An In-Context Design of Maine’s First Ship

John W. Bradford


The pinnace Virginia was built in 1607-1608 by the Popham colonists at the mouth of Maine’s Kennebec River, an area and river then known as Sagadahoc. Her original purpose was to meet the various demands of coastal exploration, trade, and even fishing. When the colony dissolved in the fall of 1608, however, her rig had to be altered to meet the challenges of an Atlantic crossing and assist the colonists' return to England.

Though dozens of other vessels of assorted sizes had been built by Europeans in the New World by that time, and by the Spanish in particular, Virginia remains England’s, and possibly Europe’s, first documented Atlantic crossing by such a vessel. Shortly afterward in May 1609, she became part of a nine-vessel resupply convoy headed for the Jamestown Colony, completing her second Atlantic crossing the following September. Virginia’s history truly honors the start of Mane’s long and storied 400-year shipbuilding tradition and is a tangible and extraordinary link to our country’s early formation.

As England entered the 17th century, most shipwrights served long apprenticeships. They were learning a remarkably complicated technology that was passed orally to each succeeding generation and kept carefully protected from the competition. Time was needed to master the depth of knowledge and skills required to operate independently, not least because Elizabethan and Jacobean ships and their predecessors were constructed with very few straight timbers. Subsequently, just as there was little formal education, there was generally little incentive to experiment with what was known to work. That was about to change.

By 1600, two factors that would influence ship design were gaining prominence. First, the parameters and proportions used in shipbuilding were finally being written down for all to see and use. Second, the application of increasingly complex mathematical knowledge was beginning to open new doors. For the first time, contemporary design and construction information for building a ship of, say, 500 tuns was theoretically available. If one wished to build a larger or smaller vessel, it could be sized in proportion to the 500-tun “example” by using the guiding parameters expressed in the manuscripts. (In 1607 a "tun” represented, as it does today, a barrel holding 252 gallons of wine. The size of a 17th-century vessel was expressed in "tuns” or “tunnes” of capacity).

In addition, with the expanding growth of mathematical knowledge and its application, the transition from shipwright traditions to the science of naval architecture was well underway.

These original resources were used in our search to place Virginia’s design in the initial stages of this transition and in her proper 1607 context. Yet there still were many times, especially when building smaller vessels like Virginia, that those objective proportions, parameters, and mathematics became subjective. At that point the shipwright’s experienced “eye” and judgment became paramount once again.

During the 20th century, the research and application of Elizabethan and Jacobean shipbuilding information conducted by naval architect William A. Baker stands above all others. In addition to his numerous publications, his major reconstruction designs include Plimouth Plantation’s Mayflower II, the 1609-10 Deliverance in Bermuda, the 1586 Elizabeth II at Roanoke Island Festival Park, and the John Howland Society’s 1628 shallop Elizabeth Tilley. He also provided the research for Jan Bijhouwer’s lines drawing and Carl Langbehn’s construction of an excellent model of the pinnace Virginia commemorating the Popham Colony’s 350 anniversary in 1957. This model may be found at the Maine's First Ship Jane Stevens Visitor Center in Bath Maine.

R. C. Anderson, editor of A Treatise on Rigging, is certainly a close “second” to William Baker’s influence. His Seventeenth Century Rigging, adapted from his seminal The Rigging of Ships, 1600-1720, is devoted solely to English rigging in that period. Also, during the 1920s, based on his own research, he completed a magnificent model of Mayflower on display at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

James Lees’ extremely Borough The Masting and Rigging of English Ships of War 1625-1860 is an excellent resource, providing important details that both supplement and confirm Anderson’s work.

Underwater archaeology also continues to be a vital resource contributing to our knowledge of early shipbuilding throughout the world. Those projects that have assisted us include England’s 700-tun Mary Rose, which swamped and sank in 1545 and is now on view in Portsmouth, England; the 290-tun Sea Venture, sunk by a hurricane off Bermuda in 1609; Sparrow Hawk, a 25-tun vessel carrying 26 people to the New World that was wrecked on Cape Cod’s Chatham Bar in 1626; and even the Massachusetts-built privateer Defence, built and scuttled by the Americans in 1779 off Castine, Maine, to avoid capture by the British.

