American History and Genealogy Project


The Treasure Ship

The bays of Monseag and Sheepscot form a little peninsula on which the town of Woolwich is situated. This strip of land was bought by the first white settlers for a hogshead of corn and thirty pumpkins. It was here some three hundred years ago that James Phips and his good wife built their pioneer home.

Dame Phips must have felt at times like the old woman in Mother Goose who had so many children she didn't know what to do, for her brood numbered twenty-six, all of them boys but three.

William was one of the youngest. His father died when he was a mere child, and on the mother the family cares must have weighed heavily. Probably she had little time to dream and we doubt if even in wildest fancy she could have imagined the career which awaited one of her boys. There was nothing about William to single him out from the others for special favor. Yet she lived to see him honored by kings and princes, made royal governor of Massachusetts, and the hero of one of the most romantic adventures ever recorded in history.

William was an active, restless boy, ever fond of feats of daring. As the settlers in those days lived in constant fear of the Indians, William's courage and fearlessness were often put to the test in fighting back the tomahawk. Like all boys he loved to hunt and fish, and living so near the Kennebec River, he met many a talkative old "salt" whose sea tales made the boy impatient for a life of perilous adventure.

While tending the sheep, for this was his part of the family work, he would imagine himself a captain, sailing the broad seas and many was the conflict he fought in imagination with pirates.

William from early childhood always insisted to his playmates that he would not remain long at home, that the big world was calling him. At the age of 18 years, he told his mother that he was done with acting as shepherd to the flocks. He was going to be a sea captain, he said. So he was apprenticed to one of the shipbuilders of the town and spent the next four years learning this trade. Then, in spite of his mother's tears and his brothers' entreaties, he set forth for Boston. There had been no time for schooling at home and not till he reached Boston did he have opportunity to learn to read and write.

A year after reaching Boston he wooed and won a fair widow, Mary Hall by name, who also was born in Maine, near Saco. She had a fair fortune for those days and this brought to William Phips more opportunities.

His first big undertaking was to build a ship. He secured the contract from persons in Boston and returned to Woolwich to do the work. The ship grew fast under his hands and finally he was ready for a lading of lumber. Just as all seemed to prosper him, the Indian war whoop was heard and a murderous assault was made on the little settlement. Young Phips, forgetting his own fortune, offered his ship as a refuge to his people and furthermore agreed to take them to Boston free of charge.

In spite of this set-back to his fortunes by the loss of the profit from his lumber, Phips still was firm in his belief that a great future awaited him. "I shall yet be the captain of a king's ship and I shall have command of better men than I now account myself and I shall build for you a fair brick house in the Green Lane of North Boston," he used to tell his wife.
At that time, Spain was winning fortunes from the West Indies and South America, and all Europe and New England were fired with these stories. Vessels loaded with silver and gold and precious stones were often captured by daring pirates. These stories young Phips heard as he went among the sailors in the shipyards.

One day came the story of the wreck of one of these treasure ships off the Bahamas and this excited wild hopes in Phips' heart. Why not find the sunken wreck and recover the treasure?

So one fair day he sailed thither. Little success rewarded him, except that he was furnished an opportunity to journey to England. Before he left the West Indies, he had heard from an old ship captain of another sunken Spanish wreck wherein was lost a mighty treasure.

In due season young Phips arrived in England. He was a stranger in a strange land with only his wits to help him. Yet he won his way to the King, told him his dream of recovering the sunken treasure and actually made King Charles II take stock in the yarn, and, more than that, the King promised to give the young adventurer a chance to prove his mettle. It was in the year 1683 that Phips again set forth, this time in a King 's ship, you remember his prophecy to his wife, "I shall yet be captain of a King's ship." The Algier Rose was a frigate of eighteen guns and ninety-five men.


Sir William Phips
Sir William Phips

To relate all the dangers through which Phips passed while year after year first one thing and then another delayed the success of his undertaking, is too long a story. There were many hardships, and, growing weary of the monotonous days, the crew became restless. They thought a treasure more easily won by turning pirates. So they plotted and schemed and one day, deeming the time favorable, with drawn swords in their hands, they suddenly approached the captain on the quarterdeck and commanded him to join with them in running away with the King's ship to drive a trade of piracy. Capt. Phips, although he did not have so much as an ox goad or a jaw bone in his hands, for those were the common weapons of those days, rushed upon the men and, with the blows of his bare hands, felled some and quelled all the rest.

For a time all went well, but the discontent soon broke out again in a more serious mutiny. The ship was at anchor near an uninhabited island to undergo repairs. The crew, while in the woods on shore leave, plotted to seize the ship. If the captain resisted, he was to be put ashore with those of the crew who proved faithful to him. The mutineers would then sail away and turn pirates.

