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The Boston Phoenix Colony Lost And Found

Turns Out The Pilgrims Were Tardy

By Ellen Barry

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  The president of the second colony of Virginia died an unpleasant death. Coastal Maine had not turned out to be tropical, as he had somehow expected, and the winter of 1607 is recorded as savage. The firewood was too green to burn, and inside their wattle-and-daub huts the men were fighting like polecats. With the French to the north and the Indians to the west and a near-mutinous second-in-command, George Popham was dying surrounded by hostiles. Snow was falling in very great abundance.

But Popham gritted his teeth and thought of posterity. John Abbott's 1875 History of Maine records his last words along these lines:

"I die content. My name will always be associated with the first planting of the English race in the New World. My remains will not be neglected away from the home of my fathers and my kindred."

He was wrong on both counts. Within a year, Popham's men would pack their bags and scrap the whole America scheme -- "their interest in the undertaking was of the slightest kind," wrote the historian Henry Burrage in 1914. Back in England, they would report that America was "over cold, and in respect of that not habitable by our nation." The Pilgrims would walk away with the credit for settling New England, and Popham's bones would end up in an unmarked grave, possibly under a parking lot. It would prove just another disappointment for George Popham, spectacular loser to Miles Standish in the horse race for historical standing.

But after 400 years of deepening obscurity, things began to look up for George Popham three weeks ago, when Jeffrey Brain, an archaeologist affiliated with the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, dug up the floorboards of Popham's storehouse. Locals always knew about the colony -- none of them really required any proof -- but no archaeologist had ever found one piece of hard evidence linking the Popham story to a point in time or space. Until now.

With the dig over until next year, Brain returned to his Salem office in a state of high excitement. Because the colony was abandoned, the discovery will allow Brain to scientifically recreate the conditions of 1608. With access to evidence rather than the contradictory historical accounts, he will be able to clarify the 400-year-old mystery of why Popham failed. Most important, Brain's discovery will reinject this story into the historical record. The colony predated Plymouth by 13 years and was peopled by speculators who hoped to form a trade network. To them, America was a source of portable goods, pure and simple. Ultimately, Popham upsets the traditional narrative of settlement: that of pilgrims hoping to build a more ideal state. So when he dug through to those floorboards, it was a big moment.

"There's no question about it. I've been a professional archaeologist for 40 years. I've enjoyed my career immensely," he says. "I've had some really good moments. This tops them all." On the phone to a colleague, he is more specific: "The amount of encouragement is really astounding, considering the deafening silence there was before."

As good as this news is for Jeffrey Brain, it's even better for George Popham, whose memory has taken some abuse over the years from the direction of Plymouth. Because Brain doesn't see the Popham story as a flat-out failure. Instead, he retells it as a courageous venture that could just as easily have reduced the Pilgrims to a footnote in nine-point type.

"I find their courage, their audacity inspiring," says Brain, who taught archaeology at Harvard and has the handshake of a longshoreman. "How many of us would go off into a totally new world? The closest thing to it today is the space program, and I'm glad there are people willing to be astronauts, but I wouldn't go out there. How many people would actually go out and do those things?"

And at the risk of appearing sentimental about a colony that miscalculated, underpacked, fled, and ultimately set back colonization for quite a few years, the archaeologist reveals one small, rather touching detail. Whenever he goes to the spit of land on Atkins Bay, he plants a cross of St. George.

Who gets to be famous? There are those Pilgrims you've heard so much about, who in 1620 fled the degenerate Church of England and their braying neighbors in Nottinghamshire. After settling in Plymouth, they suffered from scurvy and nearly starved every winter for several years running. They learned to plant their corn with fish heads, and celebrated their survival with a large feast. Among the pilgrims were such local celebrities as the bold Miles Standish and Squanto, friend to all Pilgrims. Familiar? You probably colored in these celebrities with a pack of Crayolas.

Now consider the Popham Colony, which was settled in 1607 by a branch of the Virginia Company, which had also founded Jamestown. Led by George Popham, an aging but well-connected nobleman, and Raleigh Gilbert, a rake of 25, the Popham colonists chose to found their colony, Fort St. George, at a wind-whipped spot on Atkins Bay that was described, with typical 17th-century incoherence, as "almost an island of good bigness." The enterprise began in a spirit of breathless excitement; several months after arriving, Popham sent back a rhapsodic letter to King James with the good -- although not, ultimately, accurate -- news that a boundless body of water could be reached in a brisk seven-day hike westward. "This cannot be any other than the Southern ocean, reaching to the regions of China," he gurgled. "There are in these parts shagbarks, nutmegs and cinnamon, besides pine wood and Brazilian cochineal and ambergris, with many other products, and these in great abundance."

