BRISTOL, Maine — Unearthing a relic from one of the first European settlements in the New World is cause for excitement and for some, it triggers a total loss of articulation.
That’s how it was for Kathy Bridge recently at the site of Colonial Pemaquid in Bristol, which by all indications was settled by the English in the early 17th century, making it one of the earliest permanent settlements in the United States.
Dirty and hot but thrilled with her task, Bridge crouched over a 3-foot-square hole in the ground, gently scraping away layers of soil. Her metal trowel striking sand and rocks makes one sound, but an altogether different twang rings when it comes to pottery. With that noise, a gray shard of pottery flipped out of the earth, revealing a brilliant blue design that seemed out of place compared to the otherwise drab contents of the hole.
“Oh, oh,” said Bridge, plucking the shard from the hole for a closer look. “Oh oh oh! That is just so exciting.”
Bridge’s reaction attracted the attention of the others participating in the mid-July dig — some professional archaeologists, some amateurs looking to play a role in revealing history — who gathered around to examine the discovery.
Tom Desjardin, a historian for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, was quick with his assessment of the shard: salt-glazed Westerwald pottery, which probably originated in Germany hundreds of years ago.
“To find something like that just validates the history here,” he said.
Imagining how a pottery jug at least 400 years old made it across Europe and the Atlantic Ocean, what it held and how it shattered is an exercise in fascination. But it doesn’t answer the central mystery in the history of Colonial Pemaquid: When was it settled?
Some 220,000 artifacts – nails, musket balls, all manner of iron tools and implements, hundreds of pieces of tobacco pipes — have been recovered from the site over the years but none of them has been able to answer that question. Historians know the colony – a rather elaborate spread of homes, storehouses and workshops — was well under way by the mid-1620s.
Determining a more exact date would better situate the colony in the history of our country. Could it have been the first? Other early settlements in Maine suggest it’s possible. St. Croix Island, located in the middle of the St. Croix River near Calais, was settled by the French in 1604, making it one of the very first European settlements in the New World. South of Pemaquid, in Phippsburg, the English formed the Popham Colony in 1607, the same year as Virginia’s Jamestown. Those two well-documented colonies entrench Maine in American and international history, but what about Pemaquid?
“Unfortunately that’s a question we just can’t answer,” said Desjardin.
As is the case with most stories of westward expansion, the Europeans followed the fish here and built drying and processing stations in the area as early as the late 1500s. Englishman George Weymouth officially discovered Pemaquid in 1605, beginning an auspicious relationship with local Native Americans by kidnapping five of them.
The natives had thrived across Maine for thousands of years and historians know that a large settlement of Wabanaki Indians lived on the Pemaquid Peninsula as recently as 1610. With the intrusion of white men, the native population was reduced, a sad story that has played out numerous times in the founding of the New World.
According to a website maintained by the Friends of Colonial Pemaquid, the area was explored and mapped by John Smith in 1614 and by 1620, fishermen and settlers at Pemaquid were sending crucial food and supplies to the Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts. The peninsula was the site of considerable drama over the next few decades, including a pirate raid in 1632 and the sinking of a ship called the Angel Gabriel during a hurricane in 1635. Originally part of the state of Virginia, Pemaquid was governed by both New York and Massachusetts before Maine became a state in 1820.
Native Americans destroyed the settlement during King Philip’s war in 1676 and again in 1689, including military facility called Fort Charles. In 1692, Fort William Henry was built by the English to prevent the French from expanding southward, but the French and Indians destroyed it four years later during King William’s War.
The colonists built Fort Frederick in 1729. It was successfully defended twice against fierce French and Native American attacks but the colonists themselves dismantled it in 1775 by the Town of Bristol to prevent the English from using it in the Revolutionary War.
The colony was essentially deserted in the early 1700s and for the next couple of centuries was a farm plot.
“The colony just sort of faded out,” said Desjardin.
But the interest in it hasn’t.
Today the remnants of several foundations from the early settlements can be seen. A small museum containing hundreds of artifacts and a rebuilt Fort William Henry is maintained as an education center by the Friends of Colonial Pemaquid. As the group raises funds, more of the site is explored by archaeologists and volunteers. Most of them find something.
“I wonder who owned these things,” said Bridge during a dig at the site earlier this summer. “What were they like? How was their life here?”
For Donna Lord, another of the volunteers, digging at Pemaquid helps history become more tangible.
“It’s feeling it with your hands as opposed to reading about it in a history book,” she said while sifting through soil and picking out 350-year-old rusted nails and pieces of pipe stems.
Lee Cranmer, a semiretired archaeologist for the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, said digging at Pemaquid is a dream for most archaeologists who spend careers searching for artifacts but rarely finding them.
“This is one of the very best sites to dig in the state,” he said. “Always when a dig is over it’s a little sad, but then again there’s always the next dig to look forward to.”
As for the answer to the “when” question, Cranmer and Desjardin said it’s not likely buried on the Pemaquid Peninsula.
“What we really need to find are documents that might be stored somewhere in England,” said Desjardin. “Without those, we’re basically guessing.”
Correction: An early version of this story misidentified a woman who found a shard of pottery at the site of Colonial Pemiquid. Her name is Kathy Bridge of Brunswick, not Donna Lord.