Philip Ashton: The Castaway

Philip Ashton Jr was a fisherman from Marblehead who was captured by pirates off the coast of Nova Scotia and later escaped on a remote island in the Caribbean where he lived as a castaway for over a year.

Philip Ashton Jr was born in Marblehead on August 12, 1702, to local fisherman Philip Ashton. In 1715, Ashton’s father built a house on Elm Street where he and his family lived. When Ashton Jr became old enough to work, he followed in his father’s steps and became a fisherman.

Captured by Pirates:

In June of 1722, Ashton was working on a fishing fleet in the waters off Cape Sable in Nova Scotia. At the time, it was customary for the fleet to stop fishing on Friday afternoon and sail into Port Roseway to await the Sabbath and properly observe it there.

Ashton was aboard a shallop captained by Nicholas Merritt and five crew members. Shortly after the fleet anchored in the harbor on Friday, June 15, 1722, a brigantine pulled upside along the shallop and a group of men boarded the boat wielding cutlasses and pistols and demanded that they surrender themselves and the ship.

Ashton was forced onto the brigantine, which he quickly discovered was being captained by notorious pirate Edward “Ned” Low, according to Ashton’s account of the event:

“When the boat went off from our vessel they carried me on board the brigantine, and who should it prove to be but the infamous Ned Low, the pirate, with about 42 hands, two great guns and four swivel guns. You may easily imagine how I looked and felt when, too late to prevent it, I found myself fallen into the hands of such a mad, roaring, mischievous crew, yet I hoped that they would not force me away with them, and I purposed to endure any hardship among them patiently, rather than turn pirate with them” (Barnard 2.)

After Low repeatedly asked Ashton to join his crew, Ashton refused and was eventually forced into the hold of the ship while the pirates captured 12 or 13 of the other ships in the fleet.

Cover of Ashton’s Memorial: An History of the Strange Adventures, and Signal Deliverances, of Mr. Philip Ashton

The following day, Ashton and about 30 or 40 other fisherman were brought on board a schooner belonging to Mr. Orn of Marblehead which had been turned into a floating prison for the captives.

The following Sunday, one of the quartermasters of the pirate crew, John Russell, boarded the schooner and took six of the fishermen, Philip Ashton Jr, Nicholas Merritt, Joseph Libbey, Lawrence Fabins and two others, onboard the brigantine where Low approached them with a pistol in his hand and demanded to know if any of the men were married.

The question surprised them and, not sure how to answer, they remained silent, which enraged Low, according to Ashton:

“Our silence kindled our new master into a flame. He could not bear that so many beardless boys should deny him an answer so plain a question, and therefore in a rage he cocked his pistol and clapped it to my head and cried out, ‘You dog! Why don’t you answer me!’ and swore vehemently he would shoot me through the head if I did not tell him immediately whether I was married or no” (Barnard 3.)

Reluctantly, the men told Low they were single which satisfied him and he turned away from them.

It wasn’t immediately clear to Ashton why Low had asked that question, but after spending some time on his ship he came to learn that Low had recently lost his wife and had a child back home in Boston that he missed dearly.

Ashton guessed that Low didn’t want to take a family man away from his family and that he may have also feared that a family man’s allegiances would lie more with his family than Low and would not be loyal to him as a result.

Ashton and the men were again asked to join the crew, which they refused, and the more they refused the more they were threatened and pressured to join. Low eventually threatened Ashton with death if he didn’t join but Ashton continued to refuse and Low signed him and six other men on anyway against their will.

The following Tuesday, June 19, the pirates chose a schooner belonging to Joseph Diller of Marblehead as their new flagship and the other prisoners were sent aboard the brigantine to be returned to Boston.

Ashton and Merritt pleaded with Low to free them and allow them to return to Boston with the other men but Low refused and said if they tried to escape they would be shot.

Ashton found his first chance to escape shortly after when one of the pirates returned to the ship but accidentally left Low’s dog on the beach and it began to howl. Low ordered that the dog be brought out to the ship and two of the Marblehead fishermen volunteered to retrieve the animal.

Ashton decided this was a good chance to escape so he rushed to the side of the ship to jump into the rowboat but was stopped by Low’s quartermaster, John Russell, who told him they only needed the two volunteers.

The two men rowed to shore, landed and then walked inland and never returned. Russell was furious and believed that Ashton had tried to join them because he knew they were planning to escape.

Although Ashton was planning to escape himself, he didn’t know the other two men had the same idea.

Nonetheless, Russell was so angry he tried to kill Ashton right there by putting his pistol to Ashton’s head and pulling the trigger. The gun misfired and Russell continued to pull the trigger over and over but each time it failed to go off.

Frustrated, Russell went to the side of the ship, reset the pistol and successfully fired the gun into the ocean. He then drew his sword and lunged for Ashton but he escaped to the hold where he hid among the other pirates.

After news of the pirate attack reached Boston when the freed men returned to the city, on July 9, 1722 the Boston News-Letter published an account of the attack and reported Philip Ashton as one of the men captured by the pirates.

Weeks passed without any chance for escape for Ashton and he began to lose hope. At one point, the ship was almost captured by a British man-of-war in the harbor at Saint John’s in Newfoundland but managed to get away.

Later, one of the sloops in the pirate fleet manned by impressed pirates, which included Nicholas Merritt, mutinied against its captain and sailed away.

