Popham, Maine's 'lost' colony, to get its modest due
Jamestown's forgotten sister colony turns 400 this month, but few realize its role in history.
The English settlement of New England started exactly 400 years ago this month on a modest headland behind Jane Stevens's house, overlooking the lower reaches of Maine's Kennebec River.Skip to next paragraph
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Mainers, unlike most Americans, have long known of the existence of the 1607 Popham Colony, which predated Plymouth, Mass., by 13 years, and began just a few months after Jamestown in Virginia. Had things gone a little differently, it is said in these parts, generations of schoolchildren would have learned about Popham Beach, not Plymouth Rock. Even the 400th anniversary celebrations, which kick off Aug. 23, will be a much lower-key affair than those for sister colony Jamestown.
"Many people in Virginia try to ignore it because it takes away from Jamestown as a singular moment, while in New England there's been a long rivalry between Popham and Plymouth," says historian Emerson Baker of Salem State College in Salem, Mass. "In America, we have always rewarded the winners and, for better or worse, Plymouth and Jamestown were the winners."
Popham and Jamestown were rivals from the start, having been simultaneously organized by competing English corporations whose leaders had previously been business partners in financing early exploratory missions to the New World.
Two ships carrying 125 people arrived at Popham Beach in what is now Phippsburg, Maine, on Aug. 19, 1607, just three months after the foundation of Jamestown. They built a fortified village, at least a dozen cabins, a storehouse, chapel, and a modest sailing vessel, the Virginia, the first European vessel built in what is now the United States.
But when spring came, the colonists loaded their goods aboard the Virginia and a supply ship and sailed back to England, abandoning the settlement. Their leader, George Popham, had died during the winter, while his successor, Raleigh Gilbert, had offended the colonists' native American neighbors, possibly triggering some sort of fight within the fort. Morale collapsed, taking the colonial project with it.
Ms. Stevens suspects winter cold had a lot to do with the failure: The colonists had picked a terrible spot. In August, the fort site is a snug enough place, protected from ocean storms by a hill and sandy spit, she explains. But in the fall the winds shift to the north, howling straight down the river and smack into the exposed headland. "It was probably a nice calm summer day when they decided to set up housekeeping there," she says. "I can guarantee you that in winter, that's the coldest spot south of Greenland."
Indeed, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, one of the colony's chief investors, concluded the Maine coast was "over cold and [therefore] not inhabitable by our nation." The colony's buildings fell or burned down as Sir Gorges and his partners focused their subsequent efforts on island fishing stations and, ultimately, settlements at Plymouth and the southern Maine coast. Soon its location and historical contribution were forgotten.
In the second half of the 19th century, Maine-based historians rediscovered the Popham episode and embraced it as an affirmation of the state's importance in the development of New England.