Once Upon A Hillside: 25, 50, 75 and 100 years ago
Herbert Eugene Bolton (1870-1953)
Gertrude Janes Bolton (1871-1954)
Club members for 23 years (1915-38)
Our spotlight this month is Herbert Bolton, Professor of History at UC Berkeley,
prominent authority on Spanish American history, and founding director of the Bancroft
Library. Bolton was also involved with the infamous “Plate of Brass” discovered in 1933
in Marin County and purportedly left in California by Francis Drake in 1579; Bolton
pronounced it genuine, but it was later exposed as a hoax.
Herbert Eugene Bolton was born on the family farm in Wilton Township, Monroe
County, Wisconsin in 1870. He attended high school in nearby Tomah, Wisconsin, where
he met his future wife, Gertrude Janes. After teaching at some rural schools, Bolton
attended Wisconsin State University where he received a Bachelor of Letters degree in
1895. That same year, Herbert and Gertrude were married. He then attended the
University of Pennsylvania, where he received his Ph.D. in history in 1899. In 1901,
Bolton became an instructor at the University of Texas and soon specialized in the history
of the Spanish Southwest, which had been largely ignored by American historians. In
1909, Bolton accepted a position at Stanford, but he was quickly lured north to Berkeley
and the recently acquired 60,000-volume library of Hubert Howe Bancroft.
In 1911, Bolton began his professorship at Berkeley, where he would teach for the
remainder of his career. He became a pioneering and distinguished historian, and
developed what became known as “Bolton’s Law,” holding that it is impossible to study
the history of the United States in isolation from the histories of other American nations.
He was a prolific writer and a devoted mentor to countless students, many of whom
became prominent historians themselves. Bolton was Chair of the History Department for
twenty-two years (1919-40), and Director of The Bancroft Library for twenty-five (1916-
1940). He retired in 1944.
The Boltons joined the Hillside Club in 1915, by which time their family included six
daughters and a son. They were Club members for the next twenty-three years. The
Boltons were two of the 91 Club members who lost their homes in the 1923 Berkeley
Much has been written about “Drake’s Plate of Brass,” and you can find a good summary
on Wikipedia. A quick summary: In 1579, the English explorer Sir Francis Drake landed
somewhere in Northern California and left behind “a plate of brass.” Bolton was a
member of the quirky fraternal organization E Clampus Vitus (ECV). The ECV is
dedicated to preserving the history of the American West, and Bolton often asked his
ECV buddies to be on the lookout for Drake’s plate. In the early 1930s those buddies
decided to play a practical joke on him by creating a plate of brass, which they left in
Marin County near one of the supposed landing spots. They left inside jokes on the plate
that they knew Bolton would recognize, even going so far as painting “ECV” on the back
of the plate in ink visible under ultraviolet light.
The plate was found in 1933, but then discarded some miles away. It was found again in
1936 by a shop clerk named Beryle Shinn, who, on the advice of a UC Berkeley student,
brought it to Bolton. At this point, the joke quickly spun out of control. Bolton and Allen
Chickering, the president of the California Historical Society, pronounced it genuine, and
persuaded the UC Berkeley to purchase the plate for $3500 ($63,000 today). Bolton
announced the find at the next meeting of the California Historical Society, saying “One
of the world’s long-lost historical treasures apparently has been found! The authenticity
of the tablet seems to me beyond all reasonable doubt.” Bolton’s friends in ECV hadn’t
expected him to miss all the clues, and now it was too late to admit the forgery without
causing him acute public embarrassment.
So, the ECV conspirators kept their mouths shut, and Bolton went to his grave believing
that the plate was genuine. Critics had doubts from the beginning, citing many
inconsistencies such as spelling and patina. In 1979, James Hart, Director of the Bancroft
Library, arranged a retesting of the plate in preparation for celebrating the 400 th
anniversary of Drake’s landing. The plate was revealed as a forgery on multiple grounds.
The last surviving ECV conspirator signed an affidavit admitting the forgery, and in
2002, four researchers pieced together the whole long story and published it in the journal