John Hunt's plan of Fort St George (1607)

On October 8, 1607, seven weeks after the establishment of the Popham Colony, John Hunt completed the plan (draught) of Fort St George.  This plan was returned to England on the Mary and John left for England on that same day.  It appears that John Hunt returned with this map, probably leaving a copy with George Popham, president of the Popham Colony.  No copy of the plan was ever found in England, and indeed we do not have a similar plan for any early English settlement in the Americas. Very little of the plan could have been completed before the plan was sent to England.

The plan was found in 1888 by the historian Alexander Brown in the Simancas Archive in Spain.  Along with it were found letters between Don Pedro Zuñiga (Spain’s ambassador to England) and Spain’s King Phillip III concerning the plan.  Prior to finding this plan, the exact location of the Popham Colony was not known, but this plan exactly matches the geography of Sabino Head.  Archaeological excavations between 1994 and 2013 by Jeffrey Brain confirmed the location, and proved the accuracy of the plan, at least for those portions that were built.

hunt map
John Hunt plan of Fort St George - scan from Simancas Archive (1998)

Three copies of the plan are known, two drawings of the plan were done in 1888 (for Alexander Brown) and 1890 (for Henry Thayer), and a scan done in 1998 for Jeffrey Brain.. The original is 289mm by 429mm (11.4 by 16.8 inches) including the backing.  The map is oriented with magnetic north to the left (which in Maine is about 20 degrees east of true north). 

An image of the plan with the text modernized makes it easier to read the markers. 

Hunt plan with modern text

Who was John Hunt

John Hunte map of Cork Ireland 1612

We know little of the identity of John Hunt, but we can tell from the plan that he was an excellent draftsman. As many of the principal colonists were related to either the Popham or Gilbert families we assume that he was as well.  But where he came from, his age, and where he went afterwards, is not known.  A map of Cork Ireland from 1612 by John Hunte may also be by him.  Because of the parent Plymouth Company’s tight rein on costs, we assume that Hunt was only employed to create his plan and then return to England on the first available ship.

The archaeological excavations by Jeffrey Brain have shown that Hunt was an exceptionally accomplished draftsman.  His scale, conformity to topography, and construction detail have proved to be very accurate.  However, should not forget that most of what is shown on this plan was not been built (or even started) when this plan was send to England with the Mary and John.  As the colony only existed for 14 months, and for 10 of those months with a very small company, we must assume that much of the plan was never built.  Where buildings have been found in the archaeology, they do conform to this plan.

Description of the plan

As was the custom at the time, the plan shows a three dimensional view of the fort.  Using the store house (5) as an example, the entire eastern side is shown giving the building’s length, as well as the northern end giving the building’s width and height.  This technique does not use perspective as is used in modern drawings.

In the plan, Fort St George has two sections: the citadel and the fort. The narrow citadel is located at the highest point and is the terminus of Sabino Head.  It contains the president’s house and several guns, a demi-culverino (9-pound ball), and two sakers (5-pound ball). The entrance is to a gate in the north wall, next to the postern gate on the east side of the fort. In modern times, the postern gate is the road into the site, and Fort Baldwin was built above the citadel with 20th century large guns pointing out over the mouth of the Kennebec River. It is not clear what these guns on the citadel could have been used for in the 17th century as the harbor it overlooks is not deep enough for any large vessel, and the citadel is itself vulnerable to an attack from land. That the plan found its way to the Spanish royal archives but nowhere in England raises the possibility that it was at least partially created as propaganda, showing a much more defended location than would ever be built.

The remainder of the plan describes the fort.  Trenches run along the south and western sides, and cliffs protect the northern and eastern sides.  The stone fortifications are shown with 3 to 7 courses of stone.  The cliffs do respect the current shoreline, and shallow ditches were found along the areas marked as trenches.  However, no stonework was found in either location in the archaeology, and most likely only gabion style defenses existed.  Gabions are wicker cylinders filled with dirt from the ditches which would not appear in the archaeological record. Six more guns are shown in the plan.  However, we do not know how many guns were placed in the fort.  There is evidence for some, but they would have been removed when the colony was abandoned.

