Scientists Explain Drake’s Plate Hoax

Special to The Times

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.

With flyaway white eyebrows and a scowl on his face, he charged that the historians were wrong in depicting his grandfather as a wholehearted booster of the plate. In fact, Dr. Bolton had doubts about the plate, until a professor of electrochemistry at Columbia University declared it to be the real thing, the grandson said. Brower was even more outraged, he said, that family members had not been interviewed and that none of the researchers (one of whom has since died) had read a biography of his grandfather. “You should be ashamed of yourselves,” he scolded.

He recalled a few fond memories of the plate as well, especially the day when Bolton “brought in this big package wrapped in newspaper.” He recalled his grandfather saying he thought the plate was authentic, “but it could easily be a fraud.”

Historian James Spitze deftly interjected a note of diplomacy. The research, he insisted, “should not reflect in any negative way on professor Bolton,” whom he described as a true academician who translated original Spanish and Italian documents as part of his own research into early America. The story, Spitze insisted, “is not about Dr. Bolton, it’s about the fake plate of brass.”

But Bolton’s public statements show that his enthusiasm eventually got the better of him and he wholeheartedly endorsed the plate as the genuine article, the investigators concluded.

Marine historian Edward P. Von der Porten, one of the authors of an article in the current California History journal, described the conspirators and their motives. George Haviland Barron, who wrote the text of the fake plate, had been curator of California history at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. Other participants included an inventor/art critic, an art dealer/restorer, and G. Ezra Dane, said to be a prominent member of the California Historical Society and of the Clamper organization.

Motive Suspected

Von der Porten and colleagues point out that Barron may have had more than just a chuckle in mind when creating the plate. He is said to have hated the Bancroft’s director, blaming him, in part, for Barron’s having been forced out of his job at the De Young Museum.

The plate’s authenticity was cast into doubt many times over the years. In the 1970s, as its supposed 400th birthday approached, Dr. James D. Hart, then head of the Bancroft Library, initiated an elaborate series of tests on it.

Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and at the Research Laboratory for Archeology and the History of Art at Oxford University found the copper content of the plate to be unlike anything previously attributed to the Elizabethan era. Further, they disclosed that it had not been hammered, the practice in the 1500s, but had been rolled, a modern technology.

Yet the mystery remained: Who perpetrated the hoax, and why?

The crucial break came in December 2001, when the historians discovered the notes of conspirator Lorenz Noll, the art dealer and restorer, in a box at the Bancroft Library.

The secret was revealed if not verified. Then all they had to do was connect the sepia-hued dots.

Had Bolton been a little more skeptical back in the 1930s, he might have noticed the telltale signs of a fake. The spelling was modern; the queen was referred to as Queen Elizabeth of England and not as “Elizabeth, by grace of God, Queen of England,” as was the custom in the 1500s. One of the pranksters, George C. Clark, the art critic who had designed the plate, carved a “G” and “C” just above Drake’s signature. Historians back then assumed the letters stood for “Captain General,” a term not in use in the Elizabethan era.

Most telling, the Clampers had written the initials of their group, ECV, in fluorescent paint. But one would have needed to place the plate under a black light to see the initials.

Historians still believe, however, that Drake and his men left a plate somewhere near Drake’s Bay, on behalf of their country and their queen. Romantics would like to believe it will be found one day.

Said historian Von der Porten: “There is still a plate of brass out there.”