The Popham Colony

King James I
Virginia Company share

The Virginia Company

In 1603 with the death of Queen Elizabeth I, James I became King of both England and Scotland. In 1604 he settled a 20-year undeclared war with Spain. A major component of this war was the English use of privateers who were essentially pirates sanctioned by the crown. Many of the privateers came from southwestern England (Cornwall,  Devon, and Somerset) with Plymouth and Exeter as major centers. With the Treaty of London in 1604, King James I revoked all of the letters of marque, and in 1605 ordered all Englishmen to cease privateering and to not aid privateers or pirates.

In 1605, the Earl of Southhampton, Thomas Arundel, and others (probably including Sir John Popham) financed an exploration of the northern parts of Virginia, led by George Weymouth. Having first landed near Nantucket, they sailed northwest and explored Monhegan Island, the St George Islands, the St George River, lower Penobscot Bay, and Pemaquid. While at Pemaquid, Weymouth abducted five high-status Wabanki men and returned with them to England where they were given into the control of Sir John Popham and Ferdinando Gorges. The report from this voyage told of fantastic harbors with good farmland and every kind of fish. They declared that they were the first Christians to be there and erected several crosses to show they had been there (and could claim the land). However, both Spanish and French explorers had been to these areas before them (and of course the Wabanaki).

In April 1606, James I issued a charter for the Virginia Company to exploit the riches of North America and enforce the English claims there.  This was funded by private investors known as “adventurers”.  The King would then take a percentage of the profits without risking any treasury funds. This was not the first attempt at settlement. Walter Raleigh established a settlement at Roanoke in 1584, but it was quickly abandoned. The war with Spain delayed further settlement attempts.

The Virginia Company was organized into “two several Colonies and Companies”, the London and the Plymouth Companies.  Each colony was to be governed on-site by a council responsible to the two companies in England. These two companies were then overseen by the Virginia Company which was responsible to the King. 

The London Company colony was to be located between 34 and 41 degrees latitude (mid-South Carolina to Connecticut) and the Plymouth Company was to be located between 38 and 45 degrees (Delaware to Nova Scotia). Each company would have complete control over an area within a 100-mile radius of the location of the settlement. The instructions to the companies were to settle near the mouth of a major river that gave access to the interior, but in a location that would not be seen by passing French and Spanish ships.

Jamestown was settled by the London Company colonists in May 1607 and became the first permanent English settlement in America. Despite the death of most of the settlers, Jamestown survived due to both the leadership of Captain John Smith and the continued support of the investors. In the end, it was the introduction of tobacco which could not be grown in England that ensured the survival of Jamestown.

The Plymouth Company was backed mainly by England’s Chief Justice, Sir John Popham, and the investors included Sir Ferdinando Gorges, William Parker, Sir John Gilbert, and several other small investors from southwest England. Their wealth was mostly in land, but many of these investors had made their fortune as privateers or in building ships for privateers.

In the summer and fall of 1606, the Plymouth Company sent two ships to further explore the area and perhaps set up a beachhead settlement. Both were small ships (about 50 tons with about 30 men on board).

The first ship Richard under the command of Henry Challons was primarily funded by Ferdinando Gorges and carried two of the five Wabanaki abducted by Weymouth. It sailed much farther south than it was directed, got into a storm, and was captured by a Spanish fleet near Puerto Rico. The crew was imprisoned or enslaved with a number of them taken to Spain. Gorges spent much time and money over the next year trying to ransom the crew, but the ship was lost. It appears that one of the Wabanaki was killed and the other enslaved.

The second ship left in the fall of 1606 with Martin Pring as master. We no longer have the report from this voyage but it seems they explored the Sagadahoc River (now Kennebec). The St George River explored by Weymouth is wide with nice coves, but it is not as the charter suggested a river that goes far into the interior. We assume that the decision to place the Popham Colony on the Sagadahoc was due to the explorations of Martin Pring. One of the abducted Wabanaki, Dehamda, was returned to Pemaquid with this ship. 

There were disagreements among the investors of the Plymouth Company who wanted to change the charter to give them more control. The loss of the ship Richard and its crew also put financial pressure on the Plymouth Company, and instead of the 3 ships and 150 men called for in the charter, they readied two ships and 100 men for the voyage. Sir John Popham agreed to petition the King to modify the charter and to ask for royal funding, but neither of these petitions were granted.

