By Murray Smolens

Granite City. Goodwin. Audubon. Gimletville. Azatlan. Long-forgotten Arizona ghost towns? Actually, without the determination of first territorial secretary Richard McCormick and his supporters, one of these could have been of the name of the first territorial capital. Instead, the town was named for a now-obscure 19th-century historian who never visited the area.

Who was William Hickling Prescott, anyway? In 1864, he was a rock star in the intellectual world, even though he had been dead for five years. Grandson of a hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill, William Prescott; son of a brilliant lawyer and businessman, also named William; he was an uneven student who was able to enter Harvard through family connections. His “socially precocious” nature got him into the Porcellian Club, a high-class “Animal House” of its day. Ironically, it was in the midst of a food fight that a stray crust of bread hit young Prescott in his left eye, forever damaging his retina and limiting his ability to read to just several hours a day. He was forced to rely on family members and hired assistants to help him read and transcribe written materials.

Prescott began his writing career as a literary reviewer. He contributed pieces to the North American Review, a prestigious literary magazine founded in Boston in 1815 that is still published today. Never the most decisive individual, he careened about, finally settling on history as his area of interest. It wasn’t until he was almost thirty that he stumbled upon the subjects that motivated him to write his first book: Ferdinand and Isabella, the benefactors of Christopher Columbus. It took him a full ten years to finish the epic, for many reasons: health issues, family, travels, business, fondness for socializing, but primarily a lack of self-discipline. Forcing himself to overcome these obstacles, he finally completed Ferdinand and Isabella in 1836.

The book was met with almost universal acclaim for its objectivity, colorful and detailed accounts, drama and characterization. It was even lauded in Great Britain, where American authors were still looked down upon, and Spain, which accepted it as the best English-language examination of the subject royals. Some later historians criticized it for shallowness and lack of consideration of economic and social forces, but the criticism is considered hindsight by many modern reviewers.

The book was also a financial success, and allowed him to add to the family fortune on his own. He followed up in 1843 with perhaps his best work, Conquest of Mexico, which was called a “masterpiece.” It was the one that influenced McCormick and others to (erroneously) believe that Montezuma was here; thus the street name. Conquest of Peru (1847) and Philip the Second (1855-58) followed, but were considered inferior due to the author’s declining health and lack of interest in the subjects.

Prescott’s primary legacy was his establishment of standards for the writing of American history that are still followed today. He is considered the first American historian to adhere to a strict code of objectivity, impartiality and authenticity, and is credited with originating the use of critical biographical notes that are widely used by modern historians.

His fame established, there was little wonder that his name won the debate over naming the new capital of Arizona Territory, especially when it was championed by Richard McCormick, journalist and student of history.  

Not so easily settled is the ongoing question regarding the pronunciation of Prescott. Is it PresCOTT or PresKIT? Some say that it was a compromise reached at a public meeting on May 30, 1864, where the alternatives were discarded in return for pronouncing it PresKIT. Others lean towards the influence on the language brought by Southern migrants. Still others cite the unique Southwest dialect that gradually took root. Local historian Melissa Ruffner, who visited the William Hickling Prescott House in Boston