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Did 'Pirate' Sir Francis Drake Land on N. Oregon Coast? New Exhibit Looks at Mystery

Published 05/16/22 at 4:45 AM PST
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Did 'Pirate' Sir Francis Drake Land on N. Oregon Coast? New Exhibit Looks at Mystery

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(Manzanita, Oregon) – Everybody loves a good pirate tale now and then, and there is a vague possibility one sort of pirate figure made landfall on the north Oregon coast, around the Nehalem Bay. An explorer by most definitions and at the very least a privateer, Sir Francis Drake may have crossed that line into piracy, and some believe he explored Manzanita and the surrounding before any other Europeans.

The famed British captain and his ship the Golden Hind go on display at the Nehalem Valley Historical Society with a new exhibit on this possibility, stirring up an old controversy. One of his journal entries definitely points to a stop somewhere in north America, and usually this is regarded as Point Reyes, California.

The exhibit in Manzanita examines his purpose here, which was likely to claim land and riches for Queen Elizabeth 1 and the British Empire, and to seek a safe harbor from Spanish-controlled waters of the Pacific. Drake and crew also had to make repairs on their ship before heading back to England, and carried with him a large amount of gold and silver to pay off the country's debts.

“Drake’s nephew, a cabin boy who rose to the rank of ship captain, years later told his Spanish captors that Drake had landed at latitude 45 degrees, which places the ship at Nehalem Bay,” said Tom Campbell, board president of the Nehalem Valley Historical Society.

Drake had a mixed reputation, as both a successful explorer who increased Britain’s wealth and standing in the world (and was rewarded with a knighthood), and as a pirate and marauder of Spanish settlements, stealing gold, silver and whatever was worth taking. To the Spanish, he was known as “El Draque” (the Dragon).

With the museum back up and open again after pandemic concerns, the Drake exhibit is the latest installation. In March, the historical society created an exhibit about Spanish galleon shipping routes.

The theory about Drake arriving in Manzanita is not new, and there was one major proponent on the central Oregon coast who for a long time claimed Drake had wandered into Whale's Cove near Depoe Bay. An extensive book about the Drake theory for Manzanita was released in the early 2000s, and cited strange markings on rocks in the area as evidence. “Francis Drake In Nehalem Bay” by local Garry Gitzen pointed to fairly large rocks with a form of W on them and other markings that were found on top of Neahkahnie Mountain. To many historians, these seemed likely to be navigational markings from a ship's crew, which were always different from ship to ship.

They are still on display at the Tillamook Pioneer Museum in Tillamook.

Whether Drake was actually a pirate in real life is a bit debated as well, but he did definitely engage in pirate-like behavior. He was born around 1540 or so and by his 20s was a sailor. He fairly quickly entered the world of privateering, which was a fairly common career choice back then, and in his case meant somewhat clandestine raids sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth I. Essentially, he was paid by the Crown to hijack goods from the Spanish, so in their eyes he was a pirate.

The Queen secretly called him “my pirate,” according to many historians. His relationship to the Crown was not revealed until long after his death, and his crew were sworn to secrecy as well.

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.

However, the federal government officially dedicated Point Reyes Peninsula as the site where Sir Francis Drake landed in 1579, and it does not recognize any other locale as a possibility.

The historical society is open Saturdays from 1pm to 4pm, and is located at 225 Laneda Avenue in Manzanita.

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