Popham: America's other lost colony


Rediscovery: Abandoned by settlers in 1608 and lost to history for almost four centuries, an English colony in Maine is drawing new attention from archaeologists and volunteers.

November 05, 2001|By Myron Beckenstein | Myron Beckenstein,SUN STAFF

POPHAM BEACH, Maine -- The fates of the three earliest American colonies can be told by their resupply ships. There was the ship that didn't arrive, the ship that arrived in the nick of time and the ship that left too late and arrived too early.

The ship that didn't show was the one that was supposed to replenish the first colony, the one Sir Walter Ralegh was trying to establish on the North Carolina coast in 1587. The supply ship was to come the next year, but 1588 turned out to be the year of the Spanish Armada and Queen Elizabeth I refused to divert any ships from anti-armada duties. By the time a ship finally arrived in 1590, the colony had disappeared.

Jamestown was the colony involved in the ship that showed up in the nick of time. After enduring harrowing hardships and staggering death rates, the survivors decided in 1610 that they had had enough and left. As they were sailing homeward down the James River, they ran into their supply ship and were ordered to turn around.

The ship that was too early and too late involved the Popham Colony in Maine in 1607.

Here, any reasonably knowledgeable student of American history would ask, "What colony in Maine? Never heard of it."

Popham is America's other lost colony, the one that didn't filter away into the wilderness, but got lost in the history books.

When the English sent out the ships that landed at Jamestown, they also sent out an expedition to what they called Northern Virginia. The Jamestown group was to build its colony between 34 and 38 degrees north latitude (today's North Carolina and Virginia), the northern team was to set up between 41 and 45 degrees (southern New England to central Maine). As a bit of incentive, whichever colony proved the more successful would get the land in between.

On May 31, 1607, a few months after the Jamestown settlers had sailed forth, the Mary and John and the Gift of God headed for Maine, reaching there in mid-August and naming their settlement Fort St. George.

The company consisted of 100 men and boys under the command of George Popham, who history assures us was either the brother, cousin or nephew of the colony's driving force, Sir John Popham, the lord chief justice of England. George Popham's second-in-command was Raleigh Gilbert, the son of one famous swashbuckler (Sir Humphrey Gilbert) and nephew of another (Sir Walter Ralegh).

The settlers got to work constructing their colony, as well as the first ship ever built by English colonists in America, the Virginia of Sagahadoc. Sagahadoc was the Indian name for the river at whose mouth they settled (now the Kennebec River).

On Oct. 8, the Mary and John left to return to England; on Dec. 15, the Gift of God sailed, taking half the colonists back with them because of a severe food shortage.

Unlike the Jamestown colonists, those at Fort St. George did not suffer a high mortality rate. Only two deaths occurred -- one a colonist possibly killed by Indians and the other George Popham, the leader of the group.

Popham seems to have been a political rather than a practical choice. He was 54 -- elderly for the times -- and overweight.

His successor, Gilbert, was only 24, but of the same high social class, so the colonists accepted him as their leader. Unfortunately, he did not have Popham's more productive way of dealing with the Indians.

The worst winter

The winter of 1607-1608 was one of the worst in a long time to hit America and Europe. The Popham colonists had no way to know it wasn't normal. All they knew was that it was much colder than they had expected or ever experienced.

But they survived.

In the spring, the first supply ship brought news of the death in England of Sir John Popham, the colony's guiding spirit and financial engineer. He had died in June 1607, while the colonists were en route to Maine.

Then, in September, came the ship that left too late and arrived too early. It was the Mary and John again, and it brought news of another death, of Raleigh Gilbert's elder brother.

Sir John Gilbert had died July 9. If the Mary and John had left when it was ready to sail, it would have been at sea by then and would not have known of his passing. But unfavorable winds had held it in port for weeks, long enough for word of Gilbert's death to catch up with it.

The Mary and John landed, and Raleigh Gilbert learned that he could return home and live the grand life. He packed his bags and offered his goodbyes; the other colonists decided 14 months was enough and sailed with him.

"They were ready to go," said archaeologist Jeffrey P. Brain of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. But Raleigh Gilbert's leaving was "the death knell, the final straw."

If the colony had had another year to develop, perhaps it could have survived without Gilbert. But in 1608 it didn't think it could. The Popham colony vanished, first from the shore of Maine and then from history books.

But it did make an impression on its contemporaries, Brain said.

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