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Scientists Explain Drake's Plate Hoax

Researchers say they have unraveled tale of object supposed to have marked his landing.

February 19, 2003|Carol Pogash | Special to The Times

BERKELEY — After 11 years of research, a group of California historians announced Tuesday they have unraveled one of the most bedeviling hoaxes in recent American history, answering the question, "Who Made Drake's Plate of Brass?"

Four researchers released a 17-page journal article pointing the finger at an obscure society of drinking men known as E. Clampus Vitus. Seventy years ago, the group forged and inscribed "Drake's Plate" as a bit of whimsy on the historical record and on the story of Sir Francis Drake.

But did one member of the society carry the hoax to his grave with a darker motive?

The findings offer compelling evidence about the plot and debunk a lesson that was taught to generations of California schoolchildren -- that the plate that boldly staked England's claim to the new land had been found at last.

Headlines and hubbub greeted the discovery in 1936. The object was renowned because it symbolized the dawn of British power in the American West and the beginning of the end of Spanish dominion.

Despite nagging reservations by a few historians about its authenticity, it became a cherished museum piece. It was exhibited at the Smithsonian and around the world. Over the years, reproductions have been given to former first lady Lady Bird Johnson and to Queen Elizabeth II. And, of course, copies appeared in California textbooks.

The brass plate, unfortunately, was actually inscribed closer to 1930 than 1579. The earlier year is when, Drake wrote, he nailed a brass plate to a post somewhere along the Northern California coast, stating that all of the vast countryside belonged to Queen Elizabeth of England.

No bigger than an oversized postcard, the plate now rests in a glass case inside Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley's venerated research center. On Tuesday, reporters filed in to look at the fake, shielded under glass.

Elaborate Hoax

"Research isn't just finding facts, it's finding fiction and learning how to separate the two," mused Stephen Becker, executive director of the California Historical Society.

The investigators concluded that the elaborate hoax had been perpetrated by the "Clampers" (touted as "a historical drinking society or a drinking historical society") against a more earnest academic, University of California history professor Dr. Herbert Bolton.

Bolton was head of the Bancroft Library and himself a member of E. Clampus Vitus.

But the furor over the plate will not die easily: Witness the presence at Tuesday's news conference of the grandson of the renowned historian who once staked his reputation on the plate's authenticity. The grandson, himself an octogenarian, accused the historians of relying on "hearsay."

Also present were a handful of Clampers -- members of the drinking society -- in red shirts, with nonsensical medals on their chests, determined to uphold another sort of reputation. In top hat with an American flag and feathers poking out, Clamper Rick "Cap'n Crunch" Saber apologized for the lack of minutes from critical historical meetings. "Nobody," he explained, "was in any condition to record them."

Drake's plate was presumed to have washed up near what is now called Drake's Bay in Point Reyes about 70 years ago. The historians said Tuesday they were able to verify that, in 1933, William Caldeira, a chauffeur, happened upon the plate after waiting for a quail hunter near Drake's Bay. A week or two afterward, unable to decipher the message, he tossed it out of the car he was driving somewhere near San Quentin Prison.

Three years passed, before a pheasant hunter stopping to fix a flat tire rediscovered the plate. He showed it to a friend who had been a student at UC Berkeley and knew of Bolton's fascination with Drake.

With the financial backing of 17 well-to-do members of the California Historical Society, Bolton moved quickly. He sweet-talked the possessor of the plate into handing it over, paying $3,500 -- the equivalent of $50,000 today, with inflation.

Bolton was careful in early statements to say only that the treasured plate "apparently" was the real thing. Over time, he dropped the equivocation. At a luncheon of prominent historians in 1937, Bolton exclaimed that "the authenticity of the tablet seems to me beyond all reasonable doubt."

On Tuesday, a small conference room at Bancroft Library was jammed, mostly with professorial-looking men in jackets, who sat not far from a gaggle of jovial Clampers.

While TV cameras rolled, Bolton's 81-year-old grandson, Bob Brower, angrily denounced the new research findings.

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