Oregon Coast Pirate Series Part 1: Sir Francis Drake
(Manzanita, Oregon) – Were there pirates on the Oregon coast?
Most experts agree, not really. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. Oregon Coast Beach Connection will take a close look at his murky bit of northwest history in a series of articles, and this one, about Sir Francis Drake, is the first. (Above: Manzanita)
Eventually known as the “Dragon” by his foes, Drake definitely engaged in some pirate-like activity over his lifetime, and he may have an Oregon connection. Some say he anchored in the Manzanita area, others around Depoe Bay, while the U.S. government doesn't believe either spot. On top of it all, you've got to be careful to call him an actual pirate.
Sir Francis Drake was born around 1540 (no one is really sure) to a family of farmers in England, entering the world of sailing by his early 20's. He served aboard a slave ship that was attacked by the Spanish, which then quickly launched a career of becoming a bit of a terror on the high seas.
Looking towards Whale Cove, Depoe Bay
He almost immediately entered the world of privateering, which in this case meant somewhat clandestine raids sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth I. In 1570, she commissioned him and two ships on a series of privateering raids on the Spanish, essentially to hijack some of their goods.
By 1573, he had some rather spectacular success under his belt and some hairy tales to tell. Still, Drake could still not be acknowledged for his deeds on behalf of the queen as England had signed a peace treaty with Spain. He was at once exalted and an outlaw. Such knife's edge conditions caused him to keep a low profile for a few years.
Meanwhile, he became called “the Dragon” by the Spanish. Queen Elizabeth secretly called him “my pirate.”
In 1577, Drake sailed with five ships down to the African coast, but thanks to some nasty storms, this trip encountered several setbacks. Still, he managed to raid numerous ships over the next two years, snagging what would be the equivalent of millions of dollars by today's standards. But it was in 1579 when he easily and quickly overpowered a Spanish galleon that he made his biggest haul.
In the end, by some accounts, he had attained so much gold, silver and jewelry that it surpassed the income of the crown itself.
From here he apparently went exploring a bit, and it was about 1579 when his watery path led him to the U.S. Pacific Ocean states – and possibly his connection with Oregon. He returned to England in 1580 after being the first to circumnavigate the entire globe. He was knighted one year later.
His exploits actually become official state secrets of England. He and his crew were sworn to secrecy upon punishment of death.
Things get fuzzy on his United States travels. His journal entry on June 17, 1579 has him resting in a bay that is clearly somewhere along the U.S. west coast. It's been widely regarded as northern California, but sizable evidence has noted strong possibilities for all sorts of places, including Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and two spots on the Oregon coast.
Although the federal government officially dedicated Point Reyes Peninsula as the site where Sir Francis Drake landed in 1579, and where he claimed this area for the Queen of England, the debate rages on.
The journal entries talk about a very foggy place, where clouds hid the stars from view. Many scientists note the maps made by Drake and crew look quite a bit like the Nehalem Bay area, while others note Whale Cove around Depoe Bay.
More than one Manzanita-based historian has noted the mysteriously inscribed “W” rocks found on top of Neahkahnie Mountain. While in previous decades these had been attributed to yet another “pirate” legend of the north coast – regarding rumors of a buried treasure on the mountainside – more recent evidence points to these rocks being navigational markers of some sort. Almost every ship crew had their own way of marking claims or navigational numbers in writing; these were not standardized at the time.
Who left these rocks and exactly why is still up in the air, but evidence is sizable it was European seafarers. Local Garry Gitzen believes there's strong evidence Drake's crew left them.
Whether or not Drake actually showed up here in the Nehalem Bay area, Depoe Bay or in any coastal spot around Oregon is still highly debated. But at least there is the possibility this area has a pirate connection, even though Drake's later life was a little less Johnny Depp-like.
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