The cold open features Scott Wolter narrating over a historical reenactment telling us that a treasure meant to bankroll a British colony on the west coast of America disappeared but that new evidence might help us find it. After the opening credits, we cut to Wolter’s lab, where Wolter reviews footage of treasure hunter Robert Stupak’s efforts to find a treasure trove that Sir Francis Drake allegedly buried on the west coast. At Point Reyes, Calif., Wolter meets with Stupak to discuss Drake’s failed efforts to found a colony on the west coast of America. Point Reyes is the site that the National Park Service designated as the most likely site of Drake’s landing. Stupak disagrees because he believes that a map drawn from Drake’s records doesn’t depict Point Reyes as the site of his colony but rather San Francisco Bay, near San Quentin prison. The map looks a lot like Point Reyes and not much like San Quentin’s surroundings, but I don’t much care either way. Stupak and Wolter travel to San Quentin to view a rock that Stupak believes was a mooring stone for Drake’s ship. Wolter disagrees for geological reasons, primarily that the hole lacks significant weathering.
In the second segment, Wolter and Stupak visit Stupak’s home, where Stupak describes his year-long efforts to dig up Drake’s treasure. He claims to have found underground chambers in 2003 he likens to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which he said were full of “collapsing rooms,” and even Wolter recognizes that Stupak actually dug into an unstable aquifer. He also tells Stupak that the “gemstones” he found were no such thing. The show then discusses Drake’s Brass Plate, a forgery from 1936, a practical joke by local historians meant to represent a British land claim to California predating that of Spain. Wolter purports to want to test the forgery to try to resurrect its claim to authenticity. Wolter is very excited about the idea that the British land claim predates that of Spain, but since the American government succeeded to both, it really makes no difference whether Drake tried and failed to claim land in California. Wolter uses a microscope to examine the plate’s patina, and he badly reads a line that “I can’t believe what I’m seeing” before we cut to commercial.
Despite the questions raised over the wording and content of the brass plate, as well as the 1970s chemical tests on the plate, Wolter declares it likely authentic. The Bancroft Library, where the plate is held, refused Wolter’s request to perform more tests on the plate, because… well, Wolter and his TV show are a clown show. Instead, Wolter suggests that there is a conspiracy and that the powers that be don’t want anyone to know that the British are the “true” owners of California. He’s very big on land claims. The segment then takes Wolter to England to learn more about Drake. He visits a replica of Drake’s Golden Hind, continuing Wolter’s interest in replica ships. He discusses the efforts of the early European explorers to find the Northwest Passage, and Wolter concludes that Drake might have buried his treasure elsewhere along his route, perhaps as far north as Oregon.
At Whale Cove, Oregon, Wolter discusses some ambiguous evidence for Drake in Oregon: Drake’s writings claiming to have reached 48 degrees latitude and the question of whether the map from segment one looks more like Whale Cove than Port Reyes. But since the map was drawn from written accounts, not from life, it’s not entirely convincing evidence. In the nearby mountains, Wolter visits Tom Mock of the Francis Drake Association who claim to have an artifact proving Drake’s visit. We cut to commercial before finding out what it is.
The artifact is a roughly square rock with a line carved around it. The argument is that the carved line is 36 inches long and a true grew over it, so it must be a surveyor mark left by Drake. Wolter thinks it’s a treasure marker. There is no way to date the rock, and there is no evidence that Drake carved it. The men then visit a pile of rocks that Mock and his friend think were a “cairn” that Drake built for some strange reason. “Really, the only plausible explanation would be Drake,” Wolter said, dismissing other possibilities, from Native American constructions to colonial-era debris. Sure it is.
Wolter views an old silver shilling that a treasure hunter found nearby while metal detecting. Some other British coins were found in the same area, all dating back to the early 1500s. Any number of explanations are possible, but Wolter does not consider them. Instead, he gives up his investigation and simply declares that “maybe, just maybe” Drake’s treasure still exists. As another episode ends, nothing was proved but Wolter takes time to remind us that academics have prevented him from proving his case by denying his requests to test the brass plate.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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