Archaeology of Fort St George
There are several historical mentions of people visiting the abandoned Popham Colony in the 17th century starting with the Jesuit Pierre Biard in 1611. In the late 17th century the remains were still visible. By the early 19th century historians discussed several possible locations including some on the east side of the Kennebec.
In 1888 the John Hill plan of Fort St George was found in the General Archives in Simancas Spain. The plan had been in the archive for 280 years along with a letter to Phillip III of Spain explaining how it was acquired. This plan is dated to just before the return of the John & Mary, and makes very clear the location of Fort St George at Sabino Point in Popham. The plan fits almost exactly will with geography of the site at Sabino Point.
The fortification on the southeast on the plan is the terminal spur of Sabino Head. There has been some coastal erosion but there is a large reef at the indicated spot to the north of the site, and the areas shown as plantations in the Hunt plan is the only good farmland on Sabino Point. The house in the northeast part of the plan (just east of the President’s House in the plan) was later owned by Jane Stevens, the inspiration and one of the founders of Maine’s First Ship.
There was some concern that the plan was dated only two months after the colony was established, and well before much of it could have been completed.
In the 20th century there was a desire to verify the location using archaeology and to determine how much of it was actually built. The site was excavated several times. This process was hindered by the fact that parts of the site had been heavily modified by erosion and subsequent use (farms, houses, forts). It was aided in that during the 17th and 18th century, the 14 months of the Popham Colony was the only habitation of the area.
In 1962 and 1964 a team under Wendell Hadlock of the Abbe Museum investigated the site, but failed to recognize any of the features of Fort St George in the trenches. They did find a number of 17th century artifacts, but were unable from these to confirm that these were from the Popham Colony.
In 1981 another small investigation was done by Bob Bradley. Again this led to inconclusive results.
Starting in 1994 a team under Jeffrey Brain of the Peabody Essex Museum investigated the site. Like many people he had never heard of the northern sister colony of Jamestown until he saw a historical marker on the site while vacationing in Maine. After doing research he got funding from the National Geographic Society to verify the location, and to determine what was still there. This investigation showed that the site was indeed the location of the Popham Colony. They found a 70cm post hole with a 25cm hand hewed post. This post was likely part of the storehouse which was the first building built at the Popham Colony.
Between 1997 and 2013 the Maine State Museum, the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, and private contributors funded continuing investigations on the site.
In the 1997 dig, aligning the Hunt map to magnetic north (20 degrees off true north) allowed seven more post holes in the storehouse to be found, proving the map to be very accurate (as least for the parts which were actually built). Near the end of the dig they found the original floor of the storehouse with a mixture of charred floor boards, nails, ceramics, beads, lead munitions, iron hardware, and bottle fragments. There was also fallen daub from the walls. This indicates that the construction was timber frame with waddle and dub walls, most likely with a thatch roof. One of the artifacts found in the storehouse was a much corroded caulking iron which is clearly a ship building tool. This
In 1998 a shallow but wide ditch was found in an area which would form a rampart. No palisade or rock fortifications were found. The historical record suggests the colonists constructed willow gabions filled with the spoil from the ditches, which would not survive in the archaeological record.
In the 1999 dig, the excavation was expanded to include the Admiral’s House (3 on the Hunt map) which was the original home of Raleigh Gilbert. This house was found to be about 30 by 12 fee and mad up of four bays in a cruder construction than the storehouse.
In 2000 work continued on the Admiral’s House where a number of high status items were found, such as beads, buttons, ceramics, wine glasses, and pieces of armor. Writing in the 1640s, Fredinando Gorges stated that the storehouse burned during the winter of 1607. The Wabanaki told stories of burning parts of the fort. The archaeological evidence shows that it was the Admiral’s House which burnt based on the melted glass and other burnt artifacts found in this areas. From the extra post holes it appears the structure was rebuilt after the fire.
In 2001 the buttery (8 on the Hunt map) and the attached Corporal’s House were excavated. These appear to have been damaged by the Hadlock excavations in 1962 (a reminder that all archaeological excavations are destructive). A nearly complete wine flask was found in the Buttery. An attempt to find the Provost’s House (9) and Munition Master’s House (6) appear to show that they were never built. A number of 17th century artifacts were found, but not in context (they were most likely moved about by subsequent use of the site). The missing buildings supports the historical record that half the colonists returned to England 5 months after the colony was established.
From 2001 to 2004 excavations east of the storehouse were continued to look fro the Vice Admiral’s House (7). Only possible post holes were found, but a number of high status artifacts were found. The soil in this area shows evidence of intense fire. Below the level containing 17th centry items is a level with charcoal and native artifacts.
This page is still under construction, but if you need more info, you can get the two books below. They are available from Maine’s First Ship, and also from Amazon.
Books about Fort St George by Jeffrey Brain
Archaeological Investigation of the 1607-1608 Popham Colony on the Kennebec River in Maine by Jeffrey Phipps Brain (2007)
Provides historical background and describes the archaeological work on the site before 2007.
Available from Maine’s First Ship.
Additional Archaeological Investigation of the 1607-1608 Popham Colony on the Kennebec River in Maine by Jeffrey Phipps Brain (2016)
Describes additional investigations in the years 2007-2013
Available from Maine’s First Ship.