For 10 days this month U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service historians and archeologists joined forces with Kake to investigate the possibility that British explorer Sir Francis Drake cruised in Southeast Alaska nearly 200 years before Capt. James Cook did so in 1778.
The theory that Drake's ships came as far north as Wrangell and the nearby Stikine River in 1579 is being advanced by Canadian geographer Samuel Bawlf, founder of the British Columbia Heritage Trust, the provincial agency that handles archeology and history.
In May, Bawlf published "Sir Francis Drake's Secret Voyage to Northwest America," a book outlining his theory. On June 14, as a conclusion to his expedition in Alaskan waters, Bawlf gave a talk at the Clausson Museum in Petersburg.
Drake (1540-96) was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, doing so in 1577-80. During this circumnavigation, he passed through the Strait of Magellan in his 100-foot flag ship the Golden Hinde and pillaged the coasts of South and North America. When his ships returned home laden with treasure, he was knighted by Elizabeth I.
The records of Drake's circumnavigation are "scanty" with definite "gaps in time for a journey of this length - perhaps to keep information away from the Spaniards," notes Mark McCallum of Petersburg, who accompanied Bawlf on his Alaska inquiries.
"When you think about the world picture in the late 1500s, it makes sense" that Drake would have kept his discoveries close to the vest, said McCallum, supervisor of the Heritage Program for the Tongass National Forest.
"Bawlf has an impeccable reputation, and what he says bears serious consideration," said National Park Service historian Frank Norris of Anchorage, who also accompanied Bawlf.
"I went into this with a healthy skepticism," he said. "But I largely agree with his supposition. When Sir Francis Drake was sailing around the world, there was a huge amount of duplicity going on in the courts of Europe. In the maps that were drawn up and the journals written, information was deliberately misrepresented to throw off spies. For example, Drake told people he was sailing for Alexandria. He wasn't about to say he was going to steal ships off the Peruvian coast or search for the Northwest Passage."
Norris believes, with Bawlf, that Drake sailed up Chatham Strait. "Because it was the beginning of the Little Ice Age, he got pushed back by floating ice. We guess he was in Southeast Alaska in July," Norris said.
Chatham Strait lies south of Juneau, between Baranof Island and Kuiu Island.
At first, Drake kept the extent of his voyage secret, threatening crew members with death if they told about it. But gradually, over the next 20 years, Norris said, he let slip to English geographer Richard Hakluyt (1552-1616) and to Dutch cartographers the facts of where he actually sailed.
"I am convinced that he sailed into Southeastern waters," Norris said.
Rumors that Drake had been in Alaska were fueled in the 1950s when a Southeast resident, a prospector whose name has not been revealed, discovered a heavy metal plate in a bay on Chatham Strait. The inscription on the plate indicated that Francis Drake herewith claimed possession of this land in the name of Queen Elizabeth. The prospector also discovered stones with pre-Columbian-like markings - possibly discharged ballast stones, McCallum said.
The prospector approached both the Alaska State Museum in Juneau and the Smithsonian Institution with his plate. Both brushed him off, "dismissing it as a fake," McCallum said. The plate has since disappeared from a shed where it was stored.
"The primary purpose of coming to Alaska was to follow up on the information abut the lead plate evidently inscribed by Drake," Bawlf said Tuesday. "We were able to satisfy ourselves that the bay we went to was the place where the plate was found. It seems to have come into the possession of a chief or shaman, so there is sensitive Tlingit heritage involved. Just before we went out on the expedition, we heard a rumor of another plate on the west side of Kuiu Island. Two kayakers said a fisherman pointed them to a promontory two years ago."
Drake was carrying four prefabricated pinnaces in the hold of the Golden Hinde. He apparently anchored at this bay to assemble a pinnace, a boat that could be sailed or rowed, an auxiliary scout vessel used to probe the coast and shallow waters. While assembling the pinnace, Drake would have come in contact with Native people in the vicinity "and that may have led to the occasion of putting up a plaque in Alaska," Bawlf said.
Bawlf has "laid out a good argument," said McCallum. For that reason, federal agencies funded an expedition to seek more evidence. The Park Service provided a metal-detector technician from the Midwest, while the Forest Service provided a vessel, a skipper, personnel and food for the expedition. Bawlf paid his own expenses, said Jane Smith, district archeologist for the Petersburg Ranger District.
The modern expedition left Petersburg on June 5, and some of its members continued in the field through June 14. Members included Gina Esposito and Smith of the Petersburg Ranger District; McCallum of the Tongass National Forest; Norris; Dawn Jackson, executive assistant for the Organized Village of Kake, the federally recognized Tlingit village; and historian Charles Johnson of Kake.
"Anything is possible," Jackson said. "It's not set in stone who was the first European to contact Tlingits. I am intrigued by (Bawlf's theory) because details of Drake's voyage seem to have been covered up by the British government."
If Drake did have contact with Southeast Alaska, "it certainly antedates the Spanish and the Russians coming here," said Johnson. "All I know is that it's very, very interesting. I enjoyed Bawlf. He wasn't forcing his messages on us. I was very impressed."
Fearing looters, McCallum and others are not revealing precisely where they looked.
"We went to a tidal basin that this prospector had pointed out, where he thought there was evidence of some early historical activity. We did not find any stones that were not indigenous. We did a metal-detection survey. It's possible that Drake constructed a smaller ship, a pinnace, at a site like this, and then dispatched a crew further north to find the west end of the Northwest Passage," McCallum said.
From Drake's journals it is known that at some point on his excursion Drake did just this, and the crew never returned. But where the expedition launched is uncertain.
"The basin goes dry at low tide so you would have 10 hours a day to work on it. When he built a 40-foot pinnace earlier, it took four to five days," McCallum said.
To build a pinnace, however, the ship's carpenters would need to build some kind of cradle in which to construct the keel. The modern expedition did not find any stumps in the forest or stakes in the mud that would indicate felling of timber or ship construction, McCallum said.
What they did find was an ancient shell midden, from which they obtained a charcoal sample. If the sample shows that Tlingit subsistence life was going on at this spot at the same time as Drake was on the West Coast, trading would certainly have taken place. In that case, further inquiries will be made at the site, McCallum said.
Bawlf says maps of Drake's voyage were encrypted. The map of the Pacific Coast, for example, shows large islands. Because there are no large islands off California, he reasons that Drake and company must have sailed further north than the tiny Farallons off San Francisco.
"What has been said to be a stop in California was probably in Oregon," Bawlf said.
On the other hand, the Drake Navigators Guild and the Drake Exploration Society take the traditional view and conclude that Drake sojourned at Drake's Bay and estuary in Marin, Calif., and never ventured further north.
The loss of the mysterious plate leaves a hole in the search, McCallum said, and he wishes it had been better documented. He is trying to contact the Smithsonian to see if they made drawings or photos.
"The man who found the plate was ridiculed; they thought it was a hoax. Obviously if anything is found in the future it should be left in situ so we could know from its context, the soil around it, how long it has been there," Bawlf said.
He hoped his expedition would "raise the awareness of the professional community and the public" and lead to further research.
"We haven't given up. If there's something out there in the archeological record, we want to find it," said archeologist Smith.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire. com.