The Working Waterfront
Posted: May 1st, 2005 | UNCATEGORIZED

From The Deck - The Pretty Pinnace Virginia and Maine's First Colony

by Roger F Duncan

2007 will be the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the Popham colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River and the building of Maine's first ship, VIRGINIA. In celebration, Maine's First Ship will build, launch and sail a reconstruction of VIRGINIA at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, beginning this fall. This article tells of the founding of the colony in 1607 and the building of the original VIRGINIA, Maine's First Ship.

In 1605, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, Sir John Popham and a number of West Country merchants petitioned King James I for a charter to settle in America. The King granted charters to two companies, the London Company that settled Jamestown, and the Plymouth Company under Gorges and Popham. The Plymouth Company sent out two exploring expeditions to find a place for a base in America. One was captured by the Spanish. The other, under Martin Pring, recommended the mouth of the Kennebec, Sagadahoc.

Planning for the new colony moved rapidly ahead. Leadership was largely a family affair under Sir John's nephew, President George Popham and Admiral Raleigh Gilbert, sixth son of Sir Humphrey Gilbert. However ability and utility were not neglected. Besides seamen and ship's officers were included soldiers, a chaplain, a physician, a geologist to search for profitable metals, and a few farmers. There was also a cooper, a blacksmith, a number of carpenters, and most important, Master Digby of London, an experienced shipwright specifically charged to build a vessel. Included also was "riff-raff" - common laborers, some of them perhaps from jail.

Although the leaders of the Company had envisioned a feudal estate with wealthy gentlemen lording it over a community of farmers and tradesmen, for this first expedition they planned to establish a permanent base.

Their two ships, GIFT OF GOD and MARY AND JOHN, sailed from Plymouth on May 31, 1607 and arrived together on Aug. 7 at Georges Harbor between Allen and Benner Islands off Port Clyde. On Aug. 16, 17 and 18 they explored the mouth of the Kennebec and chose Sabino Head as the site of their colony. On Aug. 20, they all moved ashore and "began to fortefye" what would become Fort St. George. Admiral Gilbert took a crew to explore the Kennebec River and open trade with the Indians. Others labored with pick and shovel, saw, hammer and nail to build a stout storehouse into which supplies from the two ships could be unloaded and to raise the fort's defenses. Only then could they build a chapel, houses for the gentlemen and shelter for the others.

Master Digby and his shipwrights went into the woods looking for a likely oak for the keel of the vessel they were sent to build. She must be stoutly built, for she must be capable of carrying heavy cargoes of fish, furs and ores of metals the colonists hoped to find.

Likely they found a stout oak near their base. They hewed it down, trimmed it off and dug a pit deep enough for a man to stand in. Digging is hard work in Maine's rocky soil, so they may have built a staging higher than a man's head. With drafted help from the riff-raff, they manhandled the log over the pit or onto the staging. The sawyer stood on the log with a two-handled saw while an unfortunate fellow below seized the other handle and they went to it. It must have taken days with saw and adze to square up that 40-foot log , drag it to the shore and set it up on blocks to start the pretty pinnace.

While Admiral Gilbert was dealing with Indians up the River, while many others were building an earth wall strengthened with logs for their fort, while carpenters were hard at work on a storehouse, Digby and his crew set up stem and sternpost for VIRGINIA. Digby had no model or lines on paper for his vessel. He was a Master Shipwright and knew how a ship should be built. Set up a backbone, then a midship frame, frames fore and aft, and plank her up. Now came a search for crooked oaks with limbs grown in bends, which could be cut and scarfed to form a midship frame or rib. These could be sawn in half lengthwise to form two symmetrical frames, one for each side.

While frames were being cut and assembled, the sawyers were busy getting planking and decking out of pine logs and fashioning knees out of hackmatack roots to brace frames and deck beams fore and aft. The blacksmith, when not busy making house hardware, was forging iron bolts to hold keel, frames and knees in place. Digby used no more iron than absolutely necessary, for iron in wood rusted, particularly in sour red oak. The rust damaged both bolt and wood, leaving the rusty bolt sitting loosely in the auger hole. Most fastenings were treenails, "trunnels," wooden pegs cut perhaps hastily out of hard wood a little too big for the holes and driven in hard. They held plank to frame.

Framing and planking went on in the same laborious manner with saw, axe, adze and auger. VIRGINIA was probably about 50 feet long, 16 feet wide and drew about 6 feet. She measured about 30 tons, not a measure of weight but of approximate carrying capacity. She was probably flush decked with bulwarks raised off the deck to serve as scuppers. She was rigged for along-shore sailing with a sprit mainsail and lateen mizzen, a much more efficient rig for beating to windward than a square rig in coastal waters where headwinds are frequent. She probably carried a square rig on offshore passages, which were planned for fair winds. Eastbound she would sail in northerly latitudes where westerly winds prevail and westward in the northeast trades.

For spars, white pine and pitch pine were cut in the woods nearby. However, sail cloth and rope had to come from England in the holds of MARY AND JOHN and GIFT OF GOD and were planned for in the beginning. Blocks were probably fashioned locally, but an efficient block is a complicated piece of cabinetry and requires a skilled ship carpenter. VIRGINIA carried two anchors, each weighing about 400 pounds. Shank and flukes were forged from iron. Stocks, cross pieces, were of hardwood, iron-bound and firmly lashed. Anchors could have been carried from England, but given the iron, the blacksmith in the colony could have beaten them into shape. However, he had many demands upon him.

Master Digby and his shipwrights, carpenters and laborers must have kept right at it day after day, for by the late spring of 1608, Virginia is reported to have been launched, rigged and ready for sea. Considering that she was built outdoors in the winter, that is quick work.

Discouragements multiplied. During the winter, part of the storehouse burned and some of the expedition's supplies were destroyed. On Feb. 5, 1608, President George Popham died, leaving the leadership to Admiral Raleigh Gilbert. In September 1608, MARY AND JOHN arrived from England with news that Sir John Popham, their chief financial backer, had died and also Raleigh Gilbert's older brother John. Admiral Gilbert chose to return to England and his inheritance to enjoy the life of a country gentleman, leaving the colony without a leader. The rest of the colonists, perhaps unwilling to face another Maine winter without Gilbert, sailed for home aboard MARY AND JOHN and the square rigged VIRGINIA.

In the next two years VIRGINIA made two transatlantic passages and was in Jamestown in 1609 and '10. She was a stout little vessel.

Co-author of A Cruising Guide to the New England Coast, Roger F. Duncan is a regular columnist for Working Waterfront. John Bradford, Bud Warren, Fred Walker and members of Maine's First Ship contributed research for this article.