17th Century Ship (Plimouth Plantations)
Location of the Popham Colony (modern). Click to zoom out

The voyage

On May 31, 1607, two vessels, Mary & John owned by the Gilbert family with James Davies as master and Raleigh Gilbert as captain, and Gift of God, owned by the Popham family with John Havercombe as master and George Popham as captain, left Plymouth in England for North America. Aboard were roughly 100 colonists (all men and boys) and sailers for the two ships. These were selected with the necessary skills to find precious metals, medicinal herbs and spices, establish relations and trade with the native people, build and man a fort and its supporting buildings,  provide religious discipline, design, construct, and man a “30 tonne” Pinnace, and send back tangible proof of progress being made. Due to the end of privateering in Plymouth, there were many skilled men available. One of the Wabanaki abducted by Weymouth, Skitwarres, returned with these ships as a native guide.

George Popham (Sir John Popham’s nephew) was chosen as President of the colony. Raleigh Gilbert (Sir John Gilbert’s younger brother) was chosen as Admiral (second in command). Popham was about 57 and described as a gentle man.  Gilbert was less around 25 and more of an adventurer.

The men in the company did not come to move to the new world. They were hired at a monthly rate to perform skilled jobs, and they hoped  to get not only this pay but a small share of any treasure found. As money was of no value in the new world, they would get paid upon return to England.

On July 31, 1607, Mary & John arrived at what is now Nova Scotia after a short stop in the Azores. They immediately found natives in a Basque-style shallop. On August 7, 1607, the two vessels rendezvoused in the Georges Islands where Weymouth had set up a cross marker two years earlier. From there they rowed the ships’ boats across to Pemaquid, where they met with the Wabanaki village that Skitwarres belonged to. 

On August 12, 1607, both ships sailed to the Sagadahoc. Gift of God made it into the river the next day, but Mary & John got caught in a storm near Seguin Island which damaged the ship and they did not make it into the river until August 16. The next day a group of colonists led by George Popham took a shallop up-river to about where Richmond is now. 

John Hunt plan of Fort St George
Ditch and gabion defense

Fort St George

On August 19 the colonists selected the site for Fort St George and read out the charter and laws. The site was chosen to be at the mouth of a great river giving them good access to the interior but hidden from direct view of passing ships. In the following weeks, they worked on building the fort, including digging trenches and other defenses such as gabions (a cylindrical basket filled with dirt or stone). One early priority was to build a storehouse so that they could offload their supplies and trade goods from the ships.

By our current calendar this would have been August 30, and only three weeks of summer were left, meaning that no crops could be planted and harvested in 1607, leaving the colony heavily dependent on the stores they brought with them. Despite the many skilled workers among them, it does not seem that anyone was skilled in foraging for food, perhaps because this is traditionally a woman’s job.

They assembled a knocked-down shallop they had brought with them, but even before that used the shallops from the two ships to explore, going to what is now Cape Elizabeth and Casco Bay, and meeting with native groups up the Androscoggin River (probably near Ft Andross in Brunswick). We only have a journal for the first five weeks of the colony, but the colonists frequently interacted with native people. This seems to have been a very high priority for George Popham [see Journal of Robert Davies].

On October 8th Mary & John returned to England. The author of the journal left with this ship. Onboard was also the plan showing the layout of Fort St George and the cartographer John Hunt who created it. [see John Hunt Plan] This plan is not recorded as ever being seen in England but was sent to Spain’s King Philip III by the Spanish ambassador to England along with some letters concerning English settlement in the Americas [see Spanish Communication]. It was found 280 years later (in 1888) in the Spanish Royal Archives at Simancas. George Popham sent along a hopeful letter to King James saying that there were great riches in the area, and that the great ocean (which could only be the Pacific) was just a seven day travel to the west.

George Popham ordered Gift of God to remain after being unloaded to help with the defense of the colony from attacks by the French. By mid-December, Gift of God had problems with ice flows in the river, and since it was unlikely there would be any French attack in the winter, was loaded with 33 spars to return to England. There was not enough food to last the winter for the whole company, so 50 were chosen to return to England, thus leaving only about 50 men at the colony.  There was also not enough food on Gift of God either. The crew nearly starved and had to sell their cargo in the Azores to make it back to England. Gift of God arrived in Exeter in March 1608. One reason they were short of food was the inability to complete trades with the Wabanaki for food.

The delay in the return of Gift of God and coming back without any cargo was the cause of a court case brought by the Popham family against the master of the Gift of God, John Havercombe. It also delayed sending another supply ship until July 1608. [see Popham v Havercobme]

Archaeological excavations show that iron was smelted on the site, most likely from bog iron. This makes this the earliest example of iron smelting in the area which is now the United States. In the 11th century, the Norse had smelted bog-iron in Labrador.

Later visitors to the site of Fort St George saw the remains of the crops planted there. 1608 would have given the colony a full growing season to cultivate the seeds they brought with them.

