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William Phips And The Big Jackpot

July 2024
10min read

Maybe the American suceess myth began with this carpenter’s helper who rose to riches a title, and a governorship


For over two and a hall centuries now a persistent myth has haunted the minds of certain restless Americans. It is the dream of the big bonanza, or the jackpot—the jump from poverty to affluence overnight in one supernatural stroke of fortune.

Historians, of course, must be chary about naming the exact source of any legend. It is reasonable, however, to give a large share of the credit for this one to the exploit of William Phips, who, as a 36-year-old lumber-trading skipper from Boston, dredged up a fortune in gold and silver from a sunken Spanish vessel just oil the coast of what is now the Dominican Republic, in the year 1687. His entire career was one protracted laugh at the laws of probability; like all favorites of luck, he seemed to be specially excused from their operation.

Phips was born on the New England frontier in 1651. His family was poor, and at eighteen, his father having died, William was apprenticed to a ship carpenter. Young Phips grew as strong and whippy as the good Maine pine he scraped and sawed. In four years he was ready to follow the country boy’s path to the city to make good. He went to try his new trade in Boston.

Here he worked for a year, and here he taught himself to read and write. And here certain characteristics in him Hi st made themselves apparent. Along with a healthy young male physique, he had a gilt of persuasiveness destined to grow more formidable in time.

He met a Mrs. Mary Hull, widow of a Boston merchant and daughter of a retired sea captain. As one biographer of Phip.s tactfully puts it, she “had the advantage of him, both in years and fortune,” but this made no difference. They were married, and soon thereafter carpenter Phips became William Phips, shipbuilding contractor. After the fashion of the time, he built some ships on commission and took others to sea himself, with cargoes uf his own purchase, intended to yield a quick and generous turnover. Most of these trips were short and to the same place—the West Indies.

As a trader, Thips could not fail to pick up fragments of the gossip of the Caribbean seaports, and as he did so he began to fit them into grandiose schemes. He “would privately hint to his friends, that he was born for greater matters” and had promised his wife “a fair blick house in the Green Lane of North Boston.” Some eight years after his marriage he decided that he knew how to make good on the promise, lie would go prospecting for sunken treasure in the Bahamas.

It was not cmite as wild a gamble as it sounds. For over a century and a half the treasure fleets of Spain had carried fabulous hauls of gold and silver from Mexican mines homeward. Hurricanes, pirates, naval warfare and errant navigation in tricky, uncharted waters had sent scores to the bottom. In the Bahamas or off Jamaica, Bermuda, and Hispaniola the search for wrecks was a part-time occupation for native residents.

But search and dredging operations on any scale took capital. So, in Seventeenth-Century style, partnerships between government and private enterprise arose to meet the need. The nation owning the colony where the wreck occurred claimed title to salvaged goods. It sold rights in the recovery to “adventurers” who invested time and money in the treasure hunt and gave a percentage of the haul to the treasury.

Phips broke into this business with a brief expedition to a wreck off New Providence, the island housing Xassau, present-day Bahamian capital. He found just enough to interest him in bigger game—another wreck off the Bahama Banks—and to finance a trip to England in search of backing. The details of just how he operated are unclear. It can be assumed that he had made inlluential friends in Boston who would give him letters of introduction to the correct London circles. Nevertheless, there is something almost ludicrous in the picture of a barely literate ex-shipyard worker talking the Admiralty (in a Maine dialect at that) into investing in him.

But in Phips’s biography the fantastic conies to be the expected. Phips got his case before the King, and the conqueror of the Widow Hull soon added Charles II to his list of convinced prospects. He was “loaned” one of the ships of the Navy, the Salee Rose , captured from the Algerians. He himself was to supply the rest of the outfit and share the proceeds with the King.

The Boston skipper chose to raise his complement of men in a unique way. They were offered partnerships in the treasure. Each sailor (except the cook) was to buy his own food, small arms and ammunition, and share in the voyage’s profits.

In the late summer of 1683 he began one of the more curious voyages in naval annals. Elevated to the rank of shareholders, the tars were entirely undisposed to put up with discipline. The Rose made Boston in October, 1683, and lay there provisioning for ten weeks. Nightly the crew brawled its way through the water front grogshops. With an acute sense of naval punctilio, they began to insist that ships standing into the harbor dip their colors to the Rose as a man-of-war, or receive a shot across the bow.

Early in November a group of them took on some town constables in a tavern free-for-all. Phips was told that a complaint would be made to the governor. Caught up in the crew’s enthusiasm he swore that he “did not (are a ——for the governor.” He was haled into court but acquitted.

