On the Popham Colony by Ferdinando Gorges

Sir Ferdinando Gorges

Sir Ferdinando Gorges (1566-1647) was one of the major investors in the Plymouth Company.  In the early 1600s he was the Captain of the port of Plymouth and was central to much of the planning for the colony. He was later granted a large land grant for most of New England, but Charles I also granted conflicting charters to the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Companies. 

Included here are several contemporary letters, and text from this memoirs written late in his life and published in 1658 by his son.

The text in italic and enclosed in brackets are modern comments on the text.

Sir Ferdinando Gorges to the Earl of Salisbury

February 7, 1608

[This letter was written to Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury and Secretary of State to King James I. The letter was written just after the return of Gift of God. Gorges mentions that the ship came back without any cargo but fails to mention that it brought back half of the settlers. He again asks for support from the King in the form of a mid-sized ship and a pinnace to better explore the region. From later sources we know that the Plymouth Company did not have enough money to pay the settlers who returned on Gift of God.]

Our second ship is returned out of the parts of Virginia, but with advertisement of nothing more than we received at the first, only the extremity of the winter has been great and has sorely punished our people. Notwithstanding, thanks be unto God, they have had their health exceedingly well, although their clothes were but thin and their diets poor, for they have not had one sick from the time they came thither to the instant of their coming away. [ This may have been technically true, but three men died on the return trip] The President and his people feed us still with hopes of wonders that will be had from thence in time; but there must go other manner of spirits to settle those business before it will be brought to pass; for I find the continuance of their idle proceedings to have much “prejudicial’ the public good, dividing themselves into factions, each disgracing the other even to the savages, the one emulating the other’s reputation amongst those brutish people, whose conversation and familiarity they have most frequented, which is one of the chief reasons we have to hope in time to gain that which cannot presently be had. They show themselves exceeding cunning, concealing from us the places where they have the commodities we seek for, and if they find any that has promised to bring us to it, those that came out of England instantly carry them away and will not suffer them to come near us any more.

These often returns without any commodity have much discouraged our Adventurers, in especial in these parts, although in common reason it be not to be looked for that from a savage wilderness any great matters of moment can presently be got, for it is art and industry that produce those things even from the farthest places of the world; and therefore I am afraid we shall have much ado to go forward as we ought. Wherefore it were to be wished that some furtherance might be had (if it were possible) from the chief spring of our happiness, I mean his Majesty, who at the last must reap the benefit of all our travail, as of right it belongs unto him. Besides, if you look into it with those eyes with which you pierce the most obscure conjectures, you will find it most necessary it should be so, both for many public and private reasons; as, first, the certainty of the commodities that may be had from so fertile a soil as that is when it shall be peopled, as well for building of shipping, having all things rising in the place wherewith to do it; as also many other hopes thereof to ensue, as the increase of the King’s navy, the breeding of mariners, the employment of his people, filling the world with expectation and satisfying his subjects with hopes, who now are sick in despair and in time will grow desperate through necessity. Also he shall “seise” that to himself and his prosperity, the which he shall no sooner quit but his neighbors shall enter into and thereby make themselves great, as he might have done; for at this instant the French are in hand with the natives to practice upon us, promising them if they will put us out of the country and not trade with none of ours, they will come unto them and give them succors against their enemies. And as our people hears, they have been this year with four ships to the southwards of them some 50 leagues, and the truth is this place is so stored with excellent harbors and so bold a coast, as it is able to invite any actively minded endeavor the possessing thereof, if it were only to keep it out of the hands of others. I could say much more in this but I am loth to be over-troublesome to you, and therefore will thus conclude under your favor, that I wish his Highness would adventure but one of his middle sort of ships with a small pinnace, and give his commission to countenance and authorize the worthy enterpriser, and I durst myself undertake to procure them to be victualled by the Adventurers of these parts for the discovery of the whole coast along from the first to the second colony, especially to spend the most part of the time in the search of those places already possessed. And I should be proud, if I might be thought worthy, to be the man commanded to the accomplishment thereof by his Highness, and should think it a season well spent wherein I should have so many hopes to serve my country; whereof the least would be in this sleepy season the enabling of my own experience in these marine causes the better hereafter on all occasions to discharge my duty to my sovereign.—Plymouth, this 7 of February.

Signed. Endorsed: “7 February 1607.” 2½ pp. (120 66.)

