August 15, 1957 – Remembering the Virginia of Sagadahoc

On August 15, 1957, the United States Post Office issued a 3¢ stamp commemorating the 350th anniversary of the first sea-going ship built in the New World.  The Race to Space was on. Rockets, satellites, and ICBMs were in development, and next-generation fighter jets and remote control helicopters were setting records and making news.  But on this day, stamp collectors took note of another form of transportation – the 30-ton pinnace Virginia of Sagadahoc, built and completed by British settlers of the Popham (or Sagadahoc) Colony in 1607.

Popham Colony, near Phippsburg, Maine on the mouth of the Kennebec River, has a fascinating history.  (Sagadahoc, the other name for the area, was the Native American name for the Kennebec.)  Founded in August, 1607, only a few  months after the more successful and famous Jamestown Settlement in Virginia, Popham was named for George Popham, its leader and president.  With a charter granted by King James I, roughly 120 colonists ventured to the new continent to trade precious metals, spices, and furs, and build ships with wood from the extensive New World forests.  The colony experienced hunger, hostile relations with Native Americans, destruction by fire, and extreme cold during its first winter.  After a year, the colony disbanded when George Popham inherited his family’s estate in England.  The colonists remaining at that time returned home with  him.  The Virginia was one of the ships used by the colonists for that voyage.  She made another trip across the Atlantic in 1609 as part of a supply mission to Jamestown.  During that passage, she survived a massive three-day storm which may have been a hurricane.  The Popham colonists had built her well.

The exact location of Popham Colony was lost in the decades following its abandonment.  A map by “draughtsman” John Hunt of the colony, showing 18 buildings which may or may not have been completed, aided searchers who were able to discover the site in 1994.  Jeffrey Brain of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, headed up the excavation of the fairly undisturbed site, which has yielded invaluable artifacts and structural remains testifying to the early  history of our inventive and hard-working nation.

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