Legends and the enticement of the unknown have always inspired expeditions of exploration. Legends drove the search for the Northwest Passage and the charting of the Pacific, and stories, some based on fact and some based on fiction, continue to linger about who commanded the earliest of these expeditions. The mysteries of the lives of brave and resourceful seafarers continue to make the study of history exciting and worthwhile.

Myths and legends can stimulate the imagination and we present this section so that visitors to this web site can participate in some of the debates and discussions that historians are engaged in. Museums can inspire reflection and further research. To do that, we must sometimes present ideas that explore and speculate- some people believe the legends to be true and some do not.

Expeditions of exploration may have reached the Pacific Northwest from many parts of the world and during many time periods. We know about the 18th century British expeditions in great detail because they were published and promoted, and many of the Spanish expeditions are becoming better understood as archives are opened and documents are made available fo Read More
Legends and the enticement of the unknown have always inspired expeditions of exploration. Legends drove the search for the Northwest Passage and the charting of the Pacific, and stories, some based on fact and some based on fiction, continue to linger about who commanded the earliest of these expeditions. The mysteries of the lives of brave and resourceful seafarers continue to make the study of history exciting and worthwhile.

Myths and legends can stimulate the imagination and we present this section so that visitors to this web site can participate in some of the debates and discussions that historians are engaged in. Museums can inspire reflection and further research. To do that, we must sometimes present ideas that explore and speculate- some people believe the legends to be true and some do not.

Expeditions of exploration may have reached the Pacific Northwest from many parts of the world and during many time periods. We know about the 18th century British expeditions in great detail because they were published and promoted, and many of the Spanish expeditions are becoming better understood as archives are opened and documents are made available for research and translation. But it has long been rumoured that expeditions sailed the northern Pacific in secrecy, or gave their charts and logs to their leaders, only to see them destroyed in the name of national security, their legacy disappearing in flames. Active research continues to look into these rumours.

The English captain Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe between 1577 and 1580. There is speculation that he may have reached northern latitudes, somewhere in the region of what is now British Columbia. Enthusiasts of Drake’s expedition have gone so far as to buy real estate in California and north along the Pacific coast in the belief that they are acquiring property on which he came ashore or sat at anchor.

It is interesting to consider the idea that Chinese and Japanese sailors reached what for them was the Pacific Northeast by picking up the same winds and currents that took the Spanish east and then north from San Blas, and the English from Hawaii to the islands of the North Pacific. The stories of these eastward maritime travels became the inspiration for legends of exploration when the empires of Japan and China shut their borders to outside contacts and destroyed evidence of their expeditions.

We might ask why people would focus on legends of Pacific exploration and make them the subject of such vigorous debate and investigation. Is it for the sake of curiosity and a love of history, or for other reasons? Is it helpful for us to think about history that includes more than just the conventional stories? What should we consider “fact” and what should we consider “legend”? This section explores some theories that have been put forward which sometimes counter traditional views of Pacific Northwest – or Northeast- maritime history.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Video

A Map Showing the Route Travelled by Sir Francis Drake

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


EXPLORER: Captain Sir Frances Drake (c. 1540-1596)

FROM: England

SAILED WITH: John Winter, Thomas Doughty

IMPORTANT DATES: embarked on global circumnavigation in 1577; potentially reached Pacific Northwest in 1579; returned to England in 1580

VOYAGE: sea

VESSEL: Golden Hind

POTENTIAL PURPOSE: to thwart Spanish trade monopolies; to discover the Northwest Passage

Sir Frances Drake was an English captain who sailed during the Elizabethan age of the sixteenth century. He made voyages to the Caribbean and Panama, intending to thwart the Spanish trade monopoly that ruled Atlantic and Pacific routes. Drake became known as something of a pirate as he plundered the Spanish vessels that traded the coasts of South America and the Caribbean. He acquired the nickname of “El Dragon”, The Dragon, for his looting and naval victories over the Spanish Armada. 

On orders from Elizabeth, Drake embarked on a voyage that remains a source of speculation and mystery. On December 13 Read More

EXPLORER: Captain Sir Frances Drake (c. 1540-1596)

FROM: England

SAILED WITH: John Winter, Thomas Doughty

IMPORTANT DATES: embarked on global circumnavigation in 1577; potentially reached Pacific Northwest in 1579; returned to England in 1580

VOYAGE: sea

VESSEL: Golden Hind

POTENTIAL PURPOSE: to thwart Spanish trade monopolies; to discover the Northwest Passage

Sir Frances Drake was an English captain who sailed during the Elizabethan age of the sixteenth century. He made voyages to the Caribbean and Panama, intending to thwart the Spanish trade monopoly that ruled Atlantic and Pacific routes. Drake became known as something of a pirate as he plundered the Spanish vessels that traded the coasts of South America and the Caribbean. He acquired the nickname of “El Dragon”, The Dragon, for his looting and naval victories over the Spanish Armada. 