Sir Ferdinando Gorges to the Earl of Salisbury

March 20, 1608

[Gorges first complains about the Spanish and the continuing problems around the loss of the ship Richard and the capture of the crew. He goes on to say that he sent two supply ships to Popham and is preparing another for May. This is the only historical record for these two supply ships. The ship being prepared for May might well be the Mary & John but it does not leave until mid-July.]

This enclosed I thought fit to send you, that by it you might perceive what effect your noble favor has wrought that so worthily endeavored the liberty of those poor distressed souls that have this long endured affliction contrary to common reason, but by their proceedings it is manifest in how base esteem they hold our people, being careless what outrages they offer us. But I wish it might please his Majesty to give his servants leave to use their best means to right themselves of this their insupportable wrongs, provided that they violate no article of peace farther than they themselves have done in this. Neither do I see, in my poor understanding, why his Highness may not make it free by his proclamation for all his subjects to make the war in the Indies, where he has concluded no peace nor whither his subjects cannot go but to their loss and ruin. It is reported that the French King has taken this course, and that his people are now in preparation to go thither on all hands. But I cease farther to speak hereof, unless it may be thought I urge more than is fit.

As concerning our plantation, we have found the means to encourage ourselves anew, and have sent two ships from Topsham for the supplies of those that be there with victuals and other necessaries, having set down the means how we shall be able by May next to send one more of 200 tons. We frame unto ourselves many reasons of infinite good that is likely to befall our country if our means fail us not to accomplish it. But we hope before summer be past to give such satisfaction to the world hereof as none that are lovers of their nation but will, for one cause or other, be willing to wish it well at the least, what crosses soever we have received heretofore. Yet I am verily persuaded that the end will make amends for all; for it is sure it is a very excellent country, both in respect of the clime as also the multitude of goodly rivers and harbors it abounds withal, besides the several commodities that a fertile soil will yield when art and industry shall be used for the ease of Nature, the which seems to show herself exceeding bountiful in that place.—Plymouth, 20 of March

Signed. Seal, broken. 1 p. (120 130.)

А Brief Narration of the Original Undertakings

of the Advancement Of Plantations

Into the Parts Of America,

Especially showing the Beginning, Progress, and Continuance

Of that of New England.

Written By the Right Worshipful, Sir Ferdinando Gorges,

Knight And Governor of the Fort and Island of Plymouth, Devonshire.


[This narration was written in the final years of Gorges’ life which was about 40 years after the Popham Colony. There are some obvious errors as he talks of Sir John Popham doing things 7 months after the known date of his death.


I thought it a part of my duty, in this my Brief Narration of our Plantations, to remember the original undertaking of those designs in the parts of America, by such noble spirits of our nation that first attempted it; as well for the justification of the right thereof, properly belonging to kings of our nation, before any other prince or state, as also the better to clear the claim made thereunto by the ambassador of France, in the behalf of his master, in the year 1624, whereto I was required to make answer (as more at large it appears in the discourse itself); withal to leave to posterity the particular ways by which it hath been brought to the height it is come unto, wherein the providence of our great God is especially to be observed, who by the least and weakest means, oftentimes effects great and wonderful things; all which I have endeavored to contract in as short a compass as the length of the time and the variety of the accidents would give leave. As for the truth thereof, I presume it is so publicly known, as malice itself dares not only question it; though I know none, I thank my God, to whom I have given any just cause maliciously to attempt it, unless it be for the desire I had to do good to all without wronging of any, as by the course of my life to this present it may appear. If in the conclusion of my undertaking and expense of my fortunes to advance the honor and happiness of my nation, I have settled a portion thereof to those that in nature must succeed me, you may be pleased to remember that the laborer is worthy of his hire:

That I have not exceeded others not better deserving, that I go hand in hand with the meanest in this great work, to whom the charge thereof was committed by royal authority:

That I have opened the way to greater employments, and shall be (as a hand set up in a cross way) in a desert country to point all travelers in such like kind, how they may come safe to finish their journey’s end, leaving an example to others, best affected to designs of such like nature, to prosecute their intents for further enlargement of those begun plantations, without trenching or intruding upon the rights and labors of others already possessed of what is justly granted them :

Especially of such, who in some sort may be termed benefactors, as secondary donors of what (by God’s favor) is had, or to be had from those springs they first found and left to posterity to bathe themselves in. But if there be any otherwise affected, as better delighted to reap what they have not sown, or to possess the fruit another hath labored for, let such be assured, so great injustice will never want a woeful attendance to follow close at the heels, if not stayed behind to bring after a more terrible revenge. But my trust is, such impiety will not be suddenly harbored where the whole work is, I hope, still continued for the enlargement of the Christian faith, the supportation of justice, and love of peace.

