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Phips would unite the various factions and help return Massachusetts to the conditions existing before the charter had been revoked in 1684.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). □