The Popham Colony — The First English Colony in New England

1607–1608

Popham Colony was the first English colony established in New England. The colony was located in present-day Maine, on the Kennebec River. The colony was started in 1607 — the same year as Jamestown. However, the colony struggled and the settlers decided to abandon it and return to England in 1608.

Sir John Popham, Portrait

Sir John Popham. Image Source: Art UK.

What was Popham Colony?

Popham Colony — also known as Sagadahoc Colony — was the first English colony in New England. It was established on May 14, 1607, at the mouth of the Kennebec River, near present-day Phillipsburg, Maine. The expedition was financed by Sir John Popham and the Plymouth Company and led by George Popham and Raleigh Gilbert. The colonists encountered harsh winter weather, struggled for food, and experienced trouble with the Abenaki People living in the area. Although they built the first ship in America, Virginia, George Popham died in early 1608, and Gilbert decided to return to England. The remaining colonists soon followed and Popham was abandoned after only 14 months. The location of the colony was lost until a site plan was found in Spain in 1888.

Fort George, Popham Colony, John Hunt
John Hunt’s drawing of the site plan for Fort St. George at Popham Colony. Image Source: Maine’s First Ship.

Popham Colony Facts

  1. Popham Colony was established in 1607 in what is now Maine, by the Plymouth Company.
  2. The colony was named after Sir John Popham, the Lord Chief Justice of England, who helped finance the expedition.
  3. The colonists arrived on the ships Gift of God and Mary and John, carrying about 120 colonists — all men and boys.
  4. An Indian named Skidwarres was with the expedition. He had been taken captive by George Weymouh in 1605 and taken to England.
  5. The first leader of the colony was George Popham, who died in February 1608. He was succeeded by Raleigh Gilbert, the son of Sir Humphrey Gilbert and half-nephew of Sir Walter Raleigh.
  6. Another important financial supporter of Popham Colony was Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who also played a role in the establishment of the New Hampshire Colony. Gorges is often referred to as the founder of Maine.
  7. The colonists built Fort George and John Hunt drew a map, which was discovered in Spain in 1888.
  8. The colonists built Virginia, the first ship constructed in America by Englishmen that was capable of sailing on the ocean. When the colonists returned to England, some of them made the voyage on the Virginia.
  9. Some of the colonists returned to England in December 1607. The colonists that remained struggled through a harsh winter.
  10. Gilbert decided to leave the colony in September 1608, and the remaining colonists followed.

Popham Colony Significance

The Popham Colony is important to United States history because it was the first attempt by England to establish a colony in the region that came to be known as New England.

This photograph of Fort Popham shows the location of Fort St. George, which is indicated by the arrow inside the red box. Image Source: Tercentenary of the Landing of the Popham Colony, Maine Historical Society, 1907, Archive.org.

Popham Colony Frequently Asked Questions

What role did the Plymouth Company play in Popham Colony?

The Plymouth Company played a major role in the Popham Colony. The members financed the second expedition to North America, which was led by George Popham, nephew of Sir John Popham, and Admiral Raleigh Gilbert. The company had a charter to exploit the northern part of the region, while the southern part was assigned to the London Company. The Plymouth Company’s objective was to establish a colony at a latitude of about 43 degrees north. The failure of the Popham Colony led to the demise of the Plymouth Company. However, the company was revived by Sir Ferdinando Gorges and others in 1620 as the Plymouth Council for New England.

Why was Popham Colony established?

Popham Colony was established as a commercial venture to take advantage of the resources of the New World and to find a northern route to the Pacific Ocean — also known as the “Northwest Passage.” The Plymouth Company, one of the two English joint-stock companies that had been granted a charter by King James I, hoped to profit from the fur trade, timber, and fish in the area around present-day Maine and also hoped to find gold and other precious metals.

Why was Popham Colony also referred to as Sagadahoc Colony?

The Popham Colony was also referred to as “Sagadahoc” because it was located on the Sagadahoc River — now known as the Kennebec River — in Maine, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean. The term Sagahadoc is derived from the Native American language and means “the mouth of big river.” It was used by early European explorers to refer to the region and eventually became associated with the Popham Colony due to its location on the river.

Who were the key figures involved in the establishment of the Popham Colony?

The key figures involved in the establishment of the Popham Colony were Sir John Popham, Lord Chief Justice of England, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, military governor of Plymouth, and George Popham, Sir John Popham’s nephew, who was appointed as the first president of the colony.

How was Sir Ferdinando Gorges involved with Popham Colony?

Sir Ferdinando Gorges was involved in the establishment of Popham Colony as one of its financial backers. He was also a member of the Plymouth Company, which had been granted a royal charter by James I to establish colonies in the region of North America between the 38th and 45th parallels. As a governor of Plymouth, Gorges had been involved in the promotion of previous explorations of North America, and he saw the colony at Popham as an opportunity to further expand English interests in the New World. Along with Sir John Popham, Lord Chief Justice of England, Gorges helped finance the expedition to Popham Colony and was one of the leading figures behind its establishment. Despite the failure of the colony, Gorges remained committed to the idea of English settlement in North America and continued to support further expeditions to the region.

How did the Zuniga Dispatch lead to the archaeological excavation of the Popham Colony?

The Zuniga Dispatch from London contained two maps documenting British efforts aimed at planting colonies uncomfortably close to the Spanish domains in the New World. The first was a general sketch of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, where the British colony of Jamestown was underway. The other was a detailed plan of Fort St George, drawn by John Hunt, at what has become known as the Popham Colony on the Kennebec River of Maine. Although the maps were initially sent to Spain in an attempt to protect Spanish interests in North America from encroachment by the British, they eventually ended up in the royal archives in Simancas, where they remained hidden for nearly 300 years. When Hunt’s map was found, it identified the location of Popham Colony, allowing archaeologists to explore the site.

Popham Colony AP US History (APUSH) Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study Popham Colony, the 13 Original Colonies, and the New England Colonies for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Popham Colony APUSH Definition

Popham Colony was the first English colony in New England. The short-lived settlement was established in 1607 on the coast of Maine and abandoned after 14 months. Financed by the Plymouth Company, the colony was founded with the goal of establishing profitable trade and finding gold and other precious metals. The colonists struggled with the harsh weather and a lack of food. After the first leader died, his successor decided to return to England and the remaining settlers followed suit.

Popham Colony Video — The History Guy

This video from The History Guy provides an overview of the Popham Colony.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Popham Colony — The First English Colony in New England
  • Date 1607–1608
  • Author
  • Keywords Popham Colony, Sagadahoc Colony, Sir John Popham, George Popham, Raleigh Gilbert, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, Plymouth Company, Virginia Company of Plymouth, Zuniga Dispatch, John Hunt
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 16, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 8, 2024

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