In assurance whereof, I will conclude, and tell you, as I have lived long, so I have done what I could. Let those that come after me do for their parts what they may, and I doubt not but the God that governs all, will reward their labors that continue in his service. To whom be glory forever. Amen.



Of the First Seisin, Possession, and Name of Virginia.

That Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and Sir Richard Grenville, and many others, noble spirits of our nation, attempted to settle a plantation in the parts of America, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, is sufficiently published in the painful collections of Mr. Hakluyt, together with the variable successes of those undertakers; of whose labor and charge there remained no other fruit than the primer seisin and royal possession taken thereof, as of right belonging to the crown of England, giving it the name of Virginia, in the memory and honor of that virgin queen, the wonder of her sex, by whose authority those attempts took their first life, and died not till the actors ended their days, and their chief supporters and advancers tried with so many fruitless attempts and endless charge without hope of profit to follow for many ages to come; so that that attempt has its end, as many others since that of greater hopes and better grounded. But what shall we say? As nothing is done but according to the time fore decreed by God’s sacred providence, so doth he provide wherewith to accomplish the saine in the fulness of it. But the mirror of queens being summoned to the possession of a more glorious reign left her terrestrial crown to her successor James, the Sixth of Scotland, to whom of right it did belong.


The reasons and means of renewing the undertakings of Plantations in America.

This great monarch gloriously ascending his throne, [1603] being born to greatness above his ancestors, to whom all submitted as to another Solomon for wisdom and justice, as well as for that he brought with him another crown, whereby those kingdoms that had so long contended for rights and liberties, perhaps oft-times pretended rather to satisfy their present purposes, than that justice required it. But such is the frailty of human nature as not to be content with what we possess, but strives by all means to enthrall the weaker that is necessitated to prevent the worst, though by such means sometimes to their greater ruin. With this union there was also a general peace concluded between the State and the King of Spain, the then only enemy of our nation and religion, whereby our men of war by sea and land were left destitute of all hope of employment under their own prince; and therefore there was liberty given to them (for preventing other evils) to be entertained as mercenaries under what prince or state they pleased,-a liberty granted upon show of reason, yet of a dangerous consequence, when our friends and allies, that had long travailed with us in one and the same quarrel, should now find our swords sharpened as well against as for them. Howsoever reason of state approved thereof, the world forbore not to censure it as their affections led them. Others grew jealous what might be the issue, especially when it was found that by such liberty the sword was put into their hands, the law had prohibited them the use. Some there were, not liking to be servants to foreign states, thought it better became them to put in practice the reviving resolution of those free spirits, that rather chose to spend themselves in seeking a new world, than servilely to be hired but as slaughterers in the quarrels of strangers. This resolution being stronger than their means to put it into execution, they were forced to let it rest as a dream, till God should give the means to stir up the inclination of such a power able to bring it to life,

And so it pleased our great God, that there happened to come into the harbor of Plymouth [July, 1605], where I then commanded, one Captain Weymouth, that had been employed by the Lord Arundel of Wardour for the discovery of the North-west passage; but falling short of his course, happened into a river on the coast of America, called Pemaquid [Penobscot], from whence he brought five of the natives, three of whose names were Manida, Skettwarroes, and Tasquantum, whom I seized upon. They were all of one nation, but of several parts and several families. This accident must be acknowledged the means under God of putting on foot and giving life to all our plantations, as by the ensuing discourse will manifestly appear.


Of the use I made of the natives,

After I had those people some time in my custody, I observed in them an inclination to follow the example of the better sort, and in all their carriages manifest shows of great civility, far from the rudeness of our common people. And the longer I conversed with them, the better hope they gave me of those parts where they did inhabit, as proper for our uses ; especially when I found what goodly rivers, stately islands and safe harbors those parts abounded with, being the special marks I levelled at, as the only want our nation met with in all their navigations along that coast. And having kept them full three years, I made them able to set me down what great rivers ran up into the land, what men of note were seated on them, what power they were of, how allied, what enemies they had, and the like; of which in his proper place.


