's nice to see that the truth is finally coming out as to where Francis Drake landed in the summer of 1579. If you'd like more information on this subject, go to my web site www.FortNehalem.net and read "Oregon's Stolen History."

ggitzen

Posted Wed, Mar 31, 9:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Drake's cousin, got it.

Posted Wed, Mar 31, 12:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Fascinating article. I think that there is still a lot more to be learned about Chinese exploration in the time before they shut themselves off from the rest of the world. If they hadn't turned inward, perhaps today Seattle's International District, not Ballard, would be the home of the Svenskahoovians.

dbreneman

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