Santa Barbara, Calif. — The original New England lies somewhere along the coast of California. But exactly where Sir Francis Drake landed in 1579, dubbing the land ''Nova Albion'' (New England), has remained a puzzle ever since.
Following a beach-battering storm in the winter of 1981, a beachcomber found five rock-encrusted cannons at the foot of the white cliffs fronting the shore just north of this seaside town.
Where Drake landed is still a mystery, but a much-contested theory has crystallized around the old iron guns.
Jim Gilmore, a local writer, has spent over two years of intensive research and more than $20,000 out of pocket exploring his idea that these cannons were left here by Drake.
In the process, he has started a historical shoot-out of sorts. There are several competing theories of where Drake put in the HMS Golden Hinde for repairs 400 years ago. Each locale has its advocates, each has its evidence, and none of it is conclusive.
''People sort of believe what they want to believe,'' says California state archaeologist John Foster.
The importance of the whole debate is mostly symbolic. Drake's landing, which was formally an occupation, marked the beginning of the British overseas empire and planted the dream of coast-to-coast conquest of the new land that became ''manifest destiny'' for Americans.
''Dreams of empire come from greatness of geography,'' says Robert H. Power, a Californian and a historian with his own idea of which bay Drake sailed into.
The conventional wisdom has located Drake's ''faire and good baye'' just north of San Francisco. The latitude Drake recorded, some Ming porcelains found in the area, and descriptions of the natives Drake encountered add up in favor of this traditional choice.
Then in 1954, Mr. Power proposed that Drake had actually sailed through the Golden Gate into San Francisco Bay to a smaller bay at San Quentin. ''I published that as a young man, falling into a quagmire'' of historical controversy, says the historian now.
In his favor, Power cites a plan drawn by Drake that matches the northern San Francisco Bay, a 16th-century silver sixpence found near San Quentin in 1974, and a brass plate purportedly left by Drake proclaiming Nova Albion.
The brass plate has since been proclaimed a fake by University of California experts, but Power is convinced that further tests will prove it authentic. ''I don't intend to lose this issue in the long term,'' he insists.
Then came the cannons in Santa Barbara and Jim Gilmore. ''They try to make me out a fanatic,'' he says of those who denounce his theory, ''but the only way to handle this is to be a little bit of a fanatic.''
At least one sympathetic listener has been state archaeologist Foster, who is also president of the Central California Archaeology Foundation. Foster has worked with Gilmore in exploring the notion that the cannons found here were Drake's.
''I think it's possible,'' Foster says.
''The Drake theory was rubbish from the very beginning,'' says Prof. Frank Frost, who teaches the history of seafaring at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
New tests on the cannons by Robert Maddin, a University of Pennsylvania metallurgist, leave all doors open. They show the guns to have been forged with charcoal. This, Dr. Maddin says, is consistent with a casting date between 1500 and 1750, when southern English foundries used charcoal.
The cannons were found at the base of the cliffs that once guarded the channel into a bay here. The bay was filled in during the 1860s and became Goleta Slough - marshy flatland with an airport built on it.
The cannons may have been placed on top of the cliffs to guard the channel while Drake patched up the treasure-laden Golden Hinde, Gilmore explains. He adds that they may well have been bulldozed off the cliffs when roads were carved in them to reach oil rigs built in the 1930s.
Maddin also tested the metal of an anchor found in Goleta Slough in 1892. The anchor has been thought to be from the wrecked schooner La Goleta, but the tests suggest that the anchor and the cannons may be from a similar ore source.
Gilmore points out that the anchor was found in what would be the logical spot for Drake to have done his repairs.
Drake's logs are lost to history, but the accounts of his voyage left clues that have been explained in different ways by different advocates of different theories, many of them plausible.
All the evidence so far, however, is circumstantial. And only two of the five cannons have even been cleaned. ''We have a lot more homework to do,'' says Foster.
In the meantime, Gilmore says he has become a little cynical about history in the past two years. ''There's nothing factual about it at all.''