Military Wiki
Sir William Phips
1st Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay

In office
May 16, 1692 – November 17, 1694
Monarch William and Mary
Lieutenant William Stoughton
Preceded by Simon Bradstreet (as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony)
Succeeded by William Stoughton (acting)
Personal details
Born February 2, 1650/1
present-day Woolwich, Maine
Died February 18, 1694/5 (aged 44)
London, England
Nickname(s) The New England Knight

Sir William Phips (or Phipps, February 2, 1650/1 – February 18, 1694/5[1]) was a shipwright, ship's captain, treasure hunter, military leader, and the first royally-appointed governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. He is perhaps best remembered for establishing, and later over-ruling and disbanding, the court associated with the infamous Salem Witch Trials.

Of humble origin and poorly educated, he was a shipbuilder in Boston before embarking on several treasure hunting expeditions to the West Indies. He became famous in London when he recovered a large treasure from a sunken Spanish galleon, a feat that earned him instant wealth and a knighthood. In 1690, during King William's War, he led a successful military expedition against Port Royal, Acadia, and then made a disastrous attempt to capture Quebec later the same year.

Despite the military setback and his crude country manner, his connections in London and with the influential Mather family gained him the governorship of Massachusetts. He was not politically sophisticated, and became enmeshed in controversies (including physical altercations with other officials) that led to his recall to England to answer a variety of charges. He died in London before the charges against him were heard.

Early life

Phips was born the son of James and Mary Phips, in a frontier settlement at Nequasset (present-day Woolwich, Maine), near the mouth of the Kennebec River. His father died when he was six years old, and his mother married a neighbor and business partner, John White.[2] Although Cotton Mather in his biography of Phips claimed that he was one of 26 children, this number is likely an exaggeration. His mother is known to have had six children by Phips, and eight by White, although there may have been more children that did not survive infancy.[3] His father's ancestry was country gentry in Nottinghamshire, and Phips was a cousin of Sir Constantine Henry Phipps, Lord Chancellor of Ireland.[4] According to Mather he was a shepherd until the age of 18, after which he began a four-year apprenticeship as a ship's carpenter.[5] He received no formal schooling, although he did learn to read and write.[6] Thus his literacy skills were rudimentary, and once he achieved wealth and fame he often relied on his personal secretary for assistance.[7]

After his apprenticeship ended in 1673, Phips traveled to Boston where he continued to employ his shipmaking and carpentry skills.[8] About a year later he married Mary Spencer Hull, widow to John Hull (unrelated to Massachusetts mintmaster John Hull).[9] Mary's father, Daniel Spencer, was a merchant and landowner with interests in Maine, and Phips may have known her from an early age.[10] By all accounts, the couple exhibited "genuine affection" for one another, and there is no evidence Phips was unfaithful during his long absences from home.[11]

Phips established a shipyard on the Sheepscot River at Merrymeeting Bay in Maine in 1675. The shipyard was successful, turning out a large number of small boats.[12] Phips, however, had grander ideas, and constructed his first large merchant ship in 1676. As he was preparing for its maiden voyage in August 1676, planning to deliver a load of lumber to Boston, a band of Indians descended on the area.[13] Rather than take on his cargo, he took on board as many of the local settlers as he could. Although he was financially ruined (the Indians destroyed the shipyard and his intended cargo), he was seen as a hero in Boston.[14]

He then established a shipyard in Boston, supported by investors who knew his skills. His mother and stepfather returned to Maine, rebuilding their settlement, where they lived until his stepfather died. His mother then returned to Boston, where she stayed with Phips' financial support.[15]

Treasure hunting

In 1682 Phips shifted to treasure hunting, making a voyage to the Bahamas as captain of the Resolution, seeking treasure from sunken Spanish ships. Although some accounts have characterized this early expedition as a failure, it was clearly profitable, returning shares worth £54 to its participants and crown agent Edward Randolph wrote in 1683 of Phips' "late successfull returnes".[16]

Second voyage

King Charles II supported Phips' second expedition.

