Forefather's footsteps: Meet the Pophams

An unexpected e-mail from the United States led The Independent’s Rome correspondent Peter Popham on a journey of discovery to the land of his pilgrim forefathers
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The Independent Online

Wednesday 7 March 2007

A childhood memory stirs: an old black and white photograph of a stretch of empty sea and sand; written underneath, the words Popham Beach, Maine, USA. Some ancestor of mine had landed at an early date on the coast of Maine and got the beach named after himself. That was as far as the family story went.

What prompts the memory is an e-mail that has arrived out of the blue from Maine, sent by a man called Bud Warren:

"Hello, Peter

What's ahead is a commemoration of the Popham Colony 1607/1608, sponsored in large part by Chief Justice John Popham. Wanted you to know about it."

After doing a bit of rooting around, I learn that George Popham, a former pirate captain, led the first English attempt to colonise New England, 13 years before the Pilgrim Fathers dropped anchor at Plymouth Rock in the Mayflower in 1620; and barely three months after Jamestown, in present-day Virginia, which is regarded as the first colony, had been established. Most of the money, as Bud wrote, came from another kinsman, George's brother (or perhaps uncle) Sir John Popham.

My family, it appears, has an excellent claim to be named among the founding fathers of the United States! And the good people of Popham Village (for a place of that name still exists) are not about to let their 400th birthday slip by unnoticed:

"THE POPHAM 400 COMMEMORATION – 23-26 August 2007 [Bud wrote] combines entertainment, much of a period nature, historical reenactors, music, arts and crafts, the fifty-year tradition of the George Popham Flare and bonfire ... A tasteful combination of history, education and entertainment ..."

The problem of where to go on holiday this summer is solved!

Friday 6 April

It seems I have entered the extended family circle. I am getting e-mails from something called the Popham Family Newsletter, by and about people with my surname scattered around the US. Today I receive an e-mailfrom a character called Peter Popham in Atlanta, Georgia, subject "Burlesconi" [sic]. "Hello Peter," Peter Popham writes, "I read your columns whenever I am able to spare a time to read about the world around me. I have especially enjoyed your pluck and brutal honest reporting in the Berlisconi [sic] scandals ..."

I reply to my namesake saying we are planning to visit Maine for the anniversary. He writes back at once – he'll be coming, too. "I, and my son James Popham, will certainly try to make the affair and enjoy and revel in this historic occasion. We hope to be able to attend the Kentucky Derby ... I am told the Queen will attend. I think She and the Royals are quite wonderful. She loves horses ... So do we ..."

What am I getting in to?

Tuesday 15 May

Jamestown has just celebrated its 400th anniversary. Sixty-five thousand people poured into the place, including the Queen, Peter Popham of Atlanta Georgia, and President Bush. Jamestown's fame has gone around the world. So why is Popham so obscure?

England was late getting into the colony game. Spain and France were already hacking away at America before the English had even got started. But once the Spanish Armada had been scattered in 1588, prospects began to improve, and by 1607 they were ready to try to colonise what they then called "Virginia" – the whole coast of north-east America between Spanish-held Florida and French-held "Nova Francia" (now Nova Scotia). A royal charter was prepared and investors piled in with cash. Nobody knew what north America contained, or how far it extended, or how easy or difficult it might be to go from there to Cathay ... and where the facts are missing, dreaming is free. The Spanish had grown rich from the gold and ruby mines of the south. Why shouldn't England do the same from Virginia?

Among the boosters of the Virginia Company were Sir Ferdinando Gorges of Plymouth, who several years later bankrolled the Pilgrim Fathers, and Sir John Popham.

Born in 1531, John Popham deserves to be better known. The portrait in the Popham family history shows a huge man swathed in ermine, with a high crowned velvet hat on his head, an elaborate chain of office draping his shoulders, incorporating wrought images of portcullises and fleur de lys. His right hand holds a pair of gloves, his left grasps a staff. There is power and menace in his steady gaze.