On orders from Elizabeth, Drake embarked on a voyage that remains a source of speculation and mystery. On December 13, 1577, Drake, commanding the Golden Hind, left Plymouth with four other vessels with the story that they were sailing to Alexandria, Egypt.  Almost three years later, Drake returned without his escorts on September 26, 1580, after circumnavigating the globe.  His booty was rich enough to pay the English national debt and Queen Elizabeth knighted Drake aboard the Golden Hind.  But the details of the expedition, beyond points at which he was sighted by the Spanish, were entrusted to the English monarchy in strict secrecy.

Drake crossed the Atlantic and sailed the South American coast, heading north once they entered the Pacific. He made his way through Spanish territory and continued west, passing the Indonesian archipelago and the Indian Ocean to return to England by sailing around the African continent.  Booty, the deception of the Spanish, and circumnavigation may have been welcome outcomes, but the search for a Northwest Passage is thought to have been the ultimate goal of the secret expedition.

Documents, maps and charts that would help historians to trace Drake’s voyage were altered, hidden or even destroyed, giving misleading latitudes, inexact coordinates and deceptive details.  For example, a manuscript in the British Library from about 1583 describes the voyage. The Library’s analysis of the northern latitude reached by the expedition shows the numbers appear to have been changed from 50º to 53º then finally to 44º North latitude, meaning he reached a point much further north than the current ink reveals.  A curious group of islands appear on several 16th century maps, long before Europeans are thought to have sailed to the Pacific Northwest.  If these islands are, as some have suggested, the Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte archipelago and Vancouver Island, they are perhaps proof of Drake’s arrival in northern waters.   What is known is that Drake reached what he named “New Albion”, on North America’s Pacific coast.  He may have turned west to cross the Pacific somewhere in the Spanish territory of California, but El Dragon may also have continued further north, bound for the entrance to the mythical Passage as he sailed the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Inside Passage.


© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Statue of Sir Francis Drake

Statue of Sir Francis Drake from the Provincial Legislative Library, Victoria British Columbia

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Chinese vessels known as junks are designed with flexible, curved sails that hold their shape with bamboo inserts.  Junks have sailed the Pacific since the 3rd century, fishing and trading. The dominant winds and currents of the Pacific Ocean may have carried “accidental explorers” from the Chinese coast in a clockwise journey past the Aleutian Islands and south along the North American coastline.  There are numerous accounts of Chinese mariners who successfully set out to see what lay to their east and returned to China with a full report of their expeditions.

The Great Chinese Encyclopaedia, compiled between 502 and 556 by the Chinese Emperor’s imperial court historians, records that Hui shen sailed “20,000 li” (roughly 10,000 kilometres) across the oceans east of China and reached a rich and populated land in the mid 400s.  The land was named Fusang and is now thought by some to be North America, especially the area of California and Mexico.  Hui shen and his companions were Buddhist missionaries who were wandering for the purpose of spreading Buddhist teachings.  Upon their return to China in 4 Read More

Chinese vessels known as junks are designed with flexible, curved sails that hold their shape with bamboo inserts.  Junks have sailed the Pacific since the 3rd century, fishing and trading. The dominant winds and currents of the Pacific Ocean may have carried “accidental explorers” from the Chinese coast in a clockwise journey past the Aleutian Islands and south along the North American coastline.  There are numerous accounts of Chinese mariners who successfully set out to see what lay to their east and returned to China with a full report of their expeditions.

The Great Chinese Encyclopaedia, compiled between 502 and 556 by the Chinese Emperor’s imperial court historians, records that Hui shen sailed “20,000 li” (roughly 10,000 kilometres) across the oceans east of China and reached a rich and populated land in the mid 400s.  The land was named Fusang and is now thought by some to be North America, especially the area of California and Mexico.  Hui shen and his companions were Buddhist missionaries who were wandering for the purpose of spreading Buddhist teachings.  Upon their return to China in 499, they were able to share some notes on the customs and foods of the American peoples, their use of metals (they did not have a source of iron and their economy was not based upon the exchange of copper, gold and silver), and animals.  Hui shen wrote, “Stags are used here as cattle are used in the Middle Kingdom [of China], and from the milk of the hind they make butter.” For some historians, such observations serve as proof of their journey.  For others, they are evidence to the contrary, indicating that the monks could not have made the crossing to a point as far away as the shores of North America and must instead have reached islands in the Pacific such as the Japanese archipelago.

