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The Phips Expedition of 1690

Or, How NOT to try to capture Quebec

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To hear Sir William tell it, the Phips Expedition of 1690 came very close to capturing Quebec save for the disease that felled his men. In truth, he never came close to accomplishing his mission.

King William’s War

Relations between Britain and France had been hostile for centuries in Europe, and those relations spilled over into the New World as each country vied for hegemony of the new territories. Friction between New France and the expanding English colonies in New England was present from the beginning. The friction was not just political but religious as well–French Catholicism against English Protestantism. Wars based wholly or partly on religion rarely end well.

Open hostilities were bound to start sooner or later, and the first of four wars in the New World between Britain and France began in 1688. King William’s War (King William of Orange) would last until 1697, with no resolution for either side. It was a proxy war between the colonists of both sides and their Native America allies, the mother countries not sending any regular soldiers.

The war devolved into a series of frontier raids in which neither side gained any control.  On March 22, 1690, Massachusetts appointed Sir William Phips as a major general to command an expedition to French Acadia.

William Phips

Sir William Phips was a New England-born adventurer par excellence, a treasure hunter who actually found treasure. His discovery resulted in his knighthood and appointment as a major general and the first royal governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Born in Kennebec, Massachusetts Bay (Maine in 1820), he moved to Boston and married into a maritime family. Through his marriage he became the captain of a trading ship. He then sailed to the West Indies on one leg of what would become known later as the Triangle Trade.

William Phips

William Phips

Phips set sail from Boston in March 1690 to take Port Royal, the French capital of Acadia. Phips briefly described the expedition:

The present governors together with the inhabitants of New England, out of a true sence of the gratitude, did think they could do no better, or more manifestly express their loyalty to Their Majesties than be venturing their lives and estates toward the  enlarging of Their Majesties Dominions in America, and particularly for the reducing of Canada unto Their obedience. According to that Resolution the did raise about seaven hundred men, and fitted out seaven saile of ships at their own expense and did the command thereof to me.


With these ships and men I set saile from New England in March, 1689-90, and reduced that part of it called Accady, and then I returned to New England.

The description is notable for its lack of candor. The expedition most certainly was a success. It was hardly a great military victory, however. Only 70 men manned a crumbling fort at Port Royal, with no artillery. Faced with 450 New England militia and seven armed vessels, Louis-Alexandre des Friches de Menneval, the Port Royal governor, immediately surrendered. No shots were exchanged.

Port Royal

Phips then allowed his forces to plunder Port Royal and desecrate the Catholic church. He reported that “’We cut down the cross, rifled the church, pulled down the High-Altar, breaking their images…’” After thoroughly plundering Port Royal, he then unleashed his forces on the rest of a defenseless Acadia, laying waste to numerous towns. Of course, he didn’t have the forces to control his conquest, so he left the area under the control of a French council of local leaders who ostensibly swore loyalty to England. He then returned triumphant with his forces to Boston.

Flushed with his success, and seeing himself as a military leader, he now set his sights on the capitol of New France, Quebec. There is no doubt that Phips was a great organizer, a skill he first demonstrated in his hunt for Spanish treasure. However, organizing a treasure hunt over a two year period, and organizing a large, ambitious military expedition in four months to take a city was the proverbial difference between apples and oranges. He now gathered a force of four warships and thirty transport ships and about 2200 men for his new expedition.

While his seafaring days had given him background in naval matters, he had absolutely no experience leading men in a land battle. What Phips was not was a great military leader. His success in Acadia led him to believe that same easy success was assured in Quebec. But logistically and militarily, trying to take Quebec was a different matter altogether.

The Phips Expedition Sets Sail

Planning a major expedition to Quebec in only four months would have been daunting for anyone, and things began to go wrong from the start. It wasn’t until Aug. 20, 1690 that the expedition set sail and even then, it was not ready. Not enough ammunition had been procured, Also, sailing success depends on wind and weather, and both were contrary.

The Phips Expedition reaches Quebec

The ships made a slow, almost painful trip up the St. Lawrence River, hampered by a lack of charts and a knowledgeable pilot to guide them. It also didn’t help their progress that they stopped periodically to forage and loot. Life on board would have been cramped, wet, miserable and lacking in even basic hygiene.

Phips earlier Acadia expedition had thoroughly alarmed the French. Quebec at the time had no real fortifications. In the intervening months, Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac et de Palluau, Governor General of New France, set about creating a wooden stockade around the city, supported by eleven small stone redoubts mounting cannon. Against a professional army, with siege equipment, it might not have been enough, but against colonial militia, it was formidable. Frontenac also had almost 3000 men, among them three battalions of colonial regulars. These trained and disciplined troops were more than a match for the New England militia men who were only one step above a rabble.

Needed Help, Didn’t Get It

The one outside hope for support for Phips was a land expedition that had set out from Albany, led by Fitz-John Winthrop. It was supposed to advance along Lake Champlain and attack Montreal. While the expedition did set out, it just as quickly petered out and turned back. This lack of effort allowed the French to free up troops from Montreal to help Quebec.

