Sir William Phips

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Sir William Phips

Sir William Phips (c. 1650-1695) was an American shipbuilder and soldier and became the first royal governor of the British colony of Massachusetts.

Born of humble parents on the colonial Maine frontier of Massachusetts on Feb. 2, 1650/1651, William Phips was early apprenticed to a ship's carpenter in Boston and afterward followed that trade there. Following his marriage to Mary Hull, he became a shipbuilder, and at one time he captained a vessel. In 1683 the British king Charles II provided him with H.M.S. Rose to make an expedition to recover gold from sunken Spanish galleons off the Bahama Islands. The first attempt was unsuccessful, but in a second venture off Hispaniola, which was backed by the Duke of Albemarle, Phips recovered treasure valued at £300, 000. For this he was knighted in 1687. As an additional reward, James II appointed Phips provost marshal general of the Dominion of New England under Edmund Andros.

Phips was received coldly in this new position, and he returned to England to complain. There he allied himself with Increase Mather in seeking governmental change and the restoration of the old charter rule in Massachusetts. From this time on he was a political ally of Increase Mather and his son Cotton, who hoped Phips would unite the various factions and help return Massachusetts to the conditions existing before the charter had been revoked in 1684.

In 1690, because of the influence of the Mathers, Phips was chosen to command the Massachusetts troops against the French at Port Royal, Nova Scotia. Here he won a decisive victory. A similar expedition by the northern colonies against Canada failed miserably. During his absence Phips was elected magistrate. Sailing to England to seek funds for another attack on Canada, he was delayed until the new charter was granted to Massachusetts. Again, because of the influence of the Mathers, Phips was appointed the first royal governor of Massachusetts. He took over his duties in May 1692, and it was his decision that brought the witchcraft trials in Salem to an end.

The people of Massachusetts expected Phips to return the colony to the conditions existing before 1684. But his violent temper and continual references to his humble beginnings marked his administration and were partly responsible for disputes over military, religious, economic, social, and political affairs. Charged with maladministration, he returned to England to answer the charges. His death in London on Feb. 18, 1695, probably saved him from the humiliation of a recall.

Further Reading

Cotton Mather's biography, edited by Mark Van Doren, The Life of Sir William Phips (1929), is unreliable and is Mather's apology for his part in having Phips appointed governor. A more recent study is Harold W. Felton, William Phips and the Treasure Ship (1965). Other works on Phips include H.O. Thayer, Sir William Phips (1927); Cyrus H. Karraker, The Hispaniola Treasure (1934); and Alice Lounsberry, Sir William Phips (1941). □

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Sir William Phips, 1651–95, American colonial governor. Born in what is today Maine, he was a carpenter and shipbuilder in Boston and became interested in sunken treasure. On his second hunt for treasure, which was financed by the 2d duke of Albemarle, he recovered (1687) some £300,000 worth of Spanish gold off Haiti. His fortune made, he was knighted and became provost marshal general at Boston. He supported Increase Mather in the fight against Sir Edmund Andros for restoration of charter government in Massachusetts, which ended with the overthrow (1689) of Andros. In King William's War (see French and Indian Wars) Phips led (1690) the expedition that took Port Royal (now Annapolis Royal) but failed to take Quebec, and he was also involved in the unsuccessful expedition against Montreal. He was made first royal governor of Massachusetts through the influence of Increase Mather and took office in 1692. In the great witchcraft mania, he appointed a commission to try those accused of witchcraft. However, when his own wife was accused of witchcraft, he ordered an end to the trials. Many disputes won him enemies, and in 1694 he was called to London to answer charges, but he died before hearings began. The name is also spelled Phipps. The biography by Cotton Mather (ed. by Carl Van Doren, 1929) is, naturally, biased.

See biography by A. Lounsberry (1941); C. H. Karraker, The Hispaniola Treasure (1924).