George Popham, Ronald Reagan and Maine's role in America's first Thanksgiving

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PHIPPSBURG — On a small, pine-tree-laden peninsula at the mouth of the Kennebec River is a quiet spot with a pretty view that is strangely forgotten in the annals of American history.

Some argue the first Thanksgiving celebration in New England took place here long before the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower in Plymouth.

When 120 men arrived in August of 1607 on two British ships, the Gift of God and Mary & John, they intended to establish a permanent plantation in the new world.

They almost pulled it off.

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Their first leader, George Popham, called himself “the president of the Second Colony of Virginia” in a December 1607 letter to King James that he penned in Latin and sent off to London just before winter roared in.

By then, Popham had already concluded “that in these regions the glory of God may be easily evidenced” with an abundance of “products of great value” that included everything from shagbark hickory trees to ambergris, a castoff from sperm whales once used in perfumes.

Though the colonists abandoned their settlement in 1608, before they quit they built a fort with many houses within its walls and crafted the first ship built by the English in North America under the direction of a man named Digby.

“That all happened here?” asked Sharon Keiffer, a tourist from Cleveland checking out the Maine coast. “I never heard of it.”

The Popham colony and its Fort St. George vanished long ago, though some sleuthing by antiquarians and an old map of the fort discovered in Spanish archives pointed the way for archeologists from Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum in 1994 to find the spot where it stood.

There’s nothing much there today, though, except for a little parking lot, a big rock and the scenery, which Keiffer said is magnificent, along with a few homes nearby that actually sit atop part of the site.

It is a historical oddity that the Popham colony, founded only weeks after settlers put down roots in Jamestown, proved far more successful in its first year than its renowned southern counterpart — both funded by British investors who formed the Virginia Company. Yet it was abandoned while the Virginia outpost held on, barely.

Over time, the one in Maine nearly slipped from memory.

Back in the mid-19th century, historians argued about whether the northern colony ever existed at all, though bits and pieces in the colonial archives gradually decided the issue. It was resolved entirely with the discovery in 1888 of a contemporary and quite detailed map of the site by John Hunt.

Filed along with the map in the General Archives in Simancas, Spain, was a Sept. 10, 1608, letter to King Philip III from Don Pedro de Zuniga, the Spanish ambassador to England, who apparently had a pretty solid espionage operation.

But even he couldn’t have yet known at the time he sent the drawing that the colonists had already given up and departed.

Before they left, though, they managed to conduct enough trade with the Native Americans in the area to accumulate “many kinds of furs” and “a good store of sarsaparilla,” used as a painkiller, as well as the new 30-ton ship they constructed, the Virginia of Sagadahoc, according to one early account.

With the exception of Popham, 56, and a few others who perished over the winter, the settlers made it through the “unrelenting snow and ice through five months in succession,” as former Gov. William Williamson wrote in his extensive 1839 history of Maine.

A captain who sailed up from Jamestown found the northern colony “in good forwardness.”

The settlers might have stayed on despite the harsh winter they’d experienced except that the brother of the colony’s second leader died back in England without having sired any children.

As a result, the colony’s new leader, Raleigh Gilbert, learned he had unexpectedly become the master of a fabulous fortified manor on the southern coast of Devon, England.

Not surprisingly, Gilbert chose to go home. And the rest of the adventurers, after taking stock of their situation and remembering the cold they’d struggled with, decided to head back with him, though some eventually wound up in the Americas again.

JOHN POPHAM: DRINKER, GAMBLER, HIGHWAY ROBBER

With the men gone, the settlement slowly fell to ruin and vanished. But a thin thread of memory remained.

About a decade later, William Strachey wrote what he knew, describing how the settlers arrived off the coast of what was not yet Maine, anchoring beside an island on July 31, 1607. They explored the area and then went ashore there, he said, where they “heard a sermon, delivered unto them by their preacher,” Richard Seymer.

Soon after, they anchored in the Kennebec River and chose a place to erect their new plantation, a spot they hoped would anchor the future settlement of New England.

The next day, Aug. 19, they assembled at the site, heard another sermon by Seymer, read some legal paperwork and then chose Popham as their leader.

Popham was the nephew of John Popham, a key funder of the colony and chief justice of the Queen’s Bench in London since 1592, a position he held until his death. John Campbell, a politician two centuries later, called Justice Popham a heavy drinker, gambler and highway robber who swiped the money and valuables of unwary travelers to pay for law school, hardly the first reprobate to make good by turning to politics, but among the most successful.

Justice Popham, once the richest lawyer in England, presided over the trials of Sir Walter Raleigh, who founded the ill-fated Roanoke colony in North Carolina, and the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, who is still burned in effigy each year in England for his role in a scheme to blow up the Parliament building. Popham even had a role in the proceedings that led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

After hosting two kidnapped Wabanaki Indians at his English home in 1605, Popham got the king’s blessing to fund a colony in what became Maine at the mouth of the Kennebec River. He died before anyone reached the place, but his money helped make the venture possible.