The success of his first foray was sufficient to motivate Phips to travel to England in search of financial backing for further expeditions.[17] There he was introduced, possibly with the help of extended family connections, to Sir John Narborough, a rear admiral and commissioner of the Royal Navy. Narborough had the ear of King Charles II, and the connection bore fruit. In June 1683 the Admiralty agreed to fit out and lend him the Rose of Algiers, a 20-gun frigate for the purpose of hunting for treasure.[18] The king personally took a 25% share (in addition to the crown's 10%), but also assigned two agents, Charles Salmon and John Knepp, to the ship to ensure it was used for the intended purpose.[19]

Phips sailed from London in September 1683, and spent the next two years hunting for treasure. The voyage did not begin auspiciously. Phips quickly determined that he had only been supplied with provisions for one month, and put into Limerick for additional supplies.[20] He and Knepp were also at odds with each other from early on, because Knepp expected crew discipline to be more like that on a regular navy vessel, and Phips was lax in enforcing minor transgressions of regulations.[21] Phips arrived in Boston in October, where he sought to arrange further equipment, provisions and for experienced divers. At the same time, a second ship, William Warren's Good Intent, was coincidentally preparing to go to the same area in the Caribbean Phips was planning to search.[22] After failing to convince Massachusetts authorities that they should prevent Warren's voyage, he entered into an agreement with Warren: in exchange for his divers and supplies, Warren and his company would receive shares from his proceeds.[23]

Phips sailed from Boston in January 1683.[24] He first searched with limited success off Jamaica, finding up about £200 worth of treasure from picked-over wrecks. When some of his crew became mutinous, he had them put off in Jamaica, where he gathered additional leads for potential treasure sites. Pursuing these leads, he searched off Hispaniola, where he again had little success. When he finally returned to London in August 1685, the accounting showed the voyage was a loss. The shares of the men were small, and the crown, which spent £700 to fit the ship, only received £471.[25] The return voyage was complicated by a stop in Bermuda, where Phips agreed to transport to England Henry Bish, an opponent of Governor Richard Coney whom Coney had had arrested. Bish had Phips arrested (on charges that Phips transported him against his will) when they arrived in England, and it took the intercession of the king to secure Phips' release.[26][27]

Major find

Phips attempted to get funding from the Admiralty for another expedition, but King James II, who had just taken the throne after his brother's death, refused.[28] Narborough connected Phips with the Duke of Albemarle, who acquired from James a patent authorizing him to search for wrecks. Albemarle assembled a group of investors to fund Phips' third expedition.[29] They acquired and outfitted two ships: the James and Mary, a 22-gun 200-ton frigate, and the 45-ton Henry of London, a sloop commanded by Francis Rogers, Phips' second mate on the previous voyage.[30][31]

Engraving depicting Phips raising the sunken treasure

Phips sailed from London in September 1686, and arrived off Hispaniola in November.[32] The weather was bad, and the search consequently did not get under way until January 1687.[33] Phips sent the smaller ship Henry of London out to search the banks and reefs northeast of Hispaniola, and she returned in early February with evidence of a major find.[34] The ship they found, the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, had wrecked in 1641 in an area known to the Spanish as the Ambrosia Banks, now called the Silver Bank.[35] From then until April the divers and ships' crews worked to recover all manner of treasure: gold and silver bullion, doubloons, jewelry, and other artifacts.[36] Concerned about the possibility of mutiny, Phips guaranteed to the crew, who had been hired for seaman's wages, that they would receive shares in the find, even if he had to pay them from his own percentage.[37] He carefully avoided putting in at any ports before anchoring at Gravesend, where he dispatched a courier to London with the news.[38]

Phips reported recovering £300,000 worth of treasure from the wreck,[39] although modern assessments place the value closer to £210,000.[40] Of this amount much went to Albemarle, who owned at least 25 percent of the venture's shares.[41] Phips, after paying out £8,000 in crew shares, received £11,000.[40] Phips was treated as a hero in London, and the find was the talk of the town.[42] Some economic historians argue that Phips' find significantly effected history because it led to a major increase in the formation of joint-stock companies, and even played a role in the eventual formation in the Bank of England.[40]

Phips and the crew were rewarded by the investors with medals, and Phips was knighted by James in June. James also rewarded Phips with the post of provost marshal general (chief sheriff) of the Dominion of New England, serving under Sir Edmund Andros.[43] In September 1687 Phips returned to the wreck, though he did not command the venture. Admiral Narborough elected to personally lead the expedition, which was supported by King James, who purchased shares and provided a navy frigate for security. The expedition was not very successful. The wreck had been discovered by others, and the arrival of the English scattered more than 20 smaller ships. Treasure worth only £10,000 was recovered before Narborough's death in May 1688 brought the expedition to an end. Phips had by then already left the wreck site in early May, sailing for Boston to take up his post as provost marshal general.[44]

