Maine’s First European Visitors
The Islands of Maine were called upon by Europeans for many decades before the famed settlements of Jamestown and Plymouth were founded in the early 1600s. According to some speculation and fragments of evidence, the Vikings visited around 1000 years ago. Much better evidence exists for John Cabot’s visit in 1497. His descriptions of steep cliffs and dark forests dissuaded his financiers from more voyages, but served as a basis for England’s later claim to Maine. Other explorers followed. Italian Giovanni Verrazano was searching in 1524 for a passage to China and was mooned by hostile Abnaki natives. He named Monhegan, Isle au Haut and Mt. Desert islands, but not with names we now use. Spaniard Estaban Gomez named Casco Bay, Campobello Island and the Bay of Fundy.
While rumors flew about the jeweled city of Norumbega, the real wealth of Maine turned out to be fish. Arriving in the Spring, fishermen would catch and dry them in the sun on our islands. While not really settlers, the fishermen would stay for the summer, load up their ships and head back to England or France with hulls full. Their rock ballast from Europe would remain on the beaches. By 1600 there were, by some estimates 300 fishing vessels along the coast of Maine, filling Catholic Europe’s need for meatless protein. With these summer settlements came boat repair shops and early timber mills. Why then, did the first attempt at permanent settlements happen in Virginia and Massachusetts?
They didn’t! The Popham Beach settlement began in August, 1607 just a few months after Jamestown and 13 years before the Mayflower arrived, with 124 people and two ships. By September of 1608 the colonists simply gave up and went home. Few people died or starved, they just lacked the discipline, unity, religious fervor or profit motive to overcome another winter of cabin fever. Amazingly, (I am discovering this as I write) one of the two ships was the Mary and John, the same ship which carried my 8th great grandfather Jonathan Gillett to Dorchester, Mass in 1630.
The Popham Beach settlement came and went with only one recorded death (George Popham) but the group did manage to build a 30 ton ship, the Virginia, before they sailed back to England. Jamestown, meanwhile lost all but 61 of their 500 colonists by 1610. The good ship Virginia made several crossings, many to supply the Jamestown colony. I will cover history specific to Acadia later. For more information about the Popham Colony go here and for info about Popham Beach State Park go here. Thanks to Bill Caldwell’s Islands of Maine for reference.