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Drake’s Plate: A Fabricated Artifact and the Story of an Out-of-Control Prank

1900s | December 7, 2018

Francis Drake sailed his ship Golden Hind into history, 1578, by Cornelis de Vries, watercolour. 16th century. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Several generations of Californians felt a sense of pride knowing that their state was part of an important historical event…the first voyage to circle the globe. Sir Francis Drake undertook this navigational challenge in the 1500s and, according to an artifact found on the California coast, the explorer and his crew reached California in 1579, leaving behind a brass plate inscribed with the date of their arrival in California and a note claiming the land for England. Since the plate was found in 1936, it was common knowledge that Drake made it to California…heck, it was even included in history books for school children. There was one problem though. The brass plate found in 1936 was a fake. It was all part of a prank that spiraled out of control and into the history books. 

(historic-uk.com)

The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake

From 1577 to 1580, the English explorer and navigator set out to with his crew aboard the Golden Hinde to sail around the world. He sailed to the tip of South America and up the western coast of that continent and into Central and North Americas before crossing the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, he claimed new lands for England. 

(HistoryCollection.co)

Drake’s Plate is Found

Beryle W. Shinn was enjoying the California sunshine in the summer of 1936. He was picnicking with friends on the northern shore of San Francisco Bay near San Quentin when he stumbled upon a rectangular metal object. Shinn had a hole in the floorboard of his automobile and the five-inch by eight-inch plate looked like it was just the right size to patch the hole. He kept it, intending to weld it onto his car. But then he noticed writing on one side of it. 

Herbert E. Bolton, director of the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley (calisphere.org)

Was this the Legendary Drake’s Plate?

The University of California at Berkeley’s library director at the time was an avid Drake historian named Herbert E. Bolton. Bolton knew from his research that Drake sometimes left brass plates at various landing points on his voyage as a way to make a land claim. He theorized that Drake may have left one in California and often talked about it to friends and students. If someone mentioned going to the beach, Bolton always asked them to look for Drake’s plate. Was it purely coincidental that Shinn, upon finding the plate in 1936, took it to Bolton for translation? 

Where Francis Drake was said to make landfall in California (fostertravel.com)

Bolton Declared it to be Authentic

Herbert Bolton was thrilled when he saw Shinn’s find. He read the inscription and announced that Drake had, indeed, made landfall in the San Francisco Bay on June 17, 1579. He quickly went public with the discovery and presented it at a California Historical Society gathering in 1937. Society members eagerly donated money so that the University could purchase the historic and important artifact. Newspapers published the story of the incredible find and Drake’s Plate was rapidly ingrained into the history of California. 

A replica of Drake's Golden Hinde sails through San Francisco Bay for the 400th anniversary of his landing in California (sfchronicle.com)

Drake’s Plate was Uncontested for Forty Years

Drake’s Plate was accepted as authentic. It was loaned out to museums around the world and it was included in history books. Then in 1977, in preparation for the 400th anniversary of Drake’s California landing, scientists finally got around to analyzing the plate. Helen Michel and Frank Asaro of Berkeley’s chemistry department used a newly-developed neutron activation analyzer on the artifact and received a surprising result. The brass plate was not old enough to be from Drake’s time. It was made in the late 1800s or early 1900s. That meant, much to everyone’s shock, that Drake’s Plate was a modern-day hoax. 

The College of Chemistry at Berkeley where the hoax was finally discovered (chemistry.berkeley.edu)

After Another 25 Years, the Hoaxers Came Clean

A press conference took place on February 18, 2003, at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, the same library that Herbert Bolton oversaw from 1920 to 1940. At this press conference, it was revealed that, indeed, Drake’s Plate was a hoax. But it was more than that. It was meant to be a private prank that a group of colleagues played on Bolton. The group, all co-workers of Bolton’s, were amused at Bolton’s fascination with finding Drake’s Plate so they concocted to prank him. They made the plate and planted it at the beach, and even arranged for it to be ‘discovered’. They thought it would be funny and a way to poke fun at Bolton’s obsession. 

(sfgate.com)

But the Prank Got Out of Hand

When the plate was discovered and shown to Bolton, the pranksters naturally went along with the ruse, pretending to share in Bolton’s elation over the find. But Bolton moved too quickly for the pranksters. Before they could reveal the prank, Bolton had already alerted the media, presented the find to the California Historical Society, and secured funds to purchase the artifact. By this time, the pranksters had lost control of their prank. They decided that their only course of action was to remain silent. 

(trumanlibrary.org)

Bolton Never Knew He Was Pranked

Herbert Bolton died in 1953 and never knew that he was the target of such an elaborate prank. He died believing that Drake’s Plate was a significant discovery, not a modern-day hoax. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.