Sir William Phips, Colonial Governor of Massachusetts

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Sir William Phips, Colonial Governor of Massachusetts's Geni Profile

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William Phips

Also Known As: "The New England Knight", "Phipps"
Birthplace: Woolwich, Sagadahoc, Maine
Death: February 18, 1695 (44)
London, Greater London, England (Seized by a fever)
Place of Burial: Bristol, Bristol, England, United Kingdom
Immediate Family:

Son of James Phipps and Mary White
Husband of Mary Sergeant
Father of Spencer Phips, Acting Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay
Brother of Capt. John Phips, of Sheepscot; Margaret Andrews; Phips and James? Phips
Half brother of John White, of Sheepscot; Paul White, of Milton; David White, of Kennebec; Sarah Lane; Peter White, of Milton and 3 others

Occupation: Royal Governor of Massachusetts Colony, presided over Salem witch trials, mentioned in Hawthorne's "House of the Seven Gables" (1840)
Managed by: Ian McAfee
Last Updated:

About Sir William Phips, Colonial Governor of Massachusetts

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.

Military career

Phips was born the son of James and Mary Phips, at Woolwich, Maine, near the mouth of the Kennebec River, the twenty-sixth child in his family. He was a cousin of Sir Constantine Phipps, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, ancestor of the Marquess of Normanby. He was a poor shepherd until he was eighteen, and then a ship carpenter's apprentice in Maine for four years. He worked at his trade in Boston, Massachusetts for a year where he learned to read and write. With his wife's property he established a shipyard on the Sheepscot River in Maine, but soon abandoned it because of clashes with the Native Americans, in which the settlement was burned to ground after everyone escaped in a ship that had been built there. In 1684-1686, with a commission from the British Crown, he searched vainly for a wrecked Spanish treasure ship of which he had heard while on a voyage to the Bahamas; he found this vessel in 1687, and from it recovered £300,000.

Of this amount much went to the Duke of Albemarle, who had fitted out the second expedition. Phips received £16,000 as his share, was knighted by James II, and was appointed sheriff of New England under Sir Edmund Andros. Poorly educated and ignorant of law, Phipps could accomplish little, and returned to England. In 1689 he returned to Massachusetts, found a revolutionary government in control, and at once entered into the life of the colony.

He joined Cotton Mather's, North Church in Boston, and was appointed by the General Court commander of an expedition against the French in Canada. The expedition sailed in April 1690 and captured Port Royal, Nova Scotia. A much larger expedition led by Phips in July against Quebec ended disastrously after his entire expeditionary force was routed out of Nouvelle-France by the « Héros de la Rivière-Ouelle », a gang of 38 brave souls who launched a surprise attack against « les Anglais ». Phips generously bought at their par value, in order to give them credit in the colony, many of the colony's bills issued to pay for the expedition.


In the winter of 1690 he returned to England, vainly sought aid for another expedition against Canada, and urged, with Increase Mather, the colonial agent, a restoration of the colony's charter, annulled during the reign of Charles II. The Crown, at the suggestion of Mather, appointed him the first royal governor under the new charter.

Salem witch trials

On reaching Boston on May 14, 1692, Phips found the colony in a disordered condition, gripped by witchcraft hysteria. Though honest, persevering and disinclined to further his own interests at the expense of the people, he was unfit for the difficult position. He appointed a special commission to try the witchcraft cases, but did nothing to stop the witchcraft mania, and suspended the sittings of the court only after great atrocities had been committed.gripped by 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. 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. 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. Although the court was terminated in September 1692, accusations and arrests continued, including charges against some fairly high profile individuals. 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.

Managing the colony

In defending the frontier he displayed great energy, but his policy of building forts was expensive and unpopular. Having the manners of a 17th-century sea captain, he became involved in many quarrels, and engaged in a bitter controversy with Governor Benjamin Fletcher of New York. Numerous complaints to the home government resulted in his being summoned to England to answer charges.

While in London awaiting trial, he died on February 18, 1695. He was buried in London in the yard of the Church of St. Mary Woolnoth.



[Note: This assertion has been debunked. He certainly used a diving bell, and may have made improvements to it, but did not invent it.]

Like the noble house of Lansdowne, whose history I have traced in these pages*, the house of Phipps included in its pedigree a man of practical genius, whose name and career I find thus mentioned in the Mechanic's Magazine, for a cousin of Sir Constantine was William Phipps, the inventor of the diving-bell: 'The first diving-bell of which we read was nothing but a very large kettle, suspended by ropes, with the mouth downwards, and planks to sit on, fixed in the middle of its concavity. Two Greeks at Toledo, in 158$, made an experiment with it before the Emperor Charles V. They descended in it, with a lighted candle, to a considerable depth. In 1683, William Phipps, the son of a blacksmith, formed a project for unloading a rich Spanish ship sunk on the coast of Hispaniola. Charles II gave him a vessel with everything necessary for his undertaking; but, being unsuccessful, he returned in great poverty. He then endeavored to procure another vessel; but, failing, lie got a subscription, to which the Duke of Albemarle contributed. In 1687 Phipps set sail in a ship of two hundred tons, having previously engaged to divide his profits according to the twenty shares of which the subscription consisted. At first all his labors proved fruitless; but at last, when he seemed almost to despair, he was fortunate enough to bring up so Much treasure that he returned to England with the valve of £200,000. Of this sum he got about £20,000, and the Duke of Albemarle £90,000. Phipps was knighted by the king, and since that time dicing-bells have been constantly employed.'


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Sir William Phips, Colonial Governor of Massachusetts's Timeline

February 2, 1651
Woolwich, Sagadahoc, Maine
June 6, 1685
Rowley, Essex, Massachusetts
February 18, 1695
Age 44
London, Greater London, England
February 21, 1695
Age 44
Bristol, Bristol, England, United Kingdom