William Phips Goes to Sea – The Making of a Colonial Sheriff

William Phips faced a dilemma in August of 1676. At his shipyard in Woolwich, Maine he had built his first merchant vessel. He planned to make a voyage to deliver lumber to Boston. A young man of 26, he had big dreams and was set to make a nice score.

William Phips

William Phips

But the Wabanaki Confederacy, a group of American Indian tribes then at war (King Philips War) with the colonists had other ideas. As the Indians prepared to attack, Phips changed his plans. He loaded his vessel with as many colonists as he could and, leaving his lumber behind, sailed for Boston. He was hailed as a hero.

Heroisim did not pay the bills, however, and Phips again set up in Boston as a shipbuilder. But rather than stay ashore, he decided the real money lay in recovering treasure, usually Spanish treasure, lost at sea.

William Phips

He set out for the Bahamas and, after picking over some wreck sites, provided his investors a reasonable return. For his next voyage, he travelled to England to gain backing. Among his investors was King Charles II. This two-year voyage did not go well. It was beset with problems, from delays in getting supplies to a mutinous crew. It recorded a loss.

Phips’ third voyage, however, was a different story. Some of his investors were reluctant to back the treasure hunter again because of his failure. But he managed to round up funds with the backing of the Duke of Albermarle.

The voyage got underway in 1687, and Phip soon found what he was after in the waters north of the Dominican Republic. A Spanish ship, Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, had gone down in 1641 with a massive horde of silver, gold and jewelry on board bound from South America and to Spain.

Phips’ crew worked feverishly until they exhausted their supplies. They returned to England in the summer of 1687 with somewhere between 210,000 and 300,000 pounds. The find earned Phips a knighthood, 11,000 pounds as his share of the haul and appointment as sheriff of the Dominion of New England. All of London celebrated him.

Phips departed England in 1688 to return to New England and take up his post.

This story updated in 2022. 

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