Ashburnham Historical Society, Inc.

Building on the foundation of our past

header photo

The first stones laid to establish Dorchester Canada, which became Ashburnham

Dorchester Canada, a Plantation dedicated to the soldiers of Dorchester Massachusetts for their participation in the War against Canada in 1690.  Without this history, Ashburnham would not have evolved as it did.  This story is about the events that led up to that war and the man who brought it about, but not the people who brought about the payment of the land to the soldiers 45 years later. That story will come.

The story of Sir William Phips was published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1941 and is no longer under copyright protection. Authored by Alice Lounsberry in excellent fashion.

Title 'Sir William Phips, Treasure Fisherman and Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony'


Mr. Cotton Mather, who wrote the first biography of Sir William Phips, the only one of sufficient fullness, was criticized for its exaggerations and its unstinted praise. Yet he was an intimate friend of Sir William, lived in the same town with him, saw him daily and heard from his lips the various happenings of his life. Also, young Mather was the most eminent scholar of his day, a gentleman whose word should not be doubted. Were it not for the historical and biographical sketches written by Cotton Mather, much of the early personal history of New England would be sunk in the swamp of oblivion.

And by way of proof to the incredulous, it happened that later the contemporary diary of Samuel Sewall was published, wherein Mather's most uncredited statements concerning Sir William were found to be exactly as written. His faults rode on the surface, calling to the eyes of the townspeople; but underneath there was neither cruelty nor the desire to withhold forgiveness, the worst accusations that can be laid against a man.

In most cases, the material for this book has been found in early and original sources. Innumerable ancient records have been dusted and brought into uncompromising light. The various monographs of modern writers, showing one or another aspect of Sir William's life, have been studied carefully. Also, in the Massachusetts Historical Society of Boston there is to be found the collected testimony concerning many high currents of his day. Here the good and the unfortunate can be followed closely. Besides, Professor Callender of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England, has been most helpful in supplying formerly unpublished data.

It is not easy to reconstruct a life which spanned the years 1651-1695. Much water since then has flowed under the mill. But the memory of Sir William Phips as a stalwart, adventurous Colonist should be reclaimed. He gave of himself freely, and his love and service to his country were very great.

The words of Increase Mather, spoken so superbly when the first royal governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony lay dead, form, in truth, his justification and his monument.

No amount of thanks to those at home and in distant parts could adequately acknowledge their valiant efforts in behalf of this books construction. For many of their books, pamphlets and documents have been read- more than can be readily remembered. And it is these authors who, through the patience of their research and the definiteness of their learning, have contributed so greatly to the present reconstruction of Sir William's life. Without the gleaning of a fact, a date, an anecdote here, another there - solid stones of structure - the present volume could not have been written.

And yet the records of this remarkable life are in parts so meager as to be recuringly exasperating. The contours of the great adventures are there; but the color and the finer details have evaded the pages of history. Surveying these shadowed stretches, the strong temptation to invent has been resisted; only here and there has substance been supplied to conversations and to encounters known to have taken place, and form given to incidents that are clearly indicated to the progress of events.

Alice Lounsberry

Chapter I


In the stirring days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, no man was more talked about than Sir William Phips. His career had overtoped the spectacular, had astounded the gossips, and had either won or antagonized the favor of the townspeople. But he represented, in whatever way he was driving, a vibrant force - an early example of America's self-made man. Roughly speaking, Phips drove a cross-match team, one horse spotlessly white, the other dark, turning, his detractors said, to black.

His maritime adventure, whereby he made good his boast to bring into the Thames a shipload of money fished from a sunken galleon - one sought for nearly half a century by England's able seamen - had placed him at once as the man of the hour in London. In turn he stood before three kings: Charles II, who sent him afloat at the beginning of his adventure; James II, who knighted him for the fulfillment of high hopes; and William III, Prince of Orange, who bestowed upon him New England's highest honor, naming him the first Royal Captain General and Governor in Chief of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay.

From the rigid background of the Maine woods and waterways, with little more of fundamental equipment to guide him than that of native Indians, Phips had become educated as a ship carpenter. Later he operated as a shipwright in Boston. But scarcely had he been in the town a full year when he startled cultivated society by his marriage to a rich widow, the daughter of Captain Roger Spencer, whom Mr. Cotton Mather describes as a man "of good fashion."

Thereafter it took a big heart and an open mind to follow William Phips and all his doings. He had ventured into Boston with only ship carpenters and crude sailors as his spokesmen. Yet eventually he counted among his close friends many of the old theocracy. They formed about him the links of a royal chain. And more than once he sharply split the opinion of Boston. It was natural: there were those who staked everything on the white horse; others saw only the black. From childhood Phips himself had believed that he drove solely under a star of good fortune.

