How the Salem Witch Trials ended – an unlikely French connection

A Halloween history blog.

French colonial history in New England may have played a small part in the decision by Governor Sir William Phips to find himself in a political position whereby he had the authority to end the Salem Witch Trials (1692-1693).

ir William Phips

Sir William Phips (1651-1695) portrait hangs in the Maine Capitol Senate Chamber.

Sir William Phips

This description about Sir William Phips neglects to document his essential role in ending the Salem Witch Trials. I suggest this inscription should be re-written!

Sir William Phips was the Governor of Maine between 1692-1694, when the state was part of Massachusetts. In other words, he was the Massachusetts governor when the jurisdiction included Maine. Phips was born in 1692, in Woolwich Maine.  Frankly, he was the most unlikely person that one would choose to accomplish much of anything in life. “The New England Knight: Sir William Phips 1651-1695” by Emerson W. Baker and John G. Reid, provides a detailed account about Phips’ life, beginning with his colonial early years in Woolwich. In spite of political and personal challenges, Phips became a Knight in the British court and he was the Governor of Massachusetts, during the end of the Salem Witch Trials.  In fact, Phips ended the trials because the prosecutors who were sentencing the women were beginning to target his family.

Biography about Sir William Phips

The New England Knight: Sir William Phips 1651-1695 by Emerson W. Baker and John G. Reid

Phips deserves credit for ending those horrible witch trials.

A portrait of William Phips hangs in the Maine State House, located in the Senate Chambers. His is among the portraits displayed in the State Capitol, along with most of Maine’s past governors.

So, how did Phips become the governor who ended the Salem Witch Trials?  Although this 17th century colonial period is complicated, a summary gives us an interesting French connection to the position Phips obtained, whereby he ended the trials

.            This information is gleaned from Baker and Reid’s excellent biography.  My researched dates were double checked and I hope the summary explains this unlikely connection between Phips and the Salem Witch Trials.

When Phips was born in Woolwich, located along the Kennebec River in Maine, the area was defending itself against the native Wabanaki, who were causing acrimony. During his formative years, when Phips was growing up, the Wabanaki were aligned with the French against the British, during a series of conflagrations known as the King Philip’s War. This war took place before the French and Indian Wars (1754-1763).  Baker and Reid wrote that, although there is no direct connection between Phips and the French, he probably held a point of view about the Wabanaki, because they were British enemies. The Wabanaki were aligned with the French.

History later threw an opportunity to Phips when he became the somewhat improbable leader with the British to launch an attack on Quebec and on the French in Port-Royal, in Acadia (Nova Scotia).  It’s possible this command was pursued by Phips so that he could demonstrate his bravado to the British, because he had little or no military leadership training. Phips failed to achieve a victory during the October 24, 1690, when the English lost in their first attempt to push the French out of America. Sir William Phips, the commander of a British fleet, was forced to concede defeat.

Nevertheless, during the 1690, siege of Port-Royal against the French, Phips was able to take advantage of a badly fortified garrison. In fact, the French garrison consisted of fewer than 90 soldiers, and the fortifications were badly in need of repairs. Therefore, after two days, the French were forced to surrender.

In other words, Phips made a name for himself with the British as they fought wars against the French and the Wabanaki.

Moreover, Phips also became a  Caribbean buccaneer who won favor with British royalty..

Brendan Dignan wrote an essay about Phips, for the University of Virginia: “Phips traveled to London in 1683 to seek patronage and funding for treasure hunting among sunken Spanish ships in the Caribbean, and he acquired the financial backing that he needed. With his crew and ship, Phips sailed to the Caribbean, finding substantial treasure in the sea in 1687, when he and his ship, the James and Mary, came across the wreck of the Spanish ship, Concepcion. The crew took between 205,000 to 210,000 English pounds of treasure, an incredible amount of money for the day. One tenth was given to the royal crown and Phips profited by 11,000 pounds, and thus gained a good amount of fortune and fame in London. In recognition to his loyalty to the Crown for returning to England with his booty, Phips was called to Windsor Castle and was knighted by King James II. This was truly a remarkable achievement for a man of no nobility, who was born in the backwoods of New England.”

Alas!  “Sir William Phips”.  To move this history along, Phips eventually become the Honorable Governor of Massachusetts.

Baker and Reid reported how Sir William Phips had been in Massachusetts as governor for three month when the witch trials were going on, but his role in the proceedings “had been minimal”.  Nevertheless, it became evident that the number of witch trials was paralyzing the court systems.  Additionally, the numbers of women and a few men who were accused of practicing witchcraft was spreading beyond Salem. Eventually, the spread of accusations brought discredit to the trials. Even worse for Phips, both he and his wife were at risk for being accused. None of the accusations directly involved Phips, but having his wife (Mary Spencer Phips) put in the vulnerable position of being named put him in the expensive position of having to resolve political disputes. In September, 1692, Phips ended the witchcraft court trials and many of the prisoners were released.

Although Sir William Phips was an ambitious man who probably harbored a resentment against the French colonials, he is the man who history credits with ending the Salem Witch Trials.

Baker & Reid’s biography is loaded with facts about Phips, and the political and personal motivation that caused him to end  the Salem Witch Trials. Their extensive research includes hundreds of end-notes to document his life and times. An  analysis in summary reads, “Wholly successful in none of his pursuits – except briefly as a treasure seeker – and, at times, a conspicuous failure, he nevertheless was neither a simple nor a ridiculous figure.  He was helped and hindered by his obscure origins, Phips’ struggled for advancement illustrated the fluid nature of the late-seventeenth century empire, as much by his limitations as by his ultimately modest attainments.”

His remains are interred in England.

This link here provides more information about the horrible public hysteria that caused the Salem Witch Trials and other witch persecutions.

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.