Drake’s Brass Plate Part 1: How Not to be an Academic
Welcome to the Poison Room, a podcast about all the times writing things down has gone wrong.
These next two episodes are… sort of thematically linked to the previous two episodes. The story still starts in the reign of Elizabeth I, and it still contains a forgery, but it’s a very different story.
It starts with a man we didn’t even meet in the last two episodes: Sir Francis Drake. Drake was a pirate, a slave trader, a merchant, a privateer, and later a naval officer under Elizabeth. And in doing all those things, he also did a lot of exploring.
This is not a story about Francis Drake, but it’s where it starts. So it’s time again for… historical context.
In 1576 Drake starts seriously pushing to get approval and support for an idea he’s had for a while. He wants to circumnavigate the earth. Drake wouldn’t be the first person to manage this – if – he could manage it. And that was a big if. 58 years earlier, the first circumnavigation had been completed. When the expedition started, it had been led by a Portuguese sailor and navigator called Ferdinand Magellan, in the employ of Spain, but he – along with most of his ships and crew – doesn’t make it back to Spain. Only one ship returns, with a fraction of the crew. Subsequent expeditions all failed. Adverse weather, uncharted waters, scurvy, disease, starvation, thirst, mutiny, conflict with indigenous people – all take their toll.
So what Francis Drake wants to do is dangerous. Maps have improved a bit in the intervening years, so some of the navigation issues are a little less severe, but there’s still a mountain of problems. One of those problems is getting the ships and financial supported needed to even start the voyage. Luckily for him, Drake is pretty good at networking and manages to flatter his way up the social hierarchy until he gets the support and backing of those close to Elizabeth. And also of… Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth approves of the voyage, but… secretly, because the plan they come up with is that Drake’s going to go and raid some Spanish settlements in the Pacific. Details about the plan were very hush-hush. The cover story is that it’s a trading venture with Alexandria, but the real plan is piracy. Lots, and lots, of piracy.
The voyage starts in November 1577. When he starts off, Drake has five ships. His ship is named Pelican, but during they voyage he changes its name to Golden Hinde.
They sail down the west coast of Europe, hit Morocco on the north-west coast of Africa, and sail down the coast until they reach Cape Verde. From there they strike out across the Atlantic Ocean, hit South America, sail down the east coast, through the Strait of Magellan at the bottom, then back up the other side, and up the coast of Central America and Mexico.
By this time he’s lost all but one of his five ships, had former friend and captain tried and executed on a charge mutiny, raided a lot of ports and ships, gained ships, lost ships, set fire to a couple of his own ships, and lost a lot of men to illness, cold, hunger, and a bunch of other things.
He carries on up the east coast, looking for the supposed North Passage that would take them back to England. Instead, he gets as far as Oregon, and then, like Napoleon in Russia, gets defeated by the cold, and turns back.
On June 17th 1579 he anchors in a bay somewhere along the coast of California. To this day, we do not know where exactly he landed. We can made educated guesses as to where it might be, but the maps of the time are not exactly wholly accurate or detailed, and later accounts give different coordinates for the bay.
Wherever the bay was, they hang around there for a couple of months repairing their ships, then head off across the Pacific. He hits the other side at the bottom of the Philippines and moves down and through the islands of Indonesia. They reach Java, and then set off into the Indian Ocean, round the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, up the west coast of Africa, and back home to Blighty. He arrives in Plymouth on the 26th of September, 1580, much to the surprise of most people who had written him off as dead.
Given this, and the amount of loot he brings back with him, you might expect that detailed accounts of his exploits would immediately be published. Surely people would be excited to read the account from Drake’s own logs during the voyage. But Drake’s logs were never published or made public. Elizabeth kept them secret, probably so that the Spanish couldn’t read it and hear about all the piracy he did (Polk 1995: 218).
But obviously, we know about details of the voyage, so someone has to have written about it. Here, our second minor character in this prologue appears. A guy called Richard Hakluyt. He’s not an explorer, but he is super into geography and reading about people’s explorations. He compiles quite a few books of people’s accounts of their journeys. And it’s Hakluyt who publishes the first account of Drake’s voyage, in 1589, ten years after Drake’s return. It’s in a book called the Principal Navigations, which includes an account in Hakluyt’s own words, but also has, appended to it, an Anonymous Narrative (that’s literally what it’s called, y’all).
And now we encounter the first mention of our text. It’s not the book itself that we’re interested in for this episode, nor even the appended ‘Anonymous Narrative’. No, the thing we’re interested in is the text that both of these sources mention: a plate. That’s ‘plate’ as in ‘plaque’, not plate as in ‘dinner plate’. Just… just in case you were confused.
Anyway. Remember that unknown bay in California where Drake stopped to retool his ship? Well, according to Hakluyt, when Drake left the bay, he:
set up a monument of our being there, as also of her Maiesties right and title to the same, namely, a plate, nailed upon a faire great poste, whereupon was ingrauen her Maiesties name, the day and yeere of our arriuall there, with the free giuing up of the prouince and people into her Maiesties hands, together wither her highnes picture and armes, in a peece of sixe pence of currant English money under the plate, where under was also written the name of our Generall.
In short: he put up a sign saying ‘Drake was here, this land belongs to Elizabeth now, and the people who were already here totally gave informed consent to this’.
The same story is given in the appended anonymous narrative:
‘drake set up a greate post and nayled thereon a vjd, which the contreye people woorshipped as if it had bin god also he nayled uppon this post a plate of lead and scratched therein the Queenes name.’
A ‘vjd’, by the way, is a sixpence.