The ship's carpenter, through a pretense of sudden illness, succeeded in warning the Captain of the danger and when the crew returned to the ship that night, they found their way blocked by a cannon which threatened them should they attempt to go aboard. Capt. Phips called to them that he knew their foul plans and that it was he who proposed to sail away and leave them to starve. The mutineers suddenly became very penitent. Yielding at last to their entreaties, Capt. Phips took them aboard the ship but lost no time in sailing for Jamaica, where he discharged the men he had learned to distrust and secured a new crew.

All this had taken two years time. The Algier Rose badly needed repairs, so Capt. Phips decided to return to England and make a new start.

James II was now King of England and he was none too secure on his throne. Invasion of his kingdom was threatened and it was necessary to have all his frigates at home, so he told Capt. Phips that no ship could be spared for treasure hunting. The man from Maine was not one bit discouraged, he soon found a powerful friend in the Duke of Albermarle, a nobleman of great wealth, who interested his friends in the adventure and together they furnished the money for a second ship.

Before many months had passed, Capt. Phips was again at Port de la Plata in Hispaniola, and the treasure hunt began anew. Every morning Capt. Phips would send his sailors out in their small boats to skirt the nearby shoals and reefs to search for some sign of the sunken Spanish galleon. A bit of floating wood or seaweed would be carefully examined and eager eyes would search the waters beneath. One day a sailor spied a bit of seaweed growing out of what looked to be a crevice of a rock. An Indian diver was sent down. In bringing up the seaweed, the diver told a strange story. He said he had seen a number of great guns where he found the seaweed. The men sent him down again and this time he brought up a great lump of some heavy substance. The sailors washed off the lime and barnacles and to their astonishment, it proved to be a bar of silver, a sow they called it, worth perhaps some 300 pounds. Then they knew that they had found the long lost wreck.

Marking the spot with a buoy, they hurried back to the ship. The men agreed at first to report no success to Capt. Phips, as usual. They gathered around the table for evening meal and as they talked of the uselessness of continuing the search, Capt. Phips showed much spirit and declared that he would still wait patiently the will of God. Then the sailors showed him the bar of silver.

When he realized what it was and what it meant, Capt. Phips said, "Thanks be to God, we are made.''

The days that followed were full of feverish excitement. There seemed no end to the treasure. In a little while they had brought up 32 tons of silver. There were huge junks of what looked to be limestone. These the men broke open with iron tools and whole bushels of rusty pieces of Spanish money would fall from the broken mass. Besides this there was incredible treasure in gold and pearls and jewels. Thus did they fish until, their provisions failing, it was time to be off.
Seeing all this pile of wealth, the sailors felt that they were not going to get their just share, and they became morose and threatening. Capt. Phips assured them that they should be treated fairly even if he had to divide his part with them, and he kept his word.

Capt. Phips arrived safely in London in 1687 with his precious cargo to the value of £300,000 or $1,500,000 in our money. The King was so elated with the success of the adventure that he conferred forthwith upon Capt. Phips the honor of Knighthood, the first native born American to receive this distinction. The Duke of Albermarle, who saw vast wealth added to his estates, sent to Lady Phips a golden cup worth £1,000 ($5,000). Phips' share in the treasure was less than £16,000 ($80,000).

Possessed of abundant wealth, the time was now ripe for Sir William to return to New England and to build "the fair brick house in Green Lane, North Boston." In due time the house was finished and it was one of the show places of the town. The walls were as thick as those of a fortress and it became the favorite gathering place for fashionable Boston,
One of Sir William's first public acts on his return home was to give a splendid feast to the ship carpenters of Boston. He was not ashamed of his lowly origin or of the fact that he had made his own way in the world. He had the true American spirit of respect for honest toil.

Honors came thick and fast to Sir William. He added to his renown by the capture of Port Royal and all Acadia from the French and although he subsequently led an unsuccessful expedition against Quebec, he was little blamed for its collapse.

In due time Sir William became Governor of Massachusetts which then included Maine and soon after he built the fine fort at Pemaquid, Fort William Henry, for he knew the great need of some strong defense against the Indians, having as a boy experienced the horrors of Indian assaults.

Gov. Phips often made trips along the Maine coast inspecting its defenses. When sailing in sight of the Kennebec River, he would call his young sailors and soldiers upon deck and speak to them in this fashion: "Young men, it was upon that hill that I kept sheep a few years ago; and since Almighty God has brought me to something, do you learn to fear God and be honest and mind your own business and follow no bad courses, and you don't know what may come to you."
Little did Sir William think at that time that his memory would be perpetuated on this coast in the name of a township not far from his birthplace. It is said that an old Phipsburg family holds as its greatest treasure one of the original invitations to Sir William's funeral, issued by the King of England.

Sir William Phipps Tombstone
Sir William Phips Tombstone
The King's Invitation to Funeral of Sir William Phips
Received by New England Relatives

For it was on a visit to England that Sir William died on Feb. 18th, 1695, having been stricken with a malignant fever.

 His body lies buried in the little church of St. Mary Woolnoth in London. Not until May 5th did the news of his passing reach Boston and "The evening guns" were fired to announce the sad tidings to his people.

Anna Ladd Dingley

Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

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