Gold Rush History: A Land of Golden Opportunities & World-Class Hoaxes

By Bob Holton March 15, 2011 18:13

California has always been part reality and part fantasy. Since the days of the Gold Rush, it has been known as the land of infinite opportunity – and home to some of the world’s greatest hoaxes.

A classic instance of the latter happened in 1936, when – according to the most popular version of this complex tale – Beryle Shinn, a student, was driving on the Kentfield-Greenbrae Road in Marin County when his car got a flat tire about 1,000 yards from San Francisco Bay.

He pulled over, got out, and soon noticed a small piece of metal sticking out of the ground. It was covered with dirt and appeared to be worthless, but for some unguessed reason he tossed it in his trunk, where it remained for several months.

One day Shinn finally washed the object, whereupon he discovered it to be made of brass and inscribed with an unreadable message, yet he managed to make out a date, “1579,” and the words “Francis Drake.”

Realizing this was no ordinary item, the next day he drove to the University of California at Berkeley and showed it to his professor of American history, the distinguished Dr. Herbert Eugene Bolton.

Bolton, 67 years old and about to retire, was also director of the Bancroft Library, one of the state’s most noted institutions of California history.

The professor was flabbergasted. Finding the elusive Sir Francis Drake plaque – the only document that attested to the beginning of English colonization in America – was his lifelong dream.

What if Shinn were to sell it to a private collector or move it out of the state, he thought. Bolton quickly arranged for the Bancroft Library to buy the incredibly valuable artifact for $3,500. Then he officially authenticated it, and, with great euphoria, announced news of his newly acquired museum piece to colleagues the world over. There was no time for scientific testing.

Imagine the rapturous bliss among academics as word of this fabulous discovery spread like a prairie fire. “One of the world’s long-lost historical treasures has been found,” declared UC Berkeley’s President Robert Sproul. “The authenticity of the tablet seems to me beyond all reasonable doubt.”

The 357-year-old relic became a centerpiece of the 1939-’40 Golden Gate International Exposition. Its picture appeared in school textbooks and major magazines, including National Geographic. Souvenir replicas were presented to famous dignitaries, and thousands more were sold to the public. One was presented to California Governor Earl Warren, another to First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson, and still another to Queen Elizabeth II at her 1953 coronation.

First hint that the plaque was a phony surfaced on May 29, 1937. The scene was an E Clampus Vitus dedication ceremony on the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indian Reservation. Also known as “The Clampers,” E Clampus Vitus is a fun-loving fraternal organization founded during the Gold Rush.

Several eminent University of California professors attended this suspect event. Officials from the California Historical Society were also present. Clampers all, they were the secret perpetrators of what could be history’s greatest hoax ever – or so it was reported 50 years later in a California Historical Society quarterly.

Back at the reservation, the usual speeches were made, followed by unveiling of a small brass plaque. It was an exact duplicate of the “authentic” specimen on display at Bancroft Library. Every detail was seen to, including the 16th Century Elizabethan script. Words on the 1937 plate and those of the original read as if written by the same person. Their messages, however, were quite dissimilar. We quote from the Clampers’ plaque:

“BEE IT KNOWNE VNTO ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENTS, WHEREAS IN THE YEAR OF GRACE 1579, THE GREAT HI-HO OF THE MEE-WVKS WAS SEDVCED BY THE BVCCANEER FRANCIS DRAKE, QUEEN AND HER SVCCESSORS FOREVER – NOW THEREFORE I, THE PRESENT CHIEF & HI-HO OF THE MEE-WVK NATION, DO REVOKE SAID GRANT ON GROVNDS OF DECEIT, FRAVD, AND FAILVRE TO OCCVPY SAID DOMAIN. DONE IN THE PRESENCE OF E. CLAMPVS VITVS – MAY 29TH 1937, WILLIAM FVLLER, GRAND HUMBUG.”

Over the next 40 years, many rumors surfaced that the so-called real 1579 plaque was bogus. Bancroft historians insisted they had the genuine article, but, in 1974, the Huntington Library in Pasadena called for new testing, using modern scientific methods, and Harvard University issued a learned paper questioning its authenticity. Curiously, it was further suggested by the San Francisco de Young Museum that the plaque be examined under infrared light.

Finally, with the 400th anniversary of Drake’s California landing approaching, UC Berkeley reluctantly agreed to a series of rigorous analyses. Results were in by the summer of 1979. The plate was manufactured of common rolled brass in the 20th Century. Infrared light revealed the letters “ECV” on the back, written in transparent fluorescent paint.

So ended a world-class, four-decade hoax – perhaps the greatest prank ever played on scholars of western history. Up until a few years ago the 1937 “replica” was still nailed to a tree on the reservation, but last time we checked it was nowhere to be found.

© 2011 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Bob Holton March 15, 2011 18:13