Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle
Edward Von der Porten, a renowned maritime scholar who was an expert on Sir Francis Drake’s 16th century visit to California, died Sunday after complications from surgery in San Francisco. He was 84.
Von der Porten was a teacher, an author and a historian, but he was best known as a leading authority on Drake’s Pacific voyage in 1579 and his landing near Point Reyes in Marin County.
Drake’s voyage was one of the first European contacts with what is now California. The English captain, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, was looking for a place of refuge after attacking Spanish outposts in South and Central America. When he landed on the unexplored West Coast, he nailed a brass plate to a post and claimed the country for England.
For years, scholars argued about the site of Drake’s landing. Some thought Drake had come ashore in San Francisco Bay, while others claimed dozens of other sites, even as far north as the Oregon coast.
But Von der Porten and associates, in a group called the Drake Navigators Guild, made a convincing case for a small cove near Drakes Bay on the Point Reyes National Seashore. The Federal government agreed three years ago and designated the site as an official landmark.
Von der Porten delighted taking reporters and other interested parties to the place, a wild and windswept corner of the seashore, and talking about Drake and other seafarers.
Ships and exploration fascinated him. He also spent many years in research in Baja California, where beach-comers found wreckage of what Von der Porten determined was all that remained of a Spanish sailing ship San Juanillo, one of the famous Manilla galleons that sailed every year for 250 years from the Philippines to Mexico, carrying trade goods and treasures from China.
The ship had a disastrous voyage from Manila as fierce storms battered the ship and disease decimated the crew. Von der Porten believes the crew was in desperate condition when the ship ran aground on the uncharted Mexican coast in 1578. Its wreckage was scattered by hurricanes and remained buried for nearly 450 years. Von der Porten was able to identify it from shards of Chinese Ming dynasty porcelin carried in its cargo and discovered under the beach sand. He had nearly completed a book on the galleon when he died. The book will be published next year.
Edward Von der Porten was born in New York City in 1933, the son of German immigrants. He moved to San Francisco after high school, and graduated from what was then San Francisco State College in 1955. He received a masters degree in history from the college in 1965.
Von der Porten was a high school teacher for many years in Fremont and Santa Rosa, and also taught at Santa Rosa Junior College. During school vacations, he traveled in Europe and did research on World War II naval affairs. He wrote two books on the German Navy, and nearly 100 scholarly articles on maritime affairs — everything from Henry VIII’s flagship to the modern battleship Iowa.
He also served as director of the Navy and Marine Corps Museum on Treasure Island from 1985 until it closed in 1992. He then designed the on-board museum on the Liberty Ship Jeremiah O’Brien berthed at Pier 45 in San Francisco.
Von der Porten is survived by his son, Michael, of Santa Rosa; four grandchildren; and one great grandchild. His wife, Saryl, who he married in 1954, died in 2011. A son, Eric Von der Porten, died in 2008.
Plans for a memorial service are pending.