Long before the arrival of Europeans, the land which is now Maine was the home of the Wabanaki (translates to “People of the Dawn”). The Wabanaki are made up of several Algonquin-speaking tribal nations. The five current tribes are the Mik’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Abenaki, and Penobscot, but there were others historically.
The Wabanaki lands include what are now the states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the eastern part of Quebec. This is a land with a long coastline due to the many bays and islands. Inland there are many rivers and lakes, and some high mountains.
Wabanaki is the name used to describe these people as it is the preferred collective name. However, most of these people would have known themselves as members of a tribe, village, and family rather than the larger collective.
The Wabanaki did not always live in peace and both fought wars and made alliances among the various tribes. The Wabanaki also faced incursions from outside such as from the Iroquois to the west.
The waters and marshes were full of fish, clams, oysters, and lobsters. There were also seals and birds to hunt. The Wabanaki also harvested plants and hunted moose, deer, and beaver on the land. Rather than living in a single location, they followed the food seasonally, carrying their houses with them.
When the Europeans arrived, they found lush stands of fruits and nuts along the coasts and waterways, but more dense forest inland. Although the Wabanaki lived within the natural world, they also made significant modifications to it.
The Wabanaki had little to no metallurgy technology and used stone tools. They were efficient hunters and gatherers. The Europeans sometimes referred to them as lazy as they had a significant amount of free time after providing for food and shelter.
The land of the Wabanaki was originally named Norumbega by the French, and later referred to as France Nouvelle (New France) or Acadia. The easternmost peninsula was called New Scotland, a name it still maintains as Nova Scotia.
The French had a colony on an island in the St. Croix River, between Maine and New Brunswick, in 1604. (Maine Encyclopedia)
On May 31, 1607, about 100 men and boys set sail on two ships 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. (Beckenstein, Smithsonian)
In late August 1607, a small band of English colonists landed at the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine to establish the first English colony in New England. (Brain) They also returned a native, Skidwarres, who had been captured by George Weymouth in 1605.
Known as the Popham Colony, it was sister colony to Jamestown and was intended as the northern branch of a coordinated geopolitical effort by England to claim that part of North America lying between Spanish Florida and French Canada. (Brain)
The Popham Colony is named after Sir John Popham, the chief financial investor in the venture, and George Popham, the first president of the colony and Sir John’s nephew. Accompanying George to Virginia was his nephew, Edward Popham, Sir John’s great nephew.
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. (Beckenstein, Smithsonian)
Both colonies were sent out by the Virginia Company – Virginia being the name applied to this entire coast by the English since the days of Sir Walter Raleigh – and were intended to be the initial beachheads of English domination.
As such, they were primarily military outposts designed to defend against attack from both local native inhabitants as well as European antagonists. Once defense had been established, the mandate of the colonists was to explore the new country for exploitable resources and also find the long-sought northwest passage through the continent to the Pacific Ocean.
Both colonies were similar in size and composition, consisting of just over 100 men the majority of whom were soldiers, and were comparably equipped. Both sailed forth in high hopes, confident that they possessed the best human and technological resources that England could muster for the challenge.
The first ocean-going English ship built in the Americas, the Virginia, was constructed there in 1607. It was a shallow draft, decked vessel, with a rounded bow and square stern. This type of boat was designed to sail or row.
Unlike Jamestown, which just managed to survive after horrible trials and thus became the first permanent English colony in America, the Popham Colony has become a mere footnote, its place in history taken by the Pilgrims thirteen years later.
The Popham Colony, however, failed; 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.
After making changes to meet the challenges of deep sea sailing, and accompanied by Mary and John, Virginia made her first Atlantic crossing.
In May 1609, carrying “sixteen proper men more,” the Virginia left England, joining a supply convoy headed to Jamestown. She completed her second Atlantic crossing in September. Although she is rumored to have made more crossings, no documentation has been found.
Most of the returned settlers disappeared into history; a few crossed the Atlantic again to try their hand at Jamestown. The Pilgrims who arrived 12 years later, landing at Plymouth, had obviously learned some lessons from Popham.
“They settled farther south in a milder climate that was more familiar to them and more conducive to agriculture,” says Brain. “They tried harder to work with the Indians. They also brought women and children.
“Luck had a lot to do with these early ventures,” Brain adds, explaining that Jamestown, too, almost failed. Hit hard by disease and starvation, the 50 or so remaining settlers abandoned the colony in the spring of 1610 and were sailing home when they encountered a relief fleet and a new governor, who ordered them back to Jamestown. (Beckenstein, Smithsonian)
Click the following link to a general summary about Popham Colony: