Sir Ferdinando Gorges (c. 1566-1647)
An aging English knight at the outset of the seventeenth century, Sir Ferdinando Gorges played as vital a role as any in the colonization of the New World, and more specifically, of Maine.
Having been knighted for esteemed service in the French Wars of Religion, Gorges was serving as commander of Plymouth Fort in England when he received a rather unexpected visit one day in 1605. English explorer George Weymouth had just visited the New World, and had returned triumphantly with five Native Americans hostages, three of whom he left with Gorges. He left the other two hostages with Lord Chief Justice John Popham. Weymouth's intention was presumably to interest these two powerful Englishmen in exploring the New World and the results were more immediate and definite than Weymouth could have expected.
Gorges and Popham promptly obtained a charter that established both a London and a Plymouth company; the former was afforded the right to colonize the southern portion of the large, vaguely-bounded region known as "Virginia" (today, basically the entire Eastern seaboard north of Georgia), and the latter gave colonizing rights to the north. Gorges and Popham controlled the Plymouth Company, and in late May, 1607, sent out their first expedition under the command of George Popham, John's nephew.
Despite various hindrances, two ships came to rest at what is now known as Popham Beach, at the mouth of the Kennebec. After braving one Maine winter, the inhabitants of Popham Colony returned to England in a ship they had constructed in the interim. Gorges was far from deterred by this episode, however, and when the now-legendary Captain John Smith came to him in 1614 looking for backing in a new settlement scheme, the knight was more than willing to assist. While Smith's voyages met with repeated obstacles, the fire to colonize had been lighted in Gorges. He proceeded to fund a series of expeditions intending to demonstrate that settlers could hold up even under the harsh winter weather and that a profitable fishing trade could be established on the Gulf of Maine.
Along with many other government officials and courtiers, Gorges applied for a proprietorial patent to New England. Ultimately, the old knight's ambitious dream was to transform the colony into a strange sort of monarchy, over which he and his descendants would rule from the safe distance of England. Gorges and his associates received the patent in 1621, along with all the land they could possibly want, as well as a fishing monopoly-the latter prize raised a considerable outcry among people already engaged in New England's burgeoning fishing industry.
No stranger to strategizing, Sir Ferdinando swiftly arranged for his son, Robert, to sail to New England. Once there, he would act as Admiral of the Coast and enforce Gorges' fishing monopoly. But Robert Gorges encountered considerable resistance from the Plymouth Colony, and returned to England without success. Soon thereafter, Sir Ferdinando met insurmountable obstacles in England-first his capital ran dry, then, Parliament revoked his fishing monopoly in 1624, and finally, a war broke out in Europe.
But Sir Ferdinando Gorges proved quite persistent. By the late 1620's, he speculated in a fur-trading enterprise known as the Laconia Company (which was based at Piscataqua). The project failed, robbing Gorges of the new fortune he had acquired by marrying a wealthy widow. In 1630, though he had little money, Gorges and his Council started issuing land grants in northern New England, which started to draw more permanent settlers to the region at a respectable rate. This pleased the knight, and he began taking steps to realize his vision of a Royal Colony in New England.
First, he dissolved his company Council and divided land among the members, taking for himself "New Somerset", a territory between the Piscataqua and Kennebec, over which he appointed his nephew William Lieutenant Governor. By 1637, Gorges was hoping to be proclaimed Ruler of a Unified New England Colony by the King of England, but his hopes were in vain. The Massachusetts Bay Colony refused to comply with any such arrangement, and the King, distracted by turmoil at home, refused to spend the time and energy to force the Massachusettes Bay Colony into compliance.
Instead of Governor of New England, Sir Ferdinando found himself all but bankrupt and begging for a Royal Charter. In 1639 he was granted one, and by 1640, Thomas Gorges (another nephew) had arrived in Maine to act as the old knight's deputy. Under the leadership of Robert Gorges, aided by Ferdinando's appointed officers, Maine flourished for a short time. Sir Ferdinando had finally accomplished his goal, though his control over it was short-lived-he relinquished the majority of his power in 1643. Sir Ferdinando passed away in 1647, still bankrupt, but not having lost hope for his Royal Colony in Maine. Seldom in history has a man done so much, through his persistence, for a land he never himself laid eyes upon.
- Baker, et al. American Beginnings. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska
- Bourque, Bruce J. Twelve Thousand Years: American Indians in Maine. Lincoln,
NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.
- Judd, et al., ed. Maine: The Pine Tree State From Prehistory to the Present.
Orono, ME: University of Maine Press, 1995.
- Rolde, Neil. An Illustrated History of Maine. Augusta, ME: Friends of the
Maine State Museum, 1995.
INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPTS OF SIR FERDINANDO GORGES:
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FERDINANDO GORGES | FUR
TRADE | MASSACHUSETTS BAY COLONY | POPHAM
COLONY | FEATURED INTERVIEWS | TRANSCRIPT