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William H. Prescott

William Hickling Prescott is credited with being the first American historian to bring scientific methods of research and painstaking documentation to historic narrative. His dramatic storytelling made him popular with the public, while his meticulous research ensured his works would stand the test of time and eventually become classics.

The acclaimed historian specialized in the Spanish conquest of the New World, with the History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru, ranking as his best-known works.

William H. Prescott
William H. Prescott
Biographical fast facts

Full or original name at birth: William Hickling Prescott

Date and place of birth: May 4, 1796, Salem, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

Date, time, place and cause of death: January 28, 1859, at approximately 2:30 p.m., at 55 Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A. (Stroke)

Spouse: Susan Amory (m. May 4, 1820 - January 28, 1859) (his death) *

Sons: William G. Prescott and William Amory Prescott

Daughters: Catherine Prescott (September 23, 1824 - February 1829) and Elizabeth Prescott

Father: William Prescott, Jr. (b. October 19, 1762, Pepperell, Massachusetts - d. December 8, 1844, Boston, Massachusetts)
Mother: Catherine Greene Hickling (b. August 1, 1767, Boston, Massachusetts - d. May 17, 1852)

Burial site: The Prescott family crypt, St. Paul's Church, Boston, Massachusetts

Error corrections or clarifications

* Several sources erroneously report he and his wife were married "almost 50 years." In point of fact, they were just a few months shy of 40 years of marriage when he died.

The name of his Boston instructor, Dr. John Gardiner of the Trinity Church, is occasionally misspelled "Gardner."

Also note that some sources confuse biographical data between W. H. Prescott's father, William Prescott, Jr. (an attorney), and grandfather, William Prescott (a noted American Revolutionary War hero).

Biography - Hobbies/sidelines - Residences

The Prescott's had deep roots in New England and were among the earliest pioneers in the area. A number of their ancestors were men of distinction in the fields of medicine, law and the military.

The second son of William Prescott, Jr. and Catherine Greene Hickling, William Hickling Prescott was born May 4th, 1796, in Salem, Massachusetts. His father was a prominent lawyer, affording the children a comfortable upbringing with ample opportunity for the best schooling available. The only problem was that young William H. Prescott had absolutely no interest in study. He was a self-confident, mischievous young man who was fond of pulling an endless variety of practical jokes on hapless victims. His penchant for bluntly speaking his mind to any and all individuals, at all times, earned him a reputation for rudeness at a young age. Only after the Prescott family moved to Boston in 1808, did a teacher (Dr. John S. Gardiner) finally spark his interest in education.

During his Boston school days, his partner-in-mischief was his best friend, William Gardiner, the son of his teacher. The boisterous, high-spirited pair were of the same mind when it came to their endless mischief making on the streets of Boston and frequently drew the ire of many citizens for their tomfoolery.

The earlier folly of youth departed -- for the most part -- when he entered Harvard in 1811 and he settled down to serious study. In his second year, his left eye was injured in a freakish accident during a brawl in the dining hall. As Prescott turned to investigate the ruckus, a large, hard crust of bread was launched by one of the warring students. The projectile nailed him squarely in the eye, ultimately leading to blindness in his left eye. Less than a year after his 1814 graduation, his right eye suffered an inflammation that left him temporarily blind. Simultaneously, he began experiencing acute rheumatism in his knees and neck. He could not leave his room for several months as symptoms limited his mobility and the partial sight in his right eye came and went.

In hopes the warmer climate might improve his condition, he set sail for the Azores, September 26, 1815. Though he continued to occasionally suffer total blindness and limited mobility, Prescott enjoyed his stay in the Azores. He traveled on to London and sought the advice of British medical experts on his disorder. Their discouraging judgment was that the eyesight in his right eye would continue to come and go as his health also fluctuated. He spent time in Paris and Italy before returning home in 1817.

He illustrated his pessimism for the future when he wrote: "As to the future, it is too evident I shall never be able to pursue a profession. God knows how poorly I am qualified and how little inclined to be a merchant. Indeed, I am sadly puzzled to think how I shall succeed even in this without eyes."

His fondness for reading increased as his physical mobility decreased. This presented a problem in that his eyesight only permitted a fleeting period of study each day before failing entirely. His sister and also his former school chum, William Gardiner, came to his rescue by generously devoting a portion of their day to reading aloud to him.

It wasn't long before his daily exposure to all the varied literature sparked his own desire to write. In 1818, he began socializing again and also helped found a small literary club. The group briefly published a periodical, The Club Room, which Prescott edited. While only four issues were ever produced, this work set him firmly on course for his literary career.