Note some of the similarities and differences, here. Hakluyt doesn’t mention what material the plate is made from, Anonymous specifies that it’s lead. And tells us that Drake scratched the queen’s name on it. But Hakluyt states that the plate contained a longer statement about how the land is totally theirs now. And, finally, Hakluyt claims that a sixpence coin was placed under the plate along with Drake’s name being written there, however that’s supposed to work. The anonymous account suggests that the sixpence is nailed to the post, but separate from the plate.
It’s worth pointing out that we don’t know the actual source for either of these accounts, and therefore can’t gauge how reliable they might be about certain details. For instance, if Drake was Hakluyt’s source for his own account, would that make it more accurate, or might he have been motivated to big up the details about what was included on or with the plate?
A third account of this incident was published in 1628. It was commissioned by Drake's nephew, and based on the logs of a guy called Francis Fletcher, who was a chaplain who actually did go on the voyage with Drake. Congrats, guys, we've finally reached a primary source with an attributed author. Here’s that version of the story:
Before we went from thence, our Generall caused to be set up a monument of our being there, as also of her maiesties and successors right and title to that kingdome; namely, a plate of brasse, fast nailed to a great and firme post; whereon is engraven her graces name, and the day and yeare of our arriuall there, and of the free giving up of the prouince and kingdome, both by the king and people, into her maiesties hands: together with her highnesse picture, and armes in a piece of sixpence currant English monie, showing itselfe by a hole made of purpose through the plate; underneath was likewise engrauen the name of our Generall, etc.”
Fletcher's account contains the same detail of the sixpence as the other two, but this time it’s apparently placed neither next to nor under the plate, but in a hole in the plate specifically made for that purpose. Note that this version also contradicts the anonymous account in claiming that the plate is made of brass, rather than lead. Oh, also, Drake himself called Fletcher the most lying liar that ever lied. Or, in Elizabethan English ‘the falsest knave that liveth.’ So there’s that, too. Also, also, this book is produced from Fletcher’s accounts, it’s not an exact transcript of them. So… there’s another anonymous author involved who might have edited Fletcher’s account. And when I say, ‘might have’, I mean ‘absolutely did’.
See, a manuscript purporting to be an exact copy of the first part of Fletcher's notes is currently housed in the British Museum. The manuscript ends before they get to California, so we can’t compare the specific passage in question, but from comparison of the other parts, it’s clear that the 1628 account was compiled by someone with… a liberal attitude to missing out parts and modifying others. Yay!
Anyway. We’ve got three sources here, now: one that we know was written by a guy who wasn't there, but probably spoke to Drake about it in person; an anonymous account of someone who supposedly was on the voyage; and a comparatively much later version purporting to be based on the notes of Fletcher, who was there, but is also possibly a big fat liar, and also possibly the compiler modified it. And they all say slightly different things. So which do we trust?
Well, right now, it doesn’t actually matter. It’s the third one – Fletcher’s account –that’s going to be most important for this story, but both the reliability of the sources and the fact that there are multiple, conflicting accounts, is also important to bear in mind.
I just want to point out, here, that in itself, there’s nothing particularly odd about the idea that Drake left a plate nailed to a post when he sailed off. Pinning plates to posts or trees was seen as a legitimate way of stealing the land for their country by European explorers at the time (Falck Borch 2004: 184). It’s basically like sticking a flag on it and claiming that makes it yours now, or… peeing up a tree or whatever.
So that’s the context for this story: Drake sailed around the world, in 1579 he anchors in a bay somewhere along the California coast, and supposedly puts up some sort of plaque claiming that it’s totally Britain’s land now.
Now, we’re skipping forward to… 1937. In March that year, the California Historical Society Quarterly published a special issue of the journal dedicated to one specific subject. There are two articles in it, the first by a guy named Herbert Bolton, and the second by Douglas Watson.
Bolton’s article starts with the excited and bold claim that, ‘One of the world’s long-lost historical treasures apparently has been found!' (yes, there's an exclamation mark, there).
I'm sure I don't need to explain to you that it was Drake's plate, but, uh. It was Drake's plate.
Bolton claims that artefact he has found matches the description in Fletcher’s account in ‘a most astonishing way’. The plate is made of solid brass, around five inches wide, eight inches long, and an eighth of an inch thick. It's a bit irregular in shape, uneven in places, as if hammered flat, and one of its edges was even a bit curved. The lettering is also crude and scratched on, with little regard for good kerning. It has a roughly cut hole at the bottom for the missing sixpence (1937a: 1, 13).
Watson gives the deets of the discovery of the plate in his contribution. Once upon a time, on a Sunday in either late June or early July, Mr. Shinn was driving south from San Rafael to Greenbrae. But before he gets there, he gets a puncture in his tire. He decides to stop and eat before fixing the tire. So he climbs over a steep bluff, under some barbed wire, and finds the perfect picnic spot, with a lovely view. There, partially covered by a rock, he spies the plate. Apparently he thought it was iron, and decided it was the perfect size to patch up part of his car with, so he picks it up and dumps it in the car. Where he forgets about it for a month until he decides to get around to fixing his car, at which point he notices the inscription, and starts to clean it. He partially cleans it, and then... leaves it. I don’t know why, but he does. He shows it to some friends, and it just so happens that one of the words that's now legible is 'Drake'! So it is then suggested, by someone who happened to be a former student of Bolton’s, that Shinn show the plate to him. Which he does (1937b: 19-21).
Watson declares that no one whose been privileged to see the plate has doubted its authenticity. Of course, he doesn't tell us who those people are or what their qualifications might be in 16th century archaeology (1937b: 22), but they’re all convinced, so that’s nice.
