Colonial French America By Juliana L'Heureux Back
to The Franco-American Connection
Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine
Note: Although Sir William Phipps (1651-1695) carries
the name of an English nobleman, he was born a colonial American, in a
small Maine town named Woolwich (although Maine was actually part of Massachusetts
at the time of his birth). If Phipps were born in the middle 18th century,
he would have been a new American, through and through. Phipps' actual
life is not quite as significant as the times he lived in, thus, his biography
brings the complicated politics of life in Colonial America into a human
perspective. Franco-Americans can learn more about the political climate
that existed during the French and Indian wars in well researched biography
by Baker and Reid.
A good trivia question about Maine might ask, "Who is the Midcoast town of Phippsburg, Maine named after?" It was named for Sir William Phips (1651-1695), subject of the biography, "The New England Knight". Indeed, Phippsburg is named in honor of Sir William Phips, though he never lived there because the coastal community was named long after his death. Phips grew up in the nearby coastal community known today as Woolwich, ME.
History and trivia fans alike will be delighted to hear about a new Canadian published biography of this colonial politician's life. A recent e-mail interview with one of the authors of "The New England Knight" sheds interesting light on how Phips' short life reflected the politics of French and English colonial America. Emerson W. Baker, 40, is a York resident and an assistant professor of history at Salem State College in Salem, MA. About 10 years ago, Baker joined forces with Canadian professor and historian John G. Reid, of St. Mary's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia to write a biography about Phips and the politics of his time. They teamed up to write about Phips because he was involved in many of the crucial events in the English and the French colonial world of the later 17th century. "A biography about
him is one way to look at these times," says Baker. Many books have been published about the history of colonial New England, but most are about events leading up to the American Revolution. Nevertheless, the later 17th century was an important time, with things like frontier warfare, witchcraft trials and a series of new governments in the New England colonies, he says.
One question raised in the Phips biography is about the role he may have played in mistreatment of French and Acadians in Nova Scotia (Acadia) when he invaded Port Royal in 1690. Could Phips have laid the framework for the subsequent 1755, expulsion of Acadians from Nova Scotia? Baker explains how Phips may actually have tried to get along with the French Acadians, even though he was involved in some mistreatment. "Phips did mistreat the Acadian Governor and he tortured one resident of Port Royal, but for the most part, his policy was opposite from these incidents," writes Baker.
"Phips answer to the Acadian question and even the Wabanaki Indian issue was to make them full English citizens with all the rights implied," says Baker. There is evidence of his attempts to treat Acadians fairly when, in Boston, he witnessed an incident whereby a French Acadian was being mistreated by a customs collector in Boston just because the man was an Acadian. "Phips got into trouble with the Boston establishment for his willingness to embrace the French and the Wabanaki as subjects of the King of England, a contributing fact to his ultimate recall as governor of Massachusetts," says Baker. Phips probably had no thought of removing Acadians when he invaded
their land in 1690. Furthermore, "I suspect he would have been against the idea in 1755", he says.
"The New England Knight" is a fascinating because it tells about colonial French and English political history through the life of a man who was prominent in his times. The New England Knight : Enrichment, Advancement and the Life of Sir William Phips, 1651-1695 by
Emerson W. Baker and John G. Reid, University of Toronto Press, 1998, ISBN 0-8020-0925-5 (cloth), ISBN 0-8020-8171-1 (paper).
Review from the Maine Sunday Telegram, Portland,
Maine July 26, 1998
'Knight' Traces Phips' Rags-to-Riches Odyssey by William David Barry
Of all the remarkable Mainers who have strode history's
stage, few can compete with Sir William Phips (1651-1695).
His is the original New England rags-to-riches story, played out at a time when class meant far more than it does today. Phips, a nearly illiterate farm boy, would become shipbuilder, master mariner, recoverer of sunken treasure, knight, leader of two military expeditions against French North America and governor of a Massachusetts enlarged to include Maine and Nova Scotia. Death at an early age sealed the myth.
In writing Phips' first modern biography, archaeologist Emerson W. Baker and historian John G. Reid faced the problems of scant primary material and the accumulation of legends.
Contemporary detractors portrayed the man as a boastful, lucky, incompetent, greedy and occasionally violent low-brow. Proponents, led by his backer and biographer Cotton Mather, cast him as "Phippius Maximus," a heroic, resourceful, much put-upon Massachusetts patriot of the first order.
Subsequent generations of historians have not known quite what to make of the New England knight and his short, action-packed career.
To their credit, Reid and Baker have not missed the action in this closely researched, well crafted study. Using archaeology and scattered
documentation, the authors have fleshed out, as never before, the settlement at Pemaquid and the Phips family farm in what is now Woolwich. Though perhaps less well-off than some of their English-speaking neighbors, the Phips farm was a thriving operation, and young William was hardly the "sheep herder" friends and foes later made him out to be.
The Phips boy was, however, ambitious. Apprenticed as a shipbuilder, he went to Boston probably in connection with the Clarke and Lake trading firm. In 1673, he married Mary Spencer Hull, a widow with some social standing. Mary proved a "strong and intelligent woman who was a partner to her husband in every sense of the word." In spite of thin historical material relating to the future Lady Phips, the writers show that half of the family land transactions in Boston were conducted by Mary. Furthermore, the influence and polish of William's wife shows clearly in several of his major political decisions.
