Drake Landmark Designation Sparks Debate

May 23, 2012

Oregon and California are locked in a dispute over something that happened 433 years ago. That’s when Sir Francis Drake became the first British explorer to make contact with Native Americans. It happened on what is now the American West Coast. The question is where. Oregon or California? The National Park Service is poised to officially recognize one state’s claim and not the other’s.

Sir Francis Drake was the prototypical swashbuckling British ship’s captain. Ferdinand Magellan died on his circumnavigation. Drake survived his trip around the world and helped make England a global power. Erika Martin Seibert is an archaeologist with the National Park Service. She says Drake’s voyage, was the "moonshot" of its time.

Seibert: "He was a rock star. He did something that people thought was impossible."

It was a three-year journey. And in 1579, Drake spent 5 weeks repairing his ship and interacting with West Coast tribes. Garry Gitzen believes that happened on the northern Oregon coast. He’s an amateur historian whose house overlooks Nehalem Bay.

Garry Gitzen: "(Whistles to his dog) Where are you? I see your shadow…"

Gitzen leads his dog Gracie and me to his basement library. His shelves are lined with books about Sir Francis Drake. But that’s not all. He’s got what he says is evidence the British explorer dropped anchor on the bay he can see from his window. Gitzen points to a photo of an old survey marker chiseled into a rock found near here. It’s definitely not Native American.

Gitzen: "This is what he signed. You know, the only person who could do something like that was Francis Drake."

And then there's Drake's own map of the place he landed.

Gitzen: "If it you overlay it on top of Nehalem Bay, it's the same outline of Nehalem Bay."

Gitzen is writing a book called “Oregon’s Stolen History.” In it, he refutes the generally accepted claim that Drake landed not in Oregon, but just north of what is now San Francisco. Standing on a cliff overlooking Nehalem Bay, I ask Gitzen, why does this matter so much?

Gitzen: "Truth. Otherwise, we're living a bunch of lies. And is that really what we want to do? I don't think so. If that's the case, why don't we just keep saying the sun is revolving around the Earth? And the Earth is still flat? Yeah, I can agree with that … if I'm in California." (laughs)

But they’re not laughing in California. Gitzen’s nemesis in this debate Ed Von der Porten. He heads a society of Sir Francis Drake history buffs in the Bay Area. As far as he’s concerned, scholars settled the question long ago of where Drake first encountered West Coast tribes. In California’s Drake’s Bay. Most recently, he says the National Park Service put that claim through not one, but two scholarly commissions.

Von der Porten: “… to say, 'OK, take a look. Is there any other alternative?' And the answer came back, as it always has, 'a resounding no!' There has to be only one location and that’s Drake's Cove at Drake's Bay."

Von der Porten has the edge in this fight for historical recognition. The National Park Service has accepted his petition to officially designate 17 locations around Drake’s Bay as a national landmark. But that’s not quite the end of the story.

Seibert: "This declaration does not choose one side over the other."

The National Park Service’s Erika Martin Seibert says the point of this landmark is to recognize the first contact between the British and Native Americans.

Seibert: "Today, at this time, current scholarship supports this area as the landing spot of Drakes Bay. But that doesn't mean we can't continue to look at other places."

Even sites that are not Drake’s Bay or Nehalem Bay, like Whale Cove in southern Oregon. That’s where archaeologist Melissa Darby is digging. Darby says as a scientist, she doesn’t trust anyone who’s 100% sure of something that happened more than four centuries ago.

Darby: "We don't know where he landed. Just the evidence that there are so many arguments about it tells me that it's not a done deal."

For now, though, California’s claim to Sir Francis Drake seems to be a done deal. All that’s needed now to turn Drake’s Bay into a historic landmark is a signature from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network