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Athena Review,Vol.3, no.2: Peopling of the Americas

Maine's Popham Colony

A previously lost settlement (1607-8) now uncovered with the aid of the early Hunt Map, and a little modern archaeological ingenuity.

by William H. Tabor

I found Rootes and Garden hearbs and some old Walles there, ...which shewed it to be the place where they had been...” Traveler Samuel Maverick, 1624, of his visit to the site of the failed Popham Colony.

On August 18th, 1607, one hundred English colonists landed on a windy point a half mile from the mouth of Maine’s Kennebec River. With fall approaching,  leader George Popham, second in charge Raleigh Gilbert (fig.1), and the others listened to a sermon and the reading of their royal “pattent,” then all quickly set about building a settlement they named Fort St. George. Forty-five colonists wintered within newly-erected Fort St. George, also known as Popham Colony, and in the spring a resupply ship reported “all things in good forwardness.” But leader George Popham had died in the winter. And the colony’s new leader, Raleigh Gilbert, learned with the arrival of an early fall resupply ship that his family’s estates in England were his by inheritance, and decided to leave. The colonists, twice bereft of their leaders, elected to abandon their attempt, and all returned to England in the fall of 1608.

Fort St. George sank quietly back into the cold Maine soil, leaving a thin stain in the earth, and all but vanishing from history. So it might have remained had not in 1990 archaeologist Dr. Jeffrey P. Brain, currently a Senior Research Associate at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, chanced to visit a friend who had won a week’s vacation in Maine in a church raffle. Brain’s forty year archaeological career began with excavations at Native American sites in the Mississippi Valley. Over time he grew fascinated with “contact” archaeology, that moment in history when Europeans arrived in the New World. Brain has authored scholarly studies that colleague Dr. Ian Brown calls “absolute classics, comparing historical documentation to the archaeological record;” became an authority on the archaeology of the 1539-42 De Soto expedition; even established a scholars’ symposium to further the study of the French in the New World. Chief archaeologist of Jamestown, William Kelso, labels Brain “one of the great minds in contact archaeology.”  

[Fig.1: Raleigh Gilbert.]

In Maine in 1990, Brain was looking for new challenges. He chanced upon a mention of the failed Popham Colony on a marker at a local historic site. He tracked down nearby Sabino Head, the windy point, and visited its small, grassy state park, tucked in among summer homes, under which many supposed the lost colony lay. Recognizing that the site was isolated, and therefore might be relatively undisturbed, he grew more intrigued. Like the colony itself, much of the written record of its dozen or so months has vanished. “Reader,” writes chronicler Samuel Purchase in his 1625 Pilgrimes, “I had by me...the written Journals of Master Raleigh Gilbert which stayed and fortified there in that unseasonable Winter...with divers letters of Captain [George] Popham and others,” but Purchase relates he will not print them, “they are too voluminous.” History favors Jamestown, Virginia, Plymouth, Massachusetts, and other survivors; the failures, it forgets.

The colony started as an initiative of the highest importance. James I issued the charter forming both the Popham Colony and Jamestown on April, 10, 1606, to grasp for England the unsettled east coast of North America. France recently had planted a colony at the northeast extent of present-day Maine; Spain held Florida. The Virginia Company, thus created, parceled the unsettled east coast to two separate companies: the London Company to settle south of roughly the Hudson River and the Plymouth Company to settle roughly north of the Hudson into Maine. Jamestown’s ships landed three months before those of the Popham Colony. Unlike the Popham colonists, those at Jamestown struggled, but persevered.

The documents surviving on Popham Colony, although maddeningly incomplete, outline its story. Factions formed from the start. President George Popham was old, “timorously fearful to offende” and “of an unwildy body,” but he was also the nephew of Sir John Popham, Chief Justice of England, colony namesake and its chief backer. Second in charge, Raleigh Gilbert, was young, perhaps 24, “desirous of supremacy, and rule, a loose life...prompte to sensuality,” and of higher social standing than his superior. Some references suggest he may have - however wrongly - asserted he had a prior claim, by Elizabeth I’s 1578 patent to his father Sir Humfrey Gilbert, the lost explorer.   Setbacks plagued the Popham Colony. The Maine winter was unusually severe. Fire broke out in the midst of it, damaging buildings and destroying provisions. The Indian trade yielded little return, and relations with the local people, the Abenaki, were strained.

