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Effort To Colonize Maine

Thousands of Indians lived in Maine when France and England began their exploration of the area. Some of those tribes were the Abenaki, Etchemin, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Indians. In 1498, France sent many explorers to Maine. They claimed the area of Canada and Maine, calling it Acadia. In 1604, the first French colony was established on the St. Croix River.

The effort to colonize Maine started in 1605 when Sir Ferdinando Gorges sponsored George Weymouth on a voyage to explore the area. On his return, Weymouth gave his destination a passing grade. On the strength of Weymouth's recommendation, Gorges became one of the main shareholders in the Virginia Company of Plymouth. The other important shareholder was Sir John Popham, the Lord Chief Justice of England. While Gorges sent a second exploring ship in 1606 with instructions to look for a colony site, Popham's son George was selected to lead the colony. The next year he and two ships - Gift of God and the Mary and John - left for Maine with 120 settlers and their equipment.

Colonists from England established Popham Colony near the mouth of the Kennebec River. In 1622, England gave the land of Maine and New Hampshire to Fernando Gorges and John Mason. The land was divided between the two men in 1629, and Maine was given to Gorges. Massachusetts bought Maine in 1677, from the heirs of Gorges after his death.

Plymouth Company was one of two joint-stock companies chartered in England, April 10, 1606, to colonize in North America. The other company was the London Company. The Plymouth Co. was formed by George Popham and Sir Ferdinando Gorges. A first band of colonists set out from England and was captured by the Spanish. The second group of colonists, numbering 120, left England in 1607 and settled on the west bank of the Kennebec River, near what is now Popham Beach, Maine. In 1620 the Plymouth Co. was reorganized as the Council for New England, which was disbanded in 1635.

George Popham was born in southwestern England. As an associate of the English colonizer Sir Ferdinando Gorges in a colonization scheme for a part of Maine, he sailed from Plymouth in 1607 with two ships and about 120 people and landed in August at the mouth of the Kennebec River. He established the first English settlement in New England, building a storehouse and a fortification that was called Fort Popham. Popham was elected president of the new colony but died the following year, and the colonists, becoming disheartened by the severity of the climate, returned in the spring to England.

Not far from Portland along Maine's winding coast, someone has placed a neatly lettered sign on an otherwise undistinguished boulder. It reads: Popham Rock 1607. A play on Plymouth Rock 1620, some 200 miles south? Not entirely. A colony called Popham actually did precede the renowned Massachusetts settlement. "Popham was the cornerstone in the foundation of English America," says Jeffrey P. Brain, 64, an archaeologist with the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, who is excavating the site of the forgotten colony. "The lessons learned were important to the later success of the Pilgrims."

Popham's value lies in its failure. Its remains, discovered only nine years ago, have been called one of the most significant archaeological sites in the country. Unlike Jamestown, Popham's successful sister colony in Virginia, whose footprint changed as it developed, Popham represents a unique, undisturbed time capsule of a very early North American settlement.

Each September since 1997, Brain has enlisted a few colleagues and some 30 volunteers and amateur archaeologists to work for three weeks at the mouth of the Kennebec River, about 25 miles northeast of Portland. This year's team included an epidemiologist, an engineer, a nurse, a sociology professor and a historian from England. Popham was named after its principal financial backer, Sir John Popham, and his nephew George Popham, the colony's president.

It was founded about 20 years after Sir Walter Raleigh's North Carolina colony disappeared in the 1580s, when, as the economic race with France and Spain heated up, England made another attempt to plant its flag in the New World. In 1606, James I granted a charter to a joint stock company to establish two colonies, one, Jamestown, on the southern Atlantic Coast, and the other, Popham, on the northern.

On May 31, 1607, about 100 men and boys set sail for the northerly destination. Discharged soldiers made up most of the colonists' ranks, but shipwrights, coopers, carpenters and a smattering of "gentlemen of quality" rounded them out. About three months later, the group landed on a wooded peninsula where the Kennebec River meets the Atlantic Ocean, and began building Fort St. George. In December, with winter coming and food scarce, half of the colonists returned to England. The next fall, after erecting several buildings, the remaining 45 sailed home.

Popham's rediscovery came about by two events a century apart. In 1888, a researcher for an American diplomat happened upon a map of Fort St. George in government archives in Madrid. Drawn and signed by Popham colonist John Hunt, it was likely snatched, or copied, by a Spanish spy soon after it arrived in England in 1608.

The only known detailed plan of an early English colony, the map contains sketches of trenched ramparts, a storehouse, a chapel and various buildings—in all, more than 15 structures. Though published in 1890, the map provoked little interest for 100 years, until Brain came upon a mention of the lost colony while vacationing in Maine. At first "I thought it was some sort of local mythology," he says. "But it was historically known, and I decided it was time to look for it archaeologically."

