1665-1959; bulk: 1775-1859
Guide to the Collection
This collection consists of the papers of author and historian William Hickling Prescott, 1665-1959, pertaining to his writings about the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire.
William Hickling Prescott was an historian and author distinguished for his writings about the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire. His most well-known books include The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic (1837), History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843), History of the Conquest of Peru (1847), and his unfinished History of the Reign of Philip the Second (Vol. I and II, 1855; Vol. III, 1858). Prescott's histories received critical and popular success during his lifetime, and today, although outdated, they are still widely known and read in the historical community.
Born on 4 May 1796 in Salem, Mass., Prescott was the son of William Prescott (1762-1844), a prominent Boston attorney, and Catherine Greene Hickling Prescott, and the grandson of William Prescott (1726-1795), a United States colonel at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War. Prescott spent his early school years in Salem studying under Jacob Newman Knapp until his father moved the family to Boston in 1808. In Boston, he studied first under Eleazer Moody of Drummer Academy and later under Dr. John Gardner, rector of Trinity Church in Boston.
In 1812, Prescott entered Harvard University with the intention of becoming an attorney like his father. In 1815, he was blinded in the left eye by a hard piece of bread thrown in a dining hall ruckus. Soon after the accident, he began to suffer from "rheumatism" and inflammation in his right eye, an ailment that would plague him for the rest of his life. Prescott graduated from Harvard in 1815, but it was already apparent that he would not study for the bar.
In September 1815, Prescott set sail from Boston to visit his maternal grandfather Thomas Hickling, a Boston merchant and United States consul, on St. Michael's Island in the Azores, and to focus on improving the condition of his eyes. He suffered greatly during the voyage from the "rheumatism" and inflammation in his right eye and subsequently spent most of his time on St. Michael's in a darkened room. In April 1816, he sailed from the Azores for London, where he met with several expert oculists who determined that the blindness in his left eye was permanent and the ailment in his right eye incurable. After visiting England, Italy, and France, he returned to Boston in the summer of 1817, with little improvement to his condition. Unable to pursue a law career, Prescott spent the next several years in leisure, being read history and the classics by family and friends.
During this time, Prescott and several friends began a literary and social group that they named "The Club." They wrote essays and met frequently to critique each other's writings, and in early 1820, they began producing a periodical called The Club Room, with Prescott as the editor. The periodical lasted only four issues, but made a strong impression on Prescott that ultimately led him to a "life of letters."
On 4 May 1820, Prescott married Susan Amory. The marriage of nearly 50 years produced three children: Elizabeth, William Amory, and William Gardner Prescott. Soon after his marriage and the demise of his periodical, Prescott began his literary career. Due to the problems with his eyes, Prescott was a fastidious planner and created elaborate short-term and long-term study schedules for himself. With the help of a personal assistant and his noctograph, a writing apparatus for the blind, he began his studies in 1821 with English and American history, moving on to French in 1822 and Italian in 1823. The next step in Prescott's plan was to study German, but after just a short while he found German not to his liking, and he abandoned his studies in frustration. At this time, Prescott's long-time friend George Ticknor had been teaching Spanish literature at Harvard University for several years. To merely "amuse and occupy" his friend, Ticknor spent the fall of 1824 reading his lectures to Prescott, and that November, Prescott replaced his German studies with Spanish.
Although always social, Prescott spent the majority of the rest of his life writing letters, doing research, and composing his histories at his three homes in Boston, Nahant, and Pepperell, Mass. He traveled occasionally but, because of his eye problems, rarely ventured outside of the United States. To find and obtain the Spanish, Mexican, and Peruvian books and manuscripts needed for his research, he frequently corresponded with friends, colleagues, and booksellers living or visiting outside the United States to assist him. Prescott maintained long-term correspondence with many famous people, including Charles Dickens, whom Prescott supported in his crusade for international copyright laws. Prescott maintained his strict schedule for his entire career, and because he was so diligent in the care of his eye, never lost his eyesight completely.
Prescott suffered a small stroke in January 1858 and died a year later on 28 January 1859 from another more massive stroke.
Ticknor, George. Prescott's Life. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864.
The William Hickling Prescott papers consist of twenty-five document boxes, one oversize box, and ten volumes in cases that span the years 1665-1959, with the bulk between 1775-1859. The collection is divided into four series: personal papers, literary papers, Prescott family papers, and printed materials.