Raleigh Gilbert

The decline of the Popham Colony

Sir John Popham, the primary investor in the Plymouth Company, died in June 1607 shortly after the two ships set off for Virginia. Sir John Gilbert, the older brother of Raleigh Gilbert, who became the president of the Plymouth Company Council in England after the death of Sir John Popham, himself died in early July 1608. However, the colonists at Fort St George would not know about these deaths until late in 1608. Sir John Popham’s estate went into probate which would have limited the ability of his son, Frances Popham, to finance additional expenses for the colony.

On February 5, 1608, George Popham died of unknown causes, and Raleigh Gilbert became President of the Colony. Sir Ferdinando Gorges wrote much later that a fire had consumed part of the colony’s stores. There are also Wabanaki stories about this (implying they caused the fire). However, we have no surviving contemporary journals, and little is known about what happened. It appears that the relations with the Wabanaki deteriorated after Gilbert became President.

Gorges also reported that the weather was much colder than they had expected, and they were not sure that the climate was suitable for the English [see Ferdinando Gorges].

However, it is clear that a number of the buildings at Fort St George were built during this time, and that the pinnace Virginia was launched in the spring of 1608. 

Virginia Returning to England

The leaving

There may have been a supply ship in the summer of 1608. This is mentioned by Ferdinando Gorges writing much later. We do not know the name of the ship or the date of arrival, but the ship is unlikely to have arrived before July (11 months after the arrival). This ship would have carried the news of  the death of Sir John Popham 

Mary & John arrived to resupply the colony in mid-September 1608, 13 months after the company’s arrival. With her came the news of the death of  Sir John Gilbert, Raleigh Gilbert’s older brother and President of the Plymouth Company Council. Raleigh Gilbert decided to return to England to settle the probate on his father’s estate and claim his inheritance. He had started life as younger son and had not expected such an inheritance. Mary & John had left England just days after the death of Sir John Gilbert, and they did not know that George Popham had died before they left. It appears that they did not bring any additional settlers to replace those who returned on the Gift of God.

With the representative of the two primary families not available, no other leader was found. The deaths of the major investors in England and no supply ship for nearly a year caused the company to question the continued financial backing for the colony. The company was depleted and fearing another cold winter and continued hostility of the native peoples and the French, they decided to abandon the colony and return to England. In mid-October 1608, the company boarded Mary & John and the new pinnace Virginia and returned to England. The rigging of Virginia may have been modified for the ocean crossing as it was originally constructed for coastal exploration and fishing.

Only a part of the design in the Hunt plan was ever built. The journals talk of digging ditches and making gabions but these will turn to lumps in the ground in a few decades. The storehouse, chapel, and several houses were certainly built, and they might have been partially destroyed by fire. Archaeological exploration over the last 25 years has helped resolve some of this, but much is unknown.

Jane Stevens

After the Popham Colony

Fort St George quickly returned to its wild state after the colony was abandoned, although in the 1650s  some of the fort was still visible, and garden herbs were seen growing there. The Wabanaki told stories of driving off the white men. Sir Francis Popham (son of Sir John Popham) attempted to get funding to reestablish the colony, but he was unable to. He did, however, send fishing vessels to the area every summer starting in 1609. Perhaps the weather was thought too cold for Englishmen, or perhaps the investors had already lost too much money on the enterprise. English fishermen lived on the islands and fished in the Gulf of Maine, but the settling of New England was delayed until it was taken up twelve years later by refugees instead of adventurers.

For the next 150 years, Britain and France fought over control of the area. For the most part, the Wabanaki sided with the French but they often fought each other as surrogates for the Europeans. The Wabanaki population was devastated by European diseases. In 1677 Massachusetts purchased Maine and settled the conflicting claims between the charters to Ferdinando Gorges and the Massachusetts Bay Company. The Wabanaki were left with no rights, not even the minimal sovereignty later granted to tribes. In 1763 the British defeated the French and took control over all of New England and Canada. In 1776 Massachusetts declared independence from Britain but left Maine as a colony of Massachusetts until 1820 when Maine finally became a state.

Fort Popham, a Civil War fort, was built on the eastern promontory 1000 feet from the site of Fort St George. In 1905 Fort Baldwin was built just above the site of Fort St George. Clams and oysters continued to live in the shallow waters off the site, the nearby beach became a tourist attraction, and ships built in Bath loaded with goods from around the world sailed past on the way to and from the open seas.

In 1983 Jane Stevens moved to a house located on the eastern side of the Fort St George site. She became the inspiration for Maine’s First Ship. She died in 2008 soon after the 400th anniversary of the Popham Colony. The shallop and Visitor Center of Maine’s First Ship are named after her.