Let’s get back to Bolton’s article. Bolton knows exactly what this brass plate is just from hearing it described down the phone! Because:
For years I have been telling my students to keep and eye out for Drake's plate and the silver sixpence bearing the image of Queen Elizabeth. (1937a: 2)
Of course, it could be total coincidence that someone brings him this thing he's telling everyone to look out for. This very rare thing. That no one had seen for literal centuries. But, y'know. It could also be that someone knew about his noted interest in the plate, and, for some reason wanted to prank him. Just sayin’.
Now, I know I'm being super subtle here, but I'm actually treating this amazing artefact with a small modicum of scepticism. But Bolton is not sceptical. In fact, he thinks that:
The authenticity of the tablet seems to be beyond all reasonable doubt. On this assumption, its discovery is one of the most sensational in all California history.’ (1937a: 2)
So what did Bolton do with this remarkable discovery? Well, he approached his good bud, Allen Chickering, President of the California Historical Society, to help him get the funds to acquire it for the University of California. Apparently Mr. Shinn didn't actually want any money for it. He was totally down with just donating it. But Chickering suggested a price and he accepted it (1937a: 2).
Now, Bolton doesn’t mention the price they paid, but the idea that Mr. Shinn didn’t want anything for it is questionable, given that a note was found among Bolton’s papers that suggests Shinn approached Bolton and offered to sell it to him, and if he didn’t want it, would be selling it to someone else. According to Albert Hurtardo’s research into this part of the story, after seeing the site where Shinn had discovered the plate, Chickering and Bolton offered Shinn 2,500 dollars, and promised to assume the risks associated with the plate’s genuineness. A few days later, on a Monday, Shinn shows up asking for the plate back so he can show it to his dad. He promises he’ll bring it back the next day. But by Wednesday, he hasn’t returned. Bolton contacts him that evening and he and Chickering meet up with Shinn. But Shinn doesn’t have the plate with him. Apparently his dad had frightened him by suggested that there might be some vague legal issues surrounding it that would for some reason land him in jail. Because of that, he’s considering shipping the plate out of state. Because… that will... somehow be less of a problem? Suddenly, Chickering decides that they can actually give him $3,500 dollars for it, and would take up all the legal responsibilities as well as any issues of it being genuine. Shinn agrees. For the record, $3,500 dollars in 1937 is around $62,500 in today’s money.
And this is kind of important, because their hastiness in buying it gives those involved a reason and desire to commit to the idea that the plate is real. They don’t want to be embarrassed. They don’t want to have to admit they just spent quite a lot of money on something that wasn’t legit. It’s not ‘hey, we want to buy this thing if it’s legit’, it’s ‘we bought this thing so it’d better be legit or we’re screwed’.
Anyway. Bolton's paper then goes on to give a similar discussion of the sources for the story of the plate, though he focuses specifically on the discrepancies between the original volume containing Fletcher’s account and later, abridged sources (1937a: 9-10). He notes that Fletcher himself was not always particularly reliable, and that Drake himself called Fletcher ‘Ye falsest knave that liveth’ (1937a: 2). He even questions whether the detail of the plate being brass was a 'gratuitous flourish', or, wholly imaginary, and proof of his unreliability (1937a: 10). The discrepancies between the different accounts given have been super bothering Bolton, but the only way of finding out the truth would be if he were to find the plate. And now! Here it is! Fancy that. So Bolton can finally give the totally accurate report of what was on the plate. And it said:
BEE IT KNOWNE VNTO ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENTS
INVE 17 1597
BY THE GRACE OF GOD AND IN THE NAME OF HERR MAIESTY QVEEN ELIZABETH OF ENGLAND AND HERR SVCCESORS FOREVER I TAKE POSSESSION OF THIS KINGDOME WHOSE KING AND PEOPLE FREELY RESIGNE THEIR RIGHT AND TITLE IN THE WHOLE LAND VNTO HERR MAIESTIES KEEPEING NOW NAMED BY ME AN TO BEE KNOWNE VNTO ALL MEN AS NOVA ALBION. FRANCIS DRAKE
Below that was a hole for the sixpence, which had not been found with the plate. The plate matches up with Fletcher's account pretty damn accurately, which, Bolton remarks, totally vindicates Fletcher from the suspicion of lying about this detail... if it's authentic. And Bolton totally thinks it’s authentic.
He explains that:
Either the plate is a clever fraud, perpetrated by someone who carefully studied Fletcher's words; or, if it is genuine, as I fully believe, Fletcher made a remarkably accurate record of what it was like and what the inscription said. Between the relic and the eye-witness record there is a spectacular and convincing harmony which no fraud would be likely to obtain. (1937a: 12).
There’s a giant, glaring, circular logic here: the discovery of the plate proves that Fletcher is reliable, and we know Fletcher is reliable because of the discovery of the plate. The plate is legit because it matches the account, which we know is legit because it matches the plate, which we know is legit because it matches the account, which we know is legit because it matches the plate… and so on forever. It’s a real convenient argument if you’re more committed to proving its authenticity than establishing its authenticity.
And let's be real: what chance is there really of anyone having carefully studied Fletcher's work. It's not like just pages earlier Bolton told us that he’s literally being telling all his students for years to keep an eye out for the plate and the coin.
