Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Arms of George Popham

Possible arms of George 
Argent on a chief gules,
two bucks' heads
caboshed or
I began researching Maine Heraldry twenty minutes down the road from my home town in the small village of Phippsburg, a heavily forested coastal hamlet which hasn’t changed much in the past two hundred years. There stands Fort Popham. It’s a stone fort built during the Civil War which is really fun to play on as a child who loves medieval themes of knights and castles. Just up a goat-path of a road is a small grass field overlooking the same body of water. There isn’t much there, just a plaque describing the field’s brief story. This is where the English built their first New England colony, Popham, also known as Sagadahoc Colony after the native name for the southern end of the Kennebec River on which it sits. It is also known as Fort St. George. It was settled in 1607, just months after Jamestown and more than a decade before Plymouth.

The leaders of the expedition that founded Popham colony were George Popham (elected President) and Raleigh Gilbert (Admiral) who sailed to Maine and captained the Gift of God and Mary and John, respectively. Both gentlemen came from prestigious families. Popham’s uncle was Sir John Popham, an important lawyer who presided during the trials of Sir Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes. Gilbert’s father was Sir Humphrey Gilbert, another explorer of the Americas and half brother to Sir Walter Raleigh.

Despite being an important experience for English colonists, Popham colony is not very well known because it didn’t thrive and was abandoned. The colonists were unable to establish trade relations with the native Abenaki tribe. Aboriginals of the area had grown suspicious of Europeans who had, in the past, kidnapped natives to show at home. A late summer arrival meant no time for planting food. Winter was brutally cold. Diaries claimed that the Kennebec (salt water) River froze, which is a major feat. I grew up on the Kennebec and the coldest winter in my life didn’t come close to freezing that beast. Fires destroyed the storehouse. Popham died at the colony in 1608. It’s entirely possibly that he was the only person to die, unlike the Jamestown expedition which lost half its population at the same time.

The rest of the colonists returned to England shortly after. Gilbert himself rushed back to claim an inheritance which included a title and estate after his brother John died. The colony only lasted just over a year. Diaries described the land as barren, and ill-suited for colonization. But more importantly it lacked gold. The colonists also built a ship which would be the first English vessel constructed on American soil, the Virginia. It was a very sturdy pinnace and continued to sail between the colonies for about twenty years.

The Complete American Armoury and Blue Book by John Matthews has the following on arms attributed to the name Popham.
This is of course a different George Popham, but the George in question is from the Huntworth branch of Pophams in Somersetshire and was also John's nephew. It's possible these were the arms born by our President of Popham Colony and the first English arms born in Maine.

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