It is known that Drake landed somewhere north of the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay in 1579. According to a contemporary account by Francis Pretty, a member of Drake’s party, Drake left behind "a plate of brasse" as "a monument of our being there" that claimed "her maiesties, and successors right and title to that kingdome." The memoirs also say that the plate included the date of the landing, Drake’s name, and the queen’s portrait on a sixpence coin, showing through a hole in the plate.

Pretty’s detailed description of the plate became the recipe for the prank that became the Drake Plate hoax.

[edit] The found plate: description and text

The plate that came to light in the 1930s matched the description in historical record in many ways. It was made of brass, with lettering that appeared to have been chiseled into its face. There was the hole for a sixpence coin, and the text contained all the content that Pretty described:


[edit] Origins: a practical joke gone awry

The origins of the found plate have been a matter of debate and rumor for much of its history. Historians have only recently painted a clear picture of the beginning of the hoax. Over the space of a decade, a team of four researchers pieced together a complete narrative of the out-of-hand joke. The four – Edward Von der Porten, Raymond Aker, Robert W. Allen, and James M. Spitze – published their account in California History in 2002.

[edit] Creation

According to this account, the plate was intended to be a joke among members of a playful fraternity of California history enthusiasts, the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus (“ECV”). G. Ezra Dane, an ECV leader, initiated the hoax as a joke intended for fellow “Clamper” George Bolton to find. Dane’s fellow conspirators in creating the plate, George Barron, George Clark, Lorenz Noll, and Albert Dressler, were not members of ECV, but were all active in the California history community.

Dane was the leading figure in reviving ECV as a fraternity of (exclusively male) historians and Western lore enthusiasts. ECV describes itself as “dedicated to the erection of historical plaques, the protection of widows and orphans, especially the widows, and having a grand time while accomplishing these purposes.” Pranks at fellow “Clampers” expense were a regular part of the group’s activities.

The target of the hoax, Herbert Eugene Bolton, had a special interest in the plate. Bolton was a distinguished professor of California history and director of the Bancroft Library at the University of California. Over his long career, he was known to have exhorted generations of students to look for the plate – and contact him if they ever heard of an artifact matching the historical description.

According to the 2002 account, Dane initiated the plot. Barron, a former curator of American history at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, designed the plate and bought the brass at a nearby shipyard, where a worker cut the plate from modern brass with a modern guillotine shear. George Clark, an inventor and art critic and appraiser, hammered the letters into the plate with a simple cold chisel. Clark told his wife that the “C.G.” – interpreted later to stand for ‘Captain General’ – before Drake’s name was essentially his signature. And, as a final mark of the gag, Noll and Dressler painted “ECV” on the back of the plate in paint visible only under ultraviolet light.

[edit] Discovery and loss

Von der Porten, Aker, and Allen surmise that the conspirators probably planted the plate in Marin in 1933, not far from the supposed location of Drake’s landing. William Caldeira, a chauffeur, found the plate while his employer, Leon Bocqueraz, was hunting near the shores of Drake’s Bay with a companion, Anson Stiles Blake. Bocqueraz was a banker, while Blake was a prominent and active Berkeley alumnus. Both were members of the California Historical Society.

Caldeira showed the dirt-covered plate to Bocqueraz, then stowed the plate in the car to investigate later and then forgot about it. Some weeks later, he found it again while cleaning the car on the San Rafael Ferry and threw it away on the side of the road in San Rafael – several miles from its original location, but still in the Marin area. This was the first of a series of events that ultimately spun the joke out of the conspirators’ control.

[edit] Re-discovery and publicity

The plate was found again three years later in 1936 by Beryle Shinn, a shop clerk. Shinn showed it to a friend, a Berkeley student, who suggested he take the plate to Bolton. In February 1937, Shinn brought it to Bolton – which to Bolton must have seemed the fulfillment of a decades-old professional dream. Bolton compared it to Francis Pretty’s contemporaneous description of the plate. He alerted Robert Gordon Sproul, the University of California president, and Allen L. Chickering, the president of the California Historical Society, to the possibility of a major find. Chickering and Bolton negotiated to buy the plate, offering to pay $2,500 and to assume all risk regarding the authenticity of the plate.

Then another series of events took the hoax to the next level. One day after agreeing in principle to sell the plate, Shinn took it back from Bolton, saying he wanted to show it to his uncle and then return it. Bolton and Chickering did not hear from Shinn again for four days. Apparently frightened that they may lose this major opportunity, Chickering moved to quickly buy the plate for $3,500. The plate was then donated to the University’s Bancroft Library.

