This Week in History


The Elizabeth and Mary: A Shipwreck
in the St. Lawrence River

For the week of Monday August 15, 2011

On August 20, 1690, the Elizabeth and Mary began its voyage in William Phips’ fleet of 34 British ships sailing from Boston to Quebec City. The ship never returned to New England.

Frontenac receiving the envoy of Sir William
Phips demanding the surrender of Québec

© Library and Archives Canada / C-073710

The last few decades of the 17th century saw hostilities between New France and New England escalate as France and Great Britain attempted to gain a stronger foothold in the eastern seaboard of North America. New France conducted raids on territories controlled by the British as did New England on French colonies. After taking Port Royal in Acadia on May 21, William Phips, Governor of Massachusetts, returned to Boston in order to prepare for a naval attack on Québec.

It took two months for Phips’ fleet, carrying about 2,300 militiamen, to reach Québec because the crew had difficulty navigating the St. Lawrence River. This delay gave New France’s Governor General, Louis de Buade, Count of Frontenac, time to increase the town’s defences with fortifications and to prepare nearly 3,000 Canadian militiamen. Meanwhile, Phips believed that most of Frontenac’s troops were awaiting an attack in Montréal. Unfortunately for Phips, he was wrong! Realising that the French were in Québec, the New Englanders rained cannon fire on the fortress city. Having run out of ammunition and provisions after only days of fighting, Phips’ men retreated, and set sail to their home ports. Their bad luck continued as smallpox, violent thunderstorms and starvation ravaged the New England fleet. Four ships and their crews, including the Elizabeth and Mary, never made it back.

Diver exploring the wreck of the
Elizabeth and Mary

© Parks Canada / 1997

In January 1995, the Canadian government, in partnership with the Quebec Ministry of Culture, confirmed the discovery of one of Phips’ lost ships off the coast of L’Anse-aux-Bouleaux, Quebec. The wreck was immediately recognized as a fountain of crucial historical information. With the support of the Quebec government and the Centre de conservation du Québec, Parks Canada archaeologists and volunteers tirelessly excavated the fragile, underwater site, eventually extracting over 4,000 artefacts.

As one of the four vessels lost from Admiral William Phips’ 1690 fleet, the Wreck of the Elizabeth and Mary was designated a National Historic Site in 1996. For his years as Governor General of New France, Louis de Buade (Count of Frontenac), was designated a National Historic Person in 1974. An integral part of Québec’s defence system, the Fortifications of Québec was designated a National Historic Site in 1948. Port Royal, later renamed the Annapolis Royal Historic District, was designated in 1994.

For more information about 17th century battles between France and England, please read: Surprise Attack at Schenectady and Québec Fortifications Unique in North America in the This Week in History archives. To learn more about the Wreck of the Elizabeth and Mary, and other shipwrecks in Canadian waters, please visit: the Canadian Register of Historic Places and Parks Canada 2011 Arctic Expeditions websites.

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