On the land overlooking the Kennebec, the colonists agreed to elect a leader and councilors annually, and to preach and observe the Christian religion, namely the Episcopalian faith of the English Crown.

For some, those shoreline sermons to the men eyeing a new life on a mysterious continent amounted to prayers of Thanksgiving.

The Rev. B.F. DeCosta, writing in 1880, may have been the first to stake the claim. He wrote that “members of the expedition (who) landed” on Monhegan Island on the way to their ultimate destination and beneath a cross erected there “observed what may be called the first English Thanksgiving in New England.”

Strachey, however, offered a better candidate for the honor in his early account of Popham’s travails.

Just before the last ship returned to England in the fall of 1607, leaving the colonists to face that brutal Maine winter, the colonists reached out to a nearby friendly Indian named Nahaniida. As Strachey recorded it, Nahaniida arrived with his wife, brother and others in two canoes.

For two days, everyone present “feasted and entertained with all kindness,” with public prayers on Sunday attended “with great reverence and silence.”

It may have been a Kodak moment, but cameras were still more than two centuries away.

RONALD REAGAN GIVES MAINE ITS DUE

Regardless, surely, in the midst of what seemed to them a boundless and inhospitable wilderness, the settlers must have given thanks just to be alive. And they might well have gobbled up some lobster, cod or other local delicacies after their two-month voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, maybe even a turkey.

By doing so, they could have unknowingly established the first Thanksgiving in America right here in Maine.

In recent decades, a number of communities from Virginia to Texas have vied with one another for which should have the honor of claiming the first American Thanksgiving. Maine hasn’t done much to push its claim lately.

Perhaps it should. If it does, it might want to invite Maine’s own U.S. senators to the marketing campaign kickoff.

This year, when Maine U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King pushed through a measure marking National Lobster Day back in September, they included in its text this: “Historical lore notes that lobster likely joined turkey on the table at the very first Thanksgiving feast in 1621” at the Plymouth Colony.

Not 1607. Not Popham.

Maine’s Thanksgiving significance isn’t lost on everyone though.

For no obvious reason, in otherwise mundane holiday musings The New York Times declared in an editorial 99 years ago that “the first American Thanksgiving Day” came “not from Plymouth Rock or Boston, but the Popham Colony.”

Yet the high water mark for Maine’s quiet claim to the holiday arrived back in 1985, courtesy of President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan issued a Thanksgiving proclamation that called “the time and date of the first American thanksgiving observance” uncertain and then went on to cite as his first example that “a band of settlers arriving in Maine in 1607 held a service of thanks for their safe journey.”

There are no known plans by the state to begin promoting the site of Maine’s potential first-in-the-young-nation Thanksgiving. Until it does, it will remain largely to the lucky and the curious to appreciate the unadorned, out-of-the-way spot near Fort Baldwin State Historic Site where George Popham found proof of God’s glory. 

scollins@sunjournal.com

A supposed re-enactment of the first Thanksgiving in Maine was created by the Maine Department of Economic Development in 1964 to promote tourism. “Settler” Reggie Bouchard, the originator of the marketing idea, is far right with a child on his shoulder. Among the others gathered were George Poolaw, an Oklahoma native and former showman and rodeo star, who was wearing a Native American war bonnet from a tribe of the Great Plains. (Maine Department of Economic Development)

The site of the former Popham Colony overlooks the Kennebec River at Fort Baldwin State Historic Site in Phippsburg. Evidence indicates America’s first Thanksgiving could have been here, 14 years before the Thanksgiving commonly attributed to the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.  (Steve Collins photo)

’60s publicity stunt got Maine national Thanksgiving attention

By Steve Collins, Staff Writer

A “reformed newspaper man seeking atonement” helped the Maine Department of Economic Development pull off a public relations stunt that briefly focused the nation’s attention on the Thanksgiving feast allegedly held at the Popham Colony long before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

Back in 1964, Reggie Bouchard, who worked for the state, started “casting about for a gimmick which he might use to publicize Maine without the state’s having to pay advertising rates for it.”

As he proudly put it in a department newsletter he edited, he came up with “the Thanksgiving Feast fable.”

Bouchard teamed up with George Poolaw, an Oklahoma native and former showman and rodeo star who named himself “Chief” on the vaudeville circuit during the Great Depression. He landed in Maine after marrying a divorcee, Lucy Nicolar, a popular singer who billed herself as Princess Watahwaso of the Penobscots.

They became well-known fixtures of the growing Maine tourist trade when they opened a big tepee-shaped shop on Indian Island in Old Town called Chief Poolaw’s Trading Post, selling native goods such as baskets and putting on live shows.

Poolaw was no doubt happy to lend Bouchard a hand as the publicist put together a happy scene along the shore near Popham featuring settlers and Indians gathered around a “groaning festive board” laded with “salt-water provender” such as lobster, haddock, clams and oysters.

Donning them in period garb, he posed Maine’s Broiler Festival Queen, a fake Indian chief wearing the war bonnet of a tribe on the Great Plains, and others around a fabulous feast in a picturesque seaside setting. Bouchard himself sat at the head of the table holding a young Indian boy.

