Bet you didn’t know that!
Did you know that Fort St. George was the first colony settled in New England by the Plymouth Company? The colonists arrived in the New World only a few months after the much better known settlers of Jamestown, who were sponsored by the London Company. The lesser known colony established a fortified town just a bit down the river from Kennebuck, Maine . . . a town made famous recently by the “Zumba Scandal.”
During the reign of King James I of England, there was a competition among English investors as to who could start the first English colony in the New World. The war with Spain had finally ended in 1604. It was finally safe to send ships across the Atlantic to found fledgling colonies. Call it a “space race” of the early 17th century. Investors dreamed of vast fortunes to be made off the settlement of North America. The Roanoke Colony had failed twice. It was time to try again.
Many of the men involved in the Plymouth Company venture had substantial experience with the establishment of colonies in Ireland. England had been trying to subjugate the Irish for centuries, but the Tudor Period English decided the most effective way to beat down Irish resistance was to establish fortified colonies, known as “plantations” in several counties. Excess populations from Scotland and northern England were given lands within planned communities. The native Irish were gradually pushed aside, after their labors were no longer needed for the establishment of colonies. It was exactly the same strategy the English would use in North America against its indigenous peoples.
Also known as the Popham Colony
Tuesday, being the 18th of August, We all went to the shore and there made choice of a place for our plantation, which is at the very mouth or entry of the River of Sagadehock on the west side of the river . . . Captain Robert Davies
It was the most thoroughly planned and supplied colonial expedition attempted by any European power of the era. Spanish colonial expeditions tended to be bloated with non-productive soldiers, who quickly ate up the supplies of the expeditions. Both the early Spanish and English colonies were devastated by massive percentages of deaths from disease. The Pilgrims lost 40 members before they ever touched ground.
The Popham Colony only lost a handful of members during the entire 14 month of its existence. Spanish expeditions also tended to contain participants, who were not required to work because of their noble birth. The Popham Colonists were handpicked by those experienced from the Ulster, Ireland plantations to be the exact number and skills needed to insure the success of the colony. There were no dead beats or invalids. The leaders made sure that all approximately 100 men coming aboard the ship, “Mary and John “were exceptionally stout and healthy.
Even though the expedition did not arrive at the Maine land until mid-August, the colonists and sailors made rapid progress in constructing a fort and a village. It was much better planned than the crude little fort built by the Jamestown colonists.
The architecture at Fort St. George was drastically greater in quality and quantity than that erected by the Pilgrims 14 years later. In fact, the construction of the Pilgrims was downright shoddy. Within two months the Popham colonists had constructed a large, stout fort, a store house, chapel, guard house, a large baking oven, a buttery, a black smith shop, plus substantial houses for the leaders and small houses for the workmen; 29 buildings in all. Highly skilled ship builders began construction of a ship from which the colony could obtain large quantities of fish and lumber. These were the primary export items envisioned by the investors; salted fish, high quality lumber and ships. The marketing plan was very realistic and seemed destined to succeed.
The planners of the Popham Colony made one big mistake, however. The location of the colony had been determined by several previous English voyages of exploration. The planned site was on Sabino Head at the mouth of what is now the Kennebec River. This location provided protected anchorage for hundreds of ships in adjacent Atkins Bay that could not be seen by roaming Spanish raiders. Ships entering the bay were likely to be in “killing range” of the fort, before seeing the English settlement. The large escarpment behind the fort not only protected the fort from spying eyes, but also violent summer storms that blew in from the ocean.
None of the colonists visited the proposed site of the colony in the winter. Folks in Maine consider it one of the coldest places in their state . . . and that is saying a lot. The wind directions reverse in the winter. Bitterly frigid arctic winds beat upon Sabino Head for months during the winter. George Popham, the leader of the expedition died during their first winter there. He was one of the very few casualties of the venture.
Meanwhile, a relative of another leader suddenly inherited a large estate in England and “just had’ to go back home to look after things. Eventually, all of the colonists voluntarily vacated the site, primarily because they didn’t want to spend another winter there. The last to leave did so in a ship (pinnacle) named the Virginia, which they built near Fort Saint George. The ship remained at service on the ocean for many years. It was well built.
The design of Fort Saint George
The French colonists at Fort Caroline were captured by the Spanish in 1565, with hardly a shot being fired. All of the Spanish forts established in the interior of the Southeast were quickly massacred by local natives as soon as the main body of the army went back to the coast. The Spanish couldn’t even hold their new capital, Santa Elena, against Indian attacks. The first salvo from the cannon of a Spanish galleon would have turned Fort King James (Jamestown) into splinters. Both the Roanoke and Jamestown Colonies were furnished a few small cannon that would have been ineffective against attacks by European ships or armies.
Such was not the case with Fort Saint George. The colonists were equipped with nine cannon; most of which could do serious damage to a ship. They were also accompanied by an officer, who was experienced in fortification design, plus a draftsman to prepare his plans. In fact Fort George is the only early European colony for which we have detailed plans. A copy of the plan was stolen by a Spanish spy and whisked off to Spain. In 1888 the site plan was rediscovered in the colonial archives in Spain.
Within two months, the men and sailors working at Fort Saint George had constructed a fortress that could withstand an attack by European soldiers or ship. All of the cannon were at least 34 feet above the mouth of the Sagadahock River (now the Kennebec.) This elevation made it impossible for a war ship of the time, to deliver close broadside fire against the fort. Two of the large bore cannon were perched on the top of the escarpment at about 75 feet above the mouth of the river. The artillery emplacement was extremely vulnerable to attack by Indians from the rear, but would have destroyed most ships attacking it in the bay.
Although Fort Saint George was almost invincible from naval attack, it was extremely vulnerable to an attack by Indians from the rear. This criticism is based on drawings prepared by John Hunt in 1607. Once raiders on foot had surmounted the low earth berm protecting the “citadel” on top of the escarpment, they could turn the cannon onto the village and force it into surrender. Local Indians might not have been able to fire the cannon, but once inside the earth works, there was nothing to stop them from reeking havoc inside the fort.
The attached slide show contains snap shots from a virtual reality computer model of Fort Saint George created by the author. All images are copyrighted and part of his new book, “Earthfast: The Dawn of a New World.”