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.

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.

Rediscovering Popham

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.

"The 250th anniversary celebrations sparked a quarter century of controversy between Maine and Massachusetts," says Phippsburg historian John Bradford, a seventh great-grandson of Pilgrim leader William Bradford. "There was a lot of correspondence back and forth in the newspapers about the merits of Popham versus the Pilgrims. Some people preferred to believe that the Popham Colony was just a story."

But the colony's stature has grown in recent years, following archaeologists' discovery of the remains of the walled settlement in Stevens's backyard. "There's no question that this is one of the foremost historical sites in the country," says Jeffrey Brain of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., the archaeologist who headed the 1994-2004 dig at the site. "A lot of the lessons learned at Popham enabled the Pilgrims to survive, so it was crucial to the foundation of English America."

Indeed, by the time the Pilgrims arrived, Gorges had set up several year-round fishing stations on the Maine coast, possibly hiring men who had served at Popham Beach.

When the Pilgrims were starving in the spring of 1622, they sent a ship to the Damariscove Island station, whose fishermen gave them enough cod to survive. But while the date of the Mayflower's arrival at Plymouth became part of America's historical mythology, the date of Damariscove's settlement was lost and forgotten.

"The Popham colony awakened English people to the possibility of settling New England," Mr. Baker says. "It really triggered the foundation of these fishing stations, which were vital to support permanent settlements like Plymouth."

Festivity parity

In May, "America's 400th Anniversary" celebration in Virginia drew Queen Elizabeth II, President Bush, and more than 65,000 visitors. By contrast, Phippsburg will be having "a nice little hometown commemoration," according to volunteer organizer Bill Perkins, a retired high school football coach.

"We've invited a bunch of dignitaries to come, but so far they haven't committed, and our requests to get a military band to perform have fallen on deaf ears," says Mr. Perkins, who adds that it's probably just as well. "We're just a little town on a little peninsula and we truly can't sustain a huge celebration without overwhelming the town."

Another group had hoped to build a replica of the Virginia to serve as the centerpiece of the festivities, but have had trouble raising funds for the 50-foot vessel's construction in time. "Boatbuilders recognize the Virginia as the beginning of their industry, but I'm not sure historians give it its due," says Susan McChesney, director of Maine's First Ship in Bath, Maine.

She notes that the Virginia later served as a resupply ship for Jamestown.

Ironically, Ms. McChesney says, replicas of the two much larger vessels that participated in the Jamestown 400th – the Godspeed and Discovery – were both built in Maine in 2005 and 2006.

Mr. Brain says that Jamestown and Popham were part of the same event, the first serious English effort to colonize North America. "One colony failed and one succeeded, but they should be considered two sides of the same coin," he says.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.