Two photographers who worked for the development office, Clarence McKay and John Norton, snapped shots of the scene.

Bouchard released one of those pictures in the middle of November “when the media were hungry for Thanksgiving Day features.”

He knew his business. Both the Associated Press and United Press International, the two major wire services of the day, carried the photo and it appeared in newspapers in at least 40 states.

Bouchard reported that Johnny Carson showed it on his late-night television show and all three of the television networks put it on the air as well.

“Columnists and editorial writers from here to California, and pretty nearly everywhere in between” weighed in on it, too, Bouchard said.

“It is estimated that this promotion brought the state of Maine to the attention of some 40 million souls,” the department reported. “It’s impossible to estimate the value of this at advertising space rates, but it’s probably safe to say that Reggie earned his week’s pay.”

scollins@sunjournal.com

Chief Justice John Popham was a key patron of the Popham Colony, and his nephew, George Popham, was the first leader of the colony. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Just before the last ship returned to England in the fall of 1607, leaving the Popham colonists to face that brutal Maine winter, the colonists reached out to a nearby friendly Indian named Nahaniida. As William Strachey recorded it, Nahaniida arrived with his wife, brother and others in two canoes. For two days, everyone present “feasted and entertained with all kindness,” with public prayers on Sunday attended “with great reverence and silence.”

This 1607 map by John Hunt depicting Fort St. George at the Popham Colony was discovered 250 years later in Spanish archives, confirming the existence of the fort and colony. (Submitted)

How to visit the site

The Popham Colony site is not the easiest place to find, even if you know where it is.

It’s a little more than an hour’s drive from Lewiston, just a bit farther than the popular Popham Beach State Park in the town of Phippsburg.

Take Route 209 south from Bath, past Popham Beach State Park. About one mile past the park entrance, as the road bears right toward Fort Popham, go straight/left onto narrow Fort Baldwin Road.

Continue beyond a couple of houses, take a sharp left and there is a small parking lot on the right for Fort Baldwin State Historic Site. You’ve arrived.

Fort Baldwin, which dates back to the 19th century, is uphill from the lot. Fort Baldwin State Historic Site is marked on Google and some other online maps. 

The Civil War-era Fort Popham is close at hand, too, impossible to miss looking east from the Popham Colony site. It is not the same site, however.

There is no charge. But there’s also not a whole lot to see.

The Virginia of Sagadahoc is portrayed on a historic marker at the Popham site. Settlers of the Popham Colony constructed the ship during the one year of the colony’s existence, making it the first ship built by the English in North America. (Steve Collins photo)

Raleigh Gilbert was the second leader of the Popham Colony. Once he realized he was heir to a fortified manor on the southern coast of England, he returned to his homeland and the remaining Popham Colony settlers left with him. (Submitted photo)

Popham and Native Americans

When men sailed from England to set up a fort and claim the new land, they didn’t arrive at a place that was open and empty. Native Americans had been here since the glaciers receded thousands of years earlier.

Relations between the colonists at Popham and the Indians were, at best, troubled.

The French Jesuit Pierre Biard, who visited the old fort built by Popham Colony settlers six years after the English departed, wrote that George Popham, who was buried in the fort in a grave not yet discovered, had been “a very honorable man” who treated the natives kindly.

His successor, Raleigh Gilbert, took a different approach. Under his leadership, Baird recorded, the colonists beat and abused the Indians and even “set their dogs on them, with little restraint.”

As a result, Biard said, the Indians decided to strike back. One day when three shallops “were gone away on a fishing trip,” the natives followed and then, coming close “with the best show of friendship,” killed the English with knives. Eleven settlers died, he claimed.

Another story, relayed by former Gov. William Williamson in his 1839 history of Maine, said Indians were asked at one point to pull “a small mounted cannon” by rope. When they grabbed on in front of the barrel, it discharged “giving them all a frightful shock and actually killing and wounding some of them.”

Williamson pointed out that the truth of the stories about the relations with Indians “cannot at this distance of time” be known for certain — and expressed hope the cannon tale was a fable — but it seems likely the Popham pioneers provided fodder for the violence and heartache between natives and settlers for generations to come.

scollins@sunjournal.com

The Popham Colony site in winter. (Steve Collins photo)

“That colony was the beginning of English occupancy of New England, the beginning of English ship-building on the American coast, the beginning of self-government in a colony still dependent on the mother country and its laws; and it must have the respect which, as (Ralph Waldo) Emerson says, always belong to first things.”

— Prof. Henry Chapman of Bowdoin College, 1907

A view from the site of the Popham Colony at Fort Baldwin State Historic Site in Phippsburg. (Steve Collins photo)

A historic marker on the site of the Popham Colony beside the Kennebec River features the Virginia of Sagadahoc, the ship constructed by Popham Colony settlers during the one year of the colony’s existence. (Steve Collins photo)

A historic marker at Popham is shaped like the design of the original fort depicted in a 1607 map. (Steve Collins photo)

U.S. postage stamp from 1957 honors the ship built by the Popham settlers in 1607. (Courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service)

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