Many of the details of the Popham colony have been lost to history, but in its heyday the tiny settlement in Maine was considered a direct rival of Jamestown.
Both colonies got their start in 1606, when the British King James I granted the Virginia Company a charter to establish permanent settlements in the New World. Two separate factions of the Virginia Company—one based in London and one in Plymouth—immediately began planning expeditions to the coast of North America. The London Company was tasked with colonizing the more southerly section that included the modern day states of Virginia and North Carolina, while the Plymouth Company was given reign over a swath of what is now New England. To foster competition between the two future colonies, a neutral middle ground was set aside for whichever settlement proved healthy enough to claim it.
The rival operations were Britain’s first serious attempt to settle the New World since the disappearance of the fabled “lost colony” of Roanoke in the 1580s, and they generated significant excitement and investment. In mid-May 1607, the London Company won the race to North America when it landed settlers in Virginia and established the Jamestown colony. Just a few weeks later on May 31, the Plymouth Company expedition set sail in the ships Gift of God and the Mary and John, bound for the chilly coast of Maine.
The all-male operation included 120 sailors, soldiers, carpenters, merchants and farmers. George Popham, a nobleman and relative of the Lord Chief Justice of England Sir John Popham, served as the group’s leader. His second-in-command was Raleigh Gilbert, a headstrong 25-year-old who was a nephew of Sir Walter Raleigh.
Following a two-month crossing of the Atlantic, the expedition reached Maine in August 1607 and dropped anchor at the mouth of the Kennebec River, then known as the Sagadahoc River. After listening to a sermon by their resident preacher, they selected a spot for their “Popham colony” near the modern day town of Phippsburg. During the next few months, the colonists broke ground on a star-shaped bastion known as Fort St. George and worked tirelessly to build a settlement. A colonist named John Hunt would later draw a map of the fledgling town showing numerous houses as well as a church, a storehouse and several defensive walls guarded by cannons. The Popham residents also began fashioning a ship from local timber and sails and iron they had brought from England. The 50-foot pinnace, later christened the Virginia of Sagadahoc, was the first British vessel constructed in North America.
Popham colony had been established primarily as a trading settlement, but its early interactions with the coastal Indians bore little fruit. Most of the local Algonquian-speaking bands were leery of the strangers, and their suspicions only grew after Gilbert and some of his men nearly came to blows with a group of warriors during an attempted parlay. George Popham nevertheless remained convinced that his colony would flourish. When the Mary and John and the Gift of God returned to England in late-1607, he sent along a letter to King James I in which he said, “the natives constantly affirm that in these parts there are nutmegs, mace and cinnamon…with many other products of great importance and value.” Popham also reported rumors of a large body of water only a few days’ journey to the west. He speculated this was the Pacific Ocean and the route to China, “which unquestionably cannot be far from these parts.”
Despite its leader’s optimism, it wasn’t long before the Popham colony experienced a severe dip in morale. Food shortages forced over half of its pilgrims to return to England when the last ship departed in December 1607, and those who remained had to endure a frigid New England winter. One account from January 1608 described the settlers being beset by “thunder, lightning, rain, frost, snow all in abundance, the last continuing.” The colony didn’t suffer as much as Jamestown, which saw over half its population perish in its first year, but it sustained a crucial loss in February 1608, when George Popham died of unknown causes.
Raleigh Gilbert took over as president after Popham’s death and guided the pilgrims through the rest of the winter, but bad luck continued to plague the community. A fire destroyed its storehouse, and in May 1608, supply ships arrived with word that the colony’s namesake and chief financial supporter Sir John Popham had died in England. The settlers soldiered on for the next several months, completing work on their shipbuilding project and even trading with the Indians for furs. Nevertheless, the materials they had hoped to find—most notably gold—continued to elude them.
Popham colony finally unraveled in September 1608. That month, the vessel Mary and John reappeared at the settlement with news that Raleigh Gilbert’s brother had died, leaving the young colony president as the heir to his family estate in England. Gilbert—who was later criticized by a contemporary for living a “loose life” and being “of small judgment and experience”—resolved to return home at once and claim the fortune. Wary of enduring another Maine winter with no recognized leader, the 45 remaining Popham settlers decided to quit the New World and leave with him. Some of the men set sail for England aboard the Mary and John, while the rest packed into the newly finished Virginia of Sagadahoc, which proved sturdy enough for an Atlantic crossing. After only a year in operation, New England’s first British colony was unceremoniously abandoned, leaving Jamestown as the Virginia Company’s lone settlement in North America. “All our hopes have been frozen to death,” one of Popham’s sponsors later wrote.
A few French and British travelers visited the Popham ghost town in the early 1600s, but as the years passed, the colony was slowly forgotten. Many of the historical accounts and documents relating to the ill-fated settlement didn’t resurface until mid-19th century, and archaeological excavations at the site only began in the 1990s. Despite its failure, however, many scholars now regard Popham as a key stepping-stone on the path to colonizing New England. Taking heed of the lessons learned by its residents, future expeditions established more stable supply systems and chose settlement sites that were better shielded from harsh winter weather. The most notable of these came in 1620, when the Pilgrims arrived on the coast of Massachusetts aboard the Mayflower. Along with Jamestown, their Plymouth Colony is now famous as one of the first permanent English settlements in North America, but its place in history might have been quite different if not for the collapse of Popham 12 years earlier.