In the course of our research, we observed and photographed a number of reconstructions from Virginia’s era. Jamestown’s Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery were visited in 2001. David Wyman and I traveled to Plimouth Plantation to look over Mayflower II and her pinnace; on to Delaware and Maryland to see the Swedish ship Kalmar Nyckel and Maryland Dove, both of the 1630s, and then to Roanoke, North Carolina, to see the 1587 Elizabeth II. David and Rob Stevens also traveled aboard the Pilgrims’ replica shallop, Elizabeth Tilley, originally used during the 1630s at their trading post on the Kennebec in what is now Augusta, Maine.

Given the Popham Colony’s intent to build the first of what was hoped to be many New World vessels, we have concentrated almost exclusively on documented English shipbuilding methods of that period. For comparison purposes, however, we also used Palacio’s Instruccion Nautica of 1587, a fascinating look at Spanish navigation and shipbuilding during that period, translated by J. Bankston.

By 1600, the various skills and methods required to build ships had been evolving for centuries over much of the world. Eastern Asia, the tideless Mediterranean basin, and northern Europe had separate approaches toward shipbuilding as well as similarities. Nor were these areas necessarily provincial. England’s master shipwright, Matthew Baker, was both trained in and fully conversant with late 16th century Mediterranean shipbuilding methods and their mathematical development and application.

But nothing is static, especially shipbuilding. Although England took the western European shipbuilding lead from Spain after the 1588 Armada fiasco, Dutch and Swedish technology would take their own turns by the 1620s. Certainly each borrowed and learned from the others. We hope that our approach serves as an organized reference for future projects such as Maine’s First Ship.

Virginia’s World

In late August 1607, Mary and John and Gift of God arrived at the mouth of Maine’s Kennebec River carrying 120 men and supplies from the west of England. Just three months after their sister colony was formed at Jamestown, they began constructing Fort St. George, the first English colony in today’s New England. Both colonies were incorporated under “Letters Patent” forming the Virginia Company and granted by James I of England on April 10, 1606. Each colony held rights to land that England claimed in the New World, known as Virginia Britannia, which stretched from today’s North Carolina into Nova Scotia. What we now refer to as the Popham Colony began in what was then North Virginia with high expectations and evidence of careful planning.

Immediately after landing, they began constructing their fort, and the ship’s carpenters “went about the building of a small pinnace or shallop” a so-called “kit” boat commonly carried over in sections and quickly assembled. But clouds were already forming. Unknown to the colonists, their primary financial backer, King James I’s Chief Justice, Sir John Popham, had died just a week after their May 31st departure from England.

Having unloaded her supplies into the new storehouse, and as directed, Mary and John left the colony for England in early October. Unfortunately, she was returning with little to satisfy the colony’s other investors, then known as Adventurers.

After her departure, the carpenters framed a “pretty Pynnace of about some thirty tonne which they called Virginia the chief ship wright beinge one Digby of London”. But in mid-December, because of limited food stocks, about 50 colonists were put aboard Gift of God and returned to England. And later during a brutally severe winters the colony’s president died. George Popham was a man who, physically, may have been much older than his years. He was replaced by Raleigh Gilbert, the colony’s admiral (second in command). Gilbert was in his mid-twenties and youngest son of the once volatile Sir Humphrey Gilbert.

Mary and John then returned to the colony in early September 1608 with the news that Gilbert had inherited his family’s estate and must return to claim it. The resulting lack of leadership and financial support, combined with insufficient financial return for the remaining investors, each played their role in the colony’s demise.

And so, just a little over a year after arriving, the colonists loaded up Mary and John plus their new pinnace, Virginia, and by December 1, 1608, both vessels had reached Plymouth, England. Longtime organizer and investor Sir Ferdinando Gorges was to call this woeful collapse a “wonderful discouragement to all”.