Bolton soon announced at a California Historical Society meeting on April 6, 1937, "One of the world's long-lost historical treasures apparently has been found! . . . The authenticity of the tablet seems to me beyond all reasonable doubt." Now, having only minimally investigated the plate, Bolton and Chickering had publicly committed themselves, personally and professionally, and their institutions to the authenticity of the plate.

[edit] Early doubts

Skeptics pointed out many suspicious elements of the plate. Reginald B. Haselden, a specialist in Elizabethan literature, published a critique of the plate in the September 1937 issue of California History, outlining a list of problems. The spelling seemed modern. The wording did not match normal Elizabethan forms; for example, the plate reads “Queen Elizabeth”, not “Elizabeth, by grace of God, Queen of England”. Physically, the plate seemed too uniform and the patina suspect. Yet none of these elements by itself seemed to determine the matter, alternative interpretations of each being available. Haselden’s points were immediately disputed. Chickering published a defense of the plate in the same issue of California Monthly.

[edit] The conspirators’ warnings

The joke, originally intended as an internal Clamper affair, had quickly and suddenly broken out into the public eye. Rather than unveiling their prank at an ECV dinner among friends, revealing the hoax would now be a very public and painful proposition for all involved. As Von der Porten and others wrote: “Private confession could not be kept private, and public confession was fraught with great peril.”

The conspirators found a number of ways of trying to tip off Bolton without actually coming forward themselves. V. L. VanderHoof, a fellow Clamper and Berkeley professor, actually created a spoof of the plate only a few weeks after the announcement of the find, hoping to show Bolton that modern tools could make a plate that looked remarkably like the "real" plate. Clamper Edwin Grabhorn, a Western history publisher, published a spoof letter from the “Consolidated Brasse and Novelty Company” offering a “special line of brass plates” guaranteed to “make your home-town famous.”

Finally, ECV produced a small press run of a book, Ye Preposterous Booke of Brasse, detailing problems with the metal content, wording and spelling. The book even instructed the reader to look for the “ECV” in fluorescent paint on the back and stated outright “we should now re-claim [the plate] as the rightful property of our ancient Order”, meaning ECV.

[edit] 'Confirmation'

While Bolton and Chickering continued to defend the plate, doubts and rumors continued to circulate. Sproul, the University president, had become concerned as well. Bolton selected Professor Cohn Fink, chair of the Division of Electrochemistry of Columbia University to authenticate the plate. While the California history community, and certainly Bolton, would have been aware of the Clampers’ book of clues, Fink may not have been. In any case, in 1938 Fink and his colleague E. P. Polushkin confirmed the plate as genuine in no uncertain terms: “[I]t is our opinion that the brass plate examined by us is the genuine Drake Plate.”

For most observers – and certainly for Bolton and Chickering – this was the definitive statement on the plate’s origins. Photos of the plate appeared in textbooks. Copies were sold as souvenirs, and a copy was also displayed in the library of Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo (the only high school named after the explorer). On several ceremonial occasions, copies of the plate were presented to Queen Elizabeth II. Yet rumors of E Clampus Vitus involvement in the plate continued to circulate.

[edit] Forty years later, science sheds new light

In the early 1970s, physics caught up to Haselden’s original findings. Professor James D. Hart, director of the Bancroft Library, assembled a re-testing plan in preparation for the 400th anniversary of Drake’s landing. Hart reached out to Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art at Oxford University and at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory for a detailed analysis. The tests included x-ray diffraction, stereo microscopy, and additional metallurgical analysis. X-ray diffraction and gamma-ray absorption tests revealed the plate to be too smooth, made by modern rolling equipment, not hammered flat by a sixteenth century hammer. The brass contained far too much zinc, while containing trace metals that corresponded to modern American brass, not Elizabethan English brass. Prof. Cyril Stanley Smith of MIT examined the plate under a stereo microscope and found the edges to be consistent with modern cutting equipment.

No paint visible under ultraviolet light has been detected on the back of the plaque.

[edit] Reference in Fiction

Philip K. Dick published a science fiction novel in 1960 titled Dr. Futurity wherein the main character, Dr. Parsons, finds himself central to an effort to travel back in time to Nova Albion where the Golden Hind had been careened for repairs in order to kill Drake and alter history. Chapter 15 reads, "For an hour [Dr. Parsons] searched up and down the beach, seeing no sign of the ship or the men having been there. No marks, no refuse. What about the brass plate? Where had Drake actually left it? Lying in the sand? Buried in the face of the cliff?"

Copyright © 2006-21 Claud "Sonny" Rouch, all rights reserved. Website by OACYS Technology. Cover photo by Roberts Engineering.