Shortly thereafter, the Rose fired on another vessel in the harbor, and Phips was tried again and fined ten pounds. The city of Boston doubtless breathed a sigh of relief when the Rose weighed anchor in January, 1684.

Phips got to the Bahama Banks only to discover that “his” wreck had been located and exploited by others. He decided to return to England, but he had yet to reckon with those colorful vultures, his crew. They decided to stay where they were and turn pirate. Phips quieted the first mutinous outbreak with his fists, but shortly thereafter the ship was put into a deserted cove, unloaded, and hove down for repairs. The malcontents, while ashore gathering provisions, decided to return, imprison the captain, and leave him to rot on the island.

Phips learned of the plot, however. A loyal guard was rounded up, and the disembarked guns were dragged back aboard. When the amateur pirates re turned, Phips had them covered and shouted, “Stand off, wretches, or be it at your peril.” He then announced his intention to sail away and abandon them.

Cowed and frightened, they were glad to be allowed back aboard, and the ship made straight lor Jamaica where they were all discharged. Back to England came the Rose, and with it a Phips who seemed washed up. His voyage was a failure, he had neglected his business lor at least two years, and his reputation in Boston must have been in a low state after his crew’s lusty exploits. But on the way back he had picked up one last card to play. During a stop at Puerto Plata, on the northern coast of Hispaniola, then a Spanish possession, he heard of another wreck. A treasure ship had supposedly gone down in 1642 on one of the reels in the Puerto Plata area—either Handkerchief Shoal, almost due north, or Ambrosia Bank, to the southeast of it, or the South Riff, between Ambrosia Bank and the island itself.


It was not much of a card. An Englishman named Edward Stanley had been looking vainly for the same wreck for three years. The entire New England merchant marine shared a folklore about sunken treasure ships. Where would capital be found for such a risk?

It was found in the hands of a syndicate headed by the Duke of Albemarle. Phips must have worked miracles to bring off this fund-raising coup. As a promoter he had outgrown any provincial backwardness.

Two ships were provided, the James and Mary and the Henry of London , fully supplied, with money furnished for divers and salvage gear. The investors had a touch of prudence, though. They put aboard £500 worth of cargo to trade with the Spaniards, to cut the losses if nothing whatever was found.

Phips put into Puerto Plata in December of 1686. Then, unaccountably, caution overwhelmed him. He stayed in port, dutifully trading his cloth and knickknacks to the Hispaniolans in return for dry hides, and on January 13 sent out Francis Rogers and William Covell, his mates, to search in the Henry .


Rogers and Covell found a shoal spot between Ambrosia Bank and the South Riff. Now known as Silver Bank, its center is 68 nautical miles from Puerto Plata. They began looking, in the ship’s boat, among a group of rocks they called “boilers” from their appearance amid a frothing sea.

A day of search had yielded nothing, when, on the way back to the Henry , one of the mates looked down into the almost transparent waters and saw a sea feather. This was a coral plant with large, vine-shaped leaves, veined in red. He thought it would make an interesting keepsake and motioned a diver over after it. A moment later the man bobbed to the surface with a shout. A number of ship’s guns were lying on the floor of the reef nearby.

The next dive brought up a small casting of silver, called a “sow,” and that was it. The quest was over. The jackpot was in. Covell and Rogers worked the wreck for three days, taking up solid silver in its various Seventeenth-Century molds, “sows,” “pigs,” “champeens,” and “dowboys.” They also got coin to the tune of some 2,000 silver Spanish dollars—the “pieces of eight” of Treasure Island . Then they ran for Puerto Plata, where Rogers went aboard the James and Mary and with the straight face of an old sailor loving a practical joke told Phips that they had searched the reef and found nothing. It must have made an old man of Phips lor a time. Sadly he entered the story in the log. Some time later both mates came to the captain’s cabin again, and while one of them diverted him with talk, the other “slipt the Sow of Silver on one side under the table.” Then Phips saw it, asked where it came from, and cried:

“Thanks be to God! We are all made.”

Which they were. All hands were put to work, and from mid-February to mid-April, 1687, crews dove and raked and grappled, and hoisted royal wealth into the holds—jewels, plate, coin, bars, ingots coming up in dripping baskets. The great gamble had paid off.

When the two ships anchored in the Thames in June, a joyful procession of backers streamed aboard. The final heft of the treasure was some 65,466 pounds troy weight. The value was over £200,000, of which Phips’s share was some £12,000. It is hard to translate this into modern purchasing power, but it was enough to bring Phips immediately into the wealthy class.

