- By Nanette Kelley
MARIN COUNTY, Calif. — Indigenous representatives and historians held a forum on renaming a popular road in Northern California after a petition calling for the change was circulated.
Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, named after the English pirate, is one of the main thoroughfares in Marin County. Driving along the winding 43 mile route just north of San Francisco, which starts at San Quentin State Prison, runs along four bays, through the Samuel P. Taylor State Park, over a watershed, and down to the Point Reyes National Seashore at the Point Reyes Lighthouse, travelers are sure to see elk and birds of prey, as well as the picturesque surrounding nature.
The Marin County Free Library hosted an online learning session on Aug. 17 to address the historical context of the region and road. Moderated by Chantel Walker, assistant director of the library, the event featured current and historic perspectives from Lorelle Ross (Coast Miwok, Southern Pomo), vice chair of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, a federation of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo from all of Sonoma and Marin County; Mathew Johnson, cultural resource specialist (Coast Miwok); Tribal Heritage Preservation Officer Buffy McQuillen (Pomo Round Valley Indian Tribe); Jordan Lieser, assistant professor of history at Dominican University of California, and Dewey Livingston, author and historian who has spent 35 years researching and interpreting stories of Marin County’s past.
After looting Spanish ships along the West Coast in the name of the Queen, Drake is said to have staked his claim for England in Coast Miwok territory, near the end of the road, on June 17, 1579. Although the whereabouts of Drake’s landing and whether or not he ever stepped foot in the region are often questioned by scholars, the local Indigenous peoples of the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria had no say in how the road was named until now.
“The tribe now is a sovereign nation and has the ability to work with governments, different entities, agencies, across all government spectrums,” said McQuillen, who emphasized that the tribe is extending a hand to help everyone think of an inclusive picture for all people in Marin County.
Ross described the rancheria’s citizens as the descendants of survivors who endured the region’s colonial history, from the time of Drake’s landing and the Spanish missions to present day, and as peoples who carry out social justice and environmental stewardship. Their long history, she explained, has been overshadowed by European perspectives, such as the diaries of a chaplain who traveled aboard Drake’s ship, a perspective that is still utilized by historians.
“California Indians are alive and thrive,” she said, referencing the fact that many white, affluent residents of the county are often surprised to hear that tribal members still exist in the region: “‘Oh, we thought you all were dead.’”
The panel discussed the implications of faulty historical records pertaining to Drake’s landing, and how the narratives were affected and shaped by Eurocentrism and white supremacy.
Livingston said that the exact location of Drake’s landing was not known because of the inaccuracy of maps at that time. “It wasn’t until 1792 that the name was clearly marked on a chart by Captain George Vancouver,” he said, which allowed California to apply that name to the bay, Drake’s Bay, after it became a state.
He also explained the road had its start as a trail used by the Coast Miwok people to travel between San Francisco Bay and Tomales Bay — it stretched across hunting grounds and villages, but the roadway was also used by non-Natives.
“It’s likely these ancient trails were followed by Spanish and Mexican conquerors during the Mission period and up into the late 1840s,” said Livingston. He indicated that the reasoning behind the name of the road was rooted in religious, commemorative landmark, and commercial purposes.
The alleged site of Drake’s landing has memorials for both the landing and the first Christian ceremonial site in California, but Livingston made it clear that it was commerce which drove the name of the road home. As the Golden Gate Bridge neared completion toward 1933, Marin civic leaders on the northern side of the bridge wanted to increase commerce through their towns. Therefore, the county made the decision to collectively consolidate roadways with one name, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. “I think it was politicians and businessmen — and I say men — were involved in the naming of the road,” Livingston said, including the organization Marvelous Marin.
Because much of the discussion centered on Sir Francis Drake, Ross encouraged everyone to look for more information and learn more about the Coast Miwok people of Marin County.
Ross stressed they are a living tribe that continues to engage with Marin County on their ancestral land. “Ironically, we talk about the name for a road of someone who spent such little time here, when there is a living tribe that has over 1,400 direct descendants who are Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo direct from Marin and Sonoma County,” she said.
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