A strong wife and vaunting ambition were not the only sources of William's success. The American branch of his family had strong ties to influential relatives in the old country.
Far from the fortunate rustic who stumbled on a pot of gold, Phips' recovery of "between 205,000 and 210,000 pounds of gold from a 50-year-old Spanish wreck off Hispanola was no fluke. He found wealthy, well-connected backers, ran the operation competently and, in an age celebrated for its flagrant venality, returned to the loot to its backers, including the King. Phips' hard work made him a fortune and gained him a knighthood.
Phips' entry into Massachusetts politics, first when it was part of the short-lived Dominion of New England, and finally as Royal Governor under a restored charter, was fraught with challenges real and imagined. The authors, however, succeed in proving that the stories of the governor's violent outbursts were, in large part, the embellishments of his enemies.
"The New England Knight" is one of the most carefully researched, closely argued Maine-related biographies in memory. Though not always easy reading, it is always enjoyable. Phips' complex personality, and the dense politics of the day, could have made for a dull, indecisive tome. Instead, we are given a distinguished, understandable biography that casts a new light on the English, French and Wabanaki in Maine against the backdrop of great events in the Atlantic world.
Correcting a misconception in the history books is a difficult task because text books are slow to change as is public perception concerning historical figures.
Take Sir William Phips for example. Governor of Massachusetts from 1692-1695, he has always been characterized as short-tempered,
unpredictable, foul-mouthed and rude. Now because of a collaborative study undertaken by a Canadian and a United States historian, that description could soon be wiped clean from the books.
"He is very much a misunderstood character," says Dr. John Reid, History Department, Saint Mary's University, who joined forces with Dr. Emerson Baker, History Department, Salem State College, Massachusetts. Dr. Reid, whose primary research interest is in Northeastern North America in the 17th century always wondered about Phips' historical role in the attack of Acadia in 1690. Likewise, Dr. Baker was very much interested in Phips' New England roots. Relying on archival material in the US, Canada and London they began to piece together his unusual life.
Phips grew up with a very basic frontier existence. Much of his childhood was spent in the accompaniment of the Abenaki natives. He became a ship's carpenter in Boston, where married a widow, and around 1680 he became a small-scale merchant captain. At this time the interest in sunken treasure was an active part of marine life. Phips completed a number of unsuccessful ventures in the search of treasure off the Caribbean and finally hit pay dirt in 1687. He discovered a sunken Spanish vessel containing about 200,000 pounds of gold and silver off the Dominica Republic. While a lot of money ended up in the hands of his financial backers, he retained enough to live the good life. He was also knighted for his endeavors by King James II of England, who was actively securing cash for his treasury.
The knighthood enabled Phips to return to New England with status. He received command of the military and launched an attack on Acadia, in 1690. While he succeeded in capturing Acadia, his sights were set on Quebec. In the end he left Acadia without a garrison and lost 35 vessels off Quebec. Recently one of his vessels was discovered off the coast of Quebec.
The catastrophe forced Phips to defend himself in London, where he was involved in the negotiations for the charter of Massachusetts that were taking place in England. In 1692 he became governor of Massachusetts.
Historically he is known for stopping the Salem witchcraft trials.
"What surprised us was that Phips' family was not as obscure in England as in New England, secondly, that he was personally so close to the Salem witchcraft trials, thirdly, he demonstrated an unusual recognition for the need to establish a negotiated relationship between the English and the Abenaki," says Dr. Reid.
At the time of the witchcraft trials, his wife presided over a multi-racial household. This was seen as very unusual at the time and she was accused of witchcraft, but never brought to trial. Phips himself was almost accused. The history books shrug this off, but in truth, "they were excellent candidates," says Dr. Reid. Originally, Phips tried to stay out of the trials, but the moment he realized things were heading his way he put an end to the trials by commuting death sentences. He was also able to rely on a few allies within the Church, who supported his efforts to stop the trials.
However, Phips' political enemies wanted him out of power. "There has been very little scholarly interest in Phips in over 60 years, yet I find a great deal of public fascination with him. His treasure hunting and role in the Salem witch trials assure him a certain amount of interest, while others want to know how he became the first man born in America to be knighted by the king of England," says Dr. Emerson. "Phips has been seen by historians as a boor, someone who got into fist fights, and at best had no formal education. He was uneducated, rude and an upstart. Traditionally they've been condescending in their attitude. While he is not necessarily likable, he is interesting," says Dr. Reid. In many instances Phips used language that revealed his class background to the common people who were on the docks, which was where he spent much of his time.
Historians also claimed he was a violent man. "We looked at all the evidence and counted three times violence was used." Once when there was a mutiny on one of his ships he seized a weapon and charged an individual, secondly, he was accused of torturing a person at Port Royal in the hopes of discovering a cash box, and thirdly, he caned a naval captain on the wharves. In each of these incidents the historians argue Phips knew exactly what he was doing and was very much in charge of the situation and his character. However, Phips' enemies used charges of violence and forced him to return to London, once again, to defend his character. In London, he contracted a fever and died unexpectedly.
It was extremely rare for an individual with Phips' upbringing and heritage to assume a leading position in colonial society. Both historians feel that previous authors have been too quick to judge his character. After five years of research, they compiled a book, available next year, which they hope will correct some of the historical injustice.
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