Research led him to Hunt's map, which took him to Sabino Head, a windy promontory on the Kennebec. Topographical features seemed to match Fort St. George's modified star-shaped contours. Conducting a test excavation on the area in 1994, Brain and his team found a posthole after several weeks of digging. Baffled by not finding more postholes, he "fiddled with the map," rotated it 20 degrees and came up with a dead-on match with the landscape. "It was a eureka moment," he recalls. Soon the crew was "turning up one after another" of the three-foot-wide pine mold-filled holes, eventually 19 in all, outlining the 69-by-20-foot storehouse that Hunt had depicted on his blueprint almost 400 years before.

City of Ships

Crossing the Kennebec River into Bath, you immediately notice “Number Eleven,” a fourhundred-foot-tall red-and-white-striped crane that dominates the low, leafy town. This landmark may be rather homely, but it signals the shipbuilding prowess that distinguishes Bath from its quainter lobstering neighbors along the Maine coastline. Known for years as the City of Ships, Bath has launched more oceangoing vessels from its milelong riverfront stretch than any other area of comparable size in the world.

Men of Bath were building ships even before the landing of the Mayflower, but their first vessel was the product of desperation rather than commercial enterprise. In August 1607 Sir George Popham, accompanied by 120 male settlers, landed on the Phippsburg Peninsula and there established the first colony in New England.

The colonists were greeted by a warm and pristine coastline, but the inviting landscape soon gave way to a harsh, bitterly cold nightmare as winter came down. Freezing and afflicted by disease, many of the men died, including Sir George, while the remainder battled starvation. Robbed of their leader and fearful of spending another winter in the colony, the survivors constructed the thirty-ton pinnace Virginia and set sail for England in 1608, after barely a year in the New World.

Although the Popham colony failed, it lives on in maritime history as the site of the first oceangoing vessel made by Englishmen in the New World. Fishermen returned to the area within ten years or so, drawn by the Kennebec River, a major trade route, which has supported the shipbuilding industry ever since. Settlers in the Bath area found the river’s deep harbor and broad waterfront ideal for sending ships down the ways; they also prized the hundreds of square miles of timber—their main raw material—that extended beyond their back doors.

Archaeologists are still not sure how many of the map's structures were actually built, but so far, in addition to the storehouse, they've located parts of the trench wall and the "Admirals howse," and they have leads on the buttery, a storehouse for wine and liquor. During the second week of this year's dig, Kathy Bugbee, a retiree from Southport, Maine, unearthed an inch-long piece of decorated stoneware. A digger for seven years, she recognized the brown glazed fragment as part of a Bellarmine jug, a German-made container used throughout Europe to store liquor in the 16th and 17th centuries. In his on-site cache of artifacts, Brain found a wedge of Bellarmine that he had assembled from other fragments two years earlier. Bugbee's find slid easily into a gap in the piece to reveal a medallion motif. The jug's embossed seal reads: "1599."

In addition to Bellarmine, the site has yielded other ceramics, clay tobacco pipes, glass trading beads, bullets and tools, including a caulking iron, used in shipbuilding. The Popham settlers did succeed in constructing the Virginia, a small but durable vessel that would take them back to England and later make other transatlantic voyages.

At the admiral's house, the archaeological team turned up shards of delftware, more Bellarmine, fancy buttons, bits of etched wine glasses and jet beads—all reflecting the occupants' upper-class rank. The main reason for abandoning the colony, Brain theorizes, was a loss of leadership. Only one member of the group, George Popham, is known to have died at Fort St. George. (Jamestown lost more than half of its 120 settlers the first year.) But he was the colony's president, and on February 5, 1608, Raleigh Gilbert took command. Just 25, Gilbert was, according to one investor, "desirous of supremasy," "a loose life," with "litle zeale in Religion." Six months later, a resupply ship brought Gilbert news that he had inherited a title and an estate back in England. When Gilbert decided to return to England to collect, the others headed back with him. "They were headless, so to speak," Brain says. "English society was very stratified; people needed leaders." Bad relations with the Indians, the fear of another severe winter and the area's lack of easily exploitable resources, such as gold or other precious metals, also affected the decision to abandon Popham.

Most of the returned settlers disappeared into history; a few crossed the Atlantic again to try their hand at Jamestown. The Pilgrims who arrived 12 years later, landing at Plymouth, had obviously learned some lessons from Popham. "They settled farther south in a milder climate that was more familiar to them and more conducive to agriculture," says Brain. "They tried harder to work with the Indians. They also brought women and children. Luck had a lot to do with these early ventures," Brain adds, explaining that Jamestown, too, almost failed. Hit hard by disease and starvation, the 50 or so remaining settlers abandoned the colony in the spring of 1610 and were sailing home when they encountered a relief fleet and a new governor, who ordered them back to Jamestown.

Myron Beckenstein. Maine's Lost Colony. Smithsonian . February 2004.


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Along The Atlantic Coast | St. Augustine, The First Permanent European Settlement | Chesapeake Colonies | New England Colonies | The Puritan Experiment | Effort To Colonize Maine | Middle Colonies | The Middle Colonies Also Frustrated English Visions Of An Empire Responsive To Command | Virginia English Colony On The Banks Of The James River | Southern Colonies | The Plantation System | The Colonies Swarmed With Rogues, Tricksters, Impostors, And Con Men | Anglo–Powhatan War | The New World
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