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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.