New England In The Earliest Days

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With the peace of 1604 Sir Ferdinando, like other professional soldiers, some of whom went to Virginia, was rather at a loose end. He was a modest man who had been at Oxford briefly and described himself as “a plain soldier and one that is no scholar.” But he wrote plainly and well, and was interested in the problems of fortification and navigation. The three Indians were a godsend to an energetic soldier with time on his hands at Plymouth Fort. There he was closely in touch with the fishing voyages to Newfoundland, the ships going to and from America and the West Indies. “After I had those people sometime in my custody I observed in them an inclination to follow the example of the better sort, and in all their carriages manifest shows of great civility far from the rudeness of our common people.” (Remember, this is some ten years before the visit of Pocahontas.) “And the longer I conversed with them the better hope they gave me of those parts where they did inhabit, as proper for our uses, especially when I found what goodly rivers, stately islands and safe harbours those parts abounded with, being the special marks I levelled at as the only want our nation met with in all their navigations along that coast. And having kept them full three years, I made them able to set me down what great rivers ran up into the land, what men of note were seated on them, what power they were of, how allied, what enemies they had, and the like of which in his proper place.”

Next year, 1606, came together the two companies, the London and the Plymouth companies, to undertake American plantation in the south and in the north, without a complete separation between each other’s areas and with intermingled rights and claims. Support for the Western company came as much from Bristol as from Plymouth, and here Gorges found common meeting-ground with his Somerset neighbor, Lord Chief Justice Popham, who had been recorder of Bristol. It seems that the idea of a public plantation, instead of a series of individual enterprises, was Popham’s and that it was his influence that got the Virginia charter, combining London and West Country interests. From the beginning the Western ports, with their traditional jealousy and their conflict of interest with London, were displeased: their main interest was fishing, not plantation. And this cast a shadow over the whole future of the Plymouth Company and Gorges’ lifelong efforts.

However, optimistic and ardent, Popham and Gorges came together to send out a ship, victualed for twelve months, under Henry Challons as captain and with a Plymouth pilot who had been with Weymouth on the coast of Maine the year before. They look with them two of Gorges’ Indians from that coast. Their instructions were to make for Cape Breton and then feel their way south and west; instead they made for the West Indies, where they were captured and taken off to prison in Spain. This utter “loss and unfortunate beginning did much abate the rising courage of the first adventurers.” Popham’s second ship, under a Dorset, connection, Captain Thomas Hanham, and the invaluable Pring, made the coast of Maine and brought back such a promising account that “the Lord Chief Justice and we all waxed so confident of the business that the year following every man of any worth formerly interested in it was willing to join in the charge for the sending over a competent number of people to lay the ground of a hopeful plantation.”

Next year. 1607 the same time that the London Company sent its first colony out to Jamestown—the Plymouth Company sent its first plantation out from Plymouth. This consisted of the usual hundred landsmen, with arms and provisions, in two ships: the Gift of God under the stern Chief Justice’s kinsman, George Popham, and the Mary and John captained by Raleigh Gilbert. Shortly after they left, the Lord Chief Justice died. The Spanish ambassador Zuñiga reported joyfully to Madrid that, since he was the most active forwarder of the business and in the position to advance it best, Zuñiga expected it would now drop. And indeed it was a great blow; Gorges writes that Popham’s “sudden death did so astonish the hearts of the most part of the adventurers as some grew cold and some did wholly abandon the business.” In fact, he himself stepped into the breach: from this time forward it was he who most persistently, against all discouragements, kept the idea of New England colonization to the fore.