After 11 years of research, a group of California historians says it has unraveled one of the most bedeviling hoaxes in recent American history, apparently answering the question, "Who made Drake's plate of brass?"
Four researchers released a 17-page journal article this week, pointing the finger for a 67-year-old ruse at an obscure society of drinking companions.
The story of "Drake's Plate," which supposedly documented a visit by English explorer Francis Drake to California, quickly joined the log of history and was taught to generations of California schoolchildren.
But the researchers said "Drake's Plate" was conceived as a bit of whimsy by members of the group E Clampus Vitus. One of the historians even pointed to a darker motive -- a conspirator who may have spurred on the plot in a vendetta over the loss of his job.
The findings offer compelling evidence that seems to reveal the origins of the postcard-size brass plate, now shielded under glass inside marbled Bancroft Library at the University of California-Berkeley.
Headlines and hubbub greeted the discovery of the plate in 1936. The engraved object seemingly pinpointed a Marin County spot where Drake landed, marking the dawn of British power in the American West and the beginning of the end of Spanish dominion.
But researchers said the brass plate was actually minted closer to 1930 than 1579 -- the year Drake's expedition was believed to have nailed it to a post somewhere along the Northern California coast, claiming the land for Queen Elizabeth.
"Research isn't just finding facts. It's finding fiction and learning how to separate the two," said Stephen Becker, executive director of the California Historical Society.
The furor will not die easily. At Tuesday's news conference, the grandson of the renowned historian who once staked his reputation on the plate's authenticity accused the historians of relying on "hearsay."
Also present were a handful of E Clampus Vitus' "Clampers," festooned in hide-your-eyes red shirts with nonsensical medals on their chests. In a top hat with an American flag and feathers poking out, Clamper Rick Saber apologized for the lack of minutes from critical historical meetings. "Nobody," he explained, "was in any condition to record them."
The investigators concluded that the elaborate hoax was perpetrated by the Clampers against a more earnest academic, UC-Berkeley history Professor Herbert Bolton.
Bolton was head of the renowned Bancroft Library and himself a member of E Clampus Vitus.
Drake's plate was presumed to have washed up near what is now called Drake's Bay at Point Reyes some 67 years ago. Despite reservations by a few historians, the plate immediately became big news and was written up by the New York Times and the Times of London.
Considered a cherished museum piece, it was exhibited at the Smithsonian and around the world. Pictures of it appeared in California textbooks.
With the help of 17 well-to-do members of the California Historical Society, Bolton sweet-talked the possessor of the plate into handing it over, paying $3,500 -- accounting for inflation, the equivalent of $50,000 today.