When I was a child, my mother and grandmother enjoyed taking me and my siblings to Fort Popham and Popham Beach State Park in Phippsburg, Maine. We loved exploring the Civil War-era fort, combing the beach for sea glass and shells, and ending the day with a visit to a candy shop along the way home for glittery rock candy on a stick. As a child, the 100+-year-old Fort Popham appeared to be ANCIENT. But lying-in-wait several hundred feet away was the long-forgotten and soon-to-be-rediscovered 412-year-old Popham Colony of 1607.
The Popham Colony (also known as the Sagadohoc Colony), lying at the mouth of the Kennebec River, was intended to be a northern branch of the Jamestown Colony established by England’s Virginia Company of Plymouth. And while England’s ultimate goal was to claim the entire stretch of the eastern seaboard that spanned the distance between Spanish Florida and French Canada, its specific goal with Popham was to establish a trading colony and discover gold.
In 1994, probably about twenty years after my last visit to Fort Popham, the Peabody Essex Museum unearthed the site of the 1607 Popham Colony thanks to a map created by John Hunt, a cartographer and draftsman. The map titled The Draught of St Georges fort was a surveyed, scaled, and intricately detailed picture-map that had gone unnoticed in the General Archives in Simancas, Spain for nearly three centuries. But in 1888 it was discovered by an archival researcher for the United States Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Spain. Found along with the map was a letter to King Phillip III of Spain from the Spanish Ambassador to England, Don Pedro de Zuñiga. The letter, dated 10 September 1608, referred to the John Hunt map the ambassador had acquired, apparently through espionage.
The incredible detail of this map, much more detail than could have possibly been completed in the short life span of the settlement, suggests it probably had multiple purposes…
A considerable amount of analysis of this picture-map has been conducted and, based on the Peabody Essex Museum excavation, it was concluded that due to the precision of the drawing, the accuracy of the scale, and the placement of the buildings and topographical details, the map had to have been created on-site. The incredible detail of this map, much more detail than could have possibly been completed in the short life span of the settlement, suggests it probably had multiple purposes: to serve as a plan for construction, to encourage support from investors in England, and as a political statement that the British had every intention of putting down roots and staying on this land. Some have speculated that the map may have been intentionally leaked to Spain in order to discourage aggressive settlement attempts of their own.
Sadly, the February 1608 death of the founder George Popham was probably the beginning of the end for this colony. Additional challenges included food shortages which had forced over half the colonists to return to England the December before; the death of the chief financial supporter in England, Sir John Popham; a fire that destroyed a storehouse in May 1608; and the decision of their new leader, Raleigh Gilbert, to return to England in September, prompting the remaining 45 people to return as well.
Despite the colony’s failure, there were some major accomplishments that came out of this would-be colony. For starters, they built the first British vessel on North American soil. It was a stalwart and durable 50’ pinnace christened the Virginia of Sagadahoc, and it was this vessel that took some of the colonists back to England in 1608.
But quite possibly the most important outcome of the Popham Colony was the knowledge that was gained for the future colonization of North America. It is believed that through the understanding of the climate, the interaction with Native Americans, and the natural resources, the Plymouth Colony was successful twelve years later. And now, nearly 400 years after the Pilgrims landed, we celebrate that success through the Mayflower 2020 events commemorating the famous landing, and a colony that may have succeeded due to knowledge gained at the Popham Colony.
Tom Dreyer’s Vita Brevis post on the Popham Colony can be read here.
Further reading: Jeffrey P. Brain, “The John Hunt Map of the First English Colony in New England,” Northeast Historical Archaeology 37 : 69–74.