The mouth of Drakes Estero, widely recognized as the most likely location of Sir Francis Drake’s landing on the Pacific coast in 1579, is getting additional recognition from the state. The site of the encampment Drake called New Albion, located in the Point Reyes National Seashore and already recognized by the National Park Service, became a California Historical Landmark earlier this month.
The arrival of Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind, at Drakes Bay almost 450 years ago marked a number of firsts, historians say. It was the first English colonial claim to what is now the United States, predating settlements in Virginia and Massachusetts. It marked the first use of the English language in the future United States, and the first interaction between Northern California Native peoples and Europeans.
“This is the first time the state has acknowledged the site,” said Michael Von der Porten, vice president and archivist of the Drake Navigators Guild, a historical research group that has petitioned for recognition of the site for decades. “All those firsts being here in Northern California, it should definitely be on the list.”
In 1578, Drake sailed the Golden Hind through the Straits of Magellan at the southern tip of South America and continued up the Pacific coast of the Americas, raiding Spanish ships and towns. Seeking a northwest passage to the Atlantic, he sailed north, making landfall first at the Oregon Dunes before heading south, rounding Point Reyes, and stopping to repair the hull of the ship at what is now called Drakes Bay.
Drake’s crew built a small fort, hunted deer and seals, and met Coast Miwok people. They applied the name New Albion to the area, after an ancient name for Britain. Thirty-six days later, they left, headed for Asia.
According to the guild, the site at the mouth of Drakes Estero looks much the way it did in 1579, apart from a sand spit built by rancher Bill Hall in the 1940s that juts out toward Limantour Spit. The guild believes the landmark represents a harmonious cross-cultural meeting, unlike later colonial encounters.
“You had so many different cultures coming together at this site in peace and friendship for five weeks,” Mr. Von der Porten said.
Caltrans often installs roadside plaques to commemorate state landmarks, but discussions for where to place a new plaque haven’t yet started. It would be the sixth marker around Drakes Bay to honor the navigator.
At the Drakes Beach parking lot, a plaque honors the quadricentennial of Drake’s landing, installed in 1979 by the state’s quadricentennial commission. There is also an earlier marker on the other end of the parking lot: a Celtic cross put up by the now-defunct Sir Francis Drake Association in 1946 to honor the Episcopal Church service held by Drake and his crew.
Down the beach, at the mouth of Drakes Estero, a post and anchor provided by the British Consulate date back to the 1940s, and closer to the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station is a plaque dedicated by E Clampus Vitus, a satirical fraternal organization with roots in the California Gold Rush. A National Historic Landmark plaque sits near the Limantour Beach parking lot.
“I’m sure N.P.S. doesn’t want a gazillion plaques, but they would probably go along with what the state wants,” Mr. Von der Porten said.
The Drakes Bay National Historic and Archaeological District became a National Historic Landmark in 2012 after an effort spearheaded by Mr. Von der Porten’s father, Edward Von der Porten, then president of the Drake Navigators Guild. The district encompasses 6,000 acres and honors the area’s Coast Miwok history as well as the 1595 landing of Spanish explorer Sebastián Rodriguez Cermeño.
The senior Mr. Von der Porten also helmed a decades-long effort by the guild to prove that Drakes Estero was, in fact, the site where Sir Francis Drake landed. The state’s recent designation, which honors only Drake’s landing, adds weight to the group’s historical account.
When the national landmark was dedicated, Greg Sarris, tribal chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, said Drake’s arrival at Point Reyes represented a moment of “confusion” for the Coast Miwok people.
“Our ancestors thought the dead were returning,” he said. “Ironically, in time, future contact with the Europeans would bring much death to us.”
Mr. Sarris declined to be interviewed about the latest state historic designation.
Drake’s ties to colonialism and slavery have been the subject of recent debate in Marin, where roads and schools have been named after him.
Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors opted to keep the name Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in unincorporated Marin and to consider adding a secondary, ceremonial name without requiring businesses or property owners to change their addresses. The towns of Larkspur, Ross and San Anselmo did the same, but Fairfax voted to change the name. Within the town’s borders, the boulevard will be renamed to honor the Coast Miwok people.
In May, the former Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo was renamed after Archie Williams, a Black Olympic athlete and Air Force officer who taught math and computer science at Drake for more than two decades.
The Drake Navigators Guild doesn’t take a position on the name changes, Mr. Von der Porten said, but he pointed out that Drake freed people enslaved by the Spanish and invited them to join his crew.
The Golden Hind had three or four Black people on board when it arrived in California. According to Mr. Von der Porten, Drake had freed Diego, a former slave born in Africa who escaped Spain and became Drake’s servant onboard the Golden Hind.
“Some people want to consider the Golden Hind a slave ship,” Mr. Von der Porten said. “But from the perspective of a slave or Native American person under Spanish rule, it was a ship of liberation.”
The California Office of Historic Preservation, the agency responsible for the latest designation, is primarily recognizing the history of Drake’s visit as presented by the Drake Navigators Guild, though the national historic district also recognizes the Coast Miwok history of Drakes Bay.
Jay Correia, a cultural resources program supervisor at the agency, said his office has updated landmarks that tell partial or incorrect histories. “We are always interested in making sure that the truth is told and that all peoples’ history is acknowledged,” he said.