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DOWN THE ROAD A PIECE – Some kudos to the colonists

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Posted: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 1:40 pm | Updated: 9:04 am, Wed Oct 3, 2012.

They say time flies when you’re having fun, and we must be having a great time in Maine when you stop and think it’s now been more than 400 years since 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 Homeland Security types 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 boss, the colonists, upon landing, immediately voted to name their settlement Popham. They later said they didn’t mean to name it after George but after Sir John Popham, George’s uncle and Popham’s chief sponsor. 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 that opportunity had been available at the time.
What makes what they did even more impressive is that these hearty colonists accomplished all this without the help of a Home Depot or Walmart. 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. They were either the bravest and heartiest souls, or the numbest colonists North America would ever produce.

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 shipbuilding 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. Since there were no governmental bureaus or bureaucrats, and even fewer regulatory agencies and tax-collecting officials and assessors around Popham at the time, we’re told that first vessel went through its life entirely uninspected, totally unregulated and completely untaxed.
Maybe those first colonists weren’t so numb after all.

John McDonald is the author of five books on Maine. His latest, “John McDonald’s Maine Trivia: A User’s Guide to Useless Information,” is now in bookstores. Contact him at

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