Military expeditions

Dominion of New England Governor Sir Edmund Andros

Phips was ill-suited for the post. He had no administrative or legal experience, and he had no significant political connections either with the Andros administration or with local politicians.[45] The Andros council had also already appointed a provost marshal by the time Phips arrived and sheriffs had been sworn in.[46] Andros, distracted by Indian frontier issues and the impending annexation of New York and the Jerseys to the dominion, did not initially meet with Phips upon his arrival in early June.[47] Although Andros actually swore Phips into the post in early July, his council refused Phips' demand that the previously named sheriffs be dismissed. Angry at his treatment and the uncertainty over his status, Phips sailed for London in mid-July.[48] During this relatively brief stay in Boston, Phips attended Cotton Mather's services at the North Church, and established a close relationship with the influential pastor.[49]

Upon his arrival in London, he learned that his principal patrons, Narborough and Albemarle, were either dead or dying. (Albemarle, then governor of Jamaica, was only rumored to be ill at the time, but he died in October.)[50] He established contact with Cotton's father Increase, who was in London working to end the Andros regime and restore the old Massachusetts charter. Motivated by a shared dislike of Andros, they worked together to bring about his downfall. After the Glorious Revolution in late 1688 replaced the Catholic James with the Protestants William and Mary, Phips and Mather petitioned the new monarchs for restoration of the Massachusetts charter, and successfully convinced the Lords of Trade to delay the transmission of formal instructions about the change of power to Andros.[51] Phips returned to Boston in May 1689, carrying proclamations from the king and queen, to find that Andros had been arrested in a revolt in Boston.[52] Phips served for a time as an overseer guarding some of the high-profile prisoners taken in the revolt; Edward Randolph accused him of opening their letters in his account of the captivity.[53]

Port Royal expedition

The turmoil in England and William's accession to the throne had prompted France to declare war on England. New France's Governor General Denonville took advantage of the political turmoil in New England and New York to launch a series of Indian raids across the northern frontier in 1689 and early 1690.[54][55] The provisional government of Massachusetts established after the arrest of Andros was called on to respond to these raids, and in March 1690 Phips was appointed by the General Court to lead an expedition against the French in Acadia.[56] Leading a fleet of seven ships and over 700 men, he sailed from Boston in late April and arrived before the Acadian capital, Port Royal in early June. On May 9 he summoned its governor, Louis-Alexandre des Friches de Meneval, to surrender.[57] Meneval, in command of about 70 men and a fort in disrepair, promptly negotiated terms of capitulation. When Phips came ashore the next day, it was discovered that Acadians had been removing valuables, including some that were government property (and thus were supposed to come under the victor's control).[58] Phips, whose motives continue to be debated by historians today,[59] claimed this was a violation of the terms of capitulation, and consequently declared the agreement void. He allowed his troops to sack the town and destroy the church, acts that he had promised to prevent in the oral surrender agreement.[60] He had the fortifications destroyed, removing all of their weaponry. Before he left, he convinced a number of Acadians to swear oaths of allegiance to the English crown, appointed a council of locals to administer the town, and then sailed back to Boston, carrying Meneval and his garrison as prisoners of war. Phips received a hero's welcome and was lavished with praise, although he was criticized in some circles (and has been vilified in French and Acadian histories)[61] for allowing the sacking of Port Royal.[62] Governor Meneval petitioned in vain for the return of minor valuables (silverware and other small items) that Phips had taken.[63]

Quebec expedition

French drawing showing the English attack on Quebec

In the wake of the success, the Massachusetts provisional government agreed to organize an expedition on a larger scale against Quebec, the capital of New France, and gave its command to Phips. Originally intending to coordinate with a simultaneous overland attack on Montreal launched from Albany, New York, the expedition's departure was delayed in the vain hope that needed munitions would arrive from England. The expedition, counting 34 ships and more than 2,000 soldiers, finally sailed on August 20. It was short on ammunition, had no pilots familiar with the Saint Lawrence River, and carried what would turn out to be inadequate provisions.[64]

Because of contrary winds and the difficulty in navigating the Saint Lawrence, the expedition took eight weeks to reach Quebec.[65] The late arrival (wintry conditions were already setting in on the river) and the long voyage meant that it would be impossible to conduct a lengthy siege. Phips sent a message into the citadel demanding its surrender. Governor General Louis de Buade de Frontenac declared that his only response would be from "the mouths of my cannons".[64] Phips then held a war council, which decided to make a combined land assault and naval bombardment.[65] Both elements failed. The landing force, 1,200 men led by Major John Walley, were unable to cross the well-defended Saint-Charles River, and the naval bombardment failed because the New Englanders' guns were unable to reach the high battlements of the city, and they furthermore soon ran out of ammunition. The fighting, according to Phips, cost the expedition 30 casualties and one field cannon. However, disease and disaster were to take a greater toll. Smallpox ravaged the troops, and two transports were lost to accidents; another 200 men were lost to these causes.[66]

