William Pepperrell was born near the end of the 17th century in Kittery, Maine, which at the time was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Kittery stood at an intersection of trade between New England and Acadia— which later became Nova Scotia—and the Pepperrell family was heavily involved in the shipbuilding, lumber, and fish businesses.
William followed his father into business and proved to be an astute businessman. Upon his father’s death in 1734, he inherited the bulk of the estate, thus becoming one of the richest men in the colonies.Pepperrell entered politics as a member of the Massachusetts General Court, rising to the position of chief justice in 1730.
In 1727, Pepperrell and his friend Jonathan Belcher had been elected to the Governor’s Council. When Belcher was named royal governor of Massachusetts in 1731, Pepperrell’s influence rose as well. However, that influence seemed to dim when Belcher was replaced as governor in 1741.
The start of King George’s War brought Pepperrell his chance to attain fame. In the late winter of 1744, the new Governor, William Shirley, persuaded the Council to endorse his idea of sending a fleet and troops from Boston to capture France’s Fortress Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. Shirley saw the wisdom of having the expedition commanded by a merchant who knew the waters off Nova Scotia. Therefore, he offered the command to Pepperrell.
In March 1745, Pepperrell led a fleet of Yankee fishing ships out from Boston Harbor, bound for Cape Breton. They were met by a squadron of the British Royal Navy, led by Commodore Peter Warren. Together, the colonial American and British ships sailed to Cape Breton.
They landed without opposition, and brought their artillery forward to commence the siege. Fortunately, the French garrison’s morale was low, and early on the French abandoned their Grand Battery, the guns of which were soon turned against the fortress.Commanding the land forces, Pepperrell worked in harmony with Commodore Warren.
The two men pushed their troops forward until they were ready to take the town by storm. The French asked to discuss terms of surrender, and on June 17, 1745, the greatest fortress yet built in North America yielded to the joint forces under Pepperrell and Warren.The news reached both Britain and the American colonies very quickly.
Pepperrell was given the English title of baron, the first colonial American to receive that honor. Warren was promoted to admiral. Pepperrell retired for a time to Kittery. He made one trip to Great Britain in 1752, where King George II accorded him great honors. His fame spread throughout the American colonies, and a young George Washington looked on Pepperrell as a model soldier.