Shortly after, the fleet stopped at the island of Bonavista, where seven or eight impressed pirates went ashore to hunt and escaped. All of these incidents gave Ashton hope that his own chance to escape would come soon.

Life as a Castaway:

In the spring of 1723, the fleet sailed to the island of Roatan in the Bay of Honduras where they stopped to pick up log wood and drinking water.

It was here that Ashton finally got his chance to escape on Saturday, March 9, 1723 when he noticed that six men were preparing to row ashore and asked if he could join them because he had not been on dry land since he was captured almost nine months before.

Since the island was uninhabited the cooper agreed and Ashton jumped in the rowboat. When the boat landed, Ashton worked hard to move the heavy casks up on the beach to reach the freshwater source and then strolled along the beach picking up seashells while he slowly started to distance himself from the crew.

When Ashton walked towards the edge of the woods, the cooper called out to him and Ashton responded that he was going to go look for coconuts. Once he was out of sight of the crew, Ashton broke into a full run and then hid in the dense forest, burrowing into a thicket.

A wooden dock at modern day Roatan in the Caribbean

The crew finished filling up the casks and called out for Ashton to return but he remained hidden. The pirates searched for him for a while but eventually gave up and rowed back to the ship.

Ashton eventually came out of his hiding place and went to the beach about a mile from the watering place so he could observe the pirate fleet in the harbor. After five days, they sailed away, leaving him alone on the deserted island.

Without any tools to hunt or fish, Ashton was forced to survive on fruit, vegetables and tortoise eggs. He also quickly had to learn how to avoid the many dangerous animals on the island, such as the wild hogs, giant lizards and poisonous snakes and he was even violently struck by a stranded shovel-nosed shark one day while swimming in some shallow water.

One day Ashton became ill and, in his weakened state, was violently attacked by a wild boar and had to climb a tree to avoid being killed by the animal.

After five months alone on the island, in November of 1723, an Englishman showed up on the island in a canoe and told Ashton he had fled some Spaniards he had been living with for the past 22 years who had suddenly turned on him and tried to kill him.

The man gave Ashton some food, a knife, gunpowder, tobacco and a flint box and told him he was going to paddle off and hunt venison for him and would return in a few days but shortly after leaving a storm struck the island and Ashton assumed the man drowned since he never saw him again.

With the tools the man gave him, Ashton was able to hunt small animals and make fires to cook hot meals which allowed him to eat a more balanced diet and regain his strength.

After living on the island alone for 16 months, a group of men appeared offshore one day in small rowboats. Ashton approached them cautiously, worried they might be pirates, but discovered they were local Bay men who had fled from some Spaniards that they feared were about to assault them. Ashton welcomed them ashore and they built a small dwelling that they nicknamed Castle Comfort.

Six months later, some pirates from Low’s fleet appeared and attacked Castle Comfort. Ashton and four others were returning in a canoe from a hunting expedition when the attack happened and they fled to the nearby deserted island of Bonaca while the pirates chased after them but failed to capture them.

Before the pirates left Roatan they gave the men there a small vessel to sail to the Bay in. Almost all the men decided to leave for the Bay immediately except for Ashton, a man named John Symonds and Symond’s slave, who felt their chances of being rescued by a ship were better on Roatan.

The beach at Palmetto Bay on modern day Roatan in the Caribbean

Since the season for Jamaican Traders to frequent in the area was approaching, the three men decided to row over to Bonaca where these traders often stopped for freshwater.

After about a week had passed, a large fleet of ships appeared in the island’s harbor and when a small rowboat came ashore Ashton discovered they were Englishmen from the British man-of-war Diamond who were escorting a convoy of merchant ships.

Furthermore, Ashton was thrilled to discover he had found a direct way home when he learned a brigantine in the fleet belonged to Captain Dover of Salem, Mass, who signed Ashton on to his crew immediately.

Philip Ashton’s Return Home:

After two years, 10 months and 15 days since his capture by pirates, Ashton finally headed home to Massachusetts at the end of March in 1725 and reached Salem Harbor on the first of May.

Once the ship landed, Ashton returned to his father’s house on Elm Street in Marblehead and told his family and friends about his adventure.

Later that same year, Ashton published a memoir about his experience, titled Ashton’s Memorial: An History of the Strange Adventures, and Signal Deliverances, of Mr. Philip Ashton.

Ashton returned to the fishing grounds of Newfoundland soon after his rescue and married Jane Gallison the following year.

Unfortunately, she died while giving birth to their daughter Sarah the following year in December 1727. Ashton married again in 1729 to Sarah Bartlett and had two daughters and four sons.

Ashton died at the age of only 42 or 43 in the summer of 1746 and was laid to rest in the Old Burial Hill Cemetery in Marblehead.

Snow, Edward. Pirates and Buccaneers of the Atlantic Coast. Yankee Publishing Company, 1944.
Ashton, Philip. Stranded in Roatan: The True Account of Escape from Pirates by Philip Ashton in 1722. Bookmybio Publishing, 2020.
Barnard, John. “Ashton’s Memorial: An History of the Strange Adventures and Signal Deliverances of Mr. Philip Ashton, Jun, of Marblehead. T Fleet for Samuel Gerrish, 1725.
Historic Building Detail: MAR.312 Ashton, Philip House.” MACRIS, Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System,

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

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