Sir William Phips in later life

The expedition cost the colony £50,000 to mount, for which it issued paper currency, a first in the English colonies.[67] Many of the expedition's participants and creditors were unhappy at being paid this way, and Phips generously purchased some of the depreciated paper with hard currency, incurring financial losses in the process.[68] He returned to England in February 1691 to seek financial and political support for another expedition.[69]

Governor of Massachusetts Bay & the Salem Witch Trials

Phips found no further support for another expedition against New France, and instead joined with Increase Mather and other agents to gain a new charter for Massachusetts.[70] A number of Mather's requests concerning the charter were rejected, but William and Mary placated Mather by allowing him to nominate the colony's next governor.[71] The monarchs appointed Phips the first royal governor, at Mather's suggestion, under a newly issued colonial charter for the Province of Massachusetts Bay.[72] The charter greatly expanded the colony's bounds, including not just the territories of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but also those of the Plymouth Colony, islands south of Cape Cod including Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, and the present-day territories of Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.[73]

On reaching Boston on May 14, 1692, Phips found the colony gripped by witchcraft hysteria.[74] Beginning in February 1692, more than 125 people were arrested on charges of witchcraft, and were held in prison pending the inauguration of the new government.[75] Phips established a special Court of Oyer and Terminer to hear the accumulated cases on May 27, appointing Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton as the chief judge.[74] The court notoriously admitted spectral evidence (alleged demonic visions) and denied the accused access to legal counsel, and a number of people were convicted and executed based on such evidence.[76] Although the court was terminated in September 1692, accusations and arrests continued, including charges against some fairly high profile individuals including Phips wife. Phips finally put an end to the proceedings by first suspending the trials, and then in May 1693 releasing prisoners (numbering about 150) charged with witchcraft.[77]

Postcard showing a 1909 reproduction of Fort William Henry

French and Indian raids had resumed in the years following Phips' 1690 expeditions, so he sought to improve the province's defenses. Pursuant to his instructions from London, in 1692 he oversaw the construction of a stone fort, which was dubbed Fort William Henry, at Pemaquid (present-day Bristol, Maine), where a wooden fort had been destroyed in 1689.[78] The expense involved in this effort made it unpopular in the province.[79] Attempts by Phips to coordinate defenses with neighboring provinces were marred by difficulties often emanating from his rough personality and temper (relations with the neighbors improved after his departure.)[80] He recruited Major Benjamin Church to lead a 450-man expedition against the Indians in Maine.[81] In August 1693 Phips reached a tenuous peace agreement with the Abenaki people; it was eventually subverted by French intrigues to bring the Abenaki back on the warpath, and had no lasting impact.[82]

Phips' governorship was marked by political factionalism, and his lack of connections to existing local powers hurt him.[83] Furthermore, Joseph Dudley, a Massachusetts native (and former dominion official) was in London, scheming to replace him.[84] He frequently quarreled with friends, foes, and other government officials. His biographers describe his behavior as "blustering aggressiveness", and his contemporaries complained of his "lowness of education".[85] He quarreled with neighboring governors over military issues, and aggravated a border dispute with neighboring Rhode Island.[86] He twice got into physical altercations with other government officials, situations that Dudley and his other opponents highlighted to the Lords of Trade. He was also accused of violating the Navigation Acts (which he was, as governor, supposed to enforce) in what his opponents described as "illegal and self-serving commercial activities".[87] Phips' attempts to justify his actions included attacks on his enemies, many of whom were on good terms with the colonial secretary, William Blathwayt.[88] Blathwayt continued to support him, as did Increase Mather, but this was not enough to overcome the many complaints lodged against him.[89]

On July 4, 1694 Phips received an official summons to appear before the Lords of Trade in London. He spent much of the summer at Pemaquid, overseeing the frontier defenses, while Lieutenant Governor Stoughton oversaw the gathering of evidence for the hearing.[90] He sailed for England on November 17, and arrived in London on January 1, 1694/5.[91] Upon his arrival, he was arrested on exaggerated charges, levied by Dudley, that he had conspired to withhold customs monies.[92] Dudley had hoped that the £20,000 bail would prevent Phips' return to Massachusetts, but Phips was bailed by Sir Henry Ashurst. However, Phips fell ill with a fever while preparing his defense, and died on February 18, 1694/5, before his charges were heard. He was buried in London in the yard of the Church of St. Mary Woolnoth. His grave was originally marked, but the marker was removed (and his coffin possibly moved within the church grounds) during renovations in the 18th century.[93]