But he must have some more solid reasons for thinking it’s legit than ‘it’s unlikely someone was familiar enough with Fletcher’s account to pull this off!’ right? Well… he does give some more reasons:
Firstly, the fact that it's crudely made matches up with the circumstances under which it would have been made. And the writing is scratched on to it, which matches one of the other accounts of it being scratched onto the plate (1937a: 12). An account, I may note, that he did not discuss the authenticity or reliability of. But regardless, Bolton still thinks this fact is one of the best arguments for its authenticity. For his part, Watson thinks the most compelling detail is the hole for the sixpence. Because… It actually fits a real Elizabethan sixpence if you try! (1937b: 23). Because clearly no forger could have got hold of a sixpence. Watson genuinely says that this detail in itself puts the authenticity of the plate beyond all question (1973b: 23).
But there are more arguments, in case you’re not convinced yet. Like the fact that when it was found it was super dirty, as if it had been in the ground a very long time. And the fact that the spelling matches what you’d expect for something written in the 16th century, and with Drake’s own documents (1937a: 12-13). Both of these things are details which, as we all know, simply could not be forged.
He also claims that the quality of the brass work is similar in quality to the brass work found on Elizabethan ships of the time. He got an unnamed 'experienced sea-captain' to take a look at the thing, and he said it looked like it might have been made out of part of a gun-carriage (1937a: 13). Furthermore, the holes that were left for the nails to attach it to the post are square, which matches how they were usually shaped in the 16th century (1937a: 13).
So not only would a forger have to have this unlikely familiarity with Fletcher’s account, they’d also have to have this detailed knowledge of the metalwork on 16th century ships. And let’s be real, how likely is it really that someone with an interest in Drake’s voyage would also know about details like that.
But Bolton is totally convinced by his own arguments. And declares that:
Anyone clever enough to have made a counterfeit tablet as convincing as the one just discovered would have been clever enough to market it at an impressive figure. (1937a: 13)
So, to be clear: it has to be legit because a forger would totally be trying to make as much money as possible, and Mr. Shinn didn't want anything for it! Let’s just pretend for a second that we don’t know that Shinn did want money for it.
I'll grant it to him that it's not unreasonable to suspect that a forger would want money for their work, but it's hardly the only reason people perpetrate hoaxes. Sometimes people do it because they want to demonstrate that someone, or some people, are gullible. Sometimes they just do it for excrement and giggles. And, as we’ll discuss in a minute, Bolton really should know this.
His final argument for its authenticity is the location at which it was purportedly found. 'Drake's Bay' had most commonly been thought to be the location of Drake's landing, which is literally why they renamed it ‘Drake’s Bay’. Though recently (by Bolton's time) Bodega Bay had been suggested as the possible site. A generally rejected theory was that San Francisco Bay was the site. There were other theories too, but those are the primary three Bolton considers.
Guess which location the plate was found near? Now, to any reasonable person, surely the fact that it was found close to the generally rejected site would count against it. But oh, no! Not for Bolton. You see, a forger would totally have placed it near Drake's Bay or Bodega Bay. But instead, the plate was found near enough to all the places for it to be plausible that any one of them was the original location. And its movement could be accounted for by indigenous people moving it. For. Reasons. Maybe they decided to wear it as an ornament. For... Reasons. But, honestly, they probably carried it around with them because they just revered it that. Much. Sure, Bolton. Whatever you say. (1937a: 13)
Y’all. I cannot even with this argument. The plate was found at San Raefael, about 20 kilometres from San Francisco Bay, 40 kilometres from Bodega Bay, and 20 kilometres from Drake's Bay, all as the crow flies, but by far closest to San Francisco Bay if you’re travelling by water. You can be sure that had it been found at Drake's Bay or Bodega Bay, Bolton would be counting that as being in favour of it being legit – he certainly wouldn’t count it as a mark against its authenticity.
You could literally use the fact that it wasn’t found at Drake’s Bay as an argument for it’s inauthenticity. Why is it so far from the most likely locations? Almost like Bolton is interpreting the evidence in a way that supports his desire for the plate to be legit.
For his part, Watson rejects the idea that the tablet was ever moved. There’s a map from the 16th century known as the Hondius Map that contains a drawing in the top left corner that’s labelled as showing the site of Drake’s landing. The map wasn’t made during the expedition itself, but it’s possible that the cartographer did get to see the maps Drake and his crew had made that queen Elizabeth was keeping locked up. And the drawing on that map kiiiinda looks like where the plate was reportedly found? Watson thinks the peninsula shown on the map is the Tiburon peninsula, and the island just off it is Angel Island. Oh, and it you’re wondering where you’ve heard of the ‘Tiburon peninsula’ before, it was the Shark Papers episode. Because there’s a Tiburon peninsula in Haiti.
I’ll post a picture of the map, and the drawing on twitter, along with google maps images for all three of the proposed bays, and honestly, you have to squint a lot to make any of them fit.
Bolton concludes his list of incredibly compelling arguments, and his paper, with a final, grand statement:
It is conceivable that investigation may prove that the plate was discovered on the very site where Drake nailed it to the "firme post," and that the beach at the foot of the hill was the very spot where he careened and repaired the Golden Hinde. In that case, we may prophesy, some day there will arise on that commanding site a fitting monument to one of the most dramatic episodes in California's history. (1937a: 13)
So not only does the fact that it wasn't found at any of the already suggested sites not count against it, but in fact, it means that San Rafael itself should be added to the list of potential locations. Purely on the strength of this tablet. Which he himself admits could have been moved when he’s trying to explain why it wasn’t found where we’d expect to find it.
