California rambling: In search of Drake’s Plate

By From page A4 | October 15, 2012

Many have long searched Marin County for a plate of brass left along the California coast by English explorer Sir Francis Drake in 1579. Perhaps the most learned and respected explorer for Drake’s Plate was George Bolton, the esteemed historian and director of the University of California’s Bancroft Library (1920–1940).

Bolton often encouraged his students at Berkeley to search for Drake’s plate. So, when an aged brass plate, supposedly inscribed by Drake and claiming northern California in the name of Queen Elizabeth, was discovered in Larkspur in 1936, Bolton was eager to accept it as real. In truth, it was a hoax.

The first indication that Drake’s Plate wasn’t authentic was revealed by Lorenz Noll, a decade after the plate’s discovery. He confided to a historian and fellow member of E Clampus Vitus (ECV) — an historical fraternity known for its humor — that he and three friends had created it as an elaborate spoof that had gone terribly awry.

G. Ezra Dane, also a Clamper, conceived the ruse. His conspirators included George Haviland Barron, then curator of California history at the de Young Museum; George C. Clark, an inventor, art critic and appraiser who engraved the plate; and Noll an art dealer and restorer who is believed to have applied “ECV” in transparent fluorescent paint to the back of the plate, in an apparent attempt to identify the plate as a joke. The ruse was all designed to spoof Bolton.

The full truth about the plate remained hidden, though rumors circulated about its authenticity. In the mid-1970s, neutron activation analysis found the plate to contain purer copper and zinc than would have been available in Drake’s time. Then in 2003, four historians revealed, after a decade-long investigation, that Dane, Barron, Clark and Noll had conceived the hoax.

What made it all so believable is the care they’d taken in fashioning the plate. UC Berkeley News reported the text as having been carefully fashioned in Drake’s writing style, then chiseled into common brass with raised edges hammered down. It was then heated over a wood fire to create a dark patina and hammered once more, darkened with dirt, ash and chemicals, subjected to fire and buried for a time before being left at Drake’s Bay in 1933. The phony plate was found, though discarded near San Quentin prison. A shop clerk found it three years later and eventually brought it to Bolton who almost immediately accepted it as genuine.

Recently, we set off on our own search for Drake’s Plate, traveling to northern Marin County (2.5 hours west of El Dorado County), and staying at Nick’s Cove in Tomales Bay. At the time the Drake’s Plate ruse occurred, Nick’s Cove was an active fishing village. It remains as one of the last remaining settlements along Tomales Bay that caters to travelers. Twelve remodeled and comfortably appointed ocean-themed cottages (eight of which are pet friendly) are situated at the bay’s edge and on a hillside facing Highway 1.

We stayed in Jerry’s Cabin, its interior decorated with hunting and fishing trophies, old photographs of outdoorsmen, a wet bar with fridge, and leather and plush furnishings upholstered in burgundy and caramel. A 270-degree porch provides sunset views of the cove, bay and Point Reyes National Seashore to the west.

There aren’t many nearby dining options, though the restaurant at Nick’s Cove more than suffices. Continental breakfast is included, or order from a menu that includes Crab Benedict, Bellweather Farms Sheep Ricotta Waffles and other options including a traditional Tomales Bay breakfast, for from $8 to $19 extra.

Some of California’s best oysters are farmed in Tomales Bay and the restaurant offers a wide selection of them, as well as fresh choices from Humboldt Bay, New Brunswick and British Columbia. On arrival, guests at Nick’s Cove Cottages are welcomed with a complimentary plate of the restaurant’s famous Tomales Bay barbecued oysters. Entrees vary from wood-fired salmon with a savory carrot bread pudding, to wood-fired hanger steak, all from $23 to $27.

Blue Water, an independent outfitter, provides kayak tours from the cove and nearby are options for sportfishing, bike tours, horseback rides, spa treatments, wine tasting and more oyster bars. We opted to visit Point Reyes National Seashore at the end of Tomales Bay in search of Drake’s Plate.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Point Reyes National Seashore is described by the National Park Service as, “a study in motion…” slow continental transformations, sudden earthquakes along the San Andreas Fault, the rhythm of sea along the coast, the migration of birds and whales, browsing deer and Tule elk and colorful jewel-like starfish, urchins and anemones to be seen in tide pools.

Point Reyes Station Lighthouse is on the windiest point along the Pacific Coast, sometimes experiencing winds over 100 mph. On the pleasant October day we visited, a guide said it was the best of four days she’d experienced, in four years. Dogs on leash may be walked along Point Reyes Beach and Kehoe Beach, but not on Drake’s Beach. Many hiking trails lead from the Limantour Road at the national seashore’s south end. We hiked along the Tomales Point Trail, through the park’s Tule Elk Reserve.

We didn’t find the plate, though there is a real Drake’s Plate to be found somewhere at Point Reyes. It probably lies buried beneath rocks, sand or sea near Drake’s Bay. The fake plate remains displayed at the Bancroft Library, an object lesson to others about being wary before accepting something too good to be true.

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John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.

John Poimiroo

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