Ultimately, three deaths determined the colony’s fate. Sir John Popham died in 1607 in England. President George Popham died at Popham Colony in February 1608. Raleigh Gilbert’s brother died leaving to him the extensive Gilbert estates in England, a surprise, no doubt, for the youngest of seven children seeking his fortune in the New World.   Documents record that at Fort St. George the colonists built a trenched fortification, a large storehouse, a chapel building, and a house for Raleigh Gilbert. Shipwrights who accompanied the voyage constructed a small vessel called a pinnace, which the colonists named the “Virginia” and sailed to England on their return.   A chance surviving document especially caught Brain’s attention. Among the items of espionage that Spain’s ambassador to London, Pedro de Zuniga, secreted to his Lord, King Philip III, in 1608, were accounts of Popham Colony, and a map of it, drawn by one John Hunt. The map (critical to further discoveries at Popham) has fortunately survived (fig.2).

“The Draught of St. Georges fort Erected by Captayne George Popham Esquier one the entry of the famous River of Sagadahock [present day Kennebec], in virginia [the English name at that time for the unsettled east coast lands] taken out by John Hunt the viii day of october in the yeare of our Lorde 1607.” So reads the legend on the map, which shows a star-shaped fortification, clearly modified to fit a specific land form, and, within it, 25 individual structures, each labeled: “the Presidente howse,” “the Chapell,” “the Admirals howse,” etc.. Details show gables, chimneys, even posts and rafters. Another legend on the map’s margin provides “The Scale of feet & Paces.” In the surf, to the north of the Fort, a one-masted ship fills its sails with the breeze, certainly the “Virginia.” Brain writes that “Initial European contacts and footholds...[tend] to be exceedingly fleeting and astonishingly fragile affairs which [leave] little evidence in the archaeological record.... [U]nlike so much historical archaeology, which is blessed with standing architecture, massive features, and enormous quantities of artifacts, the archaeology of the early historical period is spectral: tiny needles in a vast continental haystack” (Brain 1996).

Unique as the only plan of an initial English settlement in the Americas known to survive, the John Hunt Map seemed to Brain a possible once-in-a-lifetime key to finding the needle in the haystack.   The stone spit of Sabino Head stretches out into Atkins Bay. In summer the blue waters surrounding it sparkle, and the Kennebec meets the ocean a short distance away. Nearby Fort Popham underscores its strategic location. In 1993, Jeffrey Brain revisited Sabino Head, this time to walk it with a colleague, with the John Hunt Map in hand. To his excitement, he found a close correlation between the land forms and the map (fig.3). Since then, the John Hunt Map has closely guided Brain’s excavations. “If we had not known precisely what to look for, both artifacts and features, and if we had not persisted, it is unlikely that we would ever have confirmed the location of Fort St. George,” he says.

Scholars viewed the John Hunt Map with skepticism. President George Popham sent to James I a report that the Native Americans say “there are nutmegs, mace and cinnamon in these parts” and that just seven days away lies “none other than the Southern Ocean, stretching towards the land of China:” the fabled and sought-after northwest passage. The Hunt Map, in the permanence of the fortifications it shows, number of structures, elaborate gates, and especially its almost whimsical embellishment, similarly strains credulity. John Hunt enlivened the map with fiery blasts from the cannon, pennants flapping atop rather fantastic crenelated gates, and a walled garden outside the ramparts. “A lot of us poo-poohed the map,” says Pemaquid, Maine archaeologist Neill DePaoli, as “highly exaggerated fiction, created trying to promote things back home.”  

