I recently spent the afternoon sitting on Drake’s Seat. Four days later I became a member of The St Thomas Historical Trust. I’m a trustee. That’s right, a pillar of society. (ok, get the eye rolls out of the way)
What is Drake’s Seat? It’a a monument of sorts. Or more to the point, it’s a bench. It sits on a hill overlooking Magens Bay and when seated on the bench you can see in the distance Hans Lollick, Lil Tobago, Great Tobago and Jost Van Dyke. It is located on Hwy 40 where Skyline Drive turns into Hull Bay Road. Parking is Free !
Spending 3 hours at Drake’s Seat and becoming a trustee are related. Directly in fact. Most of the time I was up there I was thinking . . . well, about Drake. The legend says that Drake would go up there to watch for the enemy fleet sailing by. What? Sir Francis Drake, himself, not a minion, hiked all the way up there to watch for the Spanish? It wasn’t clear if he hiked up there everyday saying “Here Spanish, Spanish Spanish. Here Fleet. I think you’ll pass by one of these days” Or if he just went up there to pick daisies once and saw the Spanish Fleet in the distance by chance. Or what he did when he saw them? Maybe jog an hour down the mountain to command his fleet all out of breath and tired? And why there? Why that spot where you can only see north but there are other points not too far away that allow views of both the north and south sides of St Thomas?
So I did what anybody does when they are interested in a topic and want a answer based entirely on fact. I Googled it. But Googling Drake’s Seat just raised a bunch more questions. Some say he watched his own fleet from up there. Some say he went up there to stare out at Drake’s Passage. And yes, some say that he went up there to watch and or look for the Spanish Fleet going by. For the most part they were all one liners. The kind of thing you might be told, I suspected, if you took a Land-Tour around the island. It is also reported to be the view of where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic. (It’s Not!) I’d read enough things about Drake’s Seat that seemed sketchy or that were just wrong that I now had to know the truth.
I called the St Thomas Historical Trust Tel. 340-774-5541. Located on Coconut Park (what is now known as Franklin D Roosevelt Park) and talked to Ms Montegut. She was extremely helpful and invited me down to use their library. I accepted and while there Ms Montegut arranged 3 conference calls with local historians. When I left the Trust, I felt as if I was the new local authority on Drake’s Seat.
First, who was Drake and why should I care? Well, we’re concerned with his seat so pretend to care. Captain Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540 -1596) was a privateer commissioned by Queen Elizabeth 1. He was primarily tasked with upsetting and obstructing the Spanish trade monopoly that ruled Atlantic and Pacific routes at the time. Drake’s habit of plundering Spanish vessels earned him the reputation of a pirate and the nickname “El Dragon”, The Dragon. After one voyage of circumnavigating the globe, which took three years, he returned to England with a booty rich enough to pay the English national debt and Queen Elizabeth 1 knighted him aboard his ship the Golden Hind.
Ok, now where is Drake’s Passage? There isn’t one! Or if you want to be really really flexible, there isn’t one which can be seen from Drake’s Seat. There is a Drake Passage (no s) which is located between Argentina and Antarctica. So, even on tippy-toes, you won’t be seeing that from the seat. Closer to home in Charlotte Amalie, there is a shopping street named Drake’s Passage. There is also a Sir Francis Drake Channel (sometimes called Drake’s Passage) that stretches from Virgin Gorda down the south side of Tortola and ends at Great Thatch. And, that’s right, you can’t see it from the seat, either. However, the path that Drake took when he sailed through the Virgin Islands is sometimes referred to as Drake’s Passage. But this just brings up the question: How does Drake sit on St Thomas and watch himself sail by at the same time? (Besides, that path shows him going south of St Thomas, not north.)
So, here’s what I learned from my time at the St Thomas Historical Trust. There is no historical evidence that Sir Francis Drake ever set foot on St Thomas. None. So it would be really difficult for him to sit down there. I learned more, but Drake never actually being on St Thomas answers almost everything except Why is it called Drake’s Seat?
This cadastral survey maker is located just behind Drake’s Seat. It was placed there in the 1920’s, before the bench ever existed. Typically, these markers are placed at key points across the island where the altitude and coordinates are known and all other surveys can reference them as starting points. The marker should have a number on it which the Cadastral Office can reference in their files for the information. This one is worn smooth and can’t be made out. Because, it is located near the road, one imagines that Hwy 40 was one of the well travelled routes across the island and an obvious place for a marker.
The bench, Drake’s Seat, was built in 1933 by Arthur S Fairchild (for a nice piece about Arthur, click here.) Fairchild was a philanthropist and at one time head of the NY Stock Exchange. He is best known on St Thomas for his gift of Magens Bay to the people of St Thomas in 1946. I couldn’t find out if Fairchild built Drake’s Seat himself or just had it built, But he thought the spot was a nice place to take a rest having such a beautiful view. Remember travel across the island back then was for the most part by foot, horse or donkey and breaks were often taken mid journey. He named the bench Drake’s Seat. (sorry, but I couldn’t find out why. Maybe he felt like Drake the explorer when he sat there looking out at the wonderful view.)
And it is a very beautiful view, but most of the things you read about Drake’s Seat are false.
So now you know. Drake’s Seat was never used by Drake. But I think by far the most important bit of information that you can take away from this is that I’m a Trustee of the St Thomas Historical Trust. A Trustee I say !