Watson finishes his article by spelling out what this discovery means:
Drake's position in the history of America today rests upon a firm foundation, and now that we have the evidence to support it, he can truly be regarded as the first English-speaking settler in the western hemisphere. His occupation of a portion of California, though temporary, antedates the Roanoke settlement of Sir Walter Raleigh by six years. Raleigh's occupation was likewise of an ephemeral nature, for the year after it was started the colonists returned to England, and the man who undertook their repatriation and saw them safely back to the homeland was Drake, then Sir Francis, his knighthood being a part of the reward Queen Elizabeth bestowed upon his for his many daring exploits, including his discovery and occupation of New Albion. (1937b: 24)
I.e., 'Hey, North Carolina, we got proof we beat you to it, and remember, our guy even had to rescue your guy's colonists! Nyaaaaa.
Now, in case you hadn't noticed, I think Bolton and Watson’s arguments are pretty bad. There’s a distinct lack of scientific tests to back up their arguments, for one. No experts with verifiable credentials named. There’s just a distinct lack of academic rigor from these academics. To come out so strongly in support of something with so little solid evidence? It’s just… bad academic practice. And the kind of thing most academics avoid because it’ll be super embarrassing if it turns out you’re wrong.
Let me just take a moment here to tell you a bit more about these two men, especially Bolton. Because, y’see, there’s a really good reason they should have been more sceptical. Both Bolton and Watson belong to a group. Bolton is the Grand Royal Historian of the San Francisco chapter of a group called ‘The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus’. We’ll call them the ECV.
What was the ECV? It was a group that started before the Gold Rush, but had recently been revived by George Ezra Dane and others in 1931-1932. The group defined itself as ‘dedicated to the erecting of historical plaques, the protection of widows and orphans, especially the widows, and having a grand time whilst accomplishing these purposes’ (Von de Porten et al. 2002: 116-18).
This was not a particularly exclusive club. At least… not for California’s male historians interested in the American West. Its members included academics, historical society leaders, journal editors, bibliographers, artists, fine press printers and more.
What has this society to do with the plate? Well, as you might be able to tell from their goal of doing things whilst having a ‘grand time’, they were a rather light-hearted bunch, and part of the delights of being a Clamper involved… playing tricks on other Clampers (Von de Porten et al. 2002: 116-18).
Like… Guys. You’re literally members of a group that is both interested in California history AND likes pranking its members. COME. ON.
If it’s not clear by now, the forgers were indeed Clampers. Which is why they knew about Bolton’s obsession with the plate, and why they were familiar with Fletcher’s account of the plate, and why they thought making a fake of it would be a jolly good laugh.
So who are our hoaxers? Well, we don’t have a conclusive list of everyone inloved, but the leader is George Haviland Barron, curator of California history at San Fransisco’s de Young Museum until 1933, and active member of the California Historical Society. He supposedly designed it, taking most of the wording from Fletcher’s account, and generally using twentieth-century wording and spelling. He grabbed a piece of commercial, rolled brass, and had a metal worker cut it to size with a guillotine shear. (Von de Porten et al. 2002: 118).
Barron then takes the plate to his friend, George Clark, who designs the plate’s layout and did the inscription. He didn’t use any guidelines, he stuck in occasional lowercase letters, and used a style unlike Elizabethan forms. He applied an artificial patina. He cut a capital ‘G’ within a ‘C’ slightly above and to the left of Drake’s name. He reportedly tells his wife that the two letters are his initials, and will make the plate identifiable as a hoax. Oops.
As a final flourish to this forgery they are trying super hard to make look as authentic as possible, they then used a transparent, fluorescent paint to write ‘ECV’ on the back (Von de Porten et al. 2002: 20).
So you can imagine how the forgers feel when they hear that Bolton has indeed been notified of the plate, as they had intended, and thrown his academic reputation on the line by enthusiastically claiming it was real, which they had very much not intended. These guys are Bolton’s friends. And Chickerings, and Watson’s. And other friends and ECV members had also been drawn in, supporting the authenticity of the tablet in various ways (Von de Porten et al. 2002: 124).
This is not what was supposed to happen.
But what are they supposed to do about it? They don’t want to just fess up, because that would destroy Bolton and Chickering’s reputations, possibly their careers, and certainly any friendships they had with them and others duped by the hoax. The re-established ECV was itself not that old, and did also do genuine historical work on top of having fun. They helped install actual plaques at sites of historical interest. If it emerged they were behind the hoax plate, would that ruin their genuine efforts to further historical knowledge? (Von de Porten et al. 2002: 124).
They do try to subtly let Bolton know it’s a fake. However. Their attempts are, well… exactly what you’d expect from a bunch of members of a secret society that likes pranking its own members. They’re dressed in humour and not particularly obvious with their core message.
One of the first things that happens, only seven weeks after Bolton announced the find, was that another Clamper, one Vertress Lawrence Vanderhoof whips up another plate, very similar in design, down to having a hole cut out for the coin and square holes for the nails. This plate also dates itself to 1579, though a tag at the bottom makes clear that it’s an ECV plaque, made in 1937. The text of the plate is by Chief William Fuller of the Mi-Wuks – the people Drake encountered when he landed wherever he landed, and who totally willingly gave him the land knowing exactly what they were doing. The plate revokes Drake’s (and England’s) claim to the land on the grounds of ‘deceit, fraud, and failure to occupy said domain’. It’s amazing. Once again, photos on twitter.
As awesome as this plate is, if it was meant to nudge Bolton into rethinking his position, it totally fails. So what next? Welll. we’ll get back to that in a moment, because there’s another twist to this story before that, which may or may not have surprised the hoaxers well. In the very next edition of the California Historical Society Quarterly, published two months later in June 1937, there is a page titled ‘Personalia and Marginalia’.
