Sir Francis Drake’s Plate of Brass

On this date, April 6, in 1937, Herbert E. Bolton, professor of history at UC Berkeley and director of the Bancroft Library, announced a spectacular find. Nothing less than the inscribed brass plate set up by Sir Francis Drake to claim the west coast of North America for Queen Elizabeth of England.

Sir Francis Drake, miniature by Nicholas Hillyard

On his round the world voyage Drake explored the west coast and was thought to have landed in California at Drake’s Bay in 1579. His actual landing place is now thought to have been further north, not in California.

According to a contemporary account by Francis Fletcher, a member of Drake’s crew, Drake left behind “a plate” as “a monument of our being there” that claimed “her maiesties, and successors right and title to that kingdome”. The memoir also say that the plate included the date of the landing, Drake’s name, and the queen’s portrait on a sixpence coin.

This was just the recipe needed for a bunch of pranksters to cook up a hoax to fool one of California’s most notable historians. Bolton had talked about Drake’s plate and urged his students to keep a lookout for it. The perpetrators of the hoax (who by the way were all members of E Clampus Vitus) got the plate cut and inscribed, and even included a hole for a missing sixpence. They hoped to lure Bolton to find it where they planted it, but instead it was found by a hunter who threw it in the trunk of his car, and then tossed it out by the side of the road. When it was next discovered, three years later, the finder took it to Bolton to be authenticated.

Delighted with the find, Bolton announced at a California Historical Society meeting on April 6, 1937, that “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.” Doubters questioned the plate’s authenticity, but Bolton had it verified by a pair of metallurgists, who declared it genuine. The plate of brass was proudly put on display in the Bancroft Library. For the next 40 years the hoax went undetected.

I first saw it in the Bancroft when I was a student employee there. “What a fabulous piece of history,” I thought. “What could be more romantic than a shiny brass plate that connected California history with the daring sea rover, Sir Francis Drake, and Queen Elizabeth I?”

I have a cardboard souvenir replica, with a gold-tone top layer, which my children took to school to share when they studied California history. I was careful to make sure they knew it was a fake, because in the 1970s a team of scientists, after a thorough examination, found the plate to be a modern forgery. Among the findings, tests revealed the plate to be too smooth, made by modern rolling equipment, not hammered flat by a sixteenth-century hammer. Neutron activation analysis showed that it contained far too much zinc and too few impurities to be Elizabethan English brass.

(For more information, the Wikipedia article is a good place to start.)

I still can’t help but wish it were real.

Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind, by Cornelis de Vries.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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