Captain Henry Challons sent to make his residence in the country till supplies came.

Those credible information the natives had given me of the condition and state of their country, made me [August, 1606) send away a ship furnished with men and all necessaries, provisions convenient for the service intended, under the command of Captain Henry Challons, a gentleman of a good family, industrious, and of fair condition ; to whom I gave such directions and instructions for his better direction as I knew proper for his use and my satisfaction, being grounded upon the information I had of the natives, sending two of them with him to aver the same ; binding both the captain, his master and company strictly to follow it, or to expect the miscarriage of the voyage to be laid unto their charge; commanding them by all means to keep the northerly gage, as high as Cape Britton, till they had discovered the main, and then to beat it up to the southward, as the coast tended, till they found by the natives they were near the place they were assigned unto. Though this were a direction contrary to the opinion of our best seamen of these times, yet I knew many reasons persuading me thereunto, as well as for that I understood the natives themselves to be exact pilots for that coast, having been accustomed to frequent the same, both as fishermen, and in passing along the shore to seek their enemies, that dwelt to the northward of them. But it is not in the wit of man to prevent the providence of the Most High, for this captain being some hundred leagues of the island of Canary, fell sick of a fever, and the winds being westerly, his company shaped their course for the Indies, and coming to St. John de Porto Rico, the captain himself went ashore for the recovery of his health, while the company took in water, and such other provision as they had present use of, expending some time there, hunting after such things as best pleased themselves. That ended, they set their course to fall with their own height they were directed unto; by which means they met the Spanish fleet that came from Havana, by whom they were taken and carried into Spain, where their ship and goods were confiscate, themselves made prisoners, the voyage overthrown, and both my natives lost. This the gain of their breach of order, which, afterwards observed, brought all our ships to their desired ports. The affliction of the captain and his company put the Lord Chief Justice Popham to charge, and myself to trouble in procuring their liberties, which was not suddenly obtained.


The Lord Chief Justice dispatching Captain Pring from Bristol for the supply of Captain Challons.

Shortly upon my sending away of Captain Challons, it pleased the Lord Chief Justice, according to his promise, to dispatch Captain Pring from Bristol, with hope to have found. Captain Challons where by his instructions he was assigned ; who observing the same, happily arrived there, but not hearing by any means what became of him, after he had made a perfect discovery of all those rivers and harbors he was informed of by his instructions, (the season of the year requiring his return) brings with him the most exact discovery of that coast that ever came to my hands since ; and indeed he was the best able to perform it of any I met withal to this present; which, with his relation of the country, wrought such an impression in the Lord Chief Justice and us all that were his associates, that (notwithstanding our first disaster) we set up our resolutions to follow it with effect, and that upon better grounds, for as yet our authority was but ill motion.


Of his Lordship’s care in procuring His Majesty’s authority for settling two Colonies.

In this interim his Lordship failed not to interest many of the lords and others to be petitioners to his Majesty for his royal authority, for settling two Plantations upon the coasts of America, by the names of the First and Second Colony; the first to be undertaken by certain noblemen, knights, gentlemen, and merchants in and about the city of London ; the second by certain knights, gentlemen, and merchants in the Western parts. This being obtained (1606,] theirs of London made a very hopeful entrance into their design, sending away [June 2, 1609,) under the command of Sir Thomas Gates, Sir George Summers, and many other gentlemen of quality, a very great and hopeful Plantation to Repossess the parts of Virginia. Sir Thomas Gates happily arrived in the bay of Chesapeake (in August,] in which navigation Sir George Summers unhappily cast away his ship upon the islands of Bermuda, since called the Summer Islands, in memory of him that deserved the honor for the great pains, care and industry he used out of the carcass of his wrecked ship to build a new baque sufficient for the transportation of himself, distressed company and provision, to find out Sir Thomas Gates, who timely arrived, to the wonder of the rest of his consorts.


The dispatch of the first Plantation for the second Colony sent from Plymouth.

