Geographer: Research shows Brits reached Southeast Alaska first

Sir Francis Drake said to have reached mouth of the Stikine River

Posted: Monday, August 07, 2000

VANCOUVER, British Columbia - A Canadian researcher says he has proof a famed British explorer made a secret mission into Southeast Alaska more than 400 years ago.

Sir Francis Drake's voyage would have been the first made by a European explorer into Alaska waters. It was likely part of the late 1500s political intrigue between England and Spain, which were both colonizing North America.

It took Spanish explorers another 200 years to reach what became Southeast Alaska. Russian colonists followed shortly thereafter.

The claims are made in a 300-page research paper by geographer Samuel Bawlf, a former British Columbia cabinet minister who spent half a decade at the British Library in London studying maps and maritime records from Drake's time.

Bawlf, 56, said the full of extent of Drake's explorations emerged from a web of state intrigues, encrypted maps and official cover-ups in the lethal jockeying for power between Queen Elizabeth I of England and King Phillip II of Spain.

A number of experts say Bawlf's research about the expedition in 1579 poses a significant challenge to some long-held assumptions about European exploration along North America's West Coast.

Drake became the most celebrated adventurer of the Elizabethan age by circumnavigating the globe between 1578 and 1580.

Before his passage across the Pacific, he is known to have ventured up the West Coast, but historians have long believed he got little farther north than California before turning for home in the fall of 1579.

Bawlf said he became curious about several months of Drake's time that appeared to be unaccounted for.

He said Drake, like many explorers of the age, was seeking a western entrance to a Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Drake reached the mouth of the Stikine River near what became Wrangell in Southeast Alaska, explored the Strait of Georgia, probably sailed into Puget Sound, found the crucial straits of the Inside Passage between Vancouver Island and the mainland and identified the most important islands along the British Columbia coast before returning to Oregon and then heading for England, Bawlf said.

Bawlf said the published details about the journey were carefully contrived to conceal Drake's real whereabouts.

The Russians did the same thing to keep Vitus Bering's discoveries in western Alaska in 1741 from the Spanish, who still claimed the entire West Coast of North America.

Francis Herbert, curator of maps for the Royal Geographical Society in London and former president of the Society for the History of Discoveries, called Bawlf's investigation groundbreaking.

``In that others agree that Drake could well have had good reason to voyage farther north to B.C. and Alaska, I am sufficiently convinced of his arguments,'' Herbert said.

Marcel van den Broecke, an expert on the maps of Ortelius, whose atlas became the best-selling book of the late Elizabethan period, said Bawlf's findings have caused him to reappraise the extent of Drake's voyages in the Pacific.

By combining a study of political documents with the cartographic evidence, Bawlf has produced important new insights, van Broecke said from the Netherlands.

Others agreed.

``It's a considerable manuscript,'' said Robin Winks, a professor of history at Yale University and former chairman of the U.S. National Parks Historic Sites Advisory Board. ``I think it's a very convincing study and a very significant work.''

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