The bulk of the collection consists of papers, including correspondence written and received and diaries entitled "Literary Memorandum," written during William Hickling Prescott's career as historian and writer. In addition to the descriptions of his constant struggles with "rheumatism" and inflammation of his right eye (after the blinding of his left), Prescott's correspondence and diaries reflect the many phases of his career, including his early studies of history and languages; his efforts to obtain Spanish books and manuscripts through colleagues and friends in Europe, Peru, and Mexico; daily writing with the aid of an assistant and his noctograph; publication and reviews of his books; and the admiration and friendship of fellow historians and literary figures. Some of his key correspondents include Don Angel and Frances (Fanny) Erskine Inglis Calderon de la Barca, Sir Charles and Lady Mary Horner Lyell, George Bancroft, Pasual de Gayangos, Obidiah Rich, Susan Amory Prescott, and George Ticknor, among many others. The collection also includes a diary kept from 1815-1817 and incoming and retained outgoing (letterbook) correspondence between Prescott and his parents William and Catherine Hickling Prescott relating to his life as a student at Harvard College, his time spent traveling to the Azores and Europe soon after his right eye was blinded, and his relationships with his family and longtime friends. Of special interest are several outgoing copies of letters written to Charles Dickens during the summer and fall of 1842 after Dickens toured the United States earlier in the year. The letters request Dickens' help to get a book published by Prescott's friend Frances (called Fanny) Calderon de la Barca, and they also touch on Prescott's support of Dickens' efforts to get an international copyright law passed.
Another large part of the collection consists of literary drafts and printed proofs of Prescott's histories from his first work, History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic, to his final work, History of the Reign of Philip the Second, King of Spain. The drafts were composed using his noctograph and also include a manuscript copy of Philip the Second. Some of the drafts and most of the printed proofs are incomplete.
The Prescott family papers include family correspondence of several generations of Prescott family members, including William Hickling Prescott; his father, Boston lawyer William Prescott; mother Catherine Hickling Prescott; grandfather Col. William Prescott; wife Susan Amory Prescott; and many others. The Prescott family papers also include early papers primarily pertaining to the towns of Groton and Pepperell, Mass. and the Lincolnshire Company of Boston; an orderly book and papers pertaining to Col. William Prescott's service leading the 7th Massachusetts Regiment during the Revolutionary War; business records of William Prescott (1762-1844); diaries describing Catherine Greene Hickling's (later Prescott) travels to the Azores and Europe; a diary kept in 1778 by Catherine's uncle William Greene on a trip to Europe after being captured and released by British sailors; various family notebooks; a commonplace-book; and deeds and wills.
The remainder of the collection includes Spanish manuscripts and notes, clippings and a scrapbook of clippings, printed volumes, honorary diplomas, paybooks, and calling cards.
The bulk of the collection was deposited by Roger Wolcott from 1909-1924. Additional deposits were made by Roger, Oliver, William P., and Samuel H. Wolcott, and Cornelia Wolcott Drury in 1935; additional papers were a gift of Samuel H. Wolcott in 1969. The printed will of William Hickling Prescott (ca. 1859) was a gift of Russell MacAusland, December 2013.
The William Prescott (1726-1795) orderly book is available on the Revolutionary War Orderly Books Microfilm, P-394, Reel III, Vol. 5.
The William Greene diary is printed in the Proceedings of the MHS, Vol. 54, pp. 84-138.
The Catherine Greene Hickling Prescott travel diaries are published in Gavea-Brown: A Bilingual Journal of Portuguese American Letters and Studies, Jan. 1994-Dec. 1995, vol. 15/16, pp. 117-257.
Detailed Description of the Collection
I. Personal papers, 1807-1864
A. Loose correspondence and papers, 1807-1864
This subseries contains loose correspondence and papers of William Hickling Prescott from 1807-1864 pertaining primarily to his career as a historian and writer. The correspondence relates to Prescott's research and procurement of Spanish books and manuscripts through friends and colleagues in Europe, Peru, and Mexico; the publication and review of his various histories in the United States and abroad; earlier studies of English, French, and Italian, 1821-1824; his literary group called "The Club"; politics; other authors and literary works; issues surrounding his eyes; and family matters. Correspondents include Thomas Aspinwall, Charles Dickens, Don Angel and Frances Erskine Inglis (called Fanny) Calderon de la Barca, George Bancroft, George Cabot, Nathan Dane, Edward Everett, Pasual de Gayangos, William Moody, Theophilus Parsons, Oliver Peabody, David Sears, Jared Sparks, Obidiah Rich, Israel Thorndike, Susan Amory Prescott, and George Ticknor, among many others. The subseries also includes correspondence written between Prescott and his parents William and Catherine Prescott between 1812-1818 that pertains to his studies at Harvard and his travels to the Azores and Europe to treat the "rheumatism" of his eye. Other papers include bills and accounts, legal documents, book orders, notes, early school work and writings, and estate documents.
