Home Massachusetts The Sad News of the Death of William Phips

The Sad News of the Death of William Phips

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On May 5, 1695, Samuel Sewall, Salem witch trial judge, reported the death of William Phips in his diary:

About 3 hours News comes to Town of the death of Sir William Phips, Feb 18th, at which people are generally sad. Lay sick about a week of the new Fever as ’tis called. Cous. Hull says the talk is Mr. Dudley will be Governour. Tis said the King goes over Sea again, and Seven persons are to have the Regency in his absence.

William Phips

William Phips

Phips was the first royal governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He had established the witch trial court and appointed Sewall as one of the judges. Later he disbanded the court, and Sewall was the only judge to apologize for what they had done.

Sewall wrote quite a lot about Phips in his diary, which he kept from 1673 to 1729. It is considered one of the most important historical documents of the time.

William Phips

Though Phips’ origins were humble,  he came into royal favor by discovering Spanish treasure in the Caribbean and sharing it with his investors. He was born Feb. 2, 1650/1 on the frontier in what is now Woolwich, Maine, to James and Mary Phips. He was a shepherd until he was 18, then he apprenticed to a shipwright. He had no formal schooling but managed to learn to read and write.  At 22, he traveled to Boston and continued to work as a shipwright. He also married Mary Hull.

Phips built a successful shipyard on the Sheepscot River at Merrymeeting Bay in Maine in 1675. Indians destroyed the shipyard, so he moved to Boston and established a new shipyard. Seven years later he went into treasure hunting. After two expeditions – one successful, one unsuccessful – Phips discovered a sunken Spanish treasure ship off the coast of Hispaniola. The lion’s share of the find, estimated at about 210,000 pounds, went to his investors in the venture. Phips was knighted by King James II.

Engraving of Phips raising sunken treasure

His connections in London and with the Mather family resulted in his appointment as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in May 1692. He only served for 2-1/2 years. Toward the end of his administration as governor he got mired in personal disputes. He was called back to London and died while waiting to answer charges against him.

In Sewall’s diary, ‘Cous. Hull’ refers to one of his wife’s cousins. Sewall himself found a bit of a fortune when he married Hannah Hull. Her father, John Hull (no relation to Phips’ wife) was a wealthy merchant and mintmaster who treated the young couple well. He gave them 500 pounds as a wedding gift and let them move into his mansion in Boston. Sewall rose to prominence by getting involved in the Hull family’s political and economic endeavors.

William Stoughton rather than “Mr. Dudley” succeeded Phips as governor of Massachusetts.

This story updated in 2022.


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