[Fig.2: The John Hunt Map of St. George’s Fort was drawn in 1607 (north is at left). Foundations of four structures (storehouse, Admiral’s house, buttery, and Vice Admiral’s house) have so far been uncovered (courtesy Maine Historical Society).]

Still, the map had been taken seriously enough to inspire 1962 and 1964 Sabino Head excavations by Wendell S. Hadlock. He trenched extensively, but found no foundations of stone. He did dig through evidence of burning, and uncovered a few artifacts, notably North Devonshire sherds, but at the time he could not date these with precision. Hadlock concluded that at best, while the site might be Popham Colony, erosion and disturbances left little remaining. Reviewing Hadlock’s notes, Brain felt the same results did not rule out the presence of the colony. Hadlock could easily have missed Fort St. George, expecting obvious foundations and using relatively crude methods. Hadlock dug only the width and depth of a shovel blade, and failed to note such basics as vertical position of the artifacts discovered.  

Brain agreed that the map exaggerated. The colonists had 52 days to build before October 8, 1607, the date of the map; John Hunt must have drawn structures from his imagination. But Brain’s walk told him the modified star shape fit the land well. And hadn’t the colonists accomplished much? They built a fortification with buildings (numbered by one source in Thayer [1892] at “50 howses therein”), explored the Maine coast and interior, and built the “Virginia.” To Brain, at the worst, the question posed was: How much of it is real, how much, fancy?  

If Brain could establish Fort St. George at Sabino Head, the excavations would yield a unique glimpse of the very moment of creation of English North America. The 1607-1608 strata, however scant and hard to read, would offer for archaeologists a precise and certain one year dating, a bit like a New World Pompeii. Hunt’s sketches, if validated, would illustrate that moment’s architecture. And locating the colony would restore to a place in history the half of the Virginia Company’s colonizing attempt that history forgot.

“I had an advantage,” says Brain, even before breaking ground. “I was expecting subtleties.” He anticipated thin strata, a bare scatter of artifacts. Rather than looking for foundations, he would probe for faint traces of impermanent structures, quickly raised by setting posts in holes for uprights, and laying sills directly on bare ground, a technique called “earth-fast” construction.

In 1994, Brain set out to find Fort St. George at Sabino Head, or, in his words, provide “ground truth” for the Hunt Map, a phrase often used for verifying sites discovered in aerial photos.   Completing his own, careful contour survey of the Sabino Head site, Brain sank a test pit to assess the site’s geology and  intrusions. This revealed six feet of soil atop Maine bedrock, including sterile beach sand; glacial till mixed with a few, miscellaneous prehistoric artifacts; some 19th century disturbances; and major disturbances in the 20th century from Fort Baldwin, a temporary military installation without cellars.

The Hunt Map depicts the storehouse as the largest structure within Fort St. George. His sketch shows it as eight bays long, two bays deep, with wattle and daub walls and a thatched roof. By Hunt’s scale, the building measured 72 by 18 ft overall, at nine feet per bay. A mid-17th century document by Sir Ferdinando Gorges (1658) confirms the storehouse was built, used, and apparently burned as well. Brain chose it as the place to start.

They dug for weeks and failed to find even one, indisputable 17th century artifact. After seven long weeks, excavators found a post hole. It was large, 70 cm in diameter, and within it, the post “mold” (fill created by the rotted away, original post) indicated it held a pine post, roughly squared to about 1 foot on each side. Probes failed to turn up any further evidence, and at this point the season closed.

Despite the most meager of yields, Brain did believe he had probably located a storehouse post hole and Fort St. George. For two intervening years, Brain worked on field notes and analyzed the first season, convinced “more archaeology” waited to be done. Returning to the Hunt Map, he continued to study it. He fiddled with how he first had fitted it to the site’s topography. Then came a breakthrough: Brain discovered that if he rotated the map 20 degrees east of magnetic north, its star-shaped fortification fitted to his spring 1994 contour map with “one-to-one” precision. And, the structures John Hunt sketched seemed to fit the actual landscape so logically that Brain grew convinced of the accuracy of the 17th century draftsman’s “Scale of feet and Paces.”

