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Unsolved Northwest mysteries

Sir Francis Drake's West Coast harbor provokes ongoing debate Credit: 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).

As to the claim that Drake sailed to 48 degrees north latitude, he says that when you calculate Drake’s other navigational measurements, it makes no sense with the pace of his voyage, and he argues that the weight of the evidence is that it’s probably a typo. The cousin’s testimony is also suspect because it was obtained while the man was a prisoner of the Spanish, probably under torture. The mainstream scholarship screams Drake’s Bay. Others say he’s only got a circumstantial case.

Drake’s account of his visit to the West Coast includes detailed descriptions of the Indians he met, and this was first-contact for the English. Drake did his best to assure them he was not a god, though they cried and scratched their faces in a kind of holy terror that, he believed, was induced by his magnificence. Drake and his men sang hymns to calm the Indians, and perhaps themselves. At any rate, the detailed descriptions of the Indians has led some to believe they were the Miwoks of California, but another presenter at the conference, Melissa Darby, said not so fast. She has made a detailed study of the homes and habits of the Indians of southern coastal Oregon and believes that there is nothing inconsistent with their architecture and Drake’s account of what he saw.

So, despite generations of scholarship and debate, the Drake mystery lingers because there’s room for doubt.

One reason doubt can enter in is that the history of the Pacific Northwest Coast is much more complicated than the history books tell it. And siting Drake’s landing at Nehalem Bay in Oregon points the finger to another coastal and archaeological mystery: the so called Beeswax Ship.

Some centuries ago, a ship wrecked on the Oregon coast bearing an enormous cargo of beeswax. It was likely a Spanish galleon from Manila; those were known to carry large loads of the stuff. Beeswax was not a local product since there were no native honey bees here. In the years since, beeswax has periodically been washing up on shore, in large chunks and as candles. Beeswax from the wreck has been found in Indian archaeological sites, and it is mentioned in accounts of early contact with whites as an item traded by Indians along the Columbia River. Lewis and Clark encountered it. It appears to have shown up prior to any known contact between Northwest natives and Europeans.

A volunteer group, co-headed by Scott Williams, an archaeologist for the Washington Department of Transportation, is trying to find the Spanish shipwreck and identify the vessel. The wreck is known to be in the vicinity of Nehalem Bay, where it likely wrecked on the large sand spit there. Williams believes the wreck was moved from its original wreck site, carried or buried by winds and tides, and certainly moved by the giant tsunami that is known to have hit the Northwest coast around 1700.

He also says he is “99.5% certain” which vessel it was. Based on the age of the wax, teak wood from the wreck, and fragments of Chinese porcelain (again) found on the spit, along with the roster of missing Spanish Manila galleons, his chief suspect is the San Cristo de Burgos, lost in 1693. The search for it continues as the full mystery of the ship is not yet solved.

An interesting aspect of the case, and the coast, is that people had a habit of washing up there before the history books were ready to record them. Drake’s site is uncertain, but broken china has been found on the beach at Drake’s Bay, indicating both that Drake might have left some behind (as trade goods perhaps) and that yet another Spanish wreck occurred there. Indians tell of finding white, bearded strangers on remote Oregon beaches, who were killed, enslaved or married into local tribes. In 1811, Northwest traders encountered an aged Indian who claimed to be the son of a shipwrecked Spanish sailor.

Archaeologists and historians also can’t dismiss tales of Asian visitors, including Japanese fishermen on junks lost at sea. Asian artifacts do show up in archaeological sites, and while the scale and influence of this contact is debatable, it contributes to the sense that globalization reached here long ago when some people, not just Thomas Friedman, really thought the earth was flat. Oh, and there was the land bridge from Asia too.

One very intriguing archaeological find is a basket discovered in the mud down on the Columbia near Portland on Sauvie Island. In 2007, a fragile woven bag of reeds was found at an Indian site known as Sunken Village. When an expert examined the basket, she found it to be made in a diamond weave pattern that has strong ties in its design and execution to bags made by the Ainu and other peoples in Japan for the last 4,000 years, and by bag makers in the Great Basin whose work dates back some 9,000 years. As such, it was dubbed the “Lucy” of basketry, tying some loose ends together. Basket weaving techniques seem to be passed on by skilled hands, and Northwest tribal techniques and influences can be charted on something that looks like a complex family tree of basketry. The consequence of this find, according to archaeologist Dale Croes, is that investigators wonder if it isn’t evidence of the sharing of basketry techniques across the Pacific.

One last mystery here has investigators stumped. While excavating the remains of a number of Chinook Indian plank houses on the site of what may have been Lewis & Clark’s westernmost campsite, archaeologists found a number of interesting things, such as copper, clay pipes, beads and musket balls, just what you would expect from a trade-era campsite. But they also found another kind of ball: small, handmade clay objects that were about the size and shape as marbles.

There were more than 160 of them, a bit crude but deliberately made, rolled by hand, and found in one area. What are they? Northwest Indians are known for gambling games played with stones or bones, but not ones that involve little marbles (they averaged around 10 to 11 millimeters in size). Could this be a marbles game that Lewis & Clark’s men or some shipwreck whaler introduced? Or were they used for some other purpose, such as cooking, ritual or trade? Just what will they think of Legos in the future?

Researchers are mystified and lack the funding to push the question further (such as testing the clay to determine where it came from). The title of a paper presented by Pam Trautman was “Have You Lost Your Marbles?” Dealing with such stuff day in and day out, it’s amazing more archaeologist haven’t.

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