Colonial governor and military leader,William Shirley was born at Sussex, England, the eldest son of a country gentleman and London textile merchant. He practiced law in London before emigrating to Boston in 1731. By that time he had married Frances Barker, with whom he eventually had nine children.
Over the next ten years, Shirley developed a large law practice, and became associated with wealthy Boston businessmen who were unhappy with the Massachusetts governor, Jonathan Belcher, and wanted to replace him. With the help of his wife, who went to London and acted as his agent, Shirley was appointed royal governor in Belcher’s place in 1741.
When King George’s War broke out in 1744, Shirley was eager for the Massachusetts Bay Colony to fight against France. During the winter he made a daring proposal to the Massachusetts assembly: he wanted to raise a force to attack the French fortress ofLouisbourg on Cape Breton Island. Shirley’s arguments were compelling and persuasive; the assembly passed the measure.
Shirley named William Pepperrell to lead the attack on Louisbourg. In early July 1745, when the news reached Boston of the fall of Louisbourg, the town rejoiced wildly. Shirley was credited with having masterminded the British colonies’ greatest military triumph.
In 1749, Shirley was sent to France where he worked for three years attending conferences to settle the boundary lines between the French and British colonies in North America. The conferences ultimately failed, and Shirley returned to Boston as royal governor in 1753.
War soon broke out again between England and France, and Shirley hoped to play a major role in this conflict— called the French and Indian War by the colonials and the Seven Years’ War by the Europeans.Shirley became commander-in-chief of allthe British forces in North America after the death of General Edward Braddock in July 1755.
However, he feuded with several other important colonial officials, and his planned campaign against the French Fort Niagara failed. When the French won a major victory at Oswego in 1756, Shirley was ordered to return to England and face charges of mismanagement of the war effort.
In England, Shirley was cleared of all the charges, and was then named as governor of the Bahama Islands. He served there for eight years, working successfully with the assembly to distribute lands to the poor, encourage new crops, open new ports and roads, and improve the laws. He resigned in 1767—in favor of his son, Thomas—and retired to Roxbury, Massachusetts.