Public airs wish to rename Sir Francis Drake Boulevard

David Briggs
In addition to the boulevard and a Larkspur sculpture that have drawn criticism in the past month, there is another, less-known relic of Sir Francis Drake in Marin, on the shores of the Point Reyes National Seashore. In 1949, the Sir Francis Drake Association of California erected this seven-foot granite cross dedicated to Drake and his legacy as a colonizer and Protestant missionary at the edge of the marsh on Drakes Beach, where he is thought to have landed for a five-week stay in 1579. Another cross dedicated to Drake stands in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, similarly weathered and difficult to find.  

Are we going to change the name of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard? During a two-hour session convened remotely last Friday afternoon, Supervisors Dennis Rodoni and Katie Rice and officials from Marin’s cities and towns listened to the input from over 100 residents, the majority of whom favored a renaming. The idea was first posed in June by an online petition that tied the English sea captain to his legacy of slave trading. Though the lion’s share of the callers, who had two minutes each to speak, advocated for throwing out the name, others disputed the proposal, citing logistical inconveniences and historical evidence that painted a more complicated picture of Drake’s past. (Not all residents had time to speak, despite the fact the session was extended; representatives are accepting written comments.) Michael Van der Porten, an archivist for the Drake Navigators Guild, described how Drake had participated in slave trading in his early years but later liberated enslaved people. There are also accounts that some slaves who escaped the Spanish joined Drake freely in some of his expeditions. “Drake really was a gentleman in a brutal age,” he said. But that context didn’t sit well with some, including Sage Rossman, who has lived on the boulevard her entire life. “I originally came here just to listen, but then I heard some arguments along the lines of, ‘Sir Francis Drake was a good guy, relatively, by 16th-century standards,’” she said. “I needed to take this opportunity to remind everybody that this is not, in fact, the 16th century. It’s 2020, and we do not put atrocities such as slavery, even in its more benign forms, in places of honor in 2020.” Noah Block, a San Anselmo resident, also put pressure on the officials on the call. “When we name a building, or street, in our case, we are choosing to honor that person, and we are saying publicly that we believe said person represents the values and morals we believe in. I don’t see how we can say that Sir Francis Drake, a colonizer, a slave trader and a murderer, represents our values—I sure hope not,” he said. Yet others were skeptical that focusing on a name change was the right priority. Ruth Hicks from San Anselmo said, “Today we are facing grave deficits in our budgets, and what funds we have to spend should be spent or allotted on righting social or economic inequalities—providing more housing, making sure there is equal access for educational support and opportunities for all of those who have been historically overlooked or denied.” In their closing comments, many of the representatives reflected support for the renaming, with the exception of the mayor of Ross, Julie McMillan, who said 38 out of 40 written responses she’d received from her constituents had opposed the change. She asked that the impacts on residents, especially business owners, be thoroughly evaluated. The next step, Supervisor Rodoni said, is to hold another public session. A date has yet to be set, but the forum will likely include a panel with local historians and possibly representatives from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, whom many have asked to choose a new name.