To call this man "larger than life" doesn't quite cover it. Born and raised in Somerset (and stolen by gypsies, it was said, as a child), he graduated from Balliol College, Oxford, then supposedly paid his way through law school by robbing travellers at gunpoint. Mending his ways, he hauled himself up the greasy poles of law and politics, serving as a Member of Parliament, Speaker of the House of Commons and Attorney-General before being appointed Lord Chief Justice in 1592.

Popham's severity as a judge became proverbial: among his many victims were Mary Queen of Scots, the Earl of Essex, Guy Fawkes and Sir Walter Raleigh. But his was also a creative mind, sometimes startlingly ahead of its time. He was the force behind the draining of the Fens, for example. Along with Raleigh and others he promoted the creation of the first colony of "uncontaminated" Protestant Englishmen in Munster, Ireland in 1586 – though the scheme ended in bloody mayhem 12 years later. He dreamed of turning America into an English penal colony, a place to dispose of "cashiered captains and soldyers ... poor artezans & idell vagrants ... whose Encrease threateneth the state." As the richest lawyer in the land, with a fabulous country house, Littlecote, in Wiltshire, he dreamed of growing even richer on the proceeds of Virginia's imagined gold mines.

The royal charter divided the Virginia Company into two ventures, the London Company and the Plymouth Company, with Popham and Gorges as the main players in the latter. The London Company was granted Virginia between latitudes 34° and 41°N, while Plymouth were given claim over 38° and 45°N. "Each company was to plant its initial colony within the non-overlapping portions of the respective grants," writes Jeffrey Brain, the archeologist of the Popham Colony site ( "The degrees of overlap ... were to be claimed by the first colony that was strong enough to do so." Thus, the conquest of Virginia became a two-horse race.

The London Colony made it first, reaching the coast of Virginia and establishing Jamestown in May 1607: the beginning of English America. But the two Popham ships, the Gifte of God, captained by the former privateer George Popham, and the Mary and John, were not far behind. They anchored off the coast of Maine on 7 August, and after exploring the Sagahadoc river (now the Kennebec) chose a spit of land near its mouth called Sabino Head for their colony: out of sight of possible French ships prowling up the coast in search of trespassers, but small and elevated enough to be defended from sea attack if necessary. On 20 August "All our companyes Landed," crew member Robert Davies wrote in his journal, including "our presedent Captain popham ... all the rest followed and Laboured hard in the trenches ..."

What they were labouring at was Fort St George. And by an amazing fluke we know exactly what it was meant to look like: seven weeks later a skilled draughtsman called John Hunt made a detailed scale drawing of "St Georges fort Erected by Captayne George Popham on the entry of the famous River of Sagahadoc, in virginia"; the map was obtained the following year by Spain's crafty ambassador in London, and turned up nearly three centuries later, in perfect condition, in the archives of the King of Spain: "an extremely important document," as Jeffrey Brain writes, "since it is the only detailed plan we have of an initial English settlement anywhere in the western hemisphere." Suck on that, Jamestown.

There is something desperately poignant about Hunt's plan. It shows a perfectly completed fortified settlement, protected by battlemented walls and trenches, containing 25 structures including a church with a belltower, sturdy houses with chimneys, gates with pennants flying from their turrets, large canons mounted on the walls with smoke billowing from their barrels, a pretty little pinnace riding at anchor just offshore, her mainsail hoisted.

Executed less than two months after the colonists' landed, this was a picture of what was meant to be. But within just over a year, the colony was abandoned. George Popham, who was middle-aged or older when he first came ashore, died there in February 1608, thus becoming perhaps the first White Anglo-Saxon Protestant to leave his bones in New England. Within another seven months the remnant had turned tail and fled. The region of the Sagahadoc River, they reported, was "a cold, barren, mountainous, rocky desert, an intolerably cold and sterile region, not inhabitable by our English nation."

Some 20 years later an Englishman called Samuel Maverick visited the site and found only "Rootes and Garden hearbs and some old walles." Today there is a small car park and a grassy knoll with nothing on it at all.

Popham Colony is a footnote to history, Jamestown's ill-fated, short-lived twin. But that doesn't stop the residents of Popham making the most of their place in the history books.