The article reveals that some guy called William Caldeira has come forward, claiming that he found the plate over three years earlier. He’d been working as a chauffeur and his boss liked to go hunting. On one such outing, to a spot near Drake’s Bay he had been wandering around waiting for his boss to get back when he stumbled upon the plate. He picked it up, washed it a bit, got as far as seeing ‘DRAK’ but couldn’t make out any of the other words. When his boss got back, he showed it to him, and they put it in the car to look at later. And then they forget to look at it later. About a week after that Caldeira was driving along near San Rafael when he remembered the plate stashed in the car and… took it out… and… lobbed it out the car. For… reasons?
Immediately this ruins Bolton’s argument that the unlikely location is proof of its authenticity because a forger would have stuck near Drake’s Bay or Bodega Bay. But does this make Bolton doubt the authenticity of the plate. Oh no! In fact, for some reason, he thinks it makes it more certain that it’s real. And as far as he and Chickering are concerned, it at least puts to bed suggestions that Shinn was a forger.
Now, I can’t actually tell you what the forgers made of this – there’s no record of it. Nor is there a detailed record of when they actually made the plate, so we just don’t have any way of establishing if it was made three years before Shinn found it, or whether it was made after Caldeira found… whatever it was he found.
Even today, scholars aren’t quite sure what to make of it. No one seems to doubt that Caldeira was sincere in his claim (though personally I’m not really sure it can be ruled out, given… well… everything else that happens in this story), but the place where he claims he discarded the plate is far enough from where Shinn claims to have found the plate that some have suggested that actually, there were two plates! And the one Caldeira found was not the one Shinn found. What I find rather odd is that those who speculate that there were two plates don’t seem particularly interested in what Caldeira’s plate was. Which… given that he’s convinced it’s the same one as Shinn found, surely would merit some consideration, if you actually thought Shinn’s find was legit. Honestly, I’m just really not convinced by this ‘second plate’ theory. Stranger things have happened, sure, but, y’know. Simplest explanation most likely and all that. Don’t multiply entities without necessity.
This single page report is Embarrassing. And it’s one of the reason’s Bolton’s boss at the University of California is starting to get nervous. After all, the university’s reputation is now tied to the plate’s authenticity as well.
Of course, as soon as news of the discovery of the plate was published, people had questions. Lots of questions.
In the next edition of the Journal, two more articles are published about the plate. The first is by Reginald Haselden, then Curator of Manuscripts at the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery. For the record, he was not in on the hoax. His article’s title is a simple question: ‘Is the Drake Plate of Brass Genuine?’
Haselden writes that:
The importance of this discovery and its historical significance make it essential that the utmost care be taken to establish the genuineness or expose the spuriousness of this remarkable relic. It is hoped that the following questions, which are suggested without prejudice, will command careful attention, and that due consideration of certain points proposed for study will not be obscured by an uncritical enthusiasm. (1937c: 271-72)
Which is academes for 'guys I think you might have jumped the gun on this’.
Like me, Haselden is curious about the fact that no tests are mentioned as having been conducted on the tablet, and that the only specialist mentioned is an anonymous sea-captain apparently familiar with 16th century English ships. Not that they even say whether the sea-captain has seen a period gun carriage (1937c: 272).
Haselden offers five tentative questions and tests that could perhaps be used to properly authenticate the plate.
First: can we get some more deets about the metal itself? In the Elizabethan period, brass was made flat by hammering, whereas later, it was made flat by putting it through some rollers. So was this plate rolled or hammered? Was it rolled and then hammered later to give the appearance of being older than it is? Maybe a qualified metallurgist could do an analysis of the metal to see whether it was made with calamine, as would have been used in the 16th century, or zinc, as was later used (1937c: 272). Very reasonable questions and suggestions. Kind of the thing that you might have expect them to have considered before publishing their find.
Secondly, let's look at the engraving itself. Maybe we should compare the style of the lettering to that which we know was in use at the time. The lettering is in a Roman style. Was that being used in inscriptions at the time? And how exactly were the incisions made (1937c: 272)? Let's do more than speculate. Again, these are very reasonable questions and suggestions, and kind of the thing that you might have expect them to have considered before publishing their find.
Thirdly, does the manner of writing the date and its position on the plate match what we would expect for the time period (1937c: 272)?
Fourthly, let's maybe look at the spelling at bit more. Sure, as Bolton notes, there are elements that match the right spelling – like double Es at the end of certain words, which is an Elizabethan thing, sure. But what about the rest of it? In the time period in during which the plate was supposedly made variations in the spelling of words appeared even within a single document. But it’s weird how modern spellings are consistently used for certain words, like ‘England’, ‘king’, ‘queen’, ‘whole’ and ‘it’. Words which, incidentally, Haselden has checked the spelling of in Drake’s own manuscripts, and it turns out Bolton was wrong: he don't spell them the way they're spelled on this here plate (1937c: 272).
I like Haselden.
And I like him ever more because he then pre-emptively counters some potential replies. Almost like a proper academic. Someone might argue that maybe Drake didn't write the plate himself, so it's not his spelling we need to be checking for a match. But Drake must have been involved in the proceedings. If he's not writing it, he's dictating it to someone else to write, or has written it down for them to copy. Haselden's not done pointing out the spelling problems. It's just a bit weird that the engraver has managed to misspell 'her' (they use a double R) and miss a D off the end of an and, but then managed to spell words like ‘successors’ and ‘possession’ just fine (1937c: 272).
