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Descendants of William Prentis of Williamsburg

Most of the information on this page was provided by Thomas Prentis Kehoe a descendant of William.

Photo of the William Prentis store today.

William Prentis was the son of John and Sarah Prentis. He was born October 10, 1699 in St. James Dukes Place London, England. After the death of his mother in 1708 his father applied to place William, apparently the eldest of his five children, in the school at Christ's Hospital, London, where he remained for six years1. In 1714 he was discharged from Christ's Hospital and indentured to Archibald Blair of Williamsburg for a period of seven years2. While the curriculum at Christ's Hospital is not known, it must have included courses in accounting and business practices for he was soon to put these disciplines into practice in America.

William Prentis, not yet 15 years old, arrived in Williamsburg in early 1715 and went to work in a small frame store on the side of Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg. Dr. Blair had founded the store about 15 years earlier3 in partnership with his brother, the Rev. James Blair, and their good friend, Col. Philip Ludwell4. When Dr. Blair died in 1733 he bequeathed his 1/2 share equally to his three daughters. Elizabeth Blair, married to John Bolling, offered to sell her 1/6 to William Prentis and, upon completion of the sale5, the Blair-Prentis-Cary6 store opened its doors with William Prentis as the store manager. Soon afterwards the store name was changed to William Prentis and Co.7.

From all accounts William Prentis and Co. was a "unique endeavor". It instituted the practice of annual financial statements, held stockholders meetings, published results of these meetings8, offered incentive compensation to management, and financed the growth of his company from retained earnings9.

By 1740 the store's increasing business required enlarged quarters. In that year a brick store, which is still standing, was built to the east of the older frame store building. Unfortunately the new building, whether by accident or design, encroached four feet into the lane, and the firm leased a strip four feet wide by thirty-six feet deep from the city at a cost of one shilling a year.10

In April 1743, Commissary James Blair, died and he bequeathed his half share in the firm to the five young children of his nephew, John Blair, the son of Archibald Blair. With the passing of Commissary Blair, William Prentis assumed even greater responsibility. In addition to operating the store, he served as a justice of peace of James City County from 1734 for many years. He also kept the land office for the sale of head rights11.

William Prentis may have had a first wife before marrying Mary Brooke in 1752. Mary Brooke was the daughter of John and Ann Brooke. She had been born in 1710 in York County, Virginia12.

William Prentis had six children. The dates of their birth, where known, is shown.

  1. Daniel.
  2. Elizabeth.
  3. John Prentis was born about 175313 and died in 1775. He succeeded his father as the manager of the Prentis store. His will was proved on Nov. 20, 1775, at Williamsburg14. In the records of Lord Dunnmore, the last royal Governor of Virginia, he refers to the fact that he sent his letter to the House of Burgesses by Major John Prentis, whom he speaks of as "my friend". It was John's misfortune to serve during the days of crisis leading to the Revolution. In 1774 he ran afoul of the non-importation agreement: two half chests of tea consigned to his store were tossed into the York River by enraged inhabitants of Yorktown. Public uproar caused John to publish an abject apology in the Virginia Gazette. This tea party and other troubles, including the insanity of his wife, probably caused the early death of John Prentis in 1775.15
  4. Joseph was born Jan. 24, 1754 and died May 18, 1809. He married Dec. 16, 1778 Margaret Bowdoin, daughter of John Bowdoin II and Grace Stringer of Northampton County. She was born Nov. 27, 1758 and died in Williamsburg August 27, 1801. They lived in Williamsburg and had eight children. He died on June 18, 1809, in Williamsburg, York County, Virginia. Joseph was member of the Virginia Convention which met in December, 1775; and was appointed, with James Hubard and John Tyler, a judge of admiralty16, by ordinance of convention, July 5, 1776, to hold till December 1777. He studied at William and Mary College in 1777 and was a member of the first House of Delegates in 1777, from Williamsburg; member from York 1778-1788; speaker of House of Delegates 1788; member of Patrick Henry's privy council 1779; judge of the General Court from 1789 to his death in 1809; member of Board of Visitors of William and Mary College. He was one of the revisers of the Code of 1792.17
  5. Sarah Prentis was born in 1749 and married William Waters of Williamsburg. Sarah and William had one daughter:
    1. Sarah Waters. Sarah m. David Meade in 1768. David Meade (1744-1830) was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. In 1774 the Meades moved to Maycox plantation in Prince George County, Virginia. In 1796 they moved to a newly constructed estate, "La Chaumiere du Prairie" near Lexington, Kentucky. David Meade died in 1830.18 25
  6. William Prentis, Jr. was a civil engineer who surveyed Winchester, Virginia in planning for the village19 and later moved to Petersburg, Virginia where he was a newspaper publisher and four-term mayor of the city.20

Over the remaining years of his life William Prentis continued to accumulate shares in the company so that at the time of his death his stock holdings stood at 9/22nds of the enterprise21.

The career of William Prentis as a merchant ended with his death on August 4, 1765 in Williamsburg. Mary Brooke Prentis lived almost thee years longer, on April 9, 1768 in Williamsburg, Virginia. William and Mary Prentis are buried under an aisle of the Bruton Church in Williamsburg. The will of William Prentis was probated at York, Virginia on May 12, 1765 and reproduced in William and Mary Quarterly22. After his death the difficulty of obtaining goods and the unsettled future caused some uncertainty as to the feasibility of continuing the store. Finally the stockholders agreed to continue the store with John's cousin, Robert Prentis, as manager, but in 1779, conditions became impossible, and the company was dissolved. Thus ended the career of the oldest store in Williamsburg. It had operated continually for almost seventy-nine years.

