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 war with Spain.

In April 1606, James I issued a charter for the Virginia Company with the purpose of exploiting 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 locate between 34 and 41 degrees latitude (mid South Carolina to Connecticut) and the Plymouth Company was to locate between 38 and 45 degrees (Delaware to Nova Scotia).

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.

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 a number of small investors from southwest England.  There effort started with two exploratory voyages to the Maine coast in 1605.  The first never made it; the second lead by George Weymouth explored the Maine coast and determined that a site at the mouth of the Sagadahoc River would be best for a settlement. While George Weymouth was in near Pemaquid he abducted 5 natives and returned with them to England.

George Popham (Sir John’s nephew) was chosen as President of the colony.  Raleigh Gilbert was chosen as Admiral (second in command).  Popham was in his 50s and described as a gentle man.  Gilbert in his 20s and more of an adventurer.

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

The voyage

On May 31, 1607 two vessels, the Mary & John commanded by Raleigh Gilbert, and the Gift of God, owned by the Popham family and commanded by George Popham, left Plymouth in Engiand for North America.  Aboard were roughly 100 colonists, all men and boys.  These were selected with 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.  Two of the Wabanaki abducted by Weymouth, Dehamda and Skitwarres, returned with these ships as native guides.  The charter called for 3 ships and 150 men, so they were already short staffed.   

On July 31, 1607 the 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 has set up a cross marker two years earlier.  From there they rowed ths 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.  The 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 lead 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 had 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.

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.

On October 8th Mary & John returned to England.  The author of the journal left with this ship.  On board was also the map showing the layout of Fort St George and probably the cartographer John Hunt who created it.  This map is not recorded as ever being seen in England, but was sent to Spain’s King Philip III.  It was found 280 years later (in 1888) in the Spanish Archives at Simancas.

George Popham ordered the Gift of God to remain after being unloaded to help with the defense of the colony from attacks by the French.  By mid-December the Gift of God was loaded with some staves (spars and masts) to return to England.  There was not enough food to last the winter for the whole company, and so 50 were chosen to return to England, thus leaving only about 50 men at the colony.  There was also not enough food on theGift of God either. The crew nearly starved and had to sell their cargo in the Azores to make it back to England.

George Popham sent along a hopeful letter to King James saying that there was 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.

It is assumed that by December 1607 Virginia was substantially completed.  Stories indicate at an additional shallop was built as well.

Archaeological excavations show that iron was smelted on the site, most likely from bog-iron.  This makes this the earliest example of iron smelting north of the Rio Grande other than some 11th century Norse sites in Labrador.

Raleigh Gilbert

The decline of the Popham 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, the 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 to the English.

In May 1608, two supply vessels arrived, but also carried with them the news that Sir John Popham (the patron of the Plymouth Company) had died shortly after the colonists had left England.  Thus his son Sir Francis Popham and Sir Ferdinando Gorges assumed primary responsibility of oversight of the Popham Colony, but they had far less influence with the king and the investors.  The two vessels returned to England, but we do not know what cargo they carried.,

Virginia Returning to England

The leaving

The Mary & John arrived to resupply the colony in mid-September 1608 and brought more bad news.  Sir John Gilbert, Raleigh Gilbert’s older brother and President of the Plymouth Company Council had died.  Raleigh Gilbert decided to return to England a claim his inheritance.

No other leader was found.  The company was depleted and fearing another cold winter and continued hostility of the native peoples and the French, they decided to disband the colony and return to England.  In mid-October 1608, the company boarded the Mary & John and the pinnace Virginia and returned to England.  It is likely the rigging of Virginia was modified for the ocean crossing as it was constructed for coastal exploration and fishing.

It is likely that 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 and housing were certainly built, and might have been partially destroyed by fire.  Archaeological exploration over the last 25 years have 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 dissolved, 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 attempted to get funding to reestablish the colony, but he was unable to.  Perhaps the weather was thought too cold for Englishmen, or perhaps the investors had already lost too much money on the enterprise.  The settling of America was delayed until it was taken up 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 its colony 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 sailed past on the way to the open seas.

In 1983 Jane Stevens moved to a house located on the northeastern corner 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.