PHILIPPS, ERASMUS JAMES, military officer, member of the Nova Scotia Council and Nova Scotia House of Assembly; b. 23 April 1705, possibly the son of Erasmus Philipps, the brother of Richard Philipps; d. 26 Sept. 1760 at Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Little is known of the early years of Erasmus James Philipps’ life. He appears first in Nova Scotia as an ensign in the 40th Regiment of Foot. In the autumn of 1726 he was ordered by Lieutenant Governor Lawrence Armstrong* to proceed from Annapolis Royal to Beaubassin (near Amherst, N.S.) to administer the oath of loyalty to the Acadian inhabitants in that region. Because of bad weather at Annapolis the mission was postponed until the spring of the following year, and then it was totally unsuccessful. Philipps reported that “the inhabitants of Beau Bassin . . . resolutely refused to take the oath I tendered them.” They threatened to withdraw to Île Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island) rather than sign the oath and felt free “to dispose of their goods to the first that would pay for them, whether French or English.”
Despite this inauspicious beginning, Philipps received several important appointments and quickly became a significant figure in Nova Scotia. In 1729 he was commissioned king’s advocate for a vice-admiralty court which Governor Richard Philipps was intending to establish in Nova Scotia. The governor does not seem to have carried through his plan, and it is uncertain how often Philipps functioned in the capacity of king’s advocate. In December 1730 he was appointed to the Nova Scotia Council, and by 1734 he seems to have attained the rank of major.
In addition to his council and military duties Philipps was assigned other responsibilities which were to make him a frequent visitor to New England. An appointment, with William Skene and Otho Hamilton, as a Nova Scotia representative on a commission for settling a boundary dispute between New Hampshire and Massachusetts, took him to Hampton (N.H.) in August 1737 and then on to Boston for a lengthy visit. While in Boston, in November 1737, Philipps was initiated into the masonic order. He attended a number of lodge meetings in Boston and was likely encouraged to extend the order into Nova Scotia. In March 1738 he was appointed provincial grand master of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons in Nova Scotia, and in June he became the founder and first master of the first masonic lodge in Canada, at Annapolis Royal. Thus he has been considered the founder of freemasonry in Nova Scotia. In the spring of 1741 he served on a commission concerning the boundaries of Rhode Island and Massachusetts which met in Providence (R.I.).
At the outbreak of war between France and England in 1744, Philipps was still serving at Annapolis Royal. He was commissary of provisions there in April 1746 and in October of that year he was ordered, along with Edward How, to accompany the British forces being sent to the Grand Pré area under the command of Arthur Noble. As commissioners in charge of the administration of civil affairs in the area, Philipps and How were to inquire into the loyalty of the Acadians to the British government and to confiscate any arms, foodstuffs, or vessels that might be intended for use by the French. Philipps also functioned as virtual quartermaster to the English troops, arranging for their accommodation and food. On 29 Jan. 1746/47 Philipps was recalled to Annapolis Royal; two days later the French attacked Grand Pré and overran the garrison.
The arrival of Governor Edward Cornwallis* in 1749 brought major changes in Nova Scotia, such as the replacement of the old council, but Philipps made the transition well and was appointed to the new council in August. At the same time he resigned his commission as a vice-admiralty advocate. He continued to reside at Annapolis, serving as commissary of musters. In his last years several further honours came to Philipps. He received a vote of thanks from the Nova Scotia Council for capturing in 1757 a number of Acadians who had fled two years before, at the time of the expulsion, and formed a temporary settlement on St Mary’s Bay. In 1759 Governor Charles Lawrence appointed him commander of the forces at Annapolis. That same year the people of the Annapolis area honoured one of their better known residents by electing Philipps to the Nova Scotia House of Assembly. He died of apoplexy while visiting Halifax in September 1760.
Erasmus James Philipps was married to Ann Dyson; they had one son and three daughters.
PRO, CO 217/5, ff.31–32v. Documents relating to currency in Nova Scotia, 1675–1758 (Shortt), 240–41. N.S. Archives, I; III; IV. PRO, Acts of P. C., Col., 1720–45; CSP, Col., 1726–27, 1734–35; JTP, 1734/35–1741. G. T. Bates, “John Gorham, 1709–1751: an outline of his activities in Nova Scotia, 1744–1751,” N.S. Hist. Soc. Coll., XXX (1954), 41. Brebner, New England’s outpost. Calnek, History of Annapolis (Savary). D. G. L. Fraser, “The origin and function of the Court of Vice-Admiralty in Halifax 1749–1759,” N.S. Hist. Soc. Coll., XXXIII (1961), 66. J. R. Robertson, The history of freemasonry in Canada, from its introduction in 1749 (2v., Toronto, 1899), I. Savary, Supplement to history of Annapolis. “The Erasmus James Philipps medallion” (pamphlet published by the Grand Lodge of A.F. and A.M .of Nova Scotia, Halifax).