Poring over a Scholastic Book Club catalog I discovered a paperback that promised the locations of sunken ships and buried treasure.
This was just too easy.
For a couple of weeks allowance and another week of finger crossed delivery anticipation, then it would just be a couple of turns of the shovel and I would be buying Hearst Castle.
Of course I failed to take into account that if it were really that easy the author would have dug up the treasure himself, instead of churning out cheap paperbacks for 4th grade readers. I also did not account for the thousands of other 4th graders with shovels who bought the book.
One of the locations listed had the perfect name, Pirate’s Cove. Best of all it was just down the road from where my grandparents lived.
I was able to pester dad and mom into taking me out to Cave Landing but they failed to appreciate this golden opportunity. We did not bring shovels. For reasons understood later we did not go down to the beach.
In retrospect the visit was disappointing. Where do you start digging? There were no big X marks on the ground, or half-buried sailor’s chests waiting to be opened.
Fast forward to today, our culture preaches never quit on a dream but I have given up on digging up Sir Francis Drake’s pirate treasure.
Pirate’s Cove is now known as a nude beach and for starters it is really hard to stomp a shovel into the ground with bare feet.
Historian Mark Hall-Patton wrote a book about San Luis Obispo County place names called “Memories of the Land” and he attributes the Pirate’s Cove moniker to 1960s era rumors that privateer and explorer Sir Francis Drake buried treasure here. Most historians place the English raider’s landing further north near the bay that carries Drake’s name just north of San Francisco. The landing site is still in dispute however, the navigation era before GPS and before landmarks were named had a large margin of error.
Others have suggested Pirate’s Cove earned its reputation when it was used by smugglers sneaking bootleg moonshine into the county during Prohibition.
The area was first commercialized in 1860 by ship captain David Mallagh who developed a wharf and hoist system that connected sailing ships to San Luis Obispo via his stage wagon.
However ‘Mallagh’s Landing’ does not capture the 4th grade imagination the way ‘Pirate’s Cove’ does.
The following story ran on the front of the second section, suggesting the editors and reporter thought the story was interesting but not front page news.
On March 9, 1967, veteran Telegram-Tribune reporter Elliot Curry wrote about two men convinced that the cove harbored booty before it harbored boo-tay.
County urged to ‘claim’ Francis Drake
After 10 years of research and study there is no longer any doubt in the mind of Robert W. Pate of Sacramento that Sir Francis Drake landed in San Luis Obispo Bay in the summer of 1579, spent several weeks reconditioning his ship, then sailed for England.Historians generally have accepted Drake’s Bay in Marin County as the most probable spot of the landing by the famous English navigator and privateer, but Pate believes a much stronger claim can be made for the Cave Landing and Smuggler’s Cover area, located between Avila Beach and Shell Beach.
Pate believes the evidence is strong enough that San Luis Obispo County residents should take up the challenge and claim the Drake expedition as part of the historical heritage of this area. Pate has been assisted in his long search by Richard Dobson, also of the Sacramento area.
Pate is an engineer and retired Air Force bomber pilot, and Dobson is a salesman who met Pate while both were employed by Aero-Jet General. As recently as last month they were here with several helpers continuing to comb the area with electronic gear, hoping to find even the smallest additional clue that Drake may have left behind almost 400 years ago.
Pate backs up his theory with three main lines of argument:
1—The physical evidence. This includes square holes cut along a rock wall, steps cut into the rock, and a crude wall that might have been part of Drake’s fort.
2—The documentary evidence. Pate has read everything he has been able to find concerning the Drake voyage and he believes that San Luis Obispo Bay comes a lot closer to matching the descriptions left by Drake’s chroniclers than the bay in Marin County.
3—The logic of the situation. Pate puts himself in Drake’s position and finds it makes a lot more sense for the discoverer to have made his landing here than any of the other points which historians have claimed.
Pate first became convinced he had found the real Drake’s Bay when he started uncovering holes cut into the rocky cliff which might have been used for cannon emplacements or with fortifications of some kind.
Acceptance of these as dating from Drake’s time was not automatic. Pate and Dobson talked to anyone they could find who had known the area over long periods of time or had records of it. They checked out theories that this was an old fence line, a telephone line, or part of the old Mallagh landing apparatus. It was none of these, Pate declares.
Pate knows where the old buildings stood in this area, where Capt. David Mallagh had his dock, and where treasure hunters have been at work.
According to all the old accounts of the voyage, Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind, landed in a “portus.” The only other “portus” or bay-within-a-bay along the coast besides the Marin County bay, is Cave Landing.
John Drake, a cousin of the admiral who was on the voyage said the landing place was one day’s sail from an island “of good land.” The only island near Drake’s Bay is solid rock.
A day’s sail from San Luis Obispo are the Santa Barbara channel islands, definitely of “good land.”
The accounts of the trip mention the nearest fresh water as “up hill, down hill, an English mile” from the cove.
This would have taken them over the hill from Cave landing to San Luis Obispo Creek.
Pate can go on for hours piecing together the evidence like parts of a jig-saw puzzle.
The matter of latitude gave him trouble for a time. Each chronicler of the voyage reported a different latitude — some said 42 degrees, some 48 degrees. The most accurate report (or at least the accepted one) states that they landed at 38 degrees, a position corresponding with the San Francisco area.
Pate says, however, that maps and navigation of the voyage have been found to be about three degrees off. Three degrees below 38 is 35 degrees and that’s where San Luis Obispo is located.
The mystery surrounding the actual landing place also has convinced Pate and Dobson that Drake intended to cache some of the wealth taken from the Spanish, which included 26 tons of silver. His desire to keep the location a secret would explain his giving the wrong position and the resulting confusion of the reports.
Why did Drake have to leave some of the treasure behind?
No one is sure how many ships Drake had when he landed in California. He started from Plymouth two years before with five vessels, but at least one turned back. When he returned to England he had only the Golden Hiind. When the Golden Hind reached California Drake was looking desperately for a place where his ship could be beached and repaired.
Smuggler’s Cove at the base of Cave Landing would have been ideal, in the opinion of Pate.
Pate dismisses the “plate of brass” found in 1937 at Drake’s Bay and which purports to be the marker which Drake put up, claiming the coast of California for Great Britain.
The plate never has been fully accepted by historical authorities. Pate and Dobson say that no thin brass plate could have survived the centuries of exposure to the weather.
Pate, who lives at 4841 Robertson Ave., Carmichael, was discharged from the Air Force in 1953 and told that he had only a few weeks to live because of possible radiation sickness. He settled in Shell Beach to wait and see what happened.
He decided to enroll at Cal Poly and as time went on it became apparent that the doctors had made a mistake.
When Pate first started poking around the central coast of California he was looking for clues to lost mines or hidden treasure.
Then the mystery of Drake’s landing in California began to intrigue him hand he never since has been able to put it aside. He only wishes the people of San Luis Obispo County would share his enthusiasm.
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