The grave magistrates, the ministers, and the goodwives had many a consoling word for his wife, Mary. There was talk that the young backwoodsman had married the widow for the advantage of her fortune - that he needed her  money to build the ships and take the voyages keeping him away from home long spaces at a time. It is now known, however, that the widow's inheritance was overestimated and that much of it, along with her father's money, had been lost before her marriage. The Phipses lived simply, even poorly, in the early days. But their home was cheerful, a meeting place for friends; and William's unvarying tenderness to his wife has become a matter of history.

It is true that his abilities had been set and his interest bent toward the sea from the cabin in the Maine woods where he had been born. The contrast was very sharp between this phase  of his American frontier life and the life he made for himself in Boston, surrounded by its seventeenth century culture, its unswerving, precise thought. But as he bridged this contrast his ideals, even his character, seemed to open out to meet the newer requirements, Always he drove on an upgrade.

Ingrained in his nature was a strong belief in the rightness of Puritan living. His parents were of the faith. Their desire for freedom from domination of any sort had driven them to the New World.

He abounded in conceit. Yet in personality he was so convincing, sometimes so truly winning, that he knocked over like card-houses the advices and arguments of his friends. When still a journeyman shipwright, he told his Mary, according to Cotton Mather, who knew more about the early life of William Phips than did any other, "that he should yet be a captain of a king's ship; that he should come to have the command of better men than he accounted himself."

In 1690, with sudden dash as Major General of the forces, he moved against Port Royal, reducing it and all the eastern coast beyond Penobscot to the British Crown. And in proportion to the praise he received from the waiting Bostonians was the severity of his condemnation when, later in the same year, he failed before Quebec. His own summing-up of the matter was apt: "The things which befell me on this expedition were too deep to be dived into. And in my day, I have been used to diving."

The name of William Phips is securely wedged into a period of such hard times, such prejudice and hysteria, as New England had not hitherto known. Her charter had been vacated; no other had replaced it. And the mind of the populace was turned eventually toward wichcraft with all its attendant horrors. It was he, then Sir William, who as governor put a stop to the hysteria. Some claimed that he did so illegally; but his methods were effective. The prison doors were opened and the suspected people were set free.

His day ran concurrently with that of the Mathers, father and son; of Samuel Sewall, Simon Bradstreet, William Stoughton, and many other well remembered men of Boston. In the old country he assisted at certain periods of his activities by the Duke of Albemarle, Sir John Narbrough, Sir Constantine Phipps, and the Right Worshipful Sir Henry Ashurst. Another list is formed by his enemies.

Still he holds and must forever hold, a definite niche in the history of the formation of the new country, since he was among the first to demonstrate that the almost savage life of the deep woods provided a background from which a man of ability could meet gracefully with the grandees of an older civilization.

Today, when the heat of passion has subsided, when there no longer exists the determinations to supplant him, or to belittle the honors he justly won, he can be seen clearly as a stalwart early colonist, eager for adventurous achievment - eager to give the best that was in him for his country's service.

"The Name of Sir William Phips will be heard Honorably mentioned in the Trumpets of Immortal Fame," said Cotton Mather; and in this orotund summation of the life of a man, there is a flourish that makes it almost startling to turn to the simplicity of that life's beginnings.

Chapter II


In the year 1673, when William Phips first set his foot in Bostontown, the much desired spot of New England, it is safe to say that he could have known very little about land travel. Naturally he had his own ability to cover the ground quickly; his legs were long and tremendously strong, and at times he had been well mounted on a determined horse. But his boyhood's home had been in Maine, where, under a bright sun, the sparkling waters of the Sheepscot river open like an image of the life of man into Monsweag Bay and the sea. Here he been born on a small peninsula, known to the Indians as Cher-e-me-se-quam-me, then metamorphosed by the white men into Jeremesquam or Jeremiah's Island, and later becoming, under his ancestral heritage, Phip's Point. And most rigorously the date was set down as February 2, 1651.

By various authors, the birthplace of William Phips has been placed at Pemaquid, Wiscasset, or Woolwich - the latter being the one most generally accepted. That is, the town eventually called Woolwich was the nearest settlement to the Phips cabin. His father, James Phips, a gunsmith from Bristol, England, had moved there about 1645 after first making his home at Pemaquid. He had not, however, the honor of being a literal pilgrim to New England, for he was one of a limited group of picked handcraft men, or artisans, who came along later, with yeoman, farmers, mechanics, millwrights, and others eager to engage in the industries necessary to a growing country.

With his partner, John White, James Phips had secured, by means of a grant, undisputed possession of some five hundred acres of tillable land, their intention being to build neighboring cabins on the property. The whole fair stretch had earlier belonged to Edward Bateman, a well-known colonial. The holding was valuable because of near-by flowing waters and a background of priceless forests. There was of course no village, and the other settlers were widely scattered. But each one owned his farm, comprised in most cases of land snached from the surrounding wilderness by clearance and cultivation. James Phips lived on the