When I teach the English colonies I tend to follow the same format teachers do all across the United States. Before discussing the original 13 colonies we hit on major firsts for all the heavy-hitting players—Spain’s first settlements, the first settlements for France, and then we begin discussing Roanoke and Jamestown.
What I don’t normally share with students is information regarding Jamestown’s little sister….Popham.
In 1607, thirteen years prior to the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth, Englishmen on behalf of the Virginia Company formed a colony on the shores of New England at the mouth of the Kennebec River. At that time, the mouth of the Kennebec River, near Phippsburg, was not in the state of Maine as it is today but in territory the English identified as Northern Virginia. The colony was short-lived….a little over a year passed before it was abandoned in the fall of 1608.
So why don’t we remember the Popham Colony today?
When studets learn that the Pilgrims founded the FIRST New England colony in 1620, are we merely foisting a lie onto our students?
The reason why the Popham Colony faded in our historical memory has to do with the success, or in this case the lack of success of the colony.
Several important lessons regarding the process of colonization can be learned from the Popham experience, however. The colony did not fail because of massive starvation, sickness, or even Native American troubles though there were those problems to some degree. The Popham Colony failed mainly due to family changes within the ranks of the colony’s leadership.
On May 31, 1607, 100 to 120 colonists left Plymouth in two ships. Their mission was to trade items—precious metals, spices, and furs—and to show that they could build English ships from the natural resources in the area. The expedition leader, George Popham sailed on the ship Gift of God. Good old George received the honor of being the leader of the colony because his uncle was a Virginia Company financial backer, Sir John Popham, who just happened to be Lord Chief Justice of England. George Popham’s second in command, Gilbert Raleigh, was the half nephew of Sir Walter Raleigh. The remaining colonists were mainly soldiers, artisans, farmers, and traders.
Much of what we know about the Popham Colony today resides in a primary document—a diary authored by Robert Davis—the captain of the second ship, the Mary and John, to make the voyage.
Immediately upon landing the colonists built a settlement they named Fort Saint George. We know how the fort was designed because one of the colonists, John Hunt, drew a map. It showed a star-shaped fort with ditches and ramparts. The grounds included a storehouse and chapel plus fifteen additional structures. The fort also had nine guns. The map has a notable history in and of itself as it ended up in the Spanish archives where it was located in 1888. Espionage was hot and heavy during the race to see who could colonize North America first. The map had been passed to King Philip III of Spain in 1608 by the Spanish ambassador, Pedro de Zuniga.
By now you are probably wondering what caused the Popham Colony to fail…..Well, it’s true—the Maine winters were a little too much for them. Any support system the colonists had developed with Native Americans eventually deteriorated which led to the realization that any profitable trade the colonists and financial backers hoped for never materialized.
Half of the colonists returned to England in December, 1607.
George Popham died in 1608 leaving Raleigh Gilbert in command. Apparently Gilbert didn’t have what it took to lead a fledgling colony plus he soon learned he had inherited his family’s estate, so he returned to England. The remaining colonists would not stay without Gilbert and made plans to leave with him.
…and what about the dream to construct ships from the Maine forests? In this the Popham Colony was somewhat successful. Led by their shipwright, Digby, they constructed a 30-ton pinnace they christened Virginia---the first English ship built in Maine and probably in all of North America.
Some of the colonists returned to England along with Raleigh Gilbert on the Mary and John while others sailed aboard the pinnace, Virginia.
So, the Pilgrims weren’t the first New Englanders….they were merely the first New Englanders who stayed.
.....and anyway...Popham Beach doesn’t have the same ring to it as Plymouth Rock, does it?
This website explains how people today are attempting to recreate the Virginia.
The exact site of the Popham Colony was lost until its rediscovery in 1994. Much of this historical location is now part of Maine's Popham Beach State Park.
Here are some interesting links regarding Popham Colony: This site discusses the archeology at the Popham site, the Archaeology Channel shares some information, and there is an informative article here.