American History and Genealogy Project


The Boy and the Boat

It was getting late in the fall of 1607 and the beeches and oaks on the slopes running down to the Kennebec, or Sagadahoc as it was then called, had yellowed and reddened in the frosty nights and mellow sunny days of autumn while the pines, standing tall and straight, were darkening and beginning to sing their deeper notes.

Here the "Popham colony'' had landed from their two ships "The Gift of 'God'' and the "Mary and John," and had almost immediately begun building the cabins and general storehouse of their town. They had named the settlement "St. George," and already, in imagination, saw it growing into the metropolis of this western world.

And now, under the eye of their Governor, Mr. George Popham, and the supervision of Captain Raleigh Gilbert, navigator and shipbuilder, a crew of men were to build a small vessel to add to their fleet. For weeks a company of the men had been getting out lumber suitable for the timbers and planks of the pinnace. She was designed to be of only twenty-eight or thirty tons burden and was, after the fashion of the day, to be of broad beam, rounded bow and high stern, decked over for the most part, and with comfortable quarters and cargo room. Still she was styled a pinnace because of her small dimensions and the fact that she might be propelled by oars should need arise.

Captain Gilbert, who had planned the new craft, was a son of Sir Humphrey Gilbert. We all know how Sir Humphrey, more than twenty years earlier than this, had tried to plant a colony in Newfoundland and on his return voyage had gone down with all on board in the "Squirrel." Now his son had come out to be Admiral of the fleet, leaving his home and business in Plymouth, England, at the urgent request of Lord Popham and other members of the Plymouth Company. "With him he had brought his orphaned nephew, Humphrey, a boy of fifteen. Humphrey Gilbert's father had been a quiet and studious young man, but Humphrey himself was boyishly in love with the stir and bustle and adventure of a sailor's life. He never tired of hearing of the voyages of his grandfather. Sir Humphrey, of his uncle. Captain Gilbert, and most of all of his grandfather's gallant half-brother. Sir Walter Raleigh, courtier, colonizer and officer in the navy sent against the Spanish Armada.

He begged and implored so hard to be included in the ship's company of the "Mary and John" that he won his uncle's reluctant consent. By the time America was sighted the boy had become robust and sturdy. Ere long he was the busiest member of the newly-planted colony, and the life and spirit of the otherwise sober and staid company. Even Gov. Popham loved the manly, bright-faced youth, who was already taking a man's part in all the labors of the settlement.
Any boy can imagine with what interest young Humphrey watched the preparation of material for the boat, and with what eagerness he lent his aid in many ways. And today the keel was to be laid on the bank of the Sagadahoc, right before the little group of houses which formed the new town.

Virginia Stocks
The Virginia on the Stocks at Popham Colony

The short autumn days were full of the business of building this ship, as well as of completing the storehouse and dwellings. Hammer and maul resounded; fires were daily built for steaming the planks and ribs to be bent in the fashion required for the hull of the new ship. Stores of iron work, ropes and other fittings and finally the canvas for the sails, all brought from England for this purpose, were assembled and in readiness for use on the new craft.
Ere the snows of winter came, that long winter which was to prove the last for so many of the company, the ship was built, standing ready for the running rigging and the sails which would be bent in the spring.

The crew had builded staunchly and well and, all unconsciously, they had performed a labor the memory of which would not die. They had inaugurated a great industry; having built the first vessel constructed by English hands in all America and launched the first ship into the Kennebec where in the centuries to follow shipbuilding would be a leading occupation.

What should the new boat be christened? Gravely the old governor and Captain Gilbert consulted over this, piously they bethought them of "Hope," "Charity,'' "Deliverance," and "Divine Providence" as suitable; but young Humphrey Gilbert insisted that she be named the "Virginia," not as a compliment to the English company at home or to the province, but for the now dead Virgin Queen, Elizabeth.

But now I must take you back to England and tell you how, seven or eight years before, when but a very little boy, Humphrey had seen Queen Elizabeth, and why he so much wished that the new boat should be named for her. From his home town of Plymouth, he had gone up to London with his uncle, Captain Raleigh Gilbert. To him it was a wonderful visit. He had seen London Bridge, the Tower, and the grand city houses with their overhanging upper stories and balconies almost meeting over the narrow, muddy and unpaved streets. He had watched the lords and ladies of the court riding out in their carriages. He had seen Admiral Howard, who had commanded Elizabeth's fleet when it put to rout the great Spanish Armada. He had seen his father's uncle, Sir Walter Raleigh, riding amid a gay company of courtiers and, best of all, he had seen Elizabeth herself! In her state carriage, with her ladies about her, powdered and painted, and with her wig finely curled, she had looked so grand and regal to the little fellow that in all his long years of after life he was never to forget her, or cease to remember her as a heroine.

As he stood in the muddy street amid the bowing and applauding crowd, the queen's carriage passed so close that he might have touched it, and just then she glanced down to see the bright-haired little boy so gallantly saluting her. She had leaned forward and smiled upon him, a really sweet and womanly smile, such as perhaps had rarely come to the woman's lips in all her long, stormy years. And that smile won a courtier forever.

