Enjoy our Guest Author Series featuring a new, bi-monthly article written by historians, authors and poets on topics related to local history and/or museum collections. Stay informed on new research and new stories associated with our museum!
This month we celebrate the historical significance of our feathered Pomo Baskets, as originally documented during the landing of Sir Francis Drake in California in 1579- Written by Steve Wright
We also have the privilege of sharing a poem which explores perspectives of an outsiders understanding and inspirations from the Native American experience. - Written by
Sir Francis Drake and the Marion Steinbach Indian Basket Museum
October 26, 2022
Steve Wright is president of the Drake Navigators Guild.
Pomo Feathered Basket
Marion Steinbach Collection
sedge grass, bulrush, willow
feathers, shell discs
Pomo Feathered Basket
Marion Steinbach Collection
Sedge & Bracken ferns coiled on a 3-rod willow foundation, feathers, clam shell discs
On June 17, 1579, two ships emerged from the north, sailed slowly along the rocky California coast, and tacked around a steep headland on a course that sent them into a bay lined with cliffs. The larger of the two vessels, which measured twice the size of her 40-foot companion, rode low in the water, weighted down by both treasure and a persistent leak. Leading the way, the smaller vessel gingerly probed the bay’s calm waters before both ships cast their anchors into the gentle swells and firmly anchored. The expedition’s crew was strong and in good spirits. And why wouldn’t they be? They were secure, their flagship—the Golden Hind—was heavily laden with an astounding amount of plundered treasure, and the site looked promising. This would be a safe place to repair and refit. The next day, their prospects improved even further when the local inhabitants dispatched a man in a canoe to investigate these strange visitors. In short order, the two peoples—despite their cultural misunderstandings—established friendly and abiding relations through July 23 when the Golden Hind sailed alone from the harbor and across the horizon to begin the long journey back to her home port in England.
This brief account of Sir Francis Drake’s 1579 California sojourn describes when the English privateer’s expedition encamped and lingered at a safe harbor on the California coast. For years, researchers investigated several speculative sites as they labored to identify the specific location of Drake’s landing. Eventually, researchers firmly attributed Drake’s landing to a cove located squarely within Coast Miwok traditional homeland. Instrumental to determining this location is a type of artifact one may view at the Marion Steinbach Indian Basket Museum, the fully feathered basket.
Fully feathered baskets are distinctive not only because they reveal their artists’ magnificent technique and skill. These masterpieces also penetrate deeply into cultural traditions and history. The renowned baskets were beautifully and uniquely fabricated by only a limited number of people groups in Northern California: Pomo, Wappo, Patwin, Lake Miwok, and Coast Miwok. Important to note is that these groups were all concentrated in the region near Francis Drake’s 1579 anchorage and encampment site.
The earliest written account of California Indian baskets, which includes a description of fully feathered baskets, was recorded by Francis Fletcher, Drake’s chaplain. His description appears in the period publication of Drake’s voyage, The World Encompassed:
. . . about the brimmes they were hanged with peeces of the shels of pearles, and in some places with two or three linkes at a place, of the chaines forenamed : thereby signifying that they were vessels wholly dedicated to the onely vse of the gods they worshipped ; and besides this, they were wrought vpon with the matted downe of red feathers, distinguished into diuers works and formes.
Fletcher’s description is remarkably precise. He both identifies fully feathered baskets—those baskets with matted down—and pinpoints a specific type of fully feathered basket classified as a sun basket. This type of basket is predominately layered with a mat of red woodpecker feathers. There is also, just as Fletcher recorded, a delicate ring of shell beads hanging about the brim. One can easily see the astonishing similarity of what Fletcher described in 1579 with the museum’s own sun basket.
Fletcher’s detail extends further in his mention of adornments added to these baskets, embellishments of hanging links and chains of shells. Fully feathered baskets are often fitted with a shell chain that loosely falls across the diameter of the brim. Another class of fully feathered baskets, often referred to as jewel baskets, are those hung with dangling links of magnesite, abalone shell, or clam shell. These iridescent refinements can add a gleaming aspect to the basket. These types of baskets are also displayed in the museum’s collection.
