Marblehead’s Robinson Crusoe Philip Ashton, Jr. 1702 – 1746

Ashton edit

 Philip Ashton is without a doubt one of my most famous and interesting ancestors that I have come across. He was my first cousin eight times removed.  He was the first cousin of my 4th great Maternal Grandmother, Margaret Ashton who married Benjamin Smith in 1791 in Marblehead.  Philip’s grandfather John Ashton was my 8th great grandfather.  John Ashton may have come to Marblehead via Scarborough, Maine in the late 1600’s.  There is a record that he died on June 16, 1739 in Marblehead.  John had a son Philip who married Sarah Hendley in 1701.  They had a son Philip who had this incredible adventure.

 Philip was born on August 12, 1702 and baptized in the First Congregational Church in Marblehead, MA on April 18, 1703. He became a cod fisherman at a young age, as many boys in Marblehead did. His great adventure began in 1722 at the age of 19 when he was Captain of the Schooner Milton. Much of what we know about Philip came from the narrative he dictated to Rev. John Bernard upon his return home. This is how his adventure started:

Upon, Friday, June 15th 1722, After I had been out for some time in the Schooner Milton upon the fishing grounds off Cape Sable Shoar, among others, I came to sail in Company with Nicholas Merritt in a Shallop and stood in for Port Rossaway, designing to harbour there til the Sabbath was over, where we arrived at Four of the Clock in the Afternoon.”

They had been at anchor off Shelbourne, Nova Scotia for several hours when their vessel was boarded by pirates.  Philip was carried upon the pirate ship, and he was met by the famous pirate Ned Lowe.  For the next week he remained in the hold of the vessel, being brought out several times to have a pistol pointed to his head wanting him to sign the ship’s articles and become one of Ned Low’s pirates.  He refused to do so.

 His first chance to escape came just before the vessel was to set sail.  The pirates had gone ashore at Port Rossaway to get water and left a dog belonging to them behind.  Two men jumped in the boat to get the dog as Philip was about to jump overboard.  He was captured again, had the pistol to his head and fired, but it misfired three times, the fourth time if fired but into the water not at Philip.

  Philip’s journey on the pirate ship which Lowe now called “Fancy” took him to Newfoundland, to the Azores, Canary Islands and ending up near Roatan Harbor in the Caribbean.  It was here on March 8, 1723, 9 months into his journey that Philip had another chance to escape.  He convinced the cooper who was going ashore to take him along, as this was an island and there was no way he could go anyplace.


“I went into the boat with only an Onasburg frock and trousers on and a Mill’d cap upon my head, having neither shirt, shoes nor stockings nor anything else about me; whereas, had I been aware of such an opportunity I could have prepared myself something better.”

 Once ashore Ashton helped fill the casks and take them to the boat and then nonchalantly began to stroll towards the woods.  Once he lost sight of the cooper “I betook myself to my Heels and ran as fast as the thickness of the Bushes and my naked feet would allow me.”

 So here Philip remained, having no way to make fire or prepare food, no shelter and no clothing.  He did have plenty of water, fruit trees and tortoise eggs on the island.  There were plenty of coconuts but he had no utensils to open them with. He built shelter by taking branches that had fallen from trees and stuck them into the ground, split the palmetto leaves and covered the branches.  Unfortunately Philip was a poor swimmer and therefore could not swim from one island to the next to see what else may be available to him. The other problem was that his feet took a beating walking on the hot sand and thick brush with nothing to protect his feet.

Philip remained alone and ailing on the island for nine months when sometime in November 1723 he spotted a canoe coming towards him with an elderly Scotsman in it who had fled the Spaniards. The man remained for several days until one day he went out to hunt some wild hogs and a gust a wind came up and the Scotsman never returned. He had left Philip with some pork, a knife, a bottle of powder, tobacco, tongs and flint so now Philip could make a fire and cut up some of the tortoise for food. He now began to gain some strength.

About two months later while roaming the island he found a canoe but he didn’t recognize it as the Scotsman’s. Now he had some transportation to visit some of the other islands.

Around June 1724, now two years since he had left Marblehead he took his canoe to a small island, leaving his fire burning on Roatan. He spied two large canoes following the smoke towards his island so he headed back and although being scared introduced himself to the visitors.  These men remained for six or seven months with Philip and nursed him back to health.  It was several months later that Philip and his friends set out for Bonacco to gather food.  While there a boat came ashore to gather water and Philip noticed they were Englishman and made friends with them.  They were part of a fleet heading to Jamaica for trade and one of the Brigantines was from Salem, MA.  The commander was Capt. Dove who Philip knew and asked him for a passage home which Dove did and paid him for his work. It was the end of March 1725 that they set sail for Jamaica and the first of April they went through the Gulf of Florida heading to Salem Harbor where they arrived Saturday evening, the first of May 1725.

               “Two years, ten months and fifteen days, after I was first taken by the Pirate Lowe and two years and near two months after I had made my escape from him upon Roatan Island. I went the same evening to my father’s house, where I was received, as one coming to them from the dead, with all imaginable surprise of joy.”


It is not known whether Philip remained in the fishing industry after his return. He did marry and raise a family in Marblehead.  He married Jane Gallison on December 8, 1726 and she died on December 10, 1727, seven days after the birth of their daughter Sarah. Following her death he married Sarah Bartlett (daughter of William Bartlett and Sarah Purchase) on July 5, 1729. Together they had 6 children.

               You can read more of Philips adventures in Gregory Flemming’s book At the Point of Cutlass available on  Also available in reprint on Amazon is Ashton’s Memorial: an History of The Strange Adventures of Philip Ashton, Jr. of Marblehead. They are both very interesting at least to me, who can just picture Philip’s whole adventure in my mind, especially walking thru the streets of Marblehead on his return home.   Marbleheader’s are a strong and hearty lot!



4 thoughts on “Marblehead’s Robinson Crusoe Philip Ashton, Jr. 1702 – 1746

  1. Margie, We must be related! Somehow, Philip Ashton is one of my ancestors although I can’t remember why at the moment. It might be through the Smiths. I love his story and made it a point to go to Roatan just for the heck of it. Fascinating place with the best snorkeling!
    Keep these stories coming,
    Sue Carey


  2. a new cousin. what Smith’s are you related to. I know I have some Carey names in my database too. email me some names and I will try to figure out if we are related. I thought this was such an interesting story. I have the book with his story that he told the minister. have you read Point of Cutlass? I met the author and I was the first descendent of Philip that he had met at the time.


  3. Went to Roatan to follow the trail of Philip Ashton in 2016. Spent three weeks hiking the area where he escaped. Still very remote nd unpopulated. Saw the Rivulet where the crew was taking on water when he escaped. Many of the same fruits still easily found in the jungle. Turtle population is down, but used to many. I can see where this area will be destroyed in the next 50 years as the islnd population increases and hotels are built. A unique piece of history will be lost because of simple ignorance I am glad I got to see exactly what Philip Ashton did.

    Jim Bigwood


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