See also Series I.D. Letterbook, 1815-1816.
B. Letters to Sir Charles and Lady Mary Horner Lyell, 1842-1859
This subseries includes letters retained in a scrapbook that were written by William Hickling Prescott to Sir Charles and Lady Mary Elizabeth Horner Lyell from 1846-1859. Prescott's letters pertain to Prescott and Lyell family affairs, visits with friends, his visit to England in 1850, social events attended, and his work. The subseries also includes a letter written by Anna Eliot Ticknor to Lady Lyell on 31 Jan. 1859 informing her of Prescott's death, as well as manuscript copies of Prescott's letters to the Lyells from 1842-1859 that were copied by Lady Lyell.
C. Transcribed correspondence, 1834-1850
This subseries includes typescript copies of letters written and received by William Hickling Prescott from 1834-1850. The letters were transcribed and edited by Prescott's great-grandson Roger Wolcott from 1922-1924 in preparation for his book, The Correspondence of William Hickling Prescott, 1833-1847, published in 1925. The subseries also includes an introductory note written by Wolcott pertaining to letters written by Prescott between 1840-1842.
D. Volumes, 1815-1823
This volume contains retained copies of letters written by William Hickling Prescott from 1815-1816 to his parents William and Catherine Prescott while on a voyage to the Azores to visit his grandfather, Thomas Hickling, and to Europe to treat the "rheumatism" and inflammation of his eye. The letters includes descriptions of family matters; his eyes; sights seen on St. Michael's and in Italy, France, and England; meetings with oculists; and time spent with friends.
This volume include diary entries kept by Prescott from 1815-1817 during a voyage to visit his grandfather Thomas Hickling on St. Michael's Island in the Azores and to Europe to treat the "rheumatism" and inflammation in his eye. The short daily entries include descriptions and observations of time spent on various ships; physical settings, churches, botanical gardens, libraries, museums, and other sites visited; social engagements with family, new friends, and acquaintances; meetings with oculists; and historical and cultural notes on towns and cities visited in England, France, Italy, and the Mediterranean region. There is a gap between Nov. 1815-Feb. 1816 when, because of his eye, Prescott was forced to remain in a dark room. The diary also includes sporadic notes and entries made by Prescott after he returned to the United States from 1819-1823, pertaining primarily to his eyes and his studies.
II. Literary papers, 1820-1858
A. Literary drafts, ca. 1825-1858
This subseries contains drafts and proofs of Prescott's History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic; History of the Conquest of Mexico; History of the Conquest of Peru, 1524-1550; History of the Reign of Philip the Second, King of Spain; Memoir of the Honorable Abbott Lawrence; and The Life of Charles the V After his Abdication. All of the histories include drafts made by Prescott on his noctograph; Phillip the Second includes an additional manuscript draft written by Prescott's assistant; and most of the histories include some printed proofs with edits made by Prescott and others. Most of the drafts are in varying degrees incomplete, and all of the proofs are largely incomplete.
Arranged chronologically, by format, and by book and chapter.
i. History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, The Catholic (1838)
a. Noctograph draft (Book II only)
ii. History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843)
a. Noctograph draft
b. Printed proofs
iii. History of the Conquest of Peru, 1524-1550 (1847)
a. Noctograph draft
b. Printed proofs
iv. History of the Reign of Philip the Second, King of Spain (Vol. I and II, 1855; Vol. III, 1858)
a. Noctograph draft
b. Manuscript draft
vi. The Life of Charles the V After His Abdication (1858)
(Written to supplement William Robertson's History of the Reign of Charles V, published in 1856.)
B. Research materials, 1820-1858
i. Notes, ca. 1820-1858
Includes notes created by William Hickling Prescott from ca. 1820-1859 for use in his various writings. The subseries also includes Spanish manuscripts collected, copies of signatures of famous Spaniards, lists of books ordered by or for Prescott, and a study schedule he created for himself entitled "Time."
ii. "Literary memorandum," 1820-1858 (with gaps)
Includes diaries entitled "Literary memorandum" kept by William Hickling Prescott from 1820-1858 (with gaps) pertaining to his work as a historian and writer. The entries include descriptions of his work on the literary magazine The Club Room, early language and history studies, notes from his research of Spain, writings for his various histories, and literary quotes and facts. The entries also include personal reflections on his life, detailed schedule and plans, accounts of his struggle with his eye, and descriptions of family matters and social activities.