But even as Popham was announcing, in flowery Latin, the imminent dispatch of large hauls of tropical spices, his colony was running into some problems. Winter was one. Personnel was another; historians' descriptions of the administrative team read like a treatment for a decent half-hour sitcom. President Popham was described by the colony's sponsor as "timorously fearful to offend," and his admiral, Raleigh Gilbert, as "desirous of supremacy and rule, a loose life, prompt to sensuality, little zeal in religion, humorous, headstrong and of small judgement and experience, other ways valiant enough." Fort St. George became hopelessly factionalized.

More important, relations with neighboring Indian tribes were fraying, possibly because the last Englishmen in the area had abducted five Indians, apparently dragging them aboard a vessel by their hair. Some accounts -- perhaps apocryphally -- relate wanton cruelty by the settlers and counterattacks by the Indians. For whatever reason, it appears that the Indians became less available for Squanto-like relief work.

Then Popham, who was at least 50, and likely in his 60s, and possibly as old as 78, dropped dead. And when Raleigh Gilbert -- whom Brain describes as "no dummy" -- received word in September that he had inherited a large estate in England, the enterprise collapsed completely. "All our hopes have been frozen to death," wrote Popham's sponsor, Sir Ferdinando Gorges. Fourteen months after they officially claimed New England in the name of King James II, the colonists of Fort St. George resorted to Plan B, and hauled ass back to the Old World.

If you were not familiar with the Popham chapter of American history, don't worry. Jeffrey Brain, Popham's new representative in the 20th century, would not have heard of it himself except through a series of flukes. During the summer of 1990, while visiting a friend who had won in a church raffle a week in the small town of Popham Beach, Brain happened to read a small plaque about the colony. Brain was curating an exhibit on colonial excavation, and was surprised to hear that Popham existed at all, much less on a spot now distinguished by a parking lot and two houses.

In fact, the Popham expedition has been more or less blotted out of colonial history, in part because no one had proof that it had existed. As recently as 1907, when locals were preparing to celebrate the tricentennial of Fort St. George's founding, "Plymouth put up a real holler about it," recalls Jane Stevens, 76, whose house is on the site of the original colony.

And Maine historians were equally resentful of their southern neighbors, whose claim to settling New England became a historical truism. In 1862, on the occasion of the 225th anniversary of the Popham landing, the keynote speaker described a Puritan blitzkrieg that "endeavored to exterminate every thing that stood in the way of their ambition" and "gloried in extirpating every trace of title granted for others." This spat was most heated in the middle of the 19th century, but some degree of animus has survived to the late 20th.

"People give Plymouth credit that is not due," says Stevens dryly. "Jamestown was the first colony. Plymouth has a way of forgetting that."

The town of Popham Beach is small -- Stevens, asked for a population figure, makes a show of counting on her fingers -- but locals have no difficulty remembering, or sympathizing with, the Popham colonists. "In the winter there's snow up to your gizzard, and the wind blows like hell," says local restaurateur Jack Hayes. "In August, you don't know it, but it's right around the corner." Stevens herself, who sometimes worries about blowing away when she gets out of her car, figures the site of Fort St. George is "the coldest spot south of Greenland."

And even if she didn't hear his ghost moaning under her house every time the wind blows, it's unlikely Stevens would forget George Popham. Since the surfacing of a Michael Popham from England in 1981, Stevens has become an unofficial clearinghouse for Pophams all over the world. In 1984 they descended on the tiny town in two Trailways buses for an impromptu 377th-anniversary celebration, despite Stevens's good-humored fears that the town "would sink." And every year around August 17 -- the day that Fort St. George was founded -- Stevens and her sister Ellen organize "George Popham Day," which begins with a potluck in the library and culminates in a flare-lit parade down the only road in town.

"It's all over in half an hour, but it's pretty," says Stevens. "Things get dull around here," she adds, unnecessarily.

The commemorations were all local until four years ago. It was Jeffrey Brain, the day-tripper, who finally rounded up funding from the National Geographic Society and set up a 10-day dig in Atkins Bay, in 1994. The site was a difficult one, because it was inhabited before and after the era of the Popham Colony. Between the detritus of prehistoric native tribes and a 1905 military installation called Fort Baldwin, the Popham era began to look like a hopelessly tiny sliver of time.

