How A Blacksmith's Boy Became A Knight

by Paul Hull

The Treasure-hunt of William Phipps in the late Seventeenth Century

Sir William Phipps, Baronet; Captain in the Royal Navy; Captain-General and Commander-in-Chief of Massachusetts Bay; Governor of Massachusetts.

What do you think of all these titles for one man to wear? Surely, you say, he must naturally have been a great man to deserve so much distinction; and again you say that the conditions of his life must account for such honors; that he must have been of gentle birth, reared in luxury, his education carefully attended by excellent masters, and great influence brought to bear upon his King to advance him so far on the high-road of fame. Well, let us see if facts will sustain this thought.

William Phipps was born February 2, 1650, in a wretched log house on the banks of the Kennebec River. His father, an honest but ignorant blacksmith, was more dependent upon his rifle and fishing-line to supply his family with food than upon the occasional shilling that found its way into the smoke-begrimed interior of his rude workshop.

Without education himself, the father was unable to instruct his children beyond the simplest rules of arithmetic and the plainest spelling and reading, but these he drilled them in as perseveringly as he did in the terrifying religious catechism of that day. In the course of years, when William developed into a robust, courageous lad, he shared with his parents the duties of providing for his sisters and brothers by either shouldering the heavy fire-arm and plunging into the dark Maine forests in quest of game, or in taking his father’s place and beating out the iron sparks, while the sturdy smith dropped a temptingly baited hook into the swiftly flowing stream.

In the year 1676, in his twenty-seventh year, the hero of our story received his parents’ blessing, and left home for the purpose of seeking his fortune. With a hopeful heart and an exceedingly light pocket, he made his way to Boston, and found employment in the blacksmith-shop of one Roger Spencer, whose pretty daughter Charity soon won the heart of her father’s handsome, stalwart helper.

So far we fail to find very much in the way of gentle birth, luxury, education, and influence. But then, you may ask, how, under such circumstances, could he ever have risen so high? Let us follow his career.

His lack of worldly goods was made the excuse for refusing the offer of his heart and hand that he made to the fair Puritan, and in the hope of improving his fortunes he forsook the forge and shipped on board of a merchant vessel to follow the adventurous life of a sailor. When saying farewell, he gave his promise to return in a few years with money enough to build a fair brick house for his lady-love in one of the green lanes of Boston.

The ship in which Phipps sailed carried a cargo to the island of Jamaica, then cruised between that port and England for several voyages. Owing to his industry and ability as a seaman, Phipps was after a time advanced to the position of mate. A voyage or two following his promotion he fell in with an old seaman who claimed to be the only survivor of a Spanish vessel containing immense treasure that had been wrecked on one of the coral islands in the West Indies some years before. It appears that this treasure-ship had sailed from the coast of South America, freighted with a cargo of silver which had been dug out of the mines and cast into bricks to be conveyed to Spain. The sailor assured Mr. Phipps that the exact location of the wreck was known to him, and agreed, for a certain share of the profits, to conduct an expedition to the place where the vessel had gone down. Believing the story to be true, the mate bound the seaman to secrecy, and gave him a berth on board his vessel.

 Upon arriving in London, application was made by him to the King for permission and aid to fit out a ship for the purpose of recovering a great treasure that had been lost by the sinking of a Spanish galleon in the West Indies, claiming that he had accidentally learned the location of the vessel, and that he would guarantee to secure the precious cargo. After considerable delay a ship called the Algier Rose was placed under his command, and with a crew of ninety men he set sail. Upon reaching the West Indies a mutiny broke out among the forecastle hands, and Captain Phipps found it necessary to put into Jamaica, discharge all hands, and ship a new company. He now started for the scene of the wreck, but a day or two following the carpenter informed him that he had overheard the sailors plot to capture the vessel as soon as the treasure was recovered, and use the craft thereafter as a pirate. The Captain immediately decided to return to England, where he arrived after a stormy passage. Under the patronage of the Duke of Albemarle the ship was refitted, and a trustworthy crew put on board.

The second voyage across the Atlantic was pleasant and speedy, but just after entering the Caribbean Sea a new danger threatened the adventurers, for early one morning they encountered a large Spanish frigate, which at once started in chase of them. Captain Phipps addressed his crew, telling them that if they permitted their ship to be captured they would be sent into the interior of the country as slaves, to drag out their lives in the silver-mines. He bade them fight bravely if they wished to enjoy home and freedom ever again. The superior speed of the Spaniard soon enabled that vessel to open fire on the Algier Rose, which so heartily returned the compliment that some of the foreigner’s spars were shot away, making her fall astern of her saucy enemy, who now succeeded in escaping. Without further trouble the treasure-hunters reached the island on whose treacherous coral reefs the silver-ship had been wrecked. Here the Algier Rose was safely moored, and search commenced for the sunken wealth.

