William Phips was born in Wiscasset,Maine, which at that time, was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Around 1672, he found his way to Boston, became a sailor and fisherman, and married Mary Hull, a well-todo widow.
While living in Boston, Phips learned of a Spanish treasure ship that had sunk off the coast of the island of Hispaniola (modernday Dominican Republic) in 1641. Phips sailed to England and asked King Charles II for a commission and a royal ship to locate the wreck and salvage its treasure.
To nearly everyone’s surprise, the king agreed. Phips sailed to Boston in 1684, and then on to the Caribbean, where he searched in vain for the wreckage. He returned to England in 1686 without finding any treasure.
King Charles II had died in 1685, and his successor, King James II, was not interested in Phips’s plans. But a group of investors, including the Duke of Albemarle, financed a second voyage.
This time Phips hit the jackpot. In January, 1687, he found the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de la Conception, and by June of that year he was back in London with more than 200,000 pounds sterling of recovered Spanish treasure. It was an incredible fortune, and Phips had salvaged it without the loss of a single man.
King James II knighted Phips; he was the first native-born American to be so honored. Phips returned to Boston and purchased a fine mansion in the most fashionable section of town.
In 1690, war broke out between England and the French and their Indian allies. That spring Phips led a Massachusetts expedition that captured the French post at Port Royal (modern-day Annapolis, Nova Scotia). In the late summer, Phips sailed from Boston with 33 ships and 2,200 men, determined to capture Quebec.
Phips arrived at Quebec in early October, just as bad weather was setting in. He made an attempt at a siege, but was thwarted by the French governor Frontenac (see no. 45). Phips returned to Boston in November, having lost five ships and around 500 men, mostly to storms at sea.
In 1691, Phips was named the first royal governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. He took office in 1692, and was immediately confronted by the Salem witch scare of that year. He created a special court and commissioners to try the witches, but then ended the proceedings after 19 people had been executed.
During his three years as governor (1692-1695), Phips drew the wrath of several groups in Boston. He was recalled to London to defend himself against charges of misgovernance, but died before the matter could be settled.