Everyone thinks of the colonists at Plymouth at Thanksgiving – the story of a bountiful feast and friendships in a new land – in Massachusetts. But, Maine actually boasts the earliest settlement of those seeking religious freedom from England, known as the pilgrims. The settlers of the Popham colony arrived at the mouth of the Kennebec in 1607. The Mayflower didn’t arrive in Plymouth until 1620. And, apparently, they had a fall feast – what could be called the first Thanksgiving – well before those in Plymouth.

It’s hard to imagine what the journey of the Popham settlers must have been like. About a hundred passengers, all men, traveled across the Atlantic for nearly two months aboard two ships – the Gift of God and the Mary and John. They had no modern navigation tools and little in the way of detailed maps to guide them. But, they did have the advantage of traveling over the summer.

That brought them to Maine in August, which is about the best time of year to arrive. They would have had good weather for building their settlement and ample sources for food – wild berries growing along the coast and rich fishing grounds right there at the river. They could fish from shore or use small boats to catch the abundant cod that could either be eaten fresh or stored food for the winter. They cleaned them, split them open and then salted and dried them in the warm summer air.

While the colony was intended to be a trading post for food and furs, they had limited success establishing trading relationships. This meant that the colonists relied heavily on the seafood that they could harvest and store. Apparently, that October, they had enough to share to ask Nahaniida, a local Abenaki, to bring some of his people to share in a seafood feast at the Popham settlement. William Strachey tells the story of the first Maine Thanksgiving in The historie of travaile into Virginia.

You can find parts of Stachey’s account online for an entertaining Thanksgiving reading.

Things went fairly well until the weather started to turn. Think of how quickly that happened this year – suddenly there was frost at night. And though the colonists had stored food, those stores were starting to run out. Then they said goodbye to about half their population who returned by ship to England. Those who stayed behind toughed out the winter, working to build the Virginia, a 50-foot pinnace (and perhaps daydreaming of returning home on it). When spring finally arrived, their storehouse with their remaining provisions caught on fire. Finally, the Mary and John returned from England to resupply them. The last of the Popham settlers returned aboard it and the newly completed Virginia.

You can still see the remains of the Popham settlement near Popham Beach in Phippsburg. The site was discovered in 1994. Since then, it has been excavated and interpretive signs have been posted so that you can learn more about what life was like there. You can also visit a replica of the Virginia that is being built at the Bath Freight Shed. It was apparently quite a seaworthy boat and returned to resupply the

Jamestown settlement as well as surviving a hurricane along the way that wrecked its larger companion ship along. Seeing its reconstruction is pretty amazing.

In addition, there are vestiges of a seafood feast still incorporated into our Maine Thanksgiving. Maine lobster, crab cakes, and oyster stuffing often find their way onto Maine menus. The options are plenty. I’m thankful this year to live in a place with a coastal history that celebrates its abundant seafood – and was host to the first Thanksgiving feast.

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