History of the Popham Colony
Why did the Explorers and Colonists come to Maine?
English explorers and would-be colonists came to present-day Maine in the 1500s and 1600s for various reasons: some out of curiosity; some in the fruitless quest to discover a new “northwest passage” to China and the Indies; some in the vain hope of locating gold and silver, which the Spanish had earlier found in Mexico and Peru; and some to control fishing grounds and to trade for furs with the Indians. All expected to better themselves, even to get rich or become famous, but few did so. Both these early arrivals and the government back in England were eager to claim territory for the crown in order to forestall encroachment by the Spanish from the south and by the French from Quebec and Nova Scotia.
Establishing Two Colonies
Convinced by his advisors of the advantages and necessity of colonizing parts of North America, the English King, James I, granted a charter in 1606 to the Virginia Company. This royal decree gave a group of merchants, large landowners, and aristocratic gentlemen the rights to all American coastal lands from North Carolina to lower Nova Scotia. They soon moved to establish two colonies, one at Jamestown, Virginia and one at present-day Popham Beach, Maine. Thus, in August 1607 one hundred English colonists, all men, aboard two ships, the Gift of God and the Mary and John, landed at the mouth of the Kennebec River and built a small settlement called Fort Saint George.
Led by their President, George Popham, a nephew of Sir John Popham, the new colony’s primary financial backer and England’s chief justice, they initially hoped to develop a trade for food and furs, to ship timber back to England, to find gold, silver, and other valuable minerals, and to find the Northwest Passage.
Problems at Fort Saint George and the Popham Colony
These hopes and dreams were shattered when only fourteen months later, in October 1608, Fort Saint George was abandoned and the Popham colony pronounced a failure. In part, the colonists were victims of circumstances. They had not expected the winter in Maine to be so long and cold. For reasons that are unclear, their relations with the Native Americans deteriorated. A more hostile atmosphere developed, and the Indians stopped helping the colonists.
The local riches and profitable trade the colonists had counted on did not materialize. Although nearly half the colonists returned to England in December 1607, in order to conserve the food supplies that accompanied the expedition, the remainder struggled to survive till spring when two relief ships finally reached them. Led by their shipwright, Digby, however, they managed to complete construction of a small ship, a 30-ton pinnace they christened Virginia, the first English ship built in Maine and probably in all of North America.
Return to England
In February, 1608, George Popham died, and Raleigh Gilbert, the young gentleman who was second in Command, succeeded him. This change, and perhaps some failings in Gilbert’s leadership style, weakened the colony. And then, in late summer 1608, Gilbert learned that he had inherited his family’s estate and decided to return to England. William Strachey tells us that the surviving colonists would not stay without him, and all departed on the newly arrived Mary and John, and their pinnace, Virginia.
The disappointed English backers of the Popham Colony nevertheless learned valuable lessons about what was needed to survive in the New World. This experience later helped them found successful colonies in New England. In this way the struggles of the Popham colonists contributed to rapid English expansion, but in American history the settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth are well known, but not the Popham Colony.
Maine’s First Ship thanks Jack Thompson and John Bradford for their work in developing the above information.