“The Founding of America” is boggy ground to cover, since 19th-century Americans mythologized the New England colonies to the exclusion of other people who were at the roots of their country too. The 20th century has seen Jamestown and the Virginia Colony surge forward to equal footing, but there are others still searching for recognition. The city of St. Augustine, Florida has been making noise recently—mostly tourism-related publicity stunts—but there’s no denying that it’s the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the continental US.
But even St. Augustine’s claim to fame is heavily laden with weasel words, mostly to avoid having to deal with San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s also carefully designed to exclude a couple of other places, not to mention one entire region. So, OK: founded in 1541, St. John’s, Newfoundland is the oldest city anywhere north of the Rio Grande, as well as the oldest English settlement in the New World—Newfoundland just had the bad grace to not be part of the Thirteen Colonies and so it’s forgotten by the large majority of people who don’t even realize there were sixteen British American colonies in 1776 (besides Newfoundland there was also Nova Scotia, St. John’s Island AKA Prince Edward Island, and that’s not counting the peculiar case of Québec). Even if you want to avoid offshore islands, Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia is also three years older than Jamestown.
Some historians even think that the Portuguese got to Newfoundland before John Cabot in 1497—ever notice that the names of several of Newfoundland’s geographical features are bastardized Portuguese? Cape Spear is Cabo da Esperança, Cape Race is Cabo Raso. Conception Bay is Baia de Conceicao, and tiny Baccalieu Island in Conception Bay is Ilha do Bacalhau, which is especially interesting since that name was first used by João Vaz Corte-Real in 1474 after a nebulous mission of his that (if you look at it the right way) might have been to Newfoundland. The Portuguese connection to North America only faded when two of Corte-Real’s three sons disappeared after exploring what was definitely the Newfoundland area, the Portuguese looked at their choices—Newfoundland? Or Brazil?—and made the obvious decision.
And then there’s the whole 11th-century Viking thing in the Great Northern Peninsula…one can see why the afore-mentioned 19th century Americans washed their hands of the whole mess, cried “Pilgrim forefathers!”, then sat down for turkey and corn at Thanksgiving.
Still, all fame aside, the Mayflower expedition was not even the first English settlement in New England. The Plymouth Colony wasn’t founded until 1620. Jamestown was founded in 1607 by the Virginia Company of London, while a second, complementary effort the same year was made by the Virginia Company of Plymouth and targeted the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine. This was the Popham Colony, sometimes called the Sagadahoc Colony.
As the names of the two companies suggest, at the time “Virginia” applied to a much larger area than it does in the present day. This is almost entirely due to the success of the southern effort and the failure of the northern, which opened up the north to further charters. The initial plan was somewhat different: King James I deliberately created two overlapping grants, to inspire competition between two rival Virginia Companies. “Of London” received the coast from 34° to 38° north, “Of Plymouth” received 41° to 45° north, and the land in-between would go to whichever group was strong enough to get to it first. The Dutch, not incidentally, used the ambiguity of this no-man’s-land to found their own trading settlement at 40° 42´—which is to say, the southern tip of Manhattan Island in modern-day New York City.
That neither Virginia Company managed to claim the middle area says volumes. Jamestown’s Virginia was a relative success, but it’s rightly notorious for being a typhoid- and dysentery-ridden deathtrap in its early years. It almost certainly would have been abandoned if not for the immense profits from tobacco, which was only introduced five years after the first settlement and largely by luck at that. Popham Colony, by contrast, had less of a problem with mass death and more with money.
The effort to colonize Maine started in 1605 when Sir Ferdinando Gorges sponsored on a voyage to explore the area. On his return, Weymouth gave his destination a passing grade (and, incidentally, brought the Patuxet Indian Tisquantum to England where he wGeorge Weymouthould learn English, be returned to New England, be kidnapped into slavery by another Englishman, serve John Smith for a while, return to his village to discover everyone in his sub-tribe dead from virgin-field epidemics, and famously help to feed the Plymouth Colony during their first winter). On the strength of Weymouth’s recommendation, Gorges became one of the main shareholders in the Virginia Company of Plymouth. The other important shareholder was Sir John Popham, the Lord Chief Justice of England. While Gorges sent a second exploring ship in 1606 with instructions to look for a colony site, Popham’s son George was selected to lead the colony. The next year he and two ships—Gift of God and the Mary and John—left for Maine with 120 settlers and their equipment.
