Ms. Stevens suspects winter cold had a lot to do with the failure: The colonists had picked a terrible spot. In August, the fort site is a snug enough place, protected from ocean storms by a hill and sandy spit, she explains. But in the fall the winds shift to the north, howling straight down the river and smack into the exposed headland. "It was probably a nice calm summer day when they decided to set up housekeeping there," she says. "I can guarantee you that in winter, that's the coldest spot south of Greenland."
Indeed, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, one of the colony's chief investors, concluded the Maine coast was "over cold and [therefore] not inhabitable by our nation." The colony's buildings fell or burned down as Sir Gorges and his partners focused their subsequent efforts on island fishing stations and, ultimately, settlements at Plymouth and the southern Maine coast. Soon its location and historical contribution were forgotten.
In the second half of the 19th century, Maine-based historians rediscovered the Popham episode and embraced it as an affirmation of the state's importance in the development of New England.
"The 250th anniversary celebrations sparked a quarter century of controversy between Maine and Massachusetts," says Phippsburg historian John Bradford, a seventh great-grandson of Pilgrim leader William Bradford. "There was a lot of correspondence back and forth in the newspapers about the merits of Popham versus the Pilgrims. Some people preferred to believe that the Popham Colony was just a story."
But the colony's stature has grown in recent years, following archaeologists' discovery of the remains of the walled settlement in Stevens's backyard. "There's no question that this is one of the foremost historical sites in the country," says Jeffrey Brain of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., the archaeologist who headed the 1994-2004 dig at the site. "A lot of the lessons learned at Popham enabled the Pilgrims to survive, so it was crucial to the foundation of English America."
Indeed, by the time the Pilgrims arrived, Gorges had set up several year-round fishing stations on the Maine coast, possibly hiring men who had served at Popham Beach.