The Popham Colony was a little known English colony that was founded just months after the Jamestown Colony in 1607. Unlike the Jamestown colony, however, the Popham Colony settled in present-day Maine rather than Virginia. The Popham Colony was the first settlement in what would become New England.
On May 31, 1607, 120 settlers left Plymouth, England, on their way to the New World. They were sponsored by the Plymouth Company, which was a rival of the Virginia Company – the company that sent settlers to Jamestown. The colonists headed to New England planned to harvest metals, furs, and spices from the region’s forests to make profits. It was named the Popham Colony because its leader was George Popham. The first boat carrying settlers arrived on August 13, followed three days later by a second ship. The colonists, who were gentleman, artisans, farmers, and traders, began construction on a star-shaped fort they named Fort St. George along the Kennebec River. They also built a chapel, guardhouse, a storehouse, and a cooperage where they could build barrels.
The colony failed to thrive at first. Because the settlers arrived late in the summer, there was no time to farm for food and the colony had not yet established relations with the local Abenaki tribe. Half of the settlers decided to sail back to England, and the other half decided to remain at Fort St. George through the bitter Maine winter. Of the 45 remaining colonists, 44 survived the winter. The single colonist to die was George Popham.
In the spring of 1608, the colonists built a 30-ton ship called a pinnace, to show that the colony could be useful in shipbuilding. The ship, which they named Virginia, was the first European ship to be built in the New World. By this time, the colonists had established trade with the Abenaki, and sent a cargo ship back to England with furs and bundles of wild sarsaparilla. When the cargo ship returned, it brought news that the brother of the colony’s new leader, Raleigh Gilbert, had died and that Gilbert was the heir to a magnificent estate. Gilbert decided to return to England as did the remaining colonists almost a year after they landed. Many of them returned on the Virginia.