In October, 1997 Brain fielded a brief, one week project to test the new hypothesis. He excavated along a theoretical line 20 degrees east of north. He expected to find additional post holes from the storehouse’s east wall at approximately nine foot intervals.

John Bradford, a fieldwork volunteer for four seasons, remembers that week. “It poured rain the first day, and we couldn’t work.” When it cleared the next day, the excavators sank simultaneous meter squares along the new line, nine feet apart. Everyone found post holes, all at once. “Every ten minutes, someone would shout out.” Six days confirmed five posts, right where John Hunt “predicted”. “It was probably the most exciting moment I’ve had in archaeology,” Brain says. “It was a ‘eureka’ moment.” The new holes averaged 75 cm in diameter, the molds showed squared posts roughly one foot square, the holes lay at nine-and-a-half foot intervals. Construction evidence emerged: burned sills between the posts, upon which wall studs were set, associated structural timbers, daub (fired clay) from the walls, and carbonized thatch, from the roof.

A small, secondary post associated with one post hole suggested the door frame shown by John Hunt. Turning 90 degrees west, measuring 19 feet, because John Hunt shows two bays, Brain sank a meter square. It immediately yielded a western wall post.  “Hunt’s oblique perspective of this structure gives us both the plan and elevation which reveal the exact dimensions, configurations, and details of construction,” Brain writes. “John Hunt confirms the details of construction (post and beam, timber-framed) that we found preserved. His stylistic conventions clearly indicate that the walls between posts were made of wattle and daub. The convention is a series of wavy lines, clearly evident in the drawings. Hunt also shows that the roof of the storehouse was thatched.”

[Fig.3: Overlay of the Hunt Map on an 1865 topographic map of Sabino Head (Brain 2001).]

In one short week, Brain confirmed Sabino Head as the site of the Popham Colony, located the northern two-thirds of the storehouse, and confirmed the cartographer’s construction details. John Hunt’s map was proving an accurate guide. No one stopped digging on Sunday evening until darkness fell.

1998 excavations completely exposed the storehouse’s north gable-end and uncovered five west wall posts, making the total six. Each paired with an east wall post, confirming the storehouse was constructed in regular bays. “As we worked south along both walls,” in 1998, Brain wrote, “the preservation improved markedly.” By the middle of the structure, the excavators uncovered entire bases of the pitch pine posts, surviving in the post holes. The remains of the sills the colonists laid on the ground between the posts were clear in outline. Bounded by them, and intact, lay the 1607-08 floor surface, its artifacts lying in situ..

Within this closed context, Brain found ceramics, glass trade beads, case bottle fragments, a clay pipe, many nails, lead munitions, armor, and iron hardware. Whereas at Jamestown, an excavation might yield thousands of artifacts, at Popham, the figure is scores, perhaps hundreds. Still, all these finds, writes Brain, are “consistent with an early 17th century English military trading establishment.” Most remarkably, in the southeastern corner lay a caulking iron, used in shipbuilding. The construction of the pinnace “Virginia” was arguably the colony’s signal accomplishment.

Although history and archaeology never replace one another, in the historic archaeology of the Popham Colony site they closely interplay. As Dr. Ian Brown notes, archaeology sometimes proves historical data, sometimes revises it, and sometimes goes “above and beyond the written records.” Brain concludes that the storehouse artifacts show the colony’s goods were “cheap and of poor quality,” supporting documentary evidence. Dense distribution of military artifacts in the south end of the storehouse suggest that that area served as the colony’s armory; glass beads concentrated in the north end suggest handling and storage of colony trade goods. Brain thinks the general scarcity of objects on the 1607-1608 surface shows the colonists emptied the storehouse when they left Fort St. George, and then it subsequently burned. If true, this corrects a document (written fifty years after the colony’s abandonment) which says the wintertime fires burnt the storehouse. Brain also thinks documents suggesting the colony suffered due to poor leadership, and poor planning need rereading “with fresh eyes.” From the storehouse excavations it is clear that Popham Colony’s leaders brought to the New World properly equipped, skilled carpenters who built the storehouse both quickly and well - clear evidence of planning, preparation, and execution under challenging circumstances.