May 4th, 1820, he married Susan Amory, the daughter of Boston merchant Thomas Amory. It was shortly after his marriage that Prescott made a concerted effort to establish his literary career. He wrote a number of articles on various subjects that were published in the North American Review, before he discovered the focal point of his future work. Around 1822, he commented: "History has always been a favorite study with me and I have long looked forward to it as a subject on which I was one day to exercise my pen." By the mid-1820s, his fascination with the history of Spain and the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire, established the path for his distinguished career.

His first child, Catherine Prescott, died suddenly in 1829, at the age of four. "I can never suffer again as I then did. It was my first heavy sorrow, and I suppose we cannot twice feel so bitterly," he later wrote of the unexpected death of his first-born child.

William H. Prescott's utilization of a noctograph, a special writing device for the blind, allowed him to continue writing even in the absence of his secretary. At times he produced pages at a phenomenal rate, while other works took many years to complete.

After more than a decade of work, his first significant historical work, History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic (1837) was published. It was wildly successful with both the public and critics, and that first edition quickly sold out. It was subsequently published internationally and received the same warm welcome with critics overseas as well.

He commenced work on the History of the Conquest of Mexico in 1839 and completed it August 2nd, 1843. It was hailed a masterpiece by critics around the world. Never before had the work of an American historian been received with such enthusiasm in Europe.

While writing the History of the Conquest of Peru, his sight continued to deteriorate. It reached a point he was only afforded a few moments of dim vision each day. Rather than use his fleeting sight for study, he now reserved that precious commodity for everyday tasks and interaction with family and friends.

The History of the Conquest of Peru was published in 1847, to nearly universal acclaim. Prescott's lofty position among his fellow historians grew with the publication of each new volume of history. Even after he solidified his reputation as one of the most renowned American historians, he continued to contribute occasional articles to the North American Review.

His health was in decline as he commenced work on the History of the Reign of Philip II in 1849. "As I shall have to depend more and more on this one of my senses as I grow older, it is to be hoped that Providence will spare me my hearing," he said when it appeared he might be going deaf. In 1850, his cheerful demeanor dissolved to depression when it indeed appeared he was going deaf. He put his work on hold and embarked on a trip to Washington, D.C., then traveled on to England. He was received with great reverence and fanfare by presidents and royalty alike. His adventures proved successful in elevating his spirits and he was soon back at work on Philip II. He was relieved to discover the earlier diagnosis of looming deafness was inaccurate.

The first volume of the History of the Reign of Philip II was published in 1852, with the second volume following in 1854. As with his previous historical accounts, these were well received by both the public and critics. The popularity of his earlier works along with this latest release added substantially to his wealth.

Despite his precarious health and failing eyesight, he maintained a cheerful mood throughout his life and was known for his ever-present smile.

He experienced excruciating headaches beginning in 1857, and his health again went into decline. While out on one of his usual walks early in 1858, he suffered a stroke. As had been the case with his past medical problems, Prescott's central concern was how his condition might impact his wife and family. Fortunately, he recovered enough within a few days to resume many of his routine activities. Though his speech remained slurred for the remainder of his life, he was able to return to work on volume III of the History of the Reign of Philip II, which was published in April 1858.

January 28th, 1859, William Hickling Prescott suffered a massive stroke at his Beacon Street home in Boston. That afternoon he died without ever regaining consciousness.

Prescott had long feared the prospect of being buried alive and left behind instructions to sever a major vein to eliminate any possibility he would have to endure such a horror. After doctors complied with his wishes, he was buried January 31st, 1859, in the Prescott family crypt, at St. Paul's Church, in Boston, Massachusetts.

He was the recipient of numerous international honors, prestigious memberships and honorary degrees. Following his death, a number of schools, streets and even towns (including Prescott, Arizona) were named in his honor.

He had a lifelong fondness for wine, would burst into song at the drop of a hat, enjoyed hiking, horseback riding, and a good cigar.

Residences of William H. Prescott
Over the years, he owned a number of impressive homes, including a Bedford Street mansion, and his home at 55 Beacon Street, in Boston, Massachusetts, where he would spend the latter part of his life. Summers were spent at his summer cottage at the popular seaside resort of Nahant, Massachusetts, or "The Highlands" in Pepperell, Massachusetts, which had been in the family for more than 150 years. In his final years, he summered at a newer home at Lynn Bay, which he'd purchased in 1853.


The most in-depth of more than three dozen sources consulted in preparing this profile:
Life of W. H. Prescott, by George Ticknor (1864)
William Hickling Prescott, by Harry Thurston Peck (1905)

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