 The small boats were used to explore the reefs, and served as platforms from which the best swimmers in the crew would dive into the channels between the walls of coral on the lee side of the island, endeavoring to locate the spot where the galleon had been carried before she struck. As the water in these places seldom exceeded twenty feet in depth, the bottom would have been plainly visible from the boat had it not been for the continuous rippling and foaming of the surface water. Several weeks were passed in a vain pursuit, and at last, worn out and discouraged, the men positively refused to continue the work. By agreeing to abandon the enterprise and set sail for England at the end of another week, unless some success was met with, the Captain prevailed upon several of his seamen to aid him for that length of time.

Day after day went by, and the seventh and last day specified in the agreement arrived. Two of the divers had broken down under the strain, and now when the final trial was to be made the Captain called for two men to go in their stead, but no one responded. He then appealed to their manhood, asked them if he had not shared all their labors, and asked them to give him but one day more. The dispirited sailors made no response to the appeal, but the cook volunteered to go if some one would take his place in the galley. This man was a negro about thirty years of age, and had been shipped in England to act as a cabin servant on the Algier Rose, but the ship’s cook having died on the passage out, he had been sent into the caboose to take the former’s place. Possessing a powerful physique and being an excellent swimmer, he stood by his Captain that day, the sole remaining hope, and seemed tireless in his efforts to find for the disheartened commander some evidence of the treasure, which the seamen swore existed only in the capsized brain of the man whom they could see out yonder under the broiling sun guiding the boat in and out of the channels, while the laughing, leaping waters tinkled against the bows and ran in gurgling, mocking glee along the side. The negro would dive into the sea, and a few moments later reappear; then, as he swam towards the boat, he would shake his head in answer to the anxious, questioning look in the Captain’s eyes. The boat would move on again a short distance, and while the rowers held it stationary a dark form would part the water and sink down and down among the startled fishes, that flashed away in affright from the strange creature whose darting arms seemed to grasp at them as they shot for safety among the branches of coral underbush.

The morning has passed gloomily away, and the negro plunges over the side for the last time before the men row back to the ship for dinner. Suddenly a black face in which is set two wildly rolling eyes bobs up alongside the boat, and a voice choking for breath and broken with excitement manages to gasp, “Him down thar, Massa Cap’n; him down thar!”

The great treasure is discovered!

No more despondency now. No more aching limbs. Splash, splash, splash! The rowers have torn off their scanty clothing, and jumped over the side to prove with their own eyes the story brought up to them from the bottom of the sea. One by one men reappear, and their recovered breath is used to send such a glad shout across the reefs that their shipmates hear it over a mile away, tumble into the boats alongside, and pull madly out to them; then learning the joyful news, they break into cheers, kick off their garments, and overboard they also go to see the ingots of silver scattered over the white sand amid the torn and broken remnants of the wreck.

During the two weeks that followed the crew of the Algier Rose worked zealously at recovering the wealth that the Spaniards had taken such pains to garner from the mountain range just back of the coast. A shallow net-work bag was hitched together by the seamen for the purpose of holding the bars of silver that the divers would throw into it. Those manning the float that had been constructed would lower the rope cradle until it rested on the bottom; then the diver would thrust his feet into a pair of heavy lead slippers and drop through the hole in the centre of the raft which was anchored above the wreck. An instant later, when the bed of sand was reached, the diver would quickly select and throw a brick of metal into the basket, drop his clumsy foot-gear into the same receptacle, and then, relieved of the weight which had held him down, he would shoot up to the surface of the water. Accepting his reappearance as a signal, the men on the float would haul up the net, lift out the treasure, and pass it into the small boats to be carried to the ship. At the end of a fortnight, when the divers reported that the last bar had been gathered, the Captain calculated that he had recovered fully thirty tons of pure silver.

The stone in the lower hold was thrown overboard to make room for the noble ballast, which was carefully stowed and wedged in its mean and gloomy quarters under the decks. The Algier Rose now sailed for England, where she arrived safely five weeks from the day that her anchor had been hove up from its resting-place on the white coral bed off the treasure island.

Captain Phipps’s share of the profits was very large, but the exact amount is unknown. In addition to a princely revenue, the King was so much pleased with him for bringing such wealth into the country that he conferred on him the honor of knighthood, and to reward him still further for having beaten off the Spanish man-of-war, his Majesty was pleased to grant him a commission as Captain in the Royal Navy.

Sir William soon sailed for Boston in command of a fine frigate, and a reunion with the now-envied Charity was speedily followed by the tying of a true-lover’s knot before the altar of the old meeting-house near the fort. A few months later the former blacksmith’s boy redeemed his promise by presenting to my lady “a fair brick house in one of the green lanes of Boston.” This residence, which was erected on Salem Street, stood until a few years ago, being last used as an orphan asylum for boys. In 1690 Sir William was named by the King, Captain-General and Commander-in-Chief of Massachusetts Bay, and several years later received a royal patent as Governor of Massachusetts.