This paper is part of the Proceedings of the Maritime Cultural Landscape Symposium, October 14-15, 2015, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Paul Engel
Point Reyes National Seashore, National Park Service

Coming from Point Reyes National Seashore, as you might guess, we have a lot of historic properties that can be looked at through this lens of maritime cultural landscapes. I am going to focus on the Drakes Bay Historic and Archaeological District and maritime cultural landscapes, and how these properties are documented within the framework of the National Register of Historic Places. To give you a quick roadmap of this presentation, I will first introduce the basic information about the district, followed by a discussion of aspects of the district with reference to the maritime cultural landscape concept. Lastly, I will evaluate how these attributes were addressed in the documentation for the district and some of the implications for management.

The Drakes Bay Historic and Archaeological District is situated along the shores of Drake Bay and Drakes Estero which is roughly forty miles north of San Francisco. The district is a nationally significant, 16th century landscape, that provides material evidence of one of the earliest instances of contact and interaction between European explorers and native peoples on the west coast of what is now the United States. The district is centered on two such historical encounters, Sir Francis Drake’s 1579 California landfall and the 1595 shipwreck of the Manila galleon San Agustín within Drakes Bay.

The district was determined eligible under National Historic Landmark (NHL) criterion one for its association with these events, and criterion two for its association with the nationally significant figure Sir Francis Drake. It is also eligible under criterion six for its ability to yield information about these early contacts and their short-term and long-term consequences. If you aren’t familiar with the NHL criteria, the analogous National Register of Historic Places criteria are criterion A, criterion B, and criterion D.

The Drakes Bay Historic and Archaeological District consists seventeen contributing sites. These include the Port of Nova Albion which is the most likely site of Drake’s California landfall, the 1595 shipwreck of Manila galleon San Agustin situated in Drakes Bay, and fifteen California Indian sites. The fifteen California Indian sites are associated with the Coast Miwok peoples and were found to contain 16th century European artifacts from these early colonial encounters. As an archaeological district, the significance of the district and how it is conveyed is relatively straight forward. The seventeen contributing sites contain archaeological materials with potential to address research questions about these early interactions, their consequences, and the degree of variability compared to other contact period sites. As a historic district, however, these contributing sites which are either subsurface or submerged in Drakes Bay do not, in themselves, convey these historical events of the 16th century. Rather, this part of the district’s significance is really conveyed through the site locations and the combination of landscape features that were imbued with meaning by both European explorers and the Coast Miwok.

In the case of Sir Francis Drake’s 1579 California landfall, Drakes Bay was a well needed stopover that allowed Drake and his crew to reprovision and careen their ship, the Golden Hind, in order to prepare a leak in its hull. The sheltered harbor of Drakes Bay, the navigable inlet of Drakes Estero, and its surrounding sandbars, are tangible features that, at the time, made Drakes Bay a suitable harbor to Drake and his crew. The white cliffs of Drakes Bay were a prominent landmark that make the bay easily visible and reminded the Englishmen of the southern coast of their homeland, leading them to name the land Nova Albion and claim it for England. All of these features are prominent in the accounts of the voyage, and they were essential in the identification of Nova Albion as the landing place of Sir Francis Drake. These remain evocative of the scene today.

Once again, in this case of the 1595 shipwreck of the San Agustin, the sheltered shoreline of Drakes Bay enticed Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeno to make anchor in 1595 in order to reprovision and assemble a small launch for coastal exploration while enroute from the Philippines to New Spain. This route was part of the regular trade between Manila and Acapulco, where Mexican and South American silver were shipped out of Acapulco and exchanged for Chinese luxury goods that were shipped back to Acapulco. This return trip brought the Manila galleons along the coast of Northern California leading, in this case, Cermeno to land in Drakes Bay. However, shortly after their arrival at Drakes Bay, a southerly storm drove the San Agustin ashore causing it to wreck in the surf. The Spaniards were forced to modify their launch to allow the whole crew to return to Mexico leaving the San Agustin behind in Drakes Bay, which they referred to as la Bahia de San Francisco.

For the Coast Miwok, the wreck of the San Agustin added to the landscape of coastal gathering areas along the bay in the area that they called Tamal-huye, or Bay Point. This is the area where subsistence and material resources were routinely gathered. As suggested by the distribution of Coast Miwok archaeological sites along the coastal margins of Point Reyes, the Coast Miwok relied heavily on marine and estuarine resources. During this period of contact, the European explorers would have entered a developed landscape of coastal villages and camps, processing sites, and collecting areas. The Coast Miwok likely harvested materials from the wrecked San Agustin routinely, not unlike the clam beds and intertidal reefs along the Point Reyes coast.

The materials the Coast Miwok harvested from the cargo of the San Agustin, especially the Chinese export porcelain, were modified and utilized similar to how the Coast Miwok modified traditional material types such as shell and lithic materials. For instance, Ming Dynasty porcelain vessels were broken into pieces and modified as ornaments similar to abalone pendants and clam shell disk beads. Iron spikes and other metal implements were also likely utilized similar to modified stone implements.

As the variety of names associated with Drakes Bay indicates, the bay and surrounding landscape have held meaning for many cultural groups over the centuries. As a maritime cultural landscape, the Drakes Bay national historic landmark demonstrates how both human constructed features and natural landscape features are imbued with cultural meaning to those interacting on the landscape. It is also an example of how maritime cultural landscapes often have a greater radius of human activity and are more open to outside influence compared to their terrestrial counterparts. In this way, the Drakes Bay national historic landmark represents this burgeoning global economy of the 16th century, and provides a view of its short-term and long-term impact on traditional cultures.

Although all of these aspects of the district that I have just talked about are addressed throughout the documentation for the National Historic Landmark, they are not so well represented in the discussion of the district’s significance and how it is conveyed by the contributing resources. This shortcoming seems to reflect some of the constraints of the National Register framework. Many of the district’s more visible features such as, the cliffs at Drakes Bay, and the navigable inlet to Drakes Estero, do not really fit the property categories defined by the National Register. As a result, these types of features are not listed as contributing resources. Instead, the way the author’s managed to incorporate these cultural landscape elements was by including these features by explicitly calling them out in their discussion of integrity, especially as part of the setting and feeling of the district.

Although this is a common approach that is used to document cultural landscapes within the framework of the National Register of Historic Places, this approach could lead to some potential negative implications in the later management of these resources. Resource managers tend to put a lot of emphasis on the list of contributing resources, and use it almost as a short list of what is important in the preservation of a historic property. This could result in significant landscape features being neglected in terms of their preservation and in the overall interpretation of these properties to the public. This will become a greater issue as we think about the management of maritime cultural landscapes and other historic properties within the context of climate change, and its associated effects of sea level rise and increasing rates of coastal erosion. These maritime cultural landscapes will become increasingly vulnerable over time.

Given the increasing vulnerability of these properties, it is important that resource managers find effective ways to incorporate the maritime cultural landscape perspective within the framework of the National Register of Historic Places so that these values are clearly communicated to future decision makers. The documentation for the Drakes Bay Historic and Archaeological District relies on its discussion of integrity of setting and location to capture several aspects of the maritime cultural landscape. Although this approach does recognize these values within the historic landscape, elevating these components to the level of contributing resources would be a more effective way to communicate their importance within the district to both the public and future decision makers. Other approaches and case studies that successfully integrate the maritime cultural landscape concept within the framework of the National Register should be identified and shared beyond this symposium to inform future documentation efforts. Additionally, in some way redefining the National Register property categories to better include cultural landscapes or significant landscape features might be an approach to better document the significance of these types of properties.

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