Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Aug. 11, 2011. We are republishing this story as part of our ongoing bicentennial coverage. These stories tell us about key moments in Maine’s history that shaped the world around us today. This story tells us of the first English settlement in present-day Maine, which came about three years after a failed attempt by the French to set up a colony Down East. Veteran BDN political reporter Christopher Cousins died in 2018.
PHIPPSBURG, Maine — Dr. Jeffrey Brain sat on a boulder at the edge of a nondescript field near the mouth of the Kennebec River, enjoying the view.
Fishing boats puttered by in the swirling currents, cutting through blazes of sunshine cast up by the rippling water. A clam harvester donning hip waders made his way across the field toward nearby mudflats while tourists just across the bay flocked to one of coastal Maine’s most recognizable historic sites: Fort Popham.
Brain, an archaeologist, enjoys a pretty view as much as anyone, but his attention was focused on that grassy field, which despite its lack of luster is the site of the 1607 Popham Colony. Since he discovered its exact location in the mid-1990s, Brain has led some 13 archaeological digs that have slowly revealed the story of England’s first footstep in the New World.
“You’re standing on sacred ground,” said Brain. “Not only is it important in our national history, but international history as well.”
In 1607, few white people had seen the New World. The landmark discoveries of Christopher Columbus and late 16th century fishing fleets seeking cod and other sea life had assured that all of Europe knew of a land abundant with natural resources, including tall and straight mast pines crucial for the construction of sailing vessels.
With those riches in his sights and the rival French eyeing them too, King James I of England sent two groups to the Eastern Seaboard in the late summer of 1607. One went to Jamestown, near what is now Chesapeake Bay in the state of Virginia. The other group came to the mouth of what is now known as the Kennebec River, where they built a fort and a bustling colony. Not only were they some of the first white settlers in the New World, but the two settlements marked the beginning of Britain’s long history of creating crown-controlled colonies all over the world.
Today, Jamestown is entrenched in the history books as the “Birthplace of America.” More than 1,500 acres have been preserved by Congress and the state of Virginia and thousands of tourists flock there every year.
The Popham Colony site, on the other hand, is little more than a grassy field marked by two plaques, a flagpole and a boulder that commemorates the construction of the Virginia, “Maine’s First Ship,” which was built and launched from the site in 1608. On a typical summer day, a handful of visitors might read the plaques and gain some measure of understanding about the site’s monumental historical significance. But for the most part, Popham Colony’s story is unknown by the masses.
Approximately 120 colonists, including experts in everything from construction to militia to blacksmithing, arrived at the site in August 1607 and began the construction of a fort, a village and ship called the Virginia. Though they were there for little more than a year, they managed to erect a military fort and village in a place that until then had been the realm of only Native Americans.
Based on its latitude, which it shared with warm climates in southern Europe, the men didn’t expect the bitter cold known well by Mainers of today. Many historians believe the winter weather was a major reason for the colony’s abandonment in the fall of 1608. Another factor in the colony’s failure is that its leader, Raleigh Gilbert, came into some family riches, which led him back to England.
The site’s history began a renaissance in 1990 when Brain noticed a small wooden sign at Civil War-era Fort Popham which proclaimed that colonists had settled nearby in 1607 — 13 years before the settlement of Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts. At first, Brain didn’t believe it.
“I remember being quite bemused by this claim, and finally decided that local chauvinism had gotten the better of historical fact,” wrote Brain in his 2007 book “Fort St. George: Archaeological Investigation of the 1607-1608 Popham Colony. “Everyone knew that 1607 belonged to Jamestown!”
Still, the evidence was compelling long before Brain and others scooped away the first shovelful of Earth. Centuries-old documents survived, including detailed journals from some of the colonists and the crucially important “Hunt’s Plan,” a map of the settlement and Fort St. George that was discovered in Europe in Spain in the late 1800s. It was by matching this map with the rugged coastline near Atkins Bay in Phippsburg that Brain was able to zero in on the colony’s site and begin unearthing its treasures in 1994. The discovery of post-holes from the colonists’ storehouse allowed more precise orientation between Hunt’s Plan and the site, leading to the discovery of several buildings and loads of artifacts ranging from nails to musket balls to shards of pottery vessels and tobacco pipes.
John Bradford, a part-time Phippsburg resident, has been involved in the history of the site for more than a decade. Though he started as an amateur historian, Bradford has emerged as one of the leading experts on the site and is in the process of publishing a book called “The 1607 Popham Colony’s Pinnace Virginia: An In-Context Design of Maine’s First Ship.”
Bradford, who has been heavily involved with the archaeological excavations at the site, said each artifact he unearths is as fascinating as the last and that many of them reveal details about the triumphs and failures of the colonists. One of Bradford’s most exciting finds was a post hole from the colonial storehouse. Its proximity to earlier discoveries told archaeologists where they would find the rest of the building as well as other structures.
In the painstaking process of archaeology, a post hole is typically marked by a wide ring of discolored earth around the post itself, which is often as hard as iron.
“When you hit it with a trowel it sounded like metal,” recalled Bradford of discovering the 10-inch round vertical post. “It was built to last. The colonists went there to stay there and they put their money and resources where it was needed the most.”
Further discoveries at the Popham Colony site, including iron smelting pits found in 2010, bore further evidence that the English had long-term plans for their village on the Kennebec. In fact, Brain and Bradford believe the existence of the smelting pits — which they plan to explore in another archaeological dig in September — might further distinguish the Popham Colony as the first place in the New World where Europeans produced iron.
“They obviously came prepared to stay,” said Brain. “These guys weren’t dummies.”
Brain and Bradford aren’t the only people trying to revive and rewrite the history of the birth of America. An organization that calls itself “Maine’s First Ship” is reconstructing the Pinnace Virginia, a more than $1 million project that is being driven by professional shipwrights and students from Morse High School in Bath.
“This is the first documented ship built in the New World,” said Gayla Teague of Woolwich, one of the volunteers on the project. “It’s important because the Jamestown colonists didn’t even build one as early as 1607.”
Many questions haunt most of the people involved with discovering the Popham Colony site. Chief among them is what would northern New England be like today if the colony had lasted. Brain, who was at the site recently collecting soil and water samples to determine the source of iron, said he thinks about that a lot.
“If the Popham Colony had made it, the hub of the New England universe would probably be right here on the Kennebec River,” he said. “Boston might be this little town down the shore a ways. This site will never get the attention of Jamestown, but this is the other side of the coin of the history of Jamestown.”