Maine

William Phips Finds Sunken Treasure, Named Massachusetts Governor

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.

He would fail again and again. And then he would would make more than a nice store. Phips would find

For his efforts he would win a knighthood and a job as governor of Massachusetts. And then he would appoint the Court of Oyer and Terminer, setting the Salem witch trials into motion.

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 Silver Bank, where Phips found sunken treasure

The voyage got underway in 1686, and Phips 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 hoard of silver, gold and jewelry on board bound from South America and to Spain.

Phips sent three Native American divers in a smaller vessel to look for the treasure. On Jan. 20, 1687, they spotted cannons from a shipwreck on a reef, and they knew what they’d found. For two days they worked feverishly bringing up 3,000 coins and three silver bars. Then they returned to Phips’ vessel to give him the news. Phips spent the next nine days getting his ships ready and acquiring supplies to last through the long months of gathering treasure.

Engraving of Phips raising sunken treasure

Phips’ finally exhausted their supplies in the summer of 1687. They returned to England with somewhere between 210,000 and 300,000 pounds. In today’s currency, that would amount to as much as $78 million.

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.

Governor Phips

Phips left England in 1688 to return to New England and take up his post under the wildly unpopular Governor-in-Chief Edmund Andros.  He lasted six weeks, and returned to London. There he joined Increase Mather in working to overthrow Andros and restore the original charter. They succeeded, and Phips returned to Boston as the first governor under the new charter for the Province of Massachusetts Bay.

More adventures lay before him, including expeditions to Port Royal and Quebec during King William’s War. What he is perhaps best known for, however, is establishing the Court of Oyer and Terminer to root out witches in Massachusetts. But that is another story. (You can read it here.)

This story updated in 2022. 

Images: Silver Bank by By Milenioscuro – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30925030. Conversion of pounds to dollars courtesy  Eric W. Nye, Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency, accessed Wednesday, June 08, 2022, https://www.uwyo.edu/numimage/currency.htm. 

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