Lists kept by Prescott from 1827-1859 of books he ordered for research for his various histories. Entries include date of order, title of book, and country of origin.
III. Prescott family papers, 1665-1876
A. Correspondence and papers, 1665-1876
This subseries contains papers of the Prescott family of Pepperell and Boston, Mass., including family correspondence between Col. William (1726-1795), William (1762-1844), Catherine Greene Hickling, William Hickling, Susan Amory, Elizabeth, William Gardner, and William Amory Prescott; Franklin and Catherine Elizabeth Prescott Dexter; and Elizabeth Ann Amory. Other family papers include letters received in 1788 by Col. William Prescott (1726-1795) from Tobias Lear, secretary to President George Washington; correspondence of William Prescott (1762-1844) pertaining to politics, his work as an attorney, and other business matters; family wills; the printed will of William H. Prescott (ca. 1859) with manuscript annotations related to the value of the estate; deeds for land in Pepperell, Mass. and Maine; and papers of William Hickling Prescott's great-grandfather Benjamin Prescott, dated 1735-1738. The subseries also includes early papers retained by the Prescott family, dated 1665-1739, that include deeds for land in Groton, Mass.; papers pertaining to the town of Groton; and papers pertaining to the Lincolnshire Company of Boston.
B. Volumes, 1775-1871
This volume contains math notes kept by William Prescott (1762-1844). The notebook contains problems, drawings, and definitions for geometry and trigonometry.
This volume contains records of payments made from 1775-1785 by Col. William Prescott, while serving in the United States Army, to soldiers in the 7th Massachusetts Regiment (Prescott's Regiment) for service and supplies. Includes reason for payment, amount paid, and signature of the soldier upon receipt, among other information. Volume also includes personal household payments made by Col. Prescott from 1786-1795 and payments made, probably by his son William Prescott (1762-1844), during the settlement of Col. Prescott's estate from 1776-1804.
This volume contains general, brigade (General William Heath), and regimental (Col. William Prescott) orders kept for Lieutenant Colonel Johnson Moulton, of the regiment at Sewall's Point, Brookline (Mass.), and Governor's Island (N.Y.), 1 Jan.-19 May 1776, pertaining to the Siege of Boston and the New York campaign during the U.S. Revolutionary War. Orders from Washington's headquarters in Cambridge (Mass.) hail the establishment of the Continental Army and its rules and articles (1 Jan.) and deploy his forces for the siege. A brigade order assigns the 7th Massachusetts Regiment (Prescott's Regiment) to Sewall's Point. Regimental orders tighten up routines for guard duty and barracks inspection. Following the British evacuation of Boston in mid-March, orders to the occupying Continental Army concern precautions against smallpox and instructions for strengthening fortifications against a surprise attack from the British fleet still lingering in the bay. General orders from Washington's later headquarters in lower Manhattan (10 Apr.19 May) repeat the process of deploying troops, strengthening fortifications, and guarding against smallpox. Prescott's regiment was initially stationed on Governor's Island to set up positions there.
Note: The William Prescott (1726-1795) orderly book is available on the Revolutionary War Orderly Books Microfilm, P-394, Reel III, Vol. 5.
This diary includes entries made from 26 Mar.-27 Sep. 1778 by William Greene of Boston, Mass. while traveling in Brighton, England, and Dieppe, Paris, and Nantes, France, among other locations. Greene had originally set out from Boston for the West Indies, but was captured by the British and taken to New York. He sailed for London in 1777, but it is unknown if he was still a prisoner when he left New York. The diary includes detailed descriptions of time spent with family in Brighton and Dieppe; travels by boat, horse, and coach; the physical appearance and history of the towns visited; time spent with friends and acquaintances; museums, historic sites, churches, and hospitals visited; political opinions; and a short description of his family. The diary also includes descriptions of a visit with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and a young John Quincy Adams on 10 May, as well as a visit to Chateau de Marly to view the procession of King Louis XVIII and his court from the Chateau de Versailles to the Chapel Royal on 24 May.
Note: The William Greene diary is printed in the Proceedings of the MHS, Vol. 54, pp. 84-138.
A manuscript copy of an oration given by William Prescott (1762-1844) at a memorial service at Harvard College for his former classmate Isaac Baldwin, who died in April 1783. The oration was copied by John Andrews in 1785.
