- Historic Sites
William Phips and the Big Jackpot
Maybe the American success myth began with this carpenter’s helper who rose to riches, a title, and a governorship
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
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 hauled 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.