Popham Colony and the Virginia

By Carla Charter

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Many have heard of Jamestown in Virginia. However, Jamestown had a sister colony, the Popham Colony of Maine. Both were founded in 1607, Jamestown in June and Popham Colony or Fort St. George as it was also known, was created several months later in August.

The Popham Colony was named after Sir George Popham a Chief Justice of England who was also a financial backer of the colony. The 100 men, who populated the colony, arrived to the Maine shores on two ships, the Gift of God and the Marion John.  A map of the colony was found in Spanish archives of the fort, drawn by George Hunt of the colony in 1607. Orman Hines, President of the Board of the Maine First Ship Project, said he is not sure how the map ended up in Spain other than possibly there was a lot of spying going on at the time. He said of the 100 who came to the Popham colony many were militia. “There were also a goodly amount of carpenters. They built a warehouse as well to offload the two ships when they arrived in Maine. “Hines added.

The boat, the Virginia a 30 ton Pretty (meaning sturdy) Pinnace ship was also built at the colony, making it Maine’s first ship. It was named after Queen Elizabeth the first who was known as the Virgin Queen. It was a 50- foot ship and 16 and a half foot in breadth.

The Virginia, was built to explore the Northwest Passage. The crew was hoping to sail up the Kennebec River to the Pacific Ocean.  This idea may have been fueled by a Native American myth that within six days walk of the river there was a large body of water. At the same time the crew searched for gold and heavy metals.

The Popham Colony failed after 14 months. “Maine at that time went through a mini -ice age so it was very cold. The Kennebec River was frozen to it’s mouth.”

Dr. Jeffrey Brain, an archeologist at the Peabody Essex Museum was visiting a friend in Maine in the 1992 when he heard about the Popham Colony. In 1994 he received a National Geographic Grant for the project and excavation began. Among the items found, Hines continued, were Bellarmine Jars, and a goodly amount of hand wrought nails. He added that they did not find the number of relics that they found in Jamestown. “They were there only 14 months.”

Soon though, a reconstructed Virginia will sail again, thanks to the Maine First Ship Project. In 2010 the dream to reconstruct the sailing ship of Popham Colony was revived with the building of a small Shallop that was built at the colony. In 2011 a keel was laid for the reconstructed larger ship and it is hoped to have this recreated Virginia in the water by 2020. “The Virginia is two-thirds to three-fourths finished. We have almost completed the planking hull and are ready to put duck beams on the inside.”

The reconstruction is being done using modern tools, with Hines adding that occasionally the volunteers hold a demonstration with the tools used in 1600’s ship building including Pitt Saws, Broad Axes, and Adaze.

The cost of reconstructing the Virginia is about $500,000 in supplies, with all labor being volunteer.  “On any one day the project can attract as many as 15 volunteers,“ Hines said. In all the Maine First Ship Project has 380 members, 600 donors and 150 volunteers over all.     Hines said the project is important as “It keeps history alive. It gives Maine a sense of it’s place and people.”

Hines said working on the Maine First project has been “a wonderful experience. Everyone who works on the boat feels the same way. We have amazing volunteers and the board of directors is just wonderful.”

More information on the Maine First Ship Project can be found at https://mfship.org/