The fifth thing Haselden thinks needs more consideration is the impact of time on the tablet. Maybe we can get beyond 'it sure was dirty!' Let's maybe do a scientific test of what time has deposited on the plate. And how about we look at the edges of the plate under a microscope, to see what weathering and erosion has or hasn't occurred (1937c: 273).
Finally, Haselden really runs through all the problems with Bolton's arguments, which are basically the same as those I pointed out as we went through Bolton' s article. You can't claim it's unlikely that someone would be familiar with Fletcher's account given that you already told us you mention it to all your students. Okay, sure, Shinn has never been one of your students, but you can’t rule out the possibility that it was made by someone else who was.
Further, people perpetrated hoaxes for reasons other than financial gains. Further further, the fact that the plate matches Fletcher's account so closely could just as well count against it, especially given that details in Fletcher's account don't match with those of other sources - like the Anonymous Narrative that claims it was made out of lead, which Haselden thinks is more likely to be accurate given that, as we all know, Drake called Fletcher, ‘the falsest knave that liveth’.
Haselden finishes off by pointing out that frauds of this type are not uncommon. They’ve popped up in California before. There have been hoaxes in Europe. He himself has seen a plate supposedly discovered in New Mexico that turned out to be forged. He concludes with the wise suggestion that until more evidence is provided, no judgement can be made on the authenticity of the tablet (1937f: 274).
The very next article in the journal is by Allen Chickering. The guy who Bolton approached to raise the funds to buy the plate. Now, obviously he’s going to be here defending the find, given that they stumped up all that money for it and all. But I gotta admit, he’s trying harder to be objective than I thought he’d be. Or at least… manages to give the appearance of trying.
He’s got some answers to the questions Haselden raised. He starts with the caveat that he himself is not an expert in this matter, but he’s done a lot of research for the show.
He showed the plate to a ‘mining man’ from San Francisco. He was so convinced it was legit that he didn’t think tests on the metal content were even necessary! Then he showed it to a couple of ‘well-known’ San Francisco metallurgists who point out some details about the metal, but think that only the very best metallurgist should examine it. But… apparently no one could suggest anyone with the relevant qualifications.
After that he gets one of the guys who’d donated money to buy the plate to ask the Chase Brass & Copper Works, in Connecticut about it. The reply he got back was that they knew of no way to spot old brass except by looking at the workmanship. And what about the type of analysis Haselden was suggesting? Apparently even he, in correspondence with Bolton, admits that finding a metallurgist with the necessary historical knowledge would be difficult (1937g: 275-76). And everyone is just… fine with the idea that you’d need someone trained in both metallurgy and Elizabethan history, because… Historians and metallurgists spontaneously combust when placed in a room together?
Given all this, Chickering concludes, he’s not entirely sure that it would be productive to let someone cut a bit off the plate to do some tests when there’s apparently no one qualified enough to actually do the tests (1937g: 276). Which… fair, I guess.
Next he presents some reasonable evidence that the date is correctly formatted, and then moves on to talk about the spelling issues. His approach to this question was to check a bunch of books from the period to see if the words on the plate used spellings that matched those in the books. He managed to find instances of all the spellings except “HERR” and “KEEPEING”, spelled K-E-E-P-E-I-N-G (1937g: 276). If you remember, the spelling of “HERR” with a double R was one of the suspect words Haselden pointed out. So… uh. The one that Haselden thought was a problem is… still a problem.
Next Chickering goes into quite a lot of detail about the spelling of the words Haselden pointed out – ‘king’, ‘queen’, ‘whole’, ‘it’. He presents a bunch of instances from a bunch of sources that show that these variants Haselden described as ‘modern’ were in use at the time, and even before then! (1937g 276-78). You know what one of his sources isn’t? Francis Drake.
After this, he admits that he doesn’t have enough information to say much about the lettering, and even that in the case of how the letters M and N are written, he’s never seen anything like it before, but he has written to someone who might know more about it (1937g: 278). I am really rather impressed with him for not just skating over the details he can’t explain.
Then he writes that it’s occurred to him that he should point out that… there were a bunch of mistakes in the wording of the plate in the previous issue. They missed out a whole bunch of full stops and even omitted a letter that’s either a C or a G that appears before Drake’s name. Dear audience, I Cannot. Even.
Oh, and remember, this ‘C’ or ‘G’ is one of the initials written by the guy who wrote the inscription on the plate. But they’ve only read it as either a C or a G. In their defence, the G is placed inside the C, and it’s really hard to make out exactly what letter it is. But it is not hard to make out that there is a letter there. The two letters are a lot more visible on an x-ray of the plate, so I’ll add that to the photos posted on twitter.
This ‘C-G’ deal was supposed to be a tell that the plate was a hoax. Instead, people just decided, that it meant ‘captain’ if they thought it was a C, or ‘General’ if they thought it was a G, and both when they finally saw it was C-G. Note: ‘Captain General’ was not usual for Elizabethan times (2002: 120).
After this revelation of academic ineptitude in literally just accurately transcribing the text of the super important discovery, he comments on the hole cut for the sixpence. He too, thinks this is really compelling evidence that the plate is legit. For some reason he apparently just… can’t imagine that a forger would be clever enough to come up with this solution for how to attach the coin (1937g: 279). Even though Fletcher’s account literally says they made a hole for it.
The same month these articles are published, a guy called Edwin Grabhorn of the Grabhorn Press, issued a letter, from the ‘Consolidated Brasse and Novelty Company’ located ‘at the sign of the golden behind – “Late the Brasse Bottom” 1579 Drake Street, Los Angeles’.
