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Document Number: AJ-032
Author: Drake, Francis, Sir, 1540-1596
Title: Sir Francis Drake on the California Coast
Source: Burrage, Henry S. (editor). Early English and French Voyages, Chiefly from Hakluyt, 1534-1608. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906). Pages 151-173.
Pages/Illustrations: 25 / 0
Citable URL:

Author Note

Sir Francis Fletcher served as the chaplain on Francis Drake’s voyage of circumnavigation.

Richard Hakluyt (1552?-1616), a clergyman and scholar, devoted himself to promoting the cause of English maritime expansion and colonization. Hakluyt was the first to lecture on modern geography at Oxford University. He hoped that his published accounts of geographical discovery would encourage further exploration, but he also wished to establish England’s right to colonize North America by recording and preserving documentary evidence of English priority of discovery. Hakluyt supported a variety of colonization plans and hoped to travel to America himself, but his obligations always prevented him from going. He acted as a consultant to the East India Company, was a patentee of the Virginia Company, and held numerous influential religious positions.

Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596) was born to a Protestant family in Devonshire. He first went to sea when about ten years old as an apprentice to a master with a coastal freighter, but came to fame as a pirate and explorer. He accompanied his cousin, Sir John Hawkins, on the ill-fated slaving expedition in 1567 that was attacked by the Spanish (see AJ-031). After that he carried on a personal vendetta against the Spanish, making three privateering voyages in the early 1570s, raiding and stealing from Spanish settlements, and seizing valuable Spanish cargoes of gold and spices.

After the voyage around the world from which this document is excerpted, Drake continued to fight the Spanish, attacking the fleet at Cadiz in 1586 and playing an instrumental role in the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Drake died on December 27, 1595, on a pirating voyage to Spanish colonial settlements that also claimed the life of his fellow explorer, Sir John Hawkins.

Drake’s 1579 Visit to California

Drake started his famous circumnavigation of the world from Plymouth, England, November 15, 1577, passed through the Straight of Magellan into the Pacific, coasted up the western shores of the Americas, crossed to Asia and the Philippines, and finally returned to Britain on September 26, 1580. He was knighted for his deeds. Although commissioned by the British government to discover the supposed Southern Continent, Drake also claimed to have instructions from the Queen to act as a privateer against Spanish shipping and colonial settlements in the New World. The excerpt presented here covers the period from April 16 to July 23, 1579, when Drake journeyed from Guatulco, Guatemala, up to the 48th parallel, and down the coast to present-day San Francisco, California, where he repaired and provisioned his ship. He named the region New Albion and took possession of it in the name of Queen Elizabeth I, despite the fact that the Spanish had already visited and mapped it.

There is some question concerning how far north he sailed, as he describes snow-covered mountains on land during the height of summer and local Native Americans dressed in clothing resembling that of natives living farther north, on the Canadian coast. During one period of encampment, Drake describes the villages of the inhabitants of New Albion living in low, wood-pole structures covered with earth and vented on top. Drake describes treating the local native Americans for diseases “lately received,” that produced open sores. He recounts the extensive ocean life present in the region and the Indians’ skill hunting with bow and arrow.

Drake’s account of his circumnavigation remains one of the most popular English sea stories ever published. It bolstered national pride and drew attention to England’s rise as a sea power. The extract presented here, covering Drake’s search for a northwest passage back to England, offers the first English account of the west coast of North America, as well as an important description of the culture of the Native Americans who lived in today’s Northern California.

Document Note

This document first appeared in The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake, Carefully Collected Out of the Notes of Master Francis Fletcher, Preacher in this Imployment, and Divers Others His Followers (London: Richard Hakluyt, 1628).

Other Internet and Reference Sources

Another first-person account of Drake’s circumnavigation voyage is available online via Paul Halsall’s Internet History Sourcebooks Project at Fordham University:

The National Maritime Museum web site contains more information about Drake and his explorations, including portraits, maps, charts, timelines. Search at the museum home page at

There is a short article on Drake’s circumnavigation of the world, including a map showing his major voyages at

Britain’s Channel 4 web site on Elizabethan pirates contains a useful summary of Drake’s career at piratesdrake_t.html

Two recent biographies are: Rice, Earle. Sir Francis Drake, Navigator and Pirate (New York: Benchmark Books, 2003); and Dudley, Wade G. Drake: for God, Queen, and Plunder (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, Inc., 2003).

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