Monday 20 August

Our party has grown from the nuclear Pophams to encompass half my wife's family as well. At one stage we thought we would have to rent a camper to contain us all, but have downsized to the biggest obtainable SUV. The only Popham outside my immediate family who I really know, Mike Popham of the BBC World Service, has helped us to rent a cottage close to Popham Beach for the duration of the festivities. We have maps, guide books, dollars, cleft sticks – yet despite all the pictures in the Dorling Kindersley guide, and all the American films one has seen, our destination remains unimaginable. I think of George Popham and his crew, gazing out from Plymouth Hoe in May 1607, trying to envisage where they might fetch up – and utterly failing, like me.

Wednesday 22 August

We have arrived. And everything is profoundly familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. We stay in an old clapboard B&B in Salem, north of Boston. Why are the locks on the front doors so flimsy? Are there no robbers in America? Why do American brick houses look as if the bricks are painted on canvas and would collapse at the slightest touch? We see our first American fatties and hoboes, notice the way a town like Salem slides from gentility into dereliction in the space of a couple of blocks, spot our first drive-thru store, this one selling newspapers. The car is king in the American city – maybe that's why they drive so slowly and solemnly: noblesse oblige ...

Our rental car is a Ford Expedition. You don't find cars like this in Europe. It is flame red, high as a truck, and has automatic transmission and deep, soft seats; it's like driving a mattress. It also costs a fraction of an ordinary hire car in Europe. The fuel is about half the price, too.

We drive up the Interstate 95 from Salem, then leave it and drive through the pretty town of Bath, then down a long and winding two-lane carriageway called Popham Road, location of our cottage. Being a Brit, I had imagined brick or stone, and a cottage-like look. Instead it is clinker-built, and long and oblong, and surrounded by pine trees. It has a big screened porch: we need the screens because Popham is plagued with mosquitoes – soft and blundering compared to their southern European relatives, but they sting none the less. Sitting in the porch you can hear the distant roar of the breakers.

We are close to the mouth of the River Kennebec – slow, broad, deep, tree-fringed, reminding me of the rivers of Goa more than any European river, a blessed sight for any ocean-tossed mariner. Popham Village, a couple of miles from our cottage, is a peaceful place, a handful of pretty white homes and a clapboard chapel, then the sandy beach, with small islands dotting the waters.

From seeds flung here by Englishmen four centuries ago has sprung the most powerful nation on earth – but the place where they landed has changed little. In fact in some ways it was livelier back then. The first European to set eyes on these shores was the Genovese explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524, who called it "The Land of Bad People". When the natives had done trading with the visitors – lowering their merchandise in baskets from the cliffs to avoid closer contact – they "made at us all the signs of contempt and disdain which any brute creature could make," Verrazzano reported, "such as exhibiting their bare behinds and laughing immoderately."

Thursday 23 August

"POPHAM 400th" got underway today. With "classical bagpiper" Jeff Herbster at the head, the participants – the folks from Popham Beach, local dignitaries, a handful of descendants of the colony's settlers and various taggers-on – sauntered to the old Civil War fort at the far end of the village for speeches of welcome, and so forth. The highlight was when a Native American, called Reuben "Butch" Phillips of the Penebscot Nation, set fire to a mixture of herbs in a clam shell and fanned the smoke over us with the feathers of a bald eagle, in what he called a "traditional smudging ceremony". He was representing the indigenous peoples who gave da Verrazzano such a noisy reception – later decimated by the white man's diseases.

Having Butch here is a sign of the times, as he said himself. "Twenty-five years ago, I wouldn't have been invited," he told the audience. "And we didn't do our sacred ceremonies out in public." The Indians have been in retreat for most of the 400 years since Popham arrived. Slowly and belatedly, in Maine as elsewhere, they are getting a modicum of justice.

Friday 24 August

The grassy knoll where the English crew once "Laboured hard in the trenches" is once again a scene of hectic activity. A group of "17th century Re-enactors" have arrived in period dress and set up bellows and anvil, spinning wheel, shaving horse and other bits of archaic equipment and are busy turning out handmade nails, barrels, textiles and jam.