‘Golden behind’ is, of course, a play on the ‘Golden Hinde’, the name of Drake’s ship. I’m sure I don’t need to point out Drake’s name in the street name, or the house number being the same as the year on the Drake plate. Subtle details.
The letter reads:
I am sure you will be interested in our special line of brass plates. These plates have a beautiful finish. We make them in all sizes and shapes and in a variety of scripts and dates. We have a very attractive Elizabethan line which we are selling at greatly reduced prices to introduce our goods. We can supply these according to size for fifty cents upwards (lead plates from twenty-five cents upwards). Do you wish to make your home-town famous? Give us a ring. Yours very truly,
[Signed] Francis Fletcher. (in Von de Porten et al. 2002: 126)
Francis Fletcher, as in, that Francis Fletcher, who’s account of the plate is at the heart of all of this. Like many of the others, Grabhorn was both a member of the California Historical Society and the ECV. Obviously the letter is a honking reference to the plate, but… without the benefit of hindsight (pun totally intended), it’s not exactly clear whether it’s a warning, just a friendly dig, or a just a joke about the fact that people are suggesting it’s fake.
So the Clamper’s are zero for two in their attempts to get Bolton to realise the plate is fake.
Attempt three is…
This one really should have worked, y’all.
Another Clamper anonymously produced a book for the ECV titled ‘Ye Preposterous Booke of Brasse, which includes Divers Strange & Surprising Vituscan Voyages, Learned Discourses, Pious Anecdotes, Missionary Pilgrimages, Merry Tales and Historys & a fulle & compleate historie of Ye Plate of Brass set upon our fair shores by Ye Antient Buccaneer Franke Drake’. For the record, the anonymous author was Charles Camp, and he was probably not one of the original hoaxers. But he was friends with Vanderhoof, and it’s probable that he learned about the hoax and joined in trying to get Bolton to recognise it for what it was (2002: 128).
On the inside cover is a drawing of the chief Drake supposedly met, y’know, the one who totally willingly was like ‘yup, please be our king and take our land’. It’s labelled as a facsimile ‘of a drawing on the wall of a cave discovered during excavation for the new wing of the prison at Point San Quentin. Around his neck he is wearing what is clearly supposed to be Drake’s plate, with the letters ECV faintly, but visibly, written on it. Photo on the twitters.
Despite the jolly drawing and title, the book quickly gets into real details about potential tests that could be done to detect the hoax. Camp literally even suggests that if they use an ultra-violet fluorescence and an infra-red light they would be able to see the faint outline of the ECV. (fn 36)
This is a giant honking red flag. So obviously, Bolton picks up on this incredibly subtle hint and thinks twice about the plate, right? Well, there’s another episode so no, of course he doesn’t. Instead, Bolton just reiterates his belief that it’s legit. Goddamnit Bolton.
Incidentally, we haven’t even reached peak absurdity for this story yet. Next episode, it’s gonna get worse.
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Alternatively, publish a letter advertising your ability to produce podcast reviews that will look authentically Elizabethan. Elizabethan podcast reviews, y’all. I’d totally buy them.
Transcripts of all episodes are available at poisonroom.com, where you can also see the references and bibliography. As always if the sources are publicly available, they’re linked to.
You have been listening to The Poison Room, a podcast that is absolutely not involved with any secret societies.
- The voice of Herbert Bolton was: Tim Stone
- The voice of Douglas Watson was: Inari Porkka
- The voice of Reginald Haselden was: Caleb Moreno
- The voice of Edwin Grabhorn was: Cooper
- The voice in your ears has been: a collection of souls burdened with regrets, silently drifting through the dusk.
--- (1937d) ‘The “Anonymous Narrative” California Historical Society Quarterly Vol. 16: 31.
--- (1937c) ‘The Famous Voyage of Sir Francis Drake from Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation California Historical Society Quarterly Vol. 16: 26-30.
--- (1937e) ‘Personalia and Marginalia’ California Historical Society Quarterly Vol. 16: 192.
--- (1939) ‘Tests Prove Brass Plate Genuine Relic of Drake’ The Science News-Letter, Vol. 35: 279.
Bolton, H., E. (1937a) ‘Francis Drake’s Plate of Brass’ California Historical Society Quarterly Vol. 16: 1-16.
Chickering, A. L. (1937g) ‘Some Notes with Regard to Drake’s Plate of Brass’ California Historical Society Quarterly Vol. 16: 275-81.
--- (1939) ‘Further Notes on the Drake Plate’ California Historical Society Quarterly Vol. 18: 251-53.
Falck Borch, M. (2004) Conciliation, Compulsion, Conversion: British Attitudes Towards Indigenous Peoples 1763-1814, Rodopi.
Haselden, R. B. (1937f) ‘Is the Drake Plate of Brass Genuine?’ California Historical Society Quarterly Vol. 16: 271-74.
Hurtardo, A. (1997) ‘More Shadows on the Brass: Herbert E. Bolton and the Fake Drake Plate’ in Frontier and Religion, Ritchie, R. C. & Hutton, P. A., (Eds). Huntington Library Press.
Polk, D. (1995) The Island of California: A History of the Myth, University of Nebraska Press.
Sugden, J. (1990) Sir Frances Drake, Pimlico.
Vaux, W. S. W. (Ed.) (1854) The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake: Being his Next Voyage to that to Nombre de Dios; Collated with an Unpublished Manuscript of Francis Fletcher, Chaplain to the Expedition; with Appendices Illustrative of the Same Voyage, and Introduction, The Hakluyt Society.
Watson, D. S. (1937b) ‘Drake and California’ California Historical Society Quarterly Vol. 16: 18-25.