Before basket weavers added these decorative materials, they would weave feathers into the fabric of the basket. The weavers used quail topknots (black), meadowlark breast feathers (yellow), mallard neck and head feathers (green), acorn woodpecker head feathers (red), and bluebird and jay breast feathers (blue). As twentieth century laws encroached to limit feather choice, basket makers incorporated other feathers such as those from a pheasant. Similarity between each people group’s baskets can be close. One tribe’s baskets are often indistinguishable from those made another tribe.
To smooth the feathers into a mat, weavers employed various techniques. One was to wrap the feathered basket with a cloth like a handkerchief or scarf. After leaving the basket bound like this for a few days, the feathers would remain in a flat, matted position when the cloth was removed.
Critical to Drake researchers is that fully feathered baskets are an unambiguous indicator of the region—a specific range—in which Drake landed. The coastal shores of this range, shores in which a ship might venture, stretch from the Golden Gate to the area near the city of Fort Bragg and were inhabited by the Coast Miwok and Pomo. Consequently, the location where these baskets were constructed excludes all other speculative Drake landing sites outside of this locale. These baskets have no counterpart separate from the few California tribes who made them. Subsequently, this unique and regionally isolated item compelled historians to identify a narrow length of North American coast to refine their search for Drake’s anchorage.
Fully feathered baskets are rare. One reason for this is that these baskets were very personal and often received as a gift. Traditionally, they were destroyed at the owner’s death. Additionally, the Coast Miwok were missionized by Franciscan priests from Spain. This resulted in much of their traditional culture being destroyed, and this is reflected the museum’s collection of these baskets. Since the Pomo were never subjected to Spanish mission experience, Pomo baskets are much more available than Coast Miwok.
Map, linguistic, geographical, archaeological, and several other types of evidence were used to precisely locate where Francis Drake landed in California many centuries ago. Ultimately, the evidence pointed to Drake’s landing as having been at a cove in Coast Miwok territory. Nova Albion (New Albion)—the name Drake bestowed upon the land when claiming it for his sovereign, Queen Elizabeth I—is now encompassed within the boundaries of Point Reyes National Seashore. Today, Francis Drake’s 1579 landing and encampment site is known as Drake’s Cove and has been preserved by both a National Historic Landmark and a California Historical Landmark.
Fully feathered baskets were an important part of revealing this piece of California’s Elizabethan history. Since this basket making tradition was continued and passed to contemporary basket weavers, we have key evidence helping to locate Francis Drake’s 1579 landing in California. Institutions such as the Marion Steinbach Indian Basket Museum who have curated these textile masterpieces make such investigations possible.
Drake, Sir Francis; Vaux, W. S. W. (2005). The World Encompassed. United States: Adamant Media Corporation.
Bibby, Brian (2012). Essential Art. Berkeley, California: Heyday Books.
Abel-Vidor, Suzanne; Brovarney Dot; Billy, Susan (1996).
Remember Your Relations. Berkeley, California: Heyday Books.
An Ode to the Washoe Basket Weavers
By native hands,
the pine needles collected,
the willow, bracken fern and juniper,
Pulled from the earthen soil of holy land.
Spun into baskets of such precision,
As if they were made by a spider,
Known for their webs of natural perfection,
Or made of the straw put though the spinning wheel by Rumpelstiltskin’s daughter,
nature becoming luxurious gold.
To grand to have been crafted by coarse and clumsy human hands.
The Washoe woman
Were far from needing a fairytale,
To explain how bland earth materials,
Could be made into objects far more priceless than gold.
But the lure of gold was far too tempting for Europe’s sons,
And the golden state was built when the gold nuggets were shaken awake,
by the greed and blasts of the miner men.
The mountains laid weak,
And the wind rustled the juniper and fern with its whispers
Of warning for California’s native children.
The lake and the trees were hidden under a fog of dismay,
For the baskets of Dat-so-La-Lee,
The most well-known Washoe basket weaver today,
Were all but practically given away.
Taken from the patient brown hands of a Washoe woman,
The money pocketed by the hands of someone else.
Culture has a purpose to uphold,
But no price tag to bear.
Through native eyes,
ripple in the stream,
Bird call and leaf,
Has a need,
A rare beauty,
And a use,
To be repurposed into something new.
By native hands,
Who gently touch this land,
Who picked willow, bracken fern,
And fragile pine needles,
That became art for eyes
Like you and me,
To behold in wonder,
The dazzling accomplishments,
And the hardships of the people who came before
the Washeshu live on.