Now the old queen had been dead these four years, and Scottish James reigned in her stead. The lad's uncle, Sir Walter, was a prisoner in the Tower, because King James suspected him of sharing in a plot to place Lady Arabella Stuart on the throne. England was far across the ocean. But Humphrey still remembered and admired the great Virgin Queen and would name the new boat for her. So the "Virginia of Sagadahoc" she was christened, and was to start out in early spring to coast along the shores, gathering furs from the Indians in exchange for knives and trinkets.

The winter closed in, long and severe, and their loneliness depressed the colonists. As the cold increased, sickness appeared among them and presently the first death. In the days and weeks following, many were laid in graves in this far, strange land. Early in February, Gov. Popham sickened and died and the stoutest hearts wavered. Courage ebbed and homesickness crept into the hearts of many.

Spring, coming late, found only half of the original company of one hundred twenty men ready for duty, while even among these some thought only of escape from this cruel, new land.

But the Virginia was fitted out and, with a company of five, set out on a trading trip westward along the coast. You may be sure that young Humphrey Gilbert made one of her crew, and so expert did he become in seamanship and so well had he spent his winter evenings in the study of navigation, that he seemed already qualified to take the Virginia on an ocean voyage, even without the presence of Master Bing, who commanded her, and whose mate Humphrey soon became.

The Virginia was on a third trip to Casco to complete the load of the "Mary and John,'' when a ship just out from England brought urgent summons to Capt. Gilbert to return home and attend to business left uncared for by the death of his partner in Plymouth.

He prepared to sail at once in the waiting "Mary and John," and when he made known his resolve, more than half the colonists decided to sail with him.

About forty of the hardier spirits, mostly fishermen and traders remained to scatter among the fishermen at Pemaquid and Monhegan, intending also to return home in the autumn in the '"Gift of God."

When the Virginia, Master Bing, with his four companions and a load of peltries, returned to St. George, he found the place practically deserted and it soon became wholly so. But this adventurous life had so charmed young Gilbert that he rejoiced in his freedom and this chance to spend another season in America. With the beautiful May weather, the place had again become a paradise, and the English fishing vessels, returning for the season, brought companionship and chance news from over seas.

Popham Fort
Popham Fort and Trading Post

On one of the trips of the Virginia to the Piscataqua, Humphrey experienced an adventure which opened his eyes to an ever lurking danger to all Englishmen. He had traded successfully with a little party of savages, seemingly very friendly and was following them as they bore their load through the forest. Though the day was foggy and the sun obscured, Humphrey instinctively felt that their direction had been changed and that they were no longer moving toward the shore. Slipping his pocket compass out, he was horrified to find that they were heading northwest, directly into the dense forest and away from his floating home, the Virginia! Perhaps for a mile or more his guides had been leading him astray, doubtless meaning to steal his furs and kidnap him. What should he do! To show fear or distrust might bring the savages upon him at once.

Thunder had been muttering through the fog, and now a sharp flash of lightning was instantly followed by a heavy peal. Humphrey halted and the savages gathered sternly about. He was surrounded and flight was hopeless. So, holding his compass before them, he told them how it directed him to turn back from the death to which the arrow pointed, told them that the voice of the thunder threatened death if they did not obey him. They knew the power of the thunderbolt; but this little box which told even the child of the white man all their deceit and by which he could perhaps command the lightning, daunted them!

Sternly Humphrey turned them back. With a grunt from this one and that, they accompanied him in the direction of the shore. Soon, too, he heard his companions shouting his name in alarm at his pro-longed absence in the tempest. Humphrey had learned his lesson and never again went into the woods with the savages.

The autumn proving warm, and the winter as mild as the previous one had been severe, the ships remained in America and the Virginia made many trips along the coast, even sailing south to the Jamestown settlement with salted cod.
When spring came again, the spring of 1609, the "Gift of God'' and the little "Virginia," laden with valuable cargoes of furs and sassafras root, set sail for Plymouth, England.

One more adventure was to be Humphrey's. After some days, a storm arose during which the "Gift of God" was disabled by the breaking of her topmast and the loss of some sails. This compelled her to heave to, while repairing. The "Virginia" sailed on, expecting the larger ship to overtake her. But she was soon alone upon the ocean and. Master Bing being helpless in his berth from an injury, Humphrey assumed all his duties of navigating the ship and directing her crew. So well did he shape his course and so true were his calculations, that they first sighted old England at Land's End and, with-out a pause, slipped gaily into Plymouth harbor on a May morning, full five days before the arrival of the "Gift of God."

You can imagine the joy with which Captain Gilbert greeted his young nephew and his pride in the boy's courage and ability. The little pinnace almost immediately set sail again for the land of her birth, this time in the fleet of Gates and Somers, with men for the Jamestown settlement. For more than twenty years she ran between England and Virginia, until a captain, older but less apt than Humphrey Gilbert, lost his reckoning and wrecked her on the Irish coast, where she went down with a full cargo of American tobacco.

Humphrey never saw America again; but after finishing his education, became his uncle's partner, and a wealthy merchant and ship-owner of Ply-mouth. Even as an old man, he was still fond of telling his grandson, not of any of the great ships he had sent out, or of the rich cargoes they had brought home, but of his first little ship, the "Virginia of Sagadahoc.''

Mary Dunbar Devereux

Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

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