The traditional treatment of Jamestown's "win" is a reminder that history is written by the victorious. The Popham Colony, which failed after 14 months, might have illustrated the corollary of that proposition: History writes off losers by fogging memory and burying evidence of their existence. But in Popham's case, it hasn't worked out that way.
It was named for its president, George Popham (1557-1608), a nephew of England's lord chief justice, Sir John Popham, who was the principal financial backer of the venture. Raleigh Gilbert, a nephew of Sir Walter Raleigh, was its second in command. Concerned about the Spanish and French in America and with visions of a spectacular payoff, a group of English merchants and investors ("adventurers") decided in 1606 to colonize Virginia, their name for the Atlantic coastal territory from North Carolina to Canada. The two colonies they financed were Jamestown in southern Virginia and Popham Colony on the headland of the Sagadahoc (now Kennebec) River in mid-coast Maine.
After a bitter winter, the death of George Popham in February 1608, a struggle with the hardscrabble land, difficult relations with the natives, and a lack of leadership, the colony was abandoned in October 1608. The departing colonists sailed back to England.
European settlement of the area near the Popham Colony site began slowly in the mid 17th century. Since then, word of mouth, a handful of historic documents, and generations of celebrations have kept memory and local interest in the colony alive. The actual location of the colony was not discovered until 1997, when archaeologist Jeffrey Brain of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., definitively determined it, in what he described as "a eureka moment." The key was his imaginative use of a remarkable map drawn by colonist John Hunt seven weeks after the 1607 landing. A copy of the map was found in a government archive in Madrid in 1888. It probably got there after being copied or stolen in 1608 by a spy for Spain's ambassador to London. It shows placement of colony buildings already completed, as well as those planned. Brain says it is "the only detailed plan that exists of an initial English colony anywhere in the New World."
Here's the glad irony: The colony's early failure turned out to be a major archaeological triumph, because the site was left in its original condition rather than being built over, as Jamestown was.
When Popham's 400th anniversary celebration opens today, Spinney's Lobster House will lay on a public lobster bake, and the Bath Municipal Band will give a concert. Celebrants of the traditional Flare Night will include descendants of original Popham and Gilbert colonists; native peoples will make presentations, and local kids will parade. On Saturday, fireworks will memorialize the Popham Colony. Their brilliance will flash a message as enduring as the colony's life was brief: If they cherish memory and keep on digging, losers, too, can write history.
Seymour I. "Spence" Toll is grateful to have
a family house in Popham.