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New England In The Earliest Days
Before Plymouth Colony there was Sagadahoc, the short-lived settlement for which Sir Ferdinando Gorges had high hopes
August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
The colonists arrived safely in Maine and settled down at Sagadahoc on the Kennebec River for the winter, which proved hard. News from the colony was not good. “For first the President himself [George Popham] is an honest man but old and of an unwieldy body and timorously fearful to offend or contest with others that will or do oppose him.” Whereas “Captain Gilbert is described to me from thence to be desirous of supremacy and rule, a loose life, prompt to sensuality, little zeal in religion, humorous, headstrong and of small judgment and experience, otherwise valiant enough.” We see that he was a true son of Sir Humphrey, and now, a generation on, he remembered that his father had had the first grant for North America. “He holds that the king could not give away that by patent to others, which his father had an act of Parliament for and that he will not be put out of it in haste … besides he hath sent into England for divers of his friends to come to him, for the strengthening of his party on all occasions.” Like father, like son; this faction-fighting in the bitter Maine winter, with their storehouse burnt down over their heads, much discouraged the planters. One lesson that needed to be learned was that each colony, to be successful, needed one undisputed head: a Governor Bradford or a Governor Winthrop.
Three months later the second ship returned with nothing to show from a winter in Maine, except to say that, surprisingly, all the colony were well: not a death among them. However, “these often returns without any commodity hath much discouraged our adventurers, in especial in these parts.” But Gorges viewed the question of colonization from a loftier standpoint than immediate profit, and indeed, for himself, he was to spend all his private means and his wives’ upon it—many thousands—and impoverish himself in the end.
The soldier in Gorges realized the strategic importance of possession of the coast. Already the French had a settlement farther up the coast in Acadia. In this year Champlain founded Quebec; the Dutch were sending Hudson to explore the river later called by his name and were shortly to occupy Manhattan Island in the finest harbor in the world. Gorges was there in mind before them: he asked if King James “would be pleased to adventure but one of his middle sort of ships with a small pinnace”—as Elizabeth would certainly have done—“and I durst myself to undertake to procure them to be victualled by the adventurers of these parts, for the discovery of the whole coast along, from the first to the second colony.” Gorges offered himself for the command, would be proud to accomplish it. If it had been taken notice of, the English would have been first on the Hudson. Instead of which: no response.
Gorges and his associates in the West found means to send out two little supply ships from Topsham, and were racking their brains to find the means to send out another of 200 tons the next spring. But there was no return from the colony at all. When the Mary and John arrived with supplies for another year, they found that the president was dead. They brought news that was more disastrous: at home Sir John Gilbert had died, leaving his brother heir to his estate. To claim it Raleigh Gilbert returned home, and the colonists elected to return with him in the Mary and John, and the pinnace they had built that winter. She was the Virginia, first English ship to be built in North America; she survived to make several voyages to Virginia. Considering that all but two of the Sagadahoc colonists had survived, in contrast to Jamestown—the Maine winter seems to have acted as a preservative, perhaps a tonic—it was a most disappointing conclusion.
Thus ended the first plantation in New England—the parallel to Roanoke, 1585–86.
The Western adventurers had lost everything they put into these attempts, and they simply had not the resources of the London Company to go on and on until the plant rooted. (Even so, we know what a near thing it was in Virginia.) However, fishing voyages increased upon the coast and began to creep down to the New England fishery, which had one advantage in that it was much closer inshore than the Grand Banks. From this time forward there were constantly men visiting the coast, some of them remaining there—like Captain Williams from Popham’s colony, whom John Smith found leading a Robinson Crusoe existence on the mainland opposite the island of Monhegan, the best location for fishing. Gorges continued to send fishing vessels along with others in the hope that “by our ordinary frequenting that country” it would in time “yield both profit and content.” Southampton sent a vessel out in 1611 and another in 1614. The first brought back more Indians, one of whom, Epenow from Martha’s Vineyard, was sent to join Captain Weymouth’s Assacumet, from whom Gorges was learning about the Cape Cod area to the south.