Unfortunately for them, they set out late in the year and didn’t land until August 18th, 1607. Even in late summer coastal Maine’s temperature drops below ten Celsius some nights; by October it’s regularly pushing freezing. With no reason to suspect this, the colonists went ahead, made tense-but-peaceful contact with the local natives, and founded Fort St. George at the mouth of the Kennebec River; it was finished by mid-October. They then sent the Mary and John back to England with news of their success and for more supplies.
While it was gone winter set in. Accounts are that it was quite bad, and half the colonists took the remaining Gift of God back home rather than try to wait it out, but it’s worth noting that as far as anyone can tell only one colonist died—quite the contrast with Jamestown, where 70% of the population died during “The Starving Time“. Unfortunately, that one was George Popham himself on February 5th, 1608. He was somewhere between 55 and 60 in 1608, so it’s not too surprising that he wasn’t able to stand up to the stress, but his death was the first in a series of blows to the colony.
The colonists selected another of their number, Raleigh Gilbert, as their new leader. Both parts of his name are worth noting, as he was the second son of explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert (of the famous last words from the deck of his foundering ship, “We are as near to Heaven by sea as by land!”) and his half-uncle was Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh was, of course, the man who founded Roanoke in Virginia; the early English colonization of the Americas was an incestuous affair.
Fort St. George made it through to the spring before Mary and John returned. When it did, there was news: their patron, George’s father, had died just ten days after they had cleared The Lizard on their outbound journey the previous summer. Their influence at home was crumbling.
The ship sailed home again, and returned again with more supplies and more news. As the second son, Raleigh Gilbert hadn’t inherited much from his father. Now he found out that his elder brother John had died childless and he’d become the heir to Compton Castle in Devon. He decided to leave Maine and return home.
Disheartened at losing two leaders in quick succession, and staring down a second winter in Maine without enough support on the other side of the Atlantic, the other colonists decided to leave with him. But before embarking they came up with a load of sassafras harvested from trees in the area, as they had done in the spring for the first trip of the Mary and John. The leaves were worth something as they were boiled down for use as a topical painkiller at the time (and also make excellent filé powder), but couldn’t hold a candle to the money that tobacco brought, or hope to cover the costs of the Popham Colony. So in the end, despite the relative success of the Plymouth Company as compared to the London Company, the winner of King James’ competition was the one that had the will to hang on until they came up with a way to make serious money.
More than a decade later Sir Fernando Gorges regrouped, reclaimed his moribund charter rights, and helped to finance the Mayflower expedition. With its success, he was able to establish a permanent grip on Maine, getting sole land patent to it in 1629. The modern-day state of Maine sprung from this recapitulation of the Popham Colony.
The Popham Colony itself disappeared so thoroughly from history that it took until the latter part of the 19th century for New England’s historians to even be sure that it had existed. The sole evidence was a second-hand account in a book entitled Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia, which was written by Jamestown settler William Strachey in the 1610s but published in 1625; it remained notable not only as one of the prime sources of Jamestown history but also because it contained an eyewitness account of the wreck of the Sea Venture which is believed by Shakespeare historians to be the source material of The Tempest. The Popham Colony portion of it was more controversial, though, and by the mid-19th century the whole thing had degenerated into a heated war of New England town-boosterism disguised as an academic argument about whether the northern portion of King James’ 1607 Virginia charter had been acted on at all, or if Strachey was just relaying a tall tale.
Enter a document entitled Relation of a Voyage to Sagadahoc. The Relation was apparently among Sir Fernando’s papers when he died in 1647, and fell into the keeping of one William Griffith (about whom nothing else is known) before eventually ending up in the library of Lambeth Palace, where it was found in 1875. It was immediately clear that this was the source of Strachey’s story, and that it matched up. His Historie even had something to add, as the Relation was missing its final few pages describing Gilbert and the remaining colonists’ decision to abandon Maine but Strachey’s retelling continued on to the end. By the 1890s there was a pretty good idea where Fort St. George was based on both the description of it in the Relation and the sketch map shown at the top of this article: it had been found in the Spanish archives in 1888. Though obviously drawn by an Englishman, it had apparently been taken by a spy and given to the Spanish ambassador to England, Pedro de Zuniga, who was somewhat obsessed with keeping tabs on non-Catholic colonists ignoring the papal Tordesillas Line. But it wasn’t until 1994 that archaeologists from the Peabody Essex Museum located Fort St. George’s physical remains in the shoreline backyard of a house in Phippsburg, Maine.