In May 1609, Virginia was one of two vessels leased by Sir George Sorners, Jamestown’s new admiral, as part of a nine-vessel convoy carrying supplies to that colony. Her captain and master were James Davies and Robert Davies, respectively, both former officers at Popham. One week out she “bare up for England,” a fact that remains unexplained. The other eight vessels ran into a hurricane at the end of July, losing their lead vessel, her Venture, and a “catch” she was towing, off St. George, Bermuda. The remaining six vessels (including the second vessel leased by Somers) reached Jamestown in mid-August. In mid-September Virginia finally arrived carrying “16 proper men [soldiers] more,” who were immediately stationed in Fort Algemoun at the mouth of the James River. Virginia’ s passage appears to have turned into a solo crossing, but where had she been? Did she really return to England, or, instead, considering who was aboard and the practice that was then common, did she perhaps indulge in a bit of privateering?

Virginia then supported the colony at Jamestown throughout the catastrophic “starving time” winter and spring of 1609 - 10. But after her return from an unsuccessful fishing expedition into Chesapeake Bay in late June 1610, apart from rumor, no further documentation has been found.

John Hunt plan of Fort St George (1607) with modern text

Using what proved to be a remarkably accurate plan of the colony’s Fort St. George drafted on site by one John Hunt in 1607, archaeologist Jeffrey P. Brain confounded the skeptics and confirmed the little-known colony’s physical location in 1997. Eleven succeeding digs through 2010 have provided continuing evidence that funds were invested where their needs were most critical. For instance, the remains of no other structure yet uncovered has approached the quality of the storehouse. their largest and most important building.

Virginia was described as a “pretty Pynnace” by William Strachey, who must have seen her at Jamestown. Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who almost certainly saw her upon her return to England, called her a “pretty barke” — the archaic definition of “pretty” meaning strong and well-built. Aside from her name and estimated size, the fact that she made at least two transatlantic voyages, and a contemporary sketch of a pinnace-like vessel shown in Hunt’s plan of Fort St. George (assuming it is Virginia ) , nothing further is known. There is always the hope that future research will give us more information. Her history and durability, however, confirm that Virginia’s value to the Popham Colony was ensured with the same high-quality construction as the colony’s storehouse.

Where “Digby of London”, the colony’s shipwright, fit into this world is unknown, and efforts to trace him have so far been unsuccessful. Given his London background, however, he would have been somewhat exposed to the strong Dutch shipbuilding influence. Dutch “Eel Ships” were often at work on the Thames under treaty with Holland, and Digby could have adopted some of their features. If he learned his trade in the traditional manner described above. However, it is most unlikely that he built Virginia from plans. He needed to know only her size and, more importantly, how and where she was to be employed; his shipbuilding experience and knowledge of proportions would have supplied the rest. Therefore, we have tried to put ourselves into Digby’s head as he built her by studying those contemporaneous manuscripts and supporting research that were beginning to record—both in writing and mathematically— the sort of knowledge Digby possessed. We acknowledge the possibility that he may have used an early form of a process that later became known as whole-molding to replicate a previously built vessel, especially a small one like Virginia. Our priority, however, was to re-create how molding proportions leading to a successful 17th century design were formed in the first place.

With the exception of a relatively few items for which no data or guidance has been found, and those features governed by today’s safety requirements, our design details for Virginia’s reconstruction can be traced directly to early-17th-century England. Just the same, we have kept very much in mind that Queen Elizabeth’s shipwright, Matthew Baker, was scornful of those who said there was nothing to shipbuilding but the law of cubes. The “eye” was, and sometimes still is, very much the master.

To purists, calling our Virginia a “ship” stretches that term’s usual definition as much in the 17th century as in ours. On the other hand, there is no question that she capably performed the duties of a small ship with her two transatlantic crossings. We feel that calling her thus is justified.

Finally, Virginia's redesign has purposefully kept some attributes of the small pinnace shown on John Hunt’s plan of Fort St. George. Therefore, she’s a single-deck, high-sided. shallow-draft, square-sterned hull carrying just a sprits’l and heads’l for her coastal rig. You will not, however, be able to see both sides of our Virginia’s bow and stern at one time, as Hunt’s sketch would have us believe!

This page is from the introduction to the book “The 1607 Popham Colony’s Pinnace Virginia” by John W Bradford (2011). ISBN 978-1-036557-73-2.  It is available at the Maine’s First Ship Jane Stevens Visitor Center in the Bath Freight Shed.