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They say time flies when you're having fun, and we must be having a great time here in Maine when you stop and think it's been over 400 years since – in August of 1607 – an outfit known as the Plymouth Company attempted to establish an English colony with 120 hearty souls at the mouth of the mighty Kennebec River.
Of course the river wasn't known as the Kennebec back then, mighty or otherwise. It was known then as “Sagadahoc,” which, I think means "No lifeguard on duty, colonize at your own risk."
The group of colonists and sailors was led by George Popham, and in what sounds like an obvious attempt at buttering up their fearless leader, the colonists, upon landing, voted unanimously to name their settlement Popham. They later said they didn't mean to name it after George, their fearless leader, but after Sir John Popham, George's uncle and Popham's chief patron. But at that point no one really cared who it was, and since the entire venture was less than a smashing success the naming was a pretty empty honor.
The way I heard the story the colonists arrived on a Monday and by the following Sunday they had built a church, a modest fort and put down non-refundable deposits on 50 neighborhood houses. I have little doubt they also would have saved up to 15 percent on their auto insurance with Geico if only they had autos and the 800-number had been invented. But that opportunity wasn’t available to them.
What makes what they did even more impressive is that these hearty colonists accomplished all this without the help of a Home Depot, a Kohl’s, a Wal-Mart or even a Bed, Bath and Beyond. As far as we know there wasn't even a Reny's in those bleak days of 1607. We can only imagine how different the story of Maine would have been if only these people had the retail opportunities available to us today.
Despite all that hard work things didn't go well for the Popham colony and before the year was over the two ships (the Gift of God and the Mary and John) had returned to England leaving behind a skeleton crew of 45 of either the heartiest or numbest colonists in American history.
One of the most memorable things the colonists did before most of them packed up and went back to Jolly Old England was take out their ship-building tools and construct a 50-foot pinnace, or sailing vessel, which historians say was the first wooden vessel built by Europeans in the New World. They named the pinnace Virginia.
Some have wondered why the these Popham people would name a Maine-built vessel after the southern state of Virginia. The question shows a serious lack of historical knowledge, since – at that time – Maine hadn’t even been officially named and, during the reign of Elizabeth I, all kinds of things were named “Virginia” in honor of the “Virgin” queen. And neither Maine nor Virginia were even states at the time.
Since there were no governmental offices or bureaus or bureaucrats, and even fewer regulatory agencies and tax officials and appraisers and inspectors around Popham at the time, we're told that this first vessel went through its life entirely uninspected, totally unregulated and completely untaxed. It didn’t even have any identifying numbers plainly visible on the bow. Knowing that must give our bureaucrats peptic ulsers.
Some, today think those first colonists, those Popham people, had something going for them.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at or 899-1868.
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