In the summer of 1936, pheasant hunter Beryle Shinn had a flat tire near California's San Quentin Penitentiary. His pals decided it was a good place for a picnic. While pitching rocks, Shinn found a metal plate that might make a good patch for a hole in his car. He tossed it into the back seat and forgot about it.
A month later, Shinn retrieved the plate to fix the hole. After cleaning it up, he noticed baffling writing on the hammered brass sheet. His friends puzzled out the name "Drake" and suggested he take it to Herbert E. Bolton, director of the Bancroft Library.
"One of the world's long lost historical treasures," Bolton pronounced, "has been found!"
The treasure was the "plate of brasse" Francis Drake left behind somewhere on the California coast in 1579 claiming possession of "Nova Albion" for "Herr Maiestie Qveen Elizabeth."
Shinn's plate even had the original hole, which was a perfect fit for an Elizabethan sixpence showing Good Queen Bess's profile.
The plate caused a sensation. The Bancroft Library paid $3,500 for it (a fortune in the Depression) and ran metallurgical tests.
In the next two years, the California Historical Quarterly published 23 articles about the artifact, including a look at the Microstructure of the Metal and Patina of the Plate. The plate passed the physical tests with flying colors, while leading literary experts and historians hailed it as the real relic.
Outside of academia, there were doubters. The leading Drake historian, Henry Wagner, observed skeptically that Drake would have used lead. There was something "fishy" about it, noted paleontology professor Charles Camp, who had mastered Western history as a sideline.
The next year Camp wrote Ye Preposterous Booke of Brasse, a send-up of the whole affair published for E Clampus Vitus, a historical brotherhood and "self-effacing group with a mysterious past." Camp claimed the initials "ECV" stamped on Drake's plate proved it belonged to the Clampers.
The Clampers, who had been "hoaxing the suckers for a long, long time," sponsored a drunken field trip to visit the great Hi-oh of the Miwok Nation. The Hi-oh issued a proclamation rejecting England's claim to California, charging that the Miwoks had been "seduced by that buccaneer,Francis Drake." He revoked the grant "on grounds of deceit, fraud and failure to occupy the said domain."
The Clampers engraved the proclamation on their own brass plate. It looked suspiciously like the Bancroft's artifact, but, as Charlie Camp pointed out, it was done with "a cold chisel."
The Drake plate controversy raged for decades. Cyril Smith of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted new metallurgical tests and issued a confidential report to the Bancroft Library in 1976, indicating that the plate was modern brass with a baked-on patina. The Bancroft did new tests in the 1990s that confirmed Smith's conclusions.
The library loaned the plate to an exhibition of "Frauds and Fakes," where it appeared next to the bogus bones of the "Piltdown Man."
The great Drake discovery was a hoax. No Clamper ever revealed the sordid details, but the plate probably was a practical joke that got out of hand.
Herbert Bolton never spoke to his Clamper buddies again.
But remember Drake's sixpence? In 1965 The West magazine reported that "a sixpence clearly dated and authenticated 1573 turned up in a San Francisco coin collection." A resident of San Francisco allegedly found the coin in Marin County between 1905 and 1915.
And, heck, someone might yet find the real plate of brass. Stranger things have happened.
Utah historian Will Bagley, ECV, Sam Brannan Chapter No. 1004, doesn't know what E Clampus Vitus means.