Success had come to the Captain, and now it brought him a dizzying rise. Phips was knighted by King James II. Medals were struck in his honor, at least one broadside was written, and the hero settled back to enjoy being the focus of London gossip and the lion of society.

Here he either made or renewed the acquaintance of Increase Mather, the formidably learned pastor of North Church in Boston and president of Harvard, who was in England as the agent of Massachusetts, attempting to get from the King a restoration of the colony’s charter, which had been revoked for “disobedience” in 1684.

Mather, a shrewd combination of scholar, minister, and politician, either liked the blunt, middle-class sailor or found in him an instrument for his purposes. The two men joined hands in lobbying for return of the charter. Phips went back to Boston in the summer of 1688 to build the “fair brick house” for his wife, who had seen precious little of him in five years. Then he enjoyed a further harvest of triumph.

On March 22, 1690, the Massachusetts legislature voted to raise a force and march against the French province of Acadia, now Nova Scotia. The command was given to Sir William Phips, who had offered his services. A month later Phips sailed at the head of an expedition to Port Royal. His luck was running high. The garrison was outnumbered and outgunned, and quickly surrendered. The rest of the province fell swiftly into Phips’s hands. On May 30 he returned to Boston and delivered Acadia, captured in one month, to the provincial officials.

Now Phips was chosen one of a committee to manage an attack on Quebec. An expedition of 32 vessels and some 2,000 men was sent out, but Quebec was well defended and the assault was beaten off. Early in 1691, therefore, Sir William sailed for England with a new promotion scheme under his hat. He wanted to talk the King into supporting a full-dress campaign to drive the French from Canada.

The King was not ready to do this, but meanwhile a new charter had been prepared for Massachusetts, and the throne was about to select a governor for the colony. A request for recommendations was made to that most influential and scholarly American-about-London, the Reverend Increase Mather. Mather named his good friend, Sir William Phips, who was presently appointed “Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief of the Province of Massachusetts-bay in New England,” as well as captain-general, or chief military officer, of the colonies of Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Phips had come far. King Charles had made him commander of a ship of the royal fleet, King James had made him a knight, and now King William had made him a governor.

Unfortunately success stories do not stop at the instant of culmination. In history the winner lingers on the scene to pay the price. Phips was not at all popular as governor.

The new charter placed the colony under tighter administrative restrictions than it had previously known, and in order to carry on the war with the French, he had to undertake military expenditures which raised the tax burden, always a favorite subject of complaint. The witchcraft hysteria that gripped the colony raised further problems, only solved after a year of excesses when Phips finally dismissed the panel of judges he had appointed.

The real touch of sadness, however, lies in the human story of the inability of the man to live up to his new station. Undoubtedly he was magnetic, but like most self-made men he was aggressive, opinionated, and something of a roughneck. The onetime manual laborer could not play milord governor.

In 1693 Jahleel Brenton of Rhode Island took over as collector of the port of Boston. When, in spring of 1694. Brenton seized a cargo owned by a merchant who was a friend of the governor, Phips took the kind of action natural to him. “The governor went to the Wharf,” says a history written some seventy years later, “and after warm words, on both sides, laid hands upon the collector.”

Phips’s temper was to get him into even worse trouble. A quarrel sprang up between him and a Captain Short of a naval vessel, the Nonesuch , first over the governor’s decision on the distribution of certain prize money, and then over Short’s refusal to undertake a mission on which Phips ordered him. Whence it happened that “meeting Captain Short in the street, warm words passed, and at length the governor made use of his cane and broke Short’s head.”

The colonial governor was the symbol of the Crown’s majesty in America, and a royal executive who personally beat up commissioned officers was in for trouble. On the seventeenth of November, 1694, Sir William proceeded to England to answer suit brought against him by Brenton and Short. He was acquitted of any technical misdemeanors, but no move was made to restore him to the colony.

Restless and idle, Phips saw his glory fading. He took the path of so many overnight sensations whose hour had passed. He turned back to the old dreamthe bitter quest to relive the great moment once again. Phips began to inquire about a patent to look for treasure once more in the Indies. But in February, 1695. a sudden fever killed him, almost eight years to the day after the find of the “sow” of silver.

Perhaps he was spared years of frustration and the crudest pain of all—the knowledge that he was being forgotten. For this man, the first American to strike it rich, the fever may have been a final winning hand.

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