On this date is 2015, Sir Francis Drake and the Golden Hinde pulled into a broad protected bay tucked inside Point Reyes. What ensued was one of the most unusual and fascinating interactions between Europeans and Native Americans ever documented. Though news of Coronado’s war against the Pueblo and De Soto’s rampage through the Southeast had spread far and wide, the Miwok apparently had not heard it.
As the vessel laid anchor, the Miwok along the shore decided to send out one man on a reed skiff. He was a priest, for the English vessel had appeared from the sea, the place of the dead.
An English sailor described the Miwok priest from his vantage point on deck: “He spoke to us continually as he came rowing on. And at last at a reasonable distance staying himself, he began more solemnly a long and tedious oration, after his manner using in the delivery thereof, many gestures and signs, moving his hands, turning his head and body many ways; and after his oration ended, with great show of reverence and submission, returned back to shore again.”
The priest repeated this journey twice more. On his third trip, he brought gifts: a round crown of carefully trimmed black feathers and a basket filled with herbs. Not sure how to offer these when not at a funeral, he tossed them onto the deck of the Golden Hinde. The men on the ship offered him many gifts in return, presented upon a plank over the water, but the priest would not touch such items, save for one hat, which fell into the water.
Later, the Englishmen ran their vessel ashore to make repairs. They set up camp on the beach between the outer point and the Miwok village by the estero. They built fortifications in case they came under attack.
The Miwok, apparently following ceremonial protocol, came to visit every three days. Their numbers swelled by curious visitors from the surrounding area. They lined the grassy bluffs above the beach.
An Englishman reported: “One (appointed as their chief speaker) wearied both us his hearers, and himself too, with a long and tedious oration: delivered with strange and violent gestures, his voice being extended to the uttermost strength of nature, and his words falling so thick one in the neck of another, that he could hardly fetch his breath again: so soon as he had concluded, all the rest, with a reverend bowing of their bodies (in a dreaming manner) cried, ‘Oh!’”
At the appropriate moment, the Mikok men made their way down the bluff to the sand, bringing gifts of feathers and bags of herbs for the dead. They were greatly relieved when the captain, Francis Drake, received the items.
The Englishman continued: “In the meantime the women, as if they had been desperate, used unnatural violence against themselves, crying and shrieking piteously, tearing their flesh with their nails from their cheeks, in a monstrous manner, the blood streaming down along their breasts; besides despoiling the upper parts of their bodies, of those single coverings they formerly had, and holding their hands above their heads, that they might not rescue their breasts from harm, they would with fury cast themselves upon the ground.”
In response, the Englishmen assembled on the sand, facing the bluff, and lifted their eyes and hands to the heavens. Drake led them in prayer while the fascinated Miwok gathered around, seeking to understand their language. When the Englishmen began singing hymns, a sort of duet broke out; at each pause after a line, the Miwok cried in unison “Oh!”
Later, the moment of true contact was allowed. The Miwok men and women walked among the English sailors, circling and inspecting each man, searching their faces for memories of the past, for someone they recognized.
As the Miwok walked among them, “taking a diligent view or survey of every man; and finding such as pleased their fancies (which commonly were the youngest of us) they presently enclosing them about, offered their sacrifices unto them, crying out with lamentable shrieks and moans, weeping, and scratching, and tearing their very flesh off their faces with their nails, neither were it the women alone which did this, but even old men, roaring and crying out, were as violent as the women were.”
After several days, the Golden Hinde was ready to depart. As it hoisted sail and rounded the bay, the Miwok ran to the cliff tops of the outer point, bidding farewell as the ship disappeared into the mist, back to the place of the dead.