By what was once the fort's "water gate", a large group of Pophams from Georgia all wearing powder blue, "Popham Family Reunion" sweatshirts are having their photographs taken.

Jeffrey Brain gives us a tour of Fort St George. Until a dozen years ago the fort's existence was an item of local faith but little more. Now it is scientific fact: in 1994 Brain began digging and succeeded in locating the postholes for the wall posts of the fort's storehouse. They were exactly where John Hunt's plan said they ought to be. He has unearthed more than 1,000 artefacts left behind by the colony, including fragments of jugs, jars and clay pipes.

Brain has also established the outline of the house of Popham's second-in-command, Raleigh Gilbert, the man who took over the colony when Popham died in February 1608 – and who five months later led all the men home in the pinnace they had built, the Virginia, on learning that he had inherited a castle in Somerset.

At 7.15pm the Traditional Popham Parade sets off from the site of the fort. The ageing local fire truck leads, driven at walking pace by a local lady called Jane Stevens, whose house abuts the fort site and who is the leading local champion of the anniversary bash. She wears a fluorescent halo on her head. Right behind are my son and his cousins, waving Popham banners and blowing on kazoos. Then come the gentry, Bee Leyborne Popham, last descendant of the Pophams of Littlecote, hefting a large Union Jack, Alan Popham, family genealogist, Mike Popham of the BBC, Alex Popham King, a half-Italian Popham, Geoffrey Gilbert, all dressed 17th-century style and impersonating their ancestors. Here and there people are letting off flares. Bystanders line the road through the village and cheer us on, waving American and English flags. We all end up around a giant bonfire on the beach.

There's only one thing missing: the sight of a 17th-century pinnace flying down the Kennebec towards the sea, firing its canons in salute. Six years back, Bud Warren, the man who first alerted me to this commemoration, launched a campaign to raise funds to build a working version of the Virginia, the pinnace built by the colonisers and on which they returned to England in 1608. Sadly "Maine's First Ship" is still a long way short of its target – though they've taken on a shipwright who is already working on her spars. If we come back in a couple of years perhaps they will take us for a ride ...

Saturday 25 August

We are Popham'd out: we really cannot bear to hear any more about the colony's rise and fall. Instead we drive over to the harbour town of Camden and go for a sail in Lazy Jack, a 58-foot schooner that takes trippers.

It occurs to me that she is exactly the same length as the Virginia. It's a nice size of boat for scooting around the Maine islands on a summer's day. But I'm not sure I would relish setting off across the Atlantic in her.

There is a stiff breeze blowing outside the harbour. We watch seals basking on the rocks. But sea mist obscures the view and hazes the sun. Summer's almost gone.

The Popham colonists who landed in August chose a good site for their fort. But within a couple of months – by the time John Hunt had departed with his plan – the big drawback must have become apparent: the site faces northeast, the direction of Maine's harshest winter winds. And 1607 was the beginning of the Little Ice Age, the year of the first Frost Fair on the frozen Thames. The coast of Maine, so balmy in August, bared its Arctic teeth.

On 13 December 1607, as the bitter wind howled around the thatch of his little house on the hill, George Popham scratched out the letter to his sovereign that became his last testament, intended to reassure King James I that all was going swimmingly. Sad to say, it was a tissue of wishful thinking.

"At the feet of his Most Serene King," he wrote in Latin, "George Popham humbly prostrates himself ... My well considered opinion is, that in these regions the glory of God may be easily evidenced, the empire of your Majesty enlarged, and the welfare of Great Britain speedily augmented ... There are in these parts shagbarks, nutmegs and cinammon, beside pine wood, and Brazilian cochineal and ambergris ..." ("What, no gold?" one can hear the monarch mutter.) "... There is a sea in the Western part of this Province, distant not more than seven days journey ... This cannot be any other than the Southern ocean, reaching to China, which ... cannot be far ... "

In less than two months he was dead.