He was born in Devonshire, the son of a yeoman, and was at an early age apprenticed to a ship captain. He made voyages to Guinea and the West Indies and in 1567 commanded a ship in a slave-trading expedition of his kinsman, John Hawkins. On the voyage the Spanish attacked and destroyed all but three of the English vessels. In 1572, with two ships and 73 men, Drake set out on the first of his famous marauding expeditions. He took the town of Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama, captured a ship in the harbor of Cartagena, burned Portobelo, crossed and recrossed the isthmus, and captured three mule trains bearing 30 tons of silver. The voyage brought Drake wealth and fame. For the next few years he commanded the sea forces against rebellious Ireland.
In Dec., 1577, he set out with five ships to raid Spanish holdings on the Pacific coast of the New World. He abandoned two ships in the Río de la Plata in South America, and, with the remaining three, navigated the Straits of Magellan, the first Englishman to make the passage. A storm drove them far southward; one ship and its crew were destroyed, and another, separated from Drake's vessel, returned to England.
Drake continued alone in the Golden Hind up the coast of South America, plundered Valparaiso and smaller settlements, cut loose the shipping at Callao, and captured a rich Spanish treasure ship. Armed now with Spanish charts, he continued north along the coast, looking for a possible passage to the Atlantic, feeling it would be unsafe to retrace his course. Sailing possibly as far north as the present state of Washington with no success, he determined to cross the Pacific.
He returned to San Francisco Bay to repair and provision his ship. He named the region New Albion and took possession of it in the name of Queen Elizabeth I. Then, crossing the Pacific, he visited the Moluccas, Sulawesi, and Java, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and arrived at Plymouth on Sept. 26, 1580, bearing treasure of extremely high value. Elizabeth endeavored for a time to justify Drake's conduct to Spain, but, failing to satisfy the Spanish, she finally abandoned all pretense and openly recognized Drake's exploits by knighting him aboard the Golden Hind.
In 1585, Drake commanded a fleet that sacked Vigo in Spain and burned São Tiago in the Cape Verde Islands. Proceeding across the Atlantic, he took Santo Domingo and Cartagena (which were subsequently ransomed), plundered the Florida coast, including the settlement of St. Augustine, and rescued Sir Walter Raleigh's Roanoke colony under Ralph Lane on the Carolina coast.
Meanwhile, Spain had begun to prepare for open war. In 1587, Drake entered the harbor of Cádiz with 26 ships and destroyed about 30 of the ships the Spanish were assembling. He had, he said, merely singed the king of Spain's beard and wished to carry out further expeditions against the Spanish ports, but Elizabeth would not sanction his plans. He was a vice admiral in the fleet that defeated the Armada in 1588. He was in joint command of an attempted invasion of Portugal in 1589 but failed to take Lisbon.
Drake's last expedition, in 1595, undertaken jointly with Hawkins, was directed against the West Indies. This time the Spanish were prepared, and the venture was a complete failure. Hawkins died off Puerto Rico, and Drake shortly afterward, of dysentery, off Portobelo, where he was buried at sea.
See biographies by Sir Julien Corbett (1890, repr. 1969) and G. M. Thomson (1972); see also Sir Julien Corbett, Drake and the Tudor Navy (2 vol., 1899, repr. 1970); G. Mattingly, The Armada (1959); K. R. Andrews, Drake's Voyages (1967); K. R. Andrews, ed., The Last Voyage of Drake and Hawkins (1972).
See F. L. Pleadwell, ed., The Life and Works of Joseph Rodman Drake (1935).
The town holds a Festival of Apples on September 20 of each year. The city is mentioned in Dr. Seuss's Horton Hatches the Egg as one of the towns visited by the traveling circus.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 2.0 square miles (5.2 km²), of which, 2.0 square miles (5.1 km²) of it is land and 0.1 square miles (0.1 km²) of it (2.48%) is water.
There were 164 households out of which 18.9% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 47.0% were married couples living together, 9.8% had a female householder with no husband present, and 42.1% were non-families. 38.4% of all households were made up of individuals and 23.8% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 1.96 and the average family size was 2.60.
In the city the population was spread out with 18.3% under the age of 18, 4.0% from 18 to 24, 19.3% from 25 to 44, 22.7% from 45 to 64, and 35.7% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 51 years. For every 100 females there were 97.5 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 87.9 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $22,813, and the median income for a family was $34,844. Males had a median income of $23,250 versus $17,083 for females. The per capita income for the city was $13,023. About 8.2% of families and 15.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 18.3% of those under age 18 and 16.3% of those age 65 or over.