The 1999 season focused on finding “The Admirals Howse” of Raleigh Gilbert, shown on the John Hunt Map forty feet south of the storehouse, and perpendicular to it. Documents reported by Banks (1929) confirm it was built. Hunt sketches an approximately 30 foot long, 12 foot wide dwelling with a chimney in the west gable end, 4 bays in the front facade, post-in-ground framing, wattle and daub walls, and a thatched roof. Brain knew the hearth would be a feature relatively easy to locate. He hoped, should the dwelling be located, its artifacts might reflect Gilbert’s social rank as highest among the colonists.

Brain started excavations at the northwest corner post of Gilbert’s house, as “predicted” by the John Hunt Map. He found artifacts of a finer quality than those of the storehouse, but no post. A house probably lay nearby; but there was no 1997 “Eureka!” Excavators probed north and east, as the season closed. A layer of daub, charcoal, and thatch debris covering the mold of a burned post emerged, and another feature, too: rocks set in a clay mortar. “Although we did not have form or dimensions, the evidence was fully consistent with the expected chimney and wall features of the Raleigh Gilbert house,” Brain writes in 1999.

[Fig.4: Details of hearth and post holes at the Raleigh Gilbert house (Brain 2000).]

Expectations ran high as the 2000 season opened. Brain planned intensive excavations to lay open almost all the house footprint. He succeeded in locating 12 more, irregularly placed post holes which outline a 33 foot by 11 foot structure with a hearth at its west end (fig.4). Abundant evidence of wattle and daub and thatch confirm, again, the construction details Hunt illustrated. Especially as Brain hoped, the artifacts located were more numerous, varied and distinguished than those of the storehouse. Sherds of North Devonshire ware, Delft, and Bellarmine ceramics, bits of etched wine glass and case bottles, ornamental glass buttons, jet beads, remains of armor, and of lead munitions all suggest the table, dress and activities of a gentleman (glass buttons were part of a gentleman’s dress) and leader of a colony.

Jamestown’s John Smith writes in 1631, that colonists there erected a crude and quick style building using “crotchet post,” construction. Brain believes the Gilbert house may have been made this way, with y-shaped, crotched timbers set in the ground, and horizontal plate timbers set into these, the rafters joined using nails. Burnt artifacts and debris, some mixed in the fill of four central post holes, shows that fire damaged the Raleigh Gilbert house; but that the house was then repaired and reoccupied. This, Brain supposes, may be the winter fire recorded in Gorges’ 1658 report.

In 2000, Brain also succeeded in locating Fort St. George’s western fortification rampart and trench, which Hunt’s map shows forming the fort’s south and west perimeter. This large feature proved elusive; efforts to find it failed in 1994, 1997, and 1998. Brain reopened the west end of a 1998 meter square to continue west a line dug perpendicular to the storehouse wall. Diggers quickly intersected the rampart remains - heaped-up, brown, sandy loam - clearly visible in profile in the excavation’s trench wall. The colonists scraped the rampart material from a 20 ft wide, shallow trench, shallow due to hardness of the cobbles and hard sand beneath the thin layer of sandy loam. After abandonment, the trench filled with silts and sands, as the preserved lenses show.

Most Recent Findings: In August, 2001, as in August, 1607, a crew (armed with shovels, rather than muskets) landed upon Sabino Head for a brief stay. Five prior seasons of excavations had confirmed the Popham Colony’s location, and found three of its man-made structures, guided by John Hunt’s remarkable plan. Now the biggest test yet of the Hunt Map waited beneath the grassy park grounds.

