Not far from portland along Maine's winding coast, someone has placed a neatly lettered sign on an otherwise undistinguished boulder. It reads: Popham Rock 1607. A play on Plymouth Rock 1620, some 200 miles south? Not entirely. A colony called Popham actually did precede the renowned Massachusetts settlement.
"Popham was the cornerstone in the foundation of English America," says Jeffrey P. Brain, 64, an archaeologist with the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, who is excavating the site of the forgotten colony. "The lessons learned were important to the later success of the Pilgrims."
Popham's value lies in its failure. Its remains, discovered only nine years ago, have been called one of the most significant archaeological sites in the country. Unlike Jamestown, Popham's successful sister colony in Virginia, whose footprint changed as it developed, Popham represents a unique, undisturbed time capsule of a very early North American settlement.
Each September since 1997, Brain has enlisted a few colleagues and some 30 volunteers and amateur archaeologists to work for three weeks at the mouth of the Kennebec River, about 25 miles northeast of Portland. This year's team included an epidemiologist, an engineer, a nurse, a sociology professor and a historian from England. Popham was named after its principal financial backer, Sir John Popham, and his nephew George Popham, the colony's president.
It was founded about 20 years after Sir Walter Raleigh's North Carolina colony disappeared in the 1580s, when, as the economic race with France and Spain heated up, England made another attempt to plant its flag in the New World. In 1606, James I granted a charter to a joint stock company to establish two colonies, one, Jamestown, on the southern Atlantic Coast, and the other, Popham, on the northern.
On May 31, 1607, about 100 men and boys set sail for the northerly destination. Discharged soldiers made up most of the colonists' ranks, but shipwrights, coopers, carpenters and a smattering of "gentlemen of quality" rounded them out. About three months later, the group landed on a wooded peninsula where the Kennebec River meets the Atlantic Ocean, and began building Fort St. George. In December, with winter coming and food scarce, half of the colonists returned to England. The next fall, after erecting several buildings, the remaining 45 sailed home.
Popham's rediscovery came about by two events a century apart. In 1888, a researcher for an American diplomat happened upon a map of Fort St. George in government archives in Madrid. Drawn and signed by Popham colonist John Hunt, it was likely snatched, or copied, by a Spanish spy soon after it arrived in England in 1608.
The only known detailed plan of an early English colony, the map contains sketches of trenched ramparts, a storehouse, a chapel and various buildings—in all, more than 15 structures. Though published in 1890, the map provoked little interest for 100 years, until Brain came upon a mention of the lost colony while vacationing in Maine.
At first "I thought it was some sort of local mythology," he says. "But it was historically known, and I decided it was time to look for it archaeologically."
Research led him to Hunt's map, which took him to Sabino Head, a windy promontory on the Kennebec. Topographical features seemed to match Fort St. George's modified star-shaped contours. Conducting a test excavation on the area in 1994, Brain and his team found a posthole after several weeks of digging. Baffled by not finding more postholes, he "fiddled with the map," rotated it 20 degrees and came up with a dead-on match with the landscape. "It was a eureka moment," he recalls. Soon the crew was "turning up one after another" of the three-foot-wide pine mold-filled holes, eventually 19 in all, outlining the 69-by-20-foot storehouse that Hunt had depicted on his blueprint almost 400 years before.