Still, Phips had about 2,200 militia with him, but numbers meant little in this case. There was a world of difference between skirmishing with Indians in the wilderness and facing the fortified walls of Quebec. Assaulting enemy fortifications takes training for disciplined soldiers. Phips’ militia were anything but disciplined soldiers, and they had no real military training, let alone training to assault a fort. They certainly had no training for working in large, organized military formations.

The Phips Expedition Reaches Quebec

It was 16 October 1690 by the time the expedition reached Quebec, making it late in the season. The weather in French Canada was getting colder by the day, and eroding any real hope of success if the enemy failed to immediately capitulate. Still, this was exactly what happened earlier in the year at Acadia, so Phips must have been extremely hopeful that history would repeat itself. He made the classic military mistake of underestimating his enemy.

Map of Phips Expedition

Upon his arrival, still under the impression that the task of taking Quebec as he had Port Royal was simply for the asking, he sent a message to Frontenac demanding surrender. The demand was carried on shore by Major Thomas Savage. Blindfolded, he was led along the streets through jeering mobs. The language of the surrender demand and the haughtiness of Major Savage, so enraged Frontenac that he was going to have Major Savage hung in view of the English before the Bishop of Quebec talked him out of it. In the end, Frontenac gave a reply that remains famous in Canada to this day: ”I have no reply to make to your general  other than from the mouths of my cannons and muskets.”

Sitting Ducks

Contrary to the plan, such as it was, the English colonial warships proceeded to anchor in the river opposite the city and bombard it. By October 19th they had run out of ammunition. One well-known military axiom in the age of sail was that it was usually folly for warships to engage a stationary fortification. Anchored in a river, the ships made a mouth-watering motionless wooden target.

Quebec sat on a high plateau, above the river. This meant that the French guns could fire down on the English ships, while the English ships were limited in how much they could elevate their guns to return fire. The French fire pummeled the English ships shooting away the rigging and severely damaging the hulls. Just as humiliating for Phips was that his ensign halyard on his flagship Six Friends, was cut by a shot and the flag fell into the river. It in turn was retrieved in a daring maneuver by a small French group and presented to Frontenac.

Phips’ militia still had to land, a daunting task for trained men. About 1,200 men made it to the shore. There, Canadian militia and Indian allies forced them to camp for two nights under desultory fire. To compound their problem, the colonists’ guns initially landed on the opposite shore. After two cold, miserable days and nights, the English militia decided to attack into the wood line. The French stopped them cold. After suffering 150 killed, the English attackers fled in disarray, abandoning five field guns.


On October 24th, Phips threw in the towel and left for Boston. It had been a disaster, but not so if one reads Phips’ take on the action:

“…I brought my ships up within musquett shott of their cannon and fired upon the town with that success, that I dismounted several of their best cannon, and within twenty-four hours beat the French from their works.

At the same time fourteen hundred men that I had landed defeated a great part of the enemy, and by account of the prisoners, the city in all probability must have been taken in two or three dales, but the small pox and the feavour increased so fast …that it delayed the pushing on the siege  till the weather grew so extrem cold that no further progress could be made therein…”

It was pure fiction, meant to cover up a myriad of mistakes and gloss over the disaster. Phips admitted to only 30 total casualties from battle, disease and accident. But smallpox and camp fever (typhus) alone claimed 1,000. The battle deaths and expedition failure were easy to hide in those numbers. Smallpox, malaria, typhoid, and dysentery were endemic in 17th century New England. So as tragic as the losses were, people could accept that they were the cause of failure, not because of leadership.

 The Phips Expedition Returns

The expedition limped home, leaving behind almost half his force, buried in Canadian soil or in the wilderness. He also lost all his field guns and at least four ships trying to navigate the St. Lawrence River. The expedition must have been a truly pathetic sight as it sailed back into Boston. Over 1,000 families were now without husbands, fathers, sons and brothers.

Real news of the disaster would never reach New England in any believable form. The French could brag of a victory, but that was to be expected. Phips wrote his own account of the Phips Expedition to benefit himself. There was no one to dispute it.


Cotton Mather

Phips’ misadventure didn’t tarnish his reputation, and his support of Cotton Mather only served to enhance his influence. In 1692, he was appointed the first royal governor of the new Province of Massachusetts Bay, with Mather’s approval. His fame today, such as it is, resulted from his curtailing of the Salem witchcraft trials and his eventual pardon of the accused. In 1693 his enemies trumped up charges that got him recalled to England. However, he died there before any court proceedings.

For the French in Canada, the defeat of Phips was a cause célèbre that still reverberates in their history. It would take three more wars, and 59 years before Quebec finally fell to the English.

Seven of the author’s relatives were on the expedition, six of whom, including 2 Great Granduncles and a Great Grandfather, died of disease.  

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