School textbooks usually state that the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts was the first English colony in the New World. In actuality, Jamestown in Virginia was the first permanent colony. The Plymouth colony wasn’t even the first English colony in New England, Fort Saint George in Maine (also known as the Popham Colony) takes that honor.
The Popham Colony (also known as the Sagadahoc Colony) was a short-lived English colonial settlement in North America that was founded in 1607 and located in the present-day town of Phippsburg, Maine near the mouth of the Kennebec River by the proprietary Virginia Company of Plymouth. It was founded a few months after, and in the same year as, its more successful rival, the colony at Jamestown, which was established on May 4, 1607 by the Virginia Company of London in present-day James City County, Virginia.
The Popham Colony was the first colony in the region that would eventually become known as New England, coming five years after a short encampment on Cuttyhunk. The colony was abandoned after only one year, apparently more due to family changes in the leadership ranks than lack of success in the New World. The loss of life of the colonists in 1607 and 1608 at Popham was far lower than that experienced at Jamestown.
The first ship built by the English in the New World was completed during the year of the Popham Colony and was sailed back across the Atlantic Ocean to England. The pinnace, named Virginia of Sagadahoc, was apparently quite seaworthy, and crossed the Atlantic again successfully in 1609 as part of Sir Christopher Newport’s nine vessel Third Supply mission to Jamestown. The tiny Virginia survived a massive three day storm en route which was thought to have been a hurricane and which wrecked the mission’s large new flagship Sea Venture on Bermuda.
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.
Popham was a project of the Plymouth Company, which was one of the two competing parts of the proprietary Virginia Company that King James had chartered in 1606 to raise private funds from investors in order to settle Virginia. At the time, the name “Virginia” applied to the entire northeast coast of North America from Spanish Florida to New France in modern-day Canada. At the time that area was technically under the claim of Spanish crown, but was not occupied by the Spanish.
The Plymouth Company was granted a royal charter and the rights to the coast between 38° to 45° N; the rival London Company was granted the coast between 34° and 41° N. The colonists were to plant first within their respective non-overlapping areas; the overlapping area between 38° and 41° would then go to the first company that proved “strong enough” to colonize it.
The first Plymouth Company ship, Richard, sailed in August 1606 but the Spanish intercepted and captured it near Florida in November.
The next attempt was more successful. About 120 colonists left Plymouth on May 31, 1607 in two ships. They intended to trade precious metals, spices, furs, and show that the local forests could be used to build English ships. Colony leader George Popham sailed aboard the Gift of God with Raleigh Gilbert as second-in-command. The captain of the latter ship, Robert Davies, kept a diary that is one of the main contemporary sources of the information about the Popham Colony.
George Popham was the nephew of one of the financial backers of the colony, Sir John Popham, the Lord Chief Justice of England, while Gilbert was son of Sir Humphrey Gilbert and half nephew of Sir Walter Raleigh. Other financiers included Sir Ferdinando Gorges, the military governor of Plymouth; much of the information about the events in the colony comes from his letters and memoirs. Settlers included the Reverend Richard Seymour, grandson of Sir Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and brother to Jane Seymour; nine council members and 6 other gentlemen, accompanied the expedition while the rest were soldiers, artisans, farmers and traders.
The Gift of God arrived at the mouth of the Kennebec River (then called the Sagadahoc River) on August 13, 1607. The Mary and John arrived three days later. The colonists quickly began construction of large star-shaped Fort St. George.
Fort St. George
Fort St. George, named for the patron saint of England, was built on the headland of an area named Sabino, ten miles/15 kilometres south of what is now Bath, Maine, in the town of Phippsburg, Maine, United States.
On October 8, 1607, colonist John Hunt drew a map of the colony. Hunt was listed in the colony register as “draughtsman”. His map showed a star-shaped fort with ditches and ramparts, and 18 buildings including the admiral’s house, a chapel, a storehouse, a cooperage, and a guardhouse. Fort St. George contained nine guns that ranged in size from demi-culverin to falcon.
As a result of espionage, Hunt’s map was sold to the Spanish ambassador to London, Pedro de Zuniga. The map then passed to King Philip III of Spain, in 1608. In 1888 it was discovered in the Spanish national archives. It might be a copy of the now-lost original map, and is unique as the only plan of the original layout of an early English settlement in the Americas known to survive.
Fort St. George was abandoned after a year of occupation and is now an archaeological site.
Popham and Gilbert sent survey expeditions up the river and contacted the Abenaki, a tribe of Native Americans/First Nations belonging to the Algonquian peoples of northeastern North America. In a letter to the King, Popham wrote that the natives had told them that the area was full of easily exploitable resources. However, the colony failed to establish cooperation with the tribe; they were suspicious because earlier expeditions had kidnapped natives to show at home.
Late summer arrival meant that there was no time to farm for food. Half of the colonists returned to England in December 1607 aboard the Gift of God. Others faced a cold winter during which the Kennebec River froze. Fire destroyed at least the storehouse and its provisions. Later excavation has hinted that there might have been other fires.
Colonists divided into two factions, one supporting George Popham and the other Raleigh Gilbert. George Popham died on February 5, 1608, possibly the only colonist to die – a contrast to Jamestown which lost half its population that year. Raleigh Gilbert became “colony president” on February 5, 1608 at age 25.
The colonists completed one major project: the building of a 30-ton ship, a pinnace they named Virginia. It was the first ship built in America by Europeans, and was meant to show that the colony could be used for shipbuilding. They also finally managed to trade with the Abenaki for furs and gather a cargo of wild sarsaparilla.
When a supply ship came in 1608, it brought a message that Sir John Popham had died. Gilbert sent the Mary and John to England with cargo. When the ship returned later in the summer, it brought news that Gilbert’s elder brother John had died. Gilbert was therefore an heir to a title and the estate of Compton Castle in Devon. He decided to return to England. The 45 remaining colonists also left, sailing home in the Mary and John and Virginia. (The Virginia would make at least one more Atlantic crossing, going to Jamestown the next year with the Third Supply, piloted by Captain James Davis).
The colony had lasted almost one year to the day. Later colonists in the area, building on the experience of the original colonists, settled further up the Kennebec River, at the site of present day Bath, Maine, where the winter storms and tides were not as severe.
French colonist Jean de Biencourt visited the abandoned site in 1611. In 1624, Samuel Maverick of the Massachusetts Bay Colony also visited the site and reported that it was “over-grown”.
The first excavations of the area in the 1960s were unsuccessful. In 1994, Jeffrey Brain of the Peabody Essex Museum discovered the site of the colony using the Hunt’s map as a guide. He began a larger excavation in 1997 and later uncovered the Admiral’s house, the storehouse and a liquor storage building. He also proved that Hunt’s map was very accurate. Parts of the fort, probably including the chapel and graveyard, lie on private property not open for digging and the Fort’s southern portion is under a public road. The excavation was concluded in 2005.