Catherine Greene Hickling Prescott travel diaries, 1786-1789
These diaries include entries made by Catherine Greene Hickling (later Prescott) during travels to see her father Thomas Hickling, a Boston merchant and consul on the island of St. Michael's in the Azores, 21 Jan. 1786-24 Jan. 1788, and later on a visit with friends in Clapham and London, England, 28 Jan. 1788-30 Sep. 1789. St. Michael's entries include descriptions of her voyage from Boston, accompanied by her brother William Prescott on the ship Pilgrim; time spent at her father's homes in Ponta del Garde and Villa Franca, among other places; politics, customs, and religious activities on the island; time spent with American, English, and Portuguese friends; visits to convents and monasteries; her grief when her good friend Coutinho was murdered in Feb. 1787; and sadness about leaving her father and friends. England entries include descriptions of the voyage from St. Michael's to London on the ship Little Dick; time spent with her brother and American and English friends; short trips to Oxford, Woodstock, and Shelswell, among other places; plays, operas, balls, and masquerades attended; her sadness about leaving her friends; and the voyage back to Boston on the ship Neptune.
Note: A typescript copy of the Catherine Greene Hickling Prescott travel diaries can be found in the Wolcott family papers II (Ms. N-152).
Note: The Catherine Greene Hickling Prescott travel diaries are published in Gavea-Brown: A Bilingual Journal of Portuguese American Letters and Studies, Jan. 1994-Dec. 1995, vol. 15/16, pp. 117-257.
A commonplace-book entitled "Manuscript Book," by Catherine Greene Hickling (later Prescott), includes extracts from essays, poems, and books by Vicesimus Knox, Julia de Ronligne, and John Moore, among others. The volume also includes household accounts, math problems, family notes, and recipes kept by Catherine from 1807-1814.
This volume include records of William Prescott's (1762-1844) deposits and withdrawals from the Suffolk Bank in Boston from 1828-1831.
This diary was kept by William Prescott (1762-1844) from 1824-1844, whenever he was at the Prescott home in Pepperell, Mass. Diary entries include descriptions of crops planted and farming plans, updates made to the house and property, payments made to various merchants and laborers, and visits with family, friends, and neighbors. Also includes a list of the mail schedules in Pepperell for 1834 and 1842 and an entry made (probably by William Hickling Prescott) in Oct. 1845.
This volume contains notes kept by William Prescott (1762-1844) from 1828-1843 pertaining to the Prescott family farm in Pepperell, Mass. The notes include descriptions of plants, vegetables, and fruit trees purchased and planted; and charts pertaining to their various fields and planting cycles.
This commonplace-book kept by Susan Amory Prescott, ca. 1842, includes poems, songs, quotes, prayers, and stories by Charles Dickens, Lord Byron, and Thomas Moore, among others.
This volume contains the original manuscript of an essay written by Harriet E. Prescott entitled "Ray," published in the Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 13, Issue 75, in January 1864.
IV. Printed materials, 1803-1959
A. Volumes, 1847-1859
This subseries includes a publication, written in Spanish, pertaining to Mexican paintings and painters, as well as two memorials (one written in English and the other in French) pertaining to the life of William Hickling Prescott.
B. Clippings, 1829-1959
This subseries includes loose clippings collected from 1829-1852 by William Prescott (1762-1844) and William Hickling Prescott that pertain to politics, Prescott family members, and Prescott's career as a historian; and a scrapbook of clippings collected ca. 1843 that pertains to the publication of the Conquest of Mexico. The subseries also includes loose clippings of memorials and obituaries written in 1859 for William Hickling Prescott, as well as loose clippings (written in Spanish) that pertain to memorials held in Peru in 1959 for the 100th anniversary of Prescott's death.
C. Calling cards, undated
D. Justice of the peace commissions, 1803, 1831-1853
This subseries includes a commission received by William Prescott (1762-1844) as Massachusetts justice of the peace in 1803, as well as several commissions to William Hickling Prescott as Massachusetts justice of the peace from 1831-1853.
E. Membership certificates/honorary diplomas, 1837-1859
This subseries includes certificates and/or honorary diplomas received from 1837-1859 by William Hickling Prescott from national and international colleges and universities.
F. Miscellaneous printed materials, 1842-1959
Materials Removed from the Collection
Photographs were removed to the MHS Photo Archives.
Some printed items were removed to the MHS Printed Collections.
Silhouettes and a calling card printing plate was removed to the MHS Artifacts Collection.
William Hickling Prescott papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.
This collection is indexed under the following headings in ABIGAIL, the online catalog of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Researchers desiring materials about related persons, organizations, or subjects should search the catalog using these headings.