When I drive down to Popham Beach it is hard to imagine what it must have looked like when the English settlers arrived in 1607. No Spinney’s restaurant, no houses, and no road to drive there. You read books about how hard it was back in the history of this country. Think about 100 to 125 (number varies, depending on what book you read), arriving in the new world.
It all started in 1603 when King James I (1603 to 1625) took reign of England. He was aware of the French developing colonies in Canada, (New France) and the Spanish doing the same thing in Florida, (New Spain), so one of his first official Acts was to issued the Royal Charter, Established the Virginia Company, and on May 31st 1607, two ships called, “Gift of God” and the “Mary and John” left Plymouth, England for the new Land. Led by 58 year old Capt. George Popham, George Popham’s second in command was Raleigh Gilbert, who was nephew of Sir Walter Raleigh and the son of adventurer Sir Humphrey Gilbert. There was a major difference in age between George Popham and Raleigh Gilbert. Raleigh Gilbert was only 25 years of age.
At the same time, a group of about 100 men and women were landing in Jamestown, Va., which was the first permanent colony in the new world.
Prior to the landing at Popham the two ships anchored at Pemaquid and made contact with the Indians on August 7th. A native that was captured by Captain Weymouth a couple years earlier and taken to England by the name of Skidwarres was on this voyage as a go between for the colonists and the Indians. However, once back home he refused to accompany the colonists on to the new colony. The 2 ships left the Pemaquid area and sailed into Sagadahoc Bay. First order of business was to find a spot for the new colony. Gilbert and Popham sailed up the river approximately 14 leagues which is about 42 nautical miles.
On August 19th 1607, just 3 months after the formation of Jamestown, the colonists, landed at the site of Atkins Bay of what is now Popham Beach and located at the mouth of the Kennebec River, in Phippsburg, Maine. Now that the settlement spot had been determined on August 20th everyone started working on building Fort St. George. It was too late in the season to get any crops in the ground. After the store house was built and all the stores were moved from the “Mary and John” she was ready to sail back to England. George Popham and Raleigh Gilbert made contact with local Indians known as the Abenakis, which were part of the Algonquins tribe. The Indians were very suspicious of the colonists after Captain Weymouth kidnapped several of their tribe and took them back to England.
On October 8th John Hunt drew a map of Fort St. George that was sent back to England. Hunt’s Map also has a story as it went missing and was found in 1888 in the Spanish National Archives. Apparently, an English spy sold the map to the Spanish Ambassador.
Around the 9th of October the “Mary and John” sailed back for England. As winter was approaching and food staples were getting low so In December, when The “Gift of God” sailed back to England, 50 settlers sailed back to England with it. There was also a letter from George Popham to King James I in which he exaggerated the benefits of the colony. There were only forty-five men who remained. There was feuding between the two leaders. During the winter the shipwrights in the company constructed a thirty-ton Vessel named “The Virginia of Sagadahoc”. This is considered to be Maine’s First Ship.
On February 5th a severe blow came to the colony with the death of George Popham. As a result Raleigh Gilbert took over as the president of the colony. Popham appears to be the only colonist not to make it through the winter. This is a big difference from Jamestown where almost half the colonists didn’t make it through the winter. In May of 1608, supply ships arrived from England and things were on track for the colony.
On July 9th in England, Sir John Gilbert dies and although this is an ocean away, this writes the fate of the colony. In September1608 the “Mary and John” arrive from England with the news that Raleigh Gilbert’s older brother died and he is the sole heir to the family estates.
In September the colony was abandoned and everyone sailed back to England on the “Virginia” and “Mary and John” and by November all were home in England.
It has been speculated that the 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, 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. I guarantee you that in winter, that’s one of the coldest spots around. I spent many winters in Maine and know how cold it gets with the winds. Another reason may be leadership.
This was just the beginning for the new land and although some people may say this was a failure, I believe that it was just the beginning.