By the same authority all things fully agreed upon between both the colonies, the Lord Chief Justice, his friends and associates of the West country, sent from Plymouth Captain Popham as President for that employment, with Captain Raleigh Gilbert, and divers other gentlemen of note, in three sail of ships, with one hundred landmen, for the seizing such a place as they were directed unto by the Council of that colony ; who departed from the coast of England the one-and-thirtieth day of May, anno 1607, and arrived at their rendezvous the 8th of August following. As soon as the President had taken notice of the place, and given order for landing the provisions, he dispatched away Captain Gilbert, with Skitwarres his guide, for the thorough discovery of the rivers and habitations of the natives ; by whom he was brought to several of them, where he found civil entertainment and kind respects, far from brutish or savage natures, so as they suddenly became familiar friends; especially by the means of Dehamda, and Skitwarres who had been in England, Dehamda being sent by the Lord Chief Justice with Captain Pring, and Skitwarres by me in company; so as the President was earnestly entreated by Sassenow, Aberemet, and others the principal sagamores (as they call their great lords) to go to the Bashabas, who it seems was their king, and held a state agreeable, expecting that all strangers should have their address to him, not he to them.

To whom the President would have gone after several invitations, but was hindered by cross winds and foul weather, so as he was forced to return back without making good what he had promised, much to the grief of those sagamores that were to attend him. The Bashabas notwithstanding, hearing of his misfortune, sent his own son to visit him, and to beat a trade with him for furs. How it succeeded, I could not understand, for that the ships were to be dispatched away for England, the winter being already come, for it was the 15th day of December before they set sail to return; who brought with them the success of what had passed in that employment, which so soon as it came to the Lord Chief Justice’s hands, he gave out order to the Council for sending them back with supplies necessary.


The sending supplies to the Colony, and the unhappy death of the Lord Chief Justice before their departure.

The supplies being furnished and all things ready, only attending for a fair wind, which happened not before the news of the Chief Justice’s death was posted to them to be transported to the discomfort of the poor planters; but the ships arriving there in good time, was a great refreshing to those that had had their storehouse and most of their provisions burnt the winter before. Besides that, they were strangely perplexed with the great and unseasonable cold they suffered, with that extremity as the like hath not been heard of since, and it seems was universal, it being the same year that our Thames was so locked up that they built their boats upon it, and sold provisions of several sorts to those that delighted in the novelties of the times. But the miseries they had passed were nothing to that they suffered by the disastrous news they received of the death of the Lord Chief Justice, that suddenly followed the death of their President; but the latter was not so strange, in that he was well stricken in years before he went, and had long been an infirm man. Howsoever heartened by hopes, willing he was to die in acting something that might be serviceable to God and honorable to his country. But that of the death of the Chief Justice was such a corrosive to all, as struck them with despair of future remedy, and it was the more augmented, when they heard of the death of Sir John Gilbert, elder brother of Rawley Gilbert that was then their President, a man worthy to be beloved of them all for his industry and care for which means all our former hopes were frozen to death ; though Sir Francis Popham could not so give it over, but continued to send thither several years after in hope of better fortunes, but found it fruitless, and was necessitated at last to sit down with the loss he had already undergone.


My resolution not to abandon the prosecution of the business, in my opinion so well grounded.

Although I was interested in all these misfortunes, and found it wholly given over by the body of the adventurers, as well for that they had lost the principal support of the design, as also that the country itself was branded by the return of the Plantation, as being over cold, and in respect of that not habitable by our nation.

Besides, they understood it to be a task too great for particular persons to undertake, though the country itself, the rivers, havens, harbors upon that coast might in time prove profitable to us. These last acknowledgments bound me confidently to prosecute my first resolution, not doubting but God would effect that which men despaired of. As for those reasons, the causes of others’ discouragements, the first only was given to me, in that I had lost so noble a friend, and my nation so worthy a subject. As for the coldness of the clime, I had had too much experience in the world to be frighted with such a blast, as knowing many great kingdoms and large territories more northerly seated, and by many degrees colder than the clime from whence they came, yet plentifully inhabited, and divers of them stored with no better commodities from trade and commerce than those parts afforded, if like industry, art and labor be used. For the last, I had no reason greatly to despair of means, when God should be pleased, by our ordinary frequenting that country, to make it appear it would yield both profit and content to as many as aimed thereat, these being truly (for the most their well-being. The President was to return to settle the state his brother had left him; upon which all resolved to quit the place, [1608] and with one consent to away, by part) the motives that all men labor, howsoever otherwise adjoined with fair colors and goodly shadows.