If you go to Williamsburg today you can find the Prentis home on Duke of Gloucester Street23 and, down the road, the red brick Prentis-Tarpley store24.

  1. Transcribed from microfilmed records held at the Guildhall Manuscript Library in London (Record #12876/Volume 3) in March 2000 by Julian Prentis of London.
  2. Gill, Harold B. Jr. "Apprentices from Christ Hospital Make Good in America", Colonial Williamsburg: The Journal of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Autumn 1988, pp. 15-18. See also Morpugo, J.E. "A Thing Without Parallel: Christ's Hospital and America", Colonial Williamsburg: The Journal of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Autumn 1988, pp. 7-14.
  3. Dr. Blair immigrated to Virginia before 1690. In 1705 he was appointed one of the directors for building Williamsburg and served in the House of Burgesses from 1718 until his death in 1733. Dr. Blair's older brother, James, came to Virginia in 1685 as a clergyman and in 1689 was named Commissary, or deputy, in Virginia for the Bishop of London. He was founder and first president of the College of William and Mary, and a member of the Council. Col. Philip Ludwell, the other partner, was also a member of the Council and for a time Auditor General of Virginia. Sometime before his death in 1727, Col. Ludwell sold his share of the business to the Blair Bothers, and the store was owned equally by them until 1733. Riley, Edward M. "William Prentis & Co.: Business Success in Eighteenth Century Williamsburg", Financial Executive, April 1968, pp. 35.
  4. In 1727 Col Ludwell died and the Blair brothers bought his share of the store. Ibid.
  5. The purchase price was £900. Idib, p. 35. This sum had been accumulated by William Prentis over an eleven year period since the end of his indenture in 1722.
  6. Wilson Cary was the husband of Sarah Blair and the son-in-law of Archibald Blair. In 1733 he controlled 1/6 of the store's stock. Ibid. p. 36.
  7. Ibid, p. 36-7.
  8. Riley points out that the annual statement of William Prentis and Co. is the reverse of modern practice. Today management submits an annual report and financial statement to the stockholders. At that time, the stockholders reported to management. Ibid., p. 37.
  9. Ibid., p. 38.
  10. Ibid. p. 38.
  11. Ibid. p. 40.
  12. Prentis Nelson, Hally "Prentis Family Records (unpublished)", 1965.
  13. This date is suspicious. Unlike Joseph, born in 1754, there is no record of John having a guardian although, if not born until 1753 he would have been only 12 at the time of his father's death. Furthermore, upon his death in 1775 he would have been only 22; yet contemporary records refer to his as a Major and Colonel of Militia. If William Prentis had a first wife it is more than likely that John born before 1752 and considerably older at the time of his death.
  14. William and Mary College Quarterly Vol. VI, pp 125-6, First Series.
  15. Riley, op. cit. p40. No record of John Prentis' wife has been found except in this article. Circumstances surrounding the "Virginia Tea Party" are found in William and Mary College Quarterly, Volume II, pp. 217-9, Second Series.
  16. Judges of the Admiralty were charged with enforcement of the restriction "against the enemies of America" in the waters off Virginia. Genealogies of Virginia Families, Volune III, p. 82 (Compact Disk version).
  17. William and Mary College Quarterly, Vol. VI, pp. 190-1, First Series.
  18. Prentis, op. cit.
  19. A map signed by him hung in the city library in the 1950s. Prentis, op. cit.
  20. Virginia Magazine, pp. 446-9 and William and Mary College Quarterly, Vol. II, pp. 13-4, Second Series.
  21. When the last two of Wilson Carey's daughters married, their husbands wished to sell their holdings, which were purchased by the company in November 1757. This reduced the number of shares to 22. And so at the time of his death eight years later William Prentis held 9 of the store's 22 shares. Riley, p. 40.
  22. W&M Quarterly, Series 1, Vol 6, pp. 125-6.
  23. Information on restoration of Prentis House available from Dept of Research and Records, Colonial Williamsburg, Inc., Williamsburg, VA. The article was based on annual statements of the store for most of the years it was managed by William Prentis (1733 to 1765).
  24. Tarpley apparently acquired the store after 1780.
  25. Portrait and info of David Meade, Jr. at Colonial Williamsburg online museum. [link]
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Ken Levine
2020-09-05 20:26:50
On November 7, 1774, residents of York County threw a “tea party,” reminiscent of the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when they boarded the ship Virginia and dumped two half-chests of tea into the York River. The tea was sent by John Norton and Sons in England and was to be delivered to John Prentis & Company. Resolutions from the York and Gloucester County Committees and John Prentis's Apology were published in the VA Gazette November 24, 1774, page 2, and November 24, 1774, page 3. • Letter from John Norton, was published in Gazette May 6, 1775, page 2, and May 12, 1775, page 2–3.
Ken Levine
2019-03-21 00:50:41
In reading the story on William Prentis, the only issues I have about the of marriage William Prentis to Mary Brooke. They were married before 1726 when John Brooke wrote his will leaving his house to daughter Mary Prentis. He had sold a small house on this property to William Prentis in 1724. John Brooke ran an ordinary in 1714 in this residence. William Prentis and Mary Brooke's daughter, Sarah married William Waters who lived only 2 doors down Duke of Gloucester Street. Williamsburg was not an independent town or city back than. It was split down the middle of Duke of Gloucester Street, the north side was York County and the south side was James City County. Mary Brooke probably was born in her father's house on Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg, York County. The Prentis Store is down Duke of Gloucester Street on the York County side. Research information on the Prentis House and Store can be found online under the digital library research tab of the Colonial Williamsburg Rockefeller Library.
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