Admiral Zhou Man reportedly set off in 1421, bound for the South Pacific.  After his circumnavigation of Australia and the Barrier Reef, he made his way to South and Central America and sailed north. Although the Chinese fleet is thought to have been one of the most advanced in the world at the time, regularly trading with India and Africa and constructing large, seagoing vessels, China began to suffer the results of its interest in expansion.  In 1435, imperial edicts closed off overseas travel and trade.  Expedition accounts and even the shipyards were burned to prevent further expeditions.  Scant sources survive, such as the I Yü Thu Chih, The Illustrated Record of Strange Countries from 1430, now at Cambridge. Some believe that the 15th century Chinese expeditions around the world left behind evidence, such as a pulley system from a junk found on the California coast and plants (including rice and roses) transplanted from Asia to the Americas.  Although the original 15th century Chinese charts were likely burned, Japanese copies and later charts show the islands of the Pacific, Africa, Australia, and North America.  They may have been drawn based on the information gathered by Chinese expedition leaders like Zhou Man. 

Did Chinese sailors intentionally sail to the Pacific coast of North America?  There is no question that they had great skill as mariners and the capacity to construct suitable vessels.  We can debate the evidence given here or the legends of specific expeditions, but it would be a more extraordinary tale of history if the Chinese didn’t seek Fusang than if they did!

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Model of a Chinese Junk

Model of a Chinese Junk

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


The Japanese were skilled mariners who, like the Chinese, had the ability to travel great distances on the gyre of currents and the winds cycling around the Pacific Ocean. It is told that a Japanese junk discovered an eastern continent after being blown off course. Although the voyage may not have set out with the intention of exploring the north western coast of North America, the crew of the junk are thought to have wintered in this land, perhaps California, and to have returned to Japan via what is now Alaska. This vague account likely tells the story of numerous Japanese vessels, but refers specifically to an experience recorded during the latter part of the 18th century.

Fearing negative influences from the increasing number of European visitors, Japan closed its islands off from all but the Dutch East India Company in 1640. Japan did not welcome anyone from the outside, sometimes preventing its own fishermen from returning to its shores after long absences. Before Japan’s xenophobia, this policy of eliminating contact with outsiders, began, Japanese vessels had travelled widely. Ancient archaeological evidence excavated in Ecuador includes a piece of Read More
The Japanese were skilled mariners who, like the Chinese, had the ability to travel great distances on the gyre of currents and the winds cycling around the Pacific Ocean. It is told that a Japanese junk discovered an eastern continent after being blown off course. Although the voyage may not have set out with the intention of exploring the north western coast of North America, the crew of the junk are thought to have wintered in this land, perhaps California, and to have returned to Japan via what is now Alaska. This vague account likely tells the story of numerous Japanese vessels, but refers specifically to an experience recorded during the latter part of the 18th century.

Fearing negative influences from the increasing number of European visitors, Japan closed its islands off from all but the Dutch East India Company in 1640. Japan did not welcome anyone from the outside, sometimes preventing its own fishermen from returning to its shores after long absences. Before Japan’s xenophobia, this policy of eliminating contact with outsiders, began, Japanese vessels had travelled widely. Ancient archaeological evidence excavated in Ecuador includes a piece of pottery with the Japanese Jomon design, decorated with markings made by sticks wrapped in cords. Archaeologists date this pottery to 3,000 B.C.E., over 5,000 years ago. If the dating and source of the pottery is accepted, then it means Japanese goods made their way across the Pacific. Such pottery could have been left by Japanese mariners travelling the same circuit used thousands of years later to pass the Pacific Northwest and head all the way to South America. It is certainly not definitive proof, but it has sparked the interest of historians who can then explore other evidence and accounts to create broader histories that recognize the maritime capabilities of nations beyond Europe.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Video

Map Showing Possible Routes Taken by Japanese Sailors

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • construct, interpret, and use graphs, tables, grids, scales, legends, and various types of maps
  • locate and describe major world landforms, bodies of water, and political boundaries on maps
  • locate and describe current and historical events on maps

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