"There were 8000 years there, and we were looking for one year," Brain says. "We dug for weeks before we found anything at all."

That year they were digging well to the left of the actual site, and had virtually given up when at last they found something. It was a fragment of English pottery, combined with the first posthole of the storehouse, that gave Brain enough evidence to come back this year. And this year culminated in the climactic uncovering, roughly one foot below ground level, of the storehouse postholes, exactly where the 1607 map said they would be, and the charred remains of floorboards. After three years mulling it over, Brain says he had a strong sense of where to look.

"I kept rewinding over and over again until I finally got to the point where I knew exactly where it was," Brain says. "My intuition turned out to be just spot on. You get to know a site as you dig. You get a feel for it."

In town, locals are taking the discovery calmly, since most had accepted Popham's location as an article of faith. But next year's dig is unlikely to suffer the fate of this year's, which was shortened by a week for lack of interest. Historians all over the state acknowledge that it is an important moment. Without Brain's efforts, Popham would likely have stayed buried forever, says Emerson Baker, who teaches colonial history at Salem State College.

"We've all known about the colony," Baker says. "It's been written up for hundreds of years. But I'll tell you, some archaeologists thought, 'Well, the site may be eroded, it might be gone.' You have to give Jeff credit for deciding to go and find out."

What Brain can look forward to over the course of the next few years is a scientific investigation of life in Fort St. George. He could find the body of George Popham, for one thing, and attempt to determine what killed him. By examining what remains of the storehouse, he could flesh out historical accounts of a fire that destroyed it -- some historians claimed it was set by vengeful Indians. Are there signs of a gunpowder keg that is rumored to have exploded? Were supplies consumed in the fire? Are there Indians buried in the area? And he could discover a thousand small details about the real life of colonists -- excavations in Castine, Maine, for instance, revealed that colonists there had resorted to eating any kinds of creatures they could find, including tiny birds.

What Brain hopes to produce is a more exact answer to the question of why the colony failed. Did the settlers trade freely with the Indians? Are there contemporary Indian sites nearby? Did they ever break ground on the gardens they hoped to plant? What were they eating? Did they have liquor? Did anyone else die?

With those questions answered, the Popham story will join the store of strange facts that complicate the fable of colonization: for instance, that the noble savages -- when they were first sighted by one expedition in 1602 -- had already had so much contact with fishermen from Spain that they were speaking in pidgin Basque. That at one point, the Jamestown settlers had packed up their boats, abandoned the colony, and reached the mouth of the James River when they met a ship carrying the new governor, who ordered them to turn around. That the Pilgrims would have starved if they hadn't been bailed out by English fishermen who, in Popham's wake, worked seasonally off the coast of Maine. And, broadly, that colonization was not made up of defeats and victories, but of crapshoots and errors and blind missteps.

The way Brain tells it, the Atkins Bay site is useful to us because it was abandoned on short notice: the construction, the artifacts, and the layout are exactly what they were on that day in September of 1608 when the colonists decided this continent was not worth the trouble. Here, for the first time, Brain can describe this moment with unprecedented exactness. Four hundred years later, the frozen hopes of George Popham are beginning to take on the luster of success.

"You're standing there uncovering a moment that hasn't been seen in 400 years. This is something they couldn't do in Jamestown, because it continued to be inhabited," Brain says. "1607 is obliterated. But in Popham, we've got a slice of time."

On the outcropping in Atkins Bay that licked George Popham so many years ago, the developments are being met with cautious optimism. Stevens and her friend Bud Warren have initiated a massive project to reconstruct the Virginia, the 50-foot boat that the Popham colonists built during the summer of 1608, and that ultimately shipped them out in September. It was the first ship built in New England, and the mere fact of its construction means the colonists succeeded, Stevens says. That they boarded the boat and left New England forever does not bother her.

Stevens has already permitted excavation beneath her flagstone walkway, and she says the residents of Popham Beach are just going to have to get used to a little more public scrutiny. "When [Brain] was here before, no one paid any attention," she says, a little wistfully. "We for years tried to keep this place a secret because of the traffic situation."

Then she shrugs. What is parking in the face of history, anyway? George Popham slept here.

Ellen Barry can be reached at ebarry@phx.com.

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