Early in the course, we were told about the Plate of Brass. The Plate of Brass was important because it was a relic of the historic voyage of Sir Francis Drake, the first Englishman to visit California. According to the log of this voyage, Drake affixed the Plate of Brass to a tree, probably somewhere in what is now Marin County, in 1579. On it, he recorded that he had claimed California for England. Through the 19th and early 20th centuries this Plate of Brass was sought by historians who hoped to recover what would be the earliest artifact of European presence in the state. At last, in 1936, such a Plate was found near Point San Quentin on San Francisco Bay, and it bore the inscription Drake had recorded in his log. After examining it, Berkeley professor Herbert Bolton pronounced it genuine.
I remember the picture of the Plate as it appeared in a black and white photograph in our history book. Triumphalist history may be sadly lacking in accuracy, but it is very good at engaging the imagination of nine-year-old boys, and I looked at that photograph with fascination, picturing Drake's small ship careened on the beach of the bay which would later be named for him, the crew swarming over it making repairs, while Drake himself, in Elizabethan garb, watched form a hillside after nailing the plate to a tree. What boy would not have wanted to have been part of that great adventure? How splendid to have been among the first men of their nation to see the waves of the vast Pacific rolling onto the shores of this strange land uncut by any plow, free of any domesticated herds, empty of towns and cities. How wonderful to see the brown, windswept hills, the giant trees, the tatters of fog glowing in the afternoon sunlight of this place thousands of miles from any familiar sight.
The picture in my mind may well have been accurate, but the picture in the book was not. In 1977, metallurgists using modern techniques proved beyond any doubt that the famous Plate of Brass found in 1936 was a fake. It was made of 20th century brass, and had been cut with modern shears. Professor Bolton had died long before, believing that the plate was genuine. The question remained, who had created this fake of Drake's plate, and why?
When I first moved to Butte County, I attended one of the local festivals. I can't remember if it was the one commemorating the discovery of the Dogtown Nugget, appropriately called Gold Nugget Days, or the one celebrating the local apple industry, called Johnny Appleseed Days. At any rate, the afternoon featured entertainment in the gazebo of the small park where the festival was held. One of the local bands which performed was called the Clamper Boogie Band. They were a group of rough-looking, bearded guys of middle age, dressed in costumes reminiscent of those worn by miners of the gold rush era, and they played that style of electrified boogie music which had briefly been made popular in the 1960's by groups such as Canned Heat. I found that the Clampers were in fact members of a fraternal order called E Clampus Vitus, which had been formed in the mid 19th century and had flourished in California during the gold rush. After a period of decline, the group was revived by a number of history conscious men early in the twentieth century. As in its earlier incarnation, E Clampus Vitus was, to a large extent, a parody of those more serious fraternal lodges such as the Masons, the Elks, and the Odd Fellows. The revived group had the added purpose of preserving California and western history, especially those aspects of it such as saloons and bordellos which were typically shunned by more respectable historical societies. Clampers referred to their organization as being either an historical drinking society, or a drinking historical society. Essentially, they were in it mostly for the fun.
I see the Clampers about town from time to time. They aren't difficult to spot. The outfits worn by the boogie band that day in the park are not far from the way most Clampers dress most of the time. They tend to be a loud but not particularly disorderly lot, and add a bit of color to what is otherwise a rather staid place. They party a lot, and get together to drink and tell tall tales (lies, to the rest of us), and they are known to be pranksters, though they only prank each other. They are prominent participants in both of the local festivals, and are generally accepted as an important part of the community. And what has all this to do with Drake's Plate of Brass?
Well, it turns out that Herbert Bolton was a Clamper. And, according to this article in the San Francisco Chronicle, four historians have found that Bolton's fellow Clampers made the fake plate as a prank on the professor, and it just got out of hand. Well, I might have known. It is just what one would expect from members of an organization whose motto is Credo Quia Absurdum-- I believe because it is absurd. I suspect that the professors have indeed discovered the truth about the plate-- at least, insofar as truth can ever be discovered where the Clampers are involved.
When I first found out that the plate had been proven a forgery, it had no negative impact on my youthful memory of seeing the picture of it in my textbook. I could still conjure up that sense of wonder and adventure which I had felt on first seeing it. I can still picture Drake's ship on the beach, and share the sense of adventure in my imagination. Most likely, the real Plate of Brass will never be found. It was probably discovered by the local people soon after Drake left, Being the practical sort, they probably made some sort of tool out of it, and eventually used it up. No matter. The fake plate has now become a part of history, itself, and an amusing twist on the story. On finding out that it was a fake, I thought that it must have been made by someone who enjoyed imagining things as much as I do. It looks as though I was right.
Among the wonders of the World Wide Web, there is now this: The Official E Clampus Vitus Home Page. Their web site includes this brief history of the organization. Knowing the Clampers, some of it might even be true!