In the three weeks of the 2001 field season, Brain and his field crew uncovered a total of 53 square meters in search of four structures east of the storehouse: the buttery, the Vice Admiral’s house, the Munition Master’s house, and the Provost’s house, which no written record mentions. John Hunt maps them, and bits of archaeological information have seemed to support their existence. Hadlock trenched right through the area in the 1960s; his notes mention burned materials. In 1994, Brain encountered a small post mold or stain in the area, suggesting that this might belong to the buttery.

Now the most recent work at the Popham site seems to have provided verification. In a recent interview with AR, Dr. Brain has confirmed evidence of at least two additional structures in the Popham settlement, the buttery and the Vice Admiral’s house. The 2001 findings of additional postmolds and a quantity of artifacts within the post hole array of the Vice Admiral’s house adds new substance to its remains. Both the broken-off stems of kaolin tobacco pipes, and considerably more pottery was found including German stoneware and other ceramics diagnostic of the early 17th century period.

The 2001 excavations, meanwhile, also revealed bullets and bullet casting fragments, indicating either hunting or defensive activities. Documentary evidence has suggested the Popham Colony’s relations with the local Indian population may not have been too friendly, and sporadic battles between colonists and the Eastern Abenaki tribe may have occurred.

How much of the John Hunt Map will Dr. Brain ultimately be able to verify? At Sabino Head, where, in this case, history is archaeology’s handmaiden, that remains to be seen. Already, archaeology is bringing to life a footnote in history, as with slow seasonal progress, and painstaking, precise methodology, Jeffrey Brain reveals the extent of the Popham Colony’s band of one hundred colonists’ unrecognized accomplishments. Little by little, with the help of John Hunt, he hopes to continue to raise from the cold Maine soil the “old Walles” of the failed Popham Colony.


Banks, Charles Edward. 1929. “New Documents Relating to the Popham Expedition, 1607.” American Antiquarian Society Proc. Vol. 39, part 2.

Bradford, John W. 1999. “John Hunt’s ‘draught of Ft. St. Georges fort’ In Context & Where Was The Pinnace VIRGINIA Built?" Paper written for the Virginia Project, Inc., Phippsburg, Maine.

Bradford, John W. 2001. Personal communication.

Brain, Jeffrey P. 2001. The Popham Colony, An Historical and Archaeological Brief. 3d.Rev. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.

Brain, Jeffrey P. 2001, 2002. Personal communications.

Brain, Jeffrey P. 2000. Fort St. George V: 2000 Excavations at the Site of the 1607-1608 Popham Colony on the Kennebec River in Maine. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.

Brain, Jeffrey P. 1999. Fort St. George IV: 1999 Excavations at the Site of the 1607-1608 Popham Colony on the Kennebec River in Maine. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA.

Brain, Jeffrey P. 1996 “Introductory Remarks,” The Review of Archaeology. Vol. 17 No.2, pp.1-5.

Brown, Ian. 2001. Personal communication.

DePaoli, Neill. 2001. Personal communication.

Gorges, Sir Ferdinando. 1658. A briefe narration of the original undertakings of the advancement of plantations into the parts of America. Nathanial Brook, London.

Hume, Noel Ivor. 1994. The Virginia Adventure. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Hunt, John. 1607. Maine Historical Society, Portland, Maine. “The Draught of St. Georges fort Erected by Captyn George Popham Esquire one the entry of the famous river of Sagadahock in virginia taken out by John Hunt the viii day of October in the yeare of our Lorde 1607.” ff 430.

Kelso, William. 2001. Personal communication.

Maverick, Samuel. “A Briefe Description of New England and the Severall Townes Therein, Together with the Present Government Thereof.” New England Historical and Genealogical Register. Vol.39, pp.34-35, quoted in Noel Ivor Hume, The Virginia Adventure. p.120. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Quinn, David B. and Quinn, Allison M., eds. The English New England Voyages. The Hakluyt Society, London, 1983.

Thayer, Henry O. 1892. Sagadahoc Colony. Gorges Society, Portland, Maine.

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