Family and legacy

William and Mary Phips had no children. They adopted Spencer Bennett, the son of Mary's sister Rebecca,[94] who formally took the Phips name in 1716.[95] He went on to serve as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, including two periods as acting governor.[96]

Phippsburg, Maine is named in his honor.[97]


  1. In the Julian calendar, then in use in England, the year began on March 25. To avoid confusion with dates in the Gregorian calendar, then in use in other parts of Europe, dates between January and March were often written with both years. Dates in this article are in the Julian calendar unless otherwise noted.
  2. Lounsberry, pp. 8–11
  3. Baker and Reid, p. 10
  4. Baker and Reid, p. 5
  5. Lounsberry, pp. 11–13
  6. Lounsberry, pp. 14–15
  7. Baker and Reid, p. 21
  8. Lounsberry, p. 16
  9. Baker and Reid, p. 15
  10. Baker and Reid, p. 16
  11. Baker and Reid, p. 17
  12. Lounsberry, p. 22
  13. Lounsberry, p. 23
  14. Lounsberry, pp. 24–26
  15. Lounsberry, p. 26
  16. Baker and Reid, pp. 26–27
  17. Baker and Reid, p. 27
  18. Baker and Reid, pp. 27-29
  19. Baker and Reid, p. 30
  20. Baker and Reid, p. 33
  21. Lounsberry, pp. 72–73
  22. Baker and Reid, p. 39
  23. Lounsberry, pp. 76–78
  24. Lounsberry, p. 85
  25. Baker and Reid, pp. 41–43
  26. Baker and Reid, pp. 42–43
  27. Lounsberry, p. 102
  28. Lounsberry, p. 106
  29. Lounsberry, pp. 111–119
  30. Lounsberry, p. 121
  31. Baker and Reid, p. 45
  32. Lounsberry, pp. 122–123
  33. Lounsberry, p. 127
  34. Lounsberry, p. 129
  35. Fine, pp. 48–52
  36. Lounsberry, pp. 130–137
  37. Lounsberry, p. 140
  38. Lounsberry, 141
  39. Lounsberry, p. 145
  40. 40.0 40.1 40.2 Baker and Reid, p. 54
  41. Lounsberry, p. 119
  42. Lounsberry, p. 147
  43. Baker and Reid, pp. 55–58
  44. Baker and Reid, pp. 59–63
  45. Baker and Reid, pp. 66–67
  46. Lounsberry, p. 179
  47. Baker and Reid, p. 66
  48. Baker and Reid, p. 67
  49. Lounsberry, pp. 181, 197
  50. Baker and Reid, p. 68
  51. Baker and Reid, pp. 69–72
  52. Baker and Reid, pp. 73–74
  53. Lounsberry, p. 200
  54. Griffiths, p. 190
  55. Baker and Reid, pp. 83–84
  56. Lounsberry, p. 210
  57. Faragher, p. 87
  58. Griffiths, p. 151
  59. Griffiths, p. 151, provides several competing points of view on the matter
  60. Faragher, p. 88
  61. See e.g. Faragher, p. 88
  62. Lounsberry, p. 213
  63. Lounsberry, p. 214
  64. 64.0 64.1 "Biography of Sir William Phips". Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Retrieved 2011-May-03. 
  65. 65.0 65.1 Peckham, p. 36
  66. Peckham, p. 37
  67. Peckham, p. 38
  68. Lounsberry, p. 232
  69. Lounsberry, p. 237
  70. Lounsberry, p. 242
  71. Lounsberry, p. 243
  72. Lounsberry, p. 245
  73. Lounsberry, p. 252
  74. 74.0 74.1 Hart, p. 2:41
  75. Hart, p. 2:38
  76. Hart, pp. 2:41–42
  77. Hart, p. 2:49
  78. Hart, pp. 2:66, 71
  79. Lounsberry, p. 287
  80. Hart, p. 2:71
  81. Lounsberry, p. 265
  82. Rawlyk, p. 78
  83. Baker and Reid, p. 202
  84. Kimball, p. 66
  85. Baker and Reid, p. 203
  86. Baker and Reid, pp. 206–210
  87. Baker and Reid, p. 223
  88. Baker and Reid, p. 222
  89. Baker and Reid, p. 237
  90. Baker and Reid, p. 239
  91. Baker and Reid, pp. 246–247
  92. Lounsberry, pp. 302–303
  93. Lounsberry, p. 307
  94. Lounsberry, p. 284
  95. Paige, p. 2:627
  96. Williamson, pp. 260, 327
  97. Williamson, p. 637


External links

Government offices
Preceded by
Simon Bradstreet
as Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony
Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay
May 16, 1692 – November 17, 1694
Succeeded by
William Stoughton

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