The buildings on the site include common buildings (chapel, munition house, store house, buttery, and kitchen), officer houses, and private lodgings.  It is likely that many of the private lodgings were not built as the company was reduced by 50 men in December 1607.  Many of the buildings have dotted lines around them which most likely indicates fencing.  The small stream (labeled Lake) still exists at the site but has very little flow except right after rain as it drains part of Sabino Head.

Most of the buildings depicted in the plan seem to be timber-frame construction filled with waddle and daub with thatch roofs. This is confirmed by the archaeology for the buildings which were found. The various storage buildings do not have chimneys, but other buildings have either a central or gable end chimney.

On the north side a jetty is shown.  The pier for Fort Baldwin was put at this point in 1905 as it is the nearest point to deep water. The water to the west of the site is Atkins Bay is very shallow.  There is about an 8 foot tidal range today and it was presumably the same 400 years ago.  At high tide the water is very near the cliffs, but there is a noticeable but rocky beach at low tide.

The plan shows a pinnace with coastal rigging adjacent to the jetty which appears to be Virginia.  Of course when this plan was drawn work was just beginning on Virginia.  The area of the beach just beyond the water gate (19) has a 50 foot section that could be modified into a semi dry dock.  The most likely locations for the construction of Virginia are in this area or on the adjacent jetty.

Significance of the Hunt plan

The Popham Colony site is very important for understanding the early colonization of North America.  While much investigation has been done in Jamestown, its history is continuous, and very little is known about its early layout.  There are no drawings of what they planned to build, or what was built, and often the same location was built over many times in a small number of years.  It is impossible to say if artifacts came from 1607, 1617, or 1627 even if they are found in context.

Jeffrey Brain called John Hunt’s plan a visual time capsule as is the site itself.  As the colony only lasted 14 months and the site was unused for the next 150 years, if a building is found at the location shown on the Hunt plan, we know what the building was used for.  If a 17th century artifact appears in context, we know it is from 1607.  Unfortunately, the site was significantly modified in the 19th and 20th centuries as two forts, farms, houses, roads, and parking lots were built there.  

See Fort St George Archaeology for more about the archaeological excavations of the Popham Colony site.

The Fort St George site today

It is still possible to map the location of Fort St George onto the current landscape of the site, but it has been heavily modified. The land was farmed starting in the 18th century. In the 19th century, several houses were built on the east side of the site and a Civil War fort was built on the adjacent headland. In the early 20th century Fort Baldwin was built on Sabino Point just south of the site and the jetty was extended to a wharf with a road built across the site. The parking lot for Fort Baldwin State Historic Site covers the southwest portion of the site.

The area on the east side of the jetty, which is the most likely location for Virginia to have been built, is much the same as 400 years ago. A bit of grass clings to the rocks and the bay covers the area at spring high tide.

Only a flagpole, a small historic marker, two information panels, and a lonely picnic table mark the site today.

Northwest section of the site. The flagpole is in the area of the storehouse. The gap in the fence is the location of the water gate on the plan.
The jetty on the north side of the site at low tide. This was heavily modified for a road and wharf in 1905. Looking north up the Kennebec.
The east side of the jetty is a likely location for building Virginia. This area is wet at spring tides but could have been modified to a semi-dry dock.

Additional information and original documents

In this book published in 1892, Henry Thayer collected all of the documents known at the time concerning the Popham Colony. This includes the first publication of the Lambeth MS (aka The Davies Journal).

In this book published in 1890, Alexander Brown gathers all of the documents known at the time about the early English settlement of the area which would become the United States. The two volumes cover most of the 17th century. 

The first time period covers the Jamestown and Popham settlements.

Contains excepts of letters between King Philip III of Spain and Don Pedro de Zúñiga, Spanish ambassador to England. They were found in the General Archives of Simancas Spain. Along with these letters was the John Hunt plan of Fort St George. 

These letters show that the Spanish had spies in high places in the English court and in the major English ports. The information in the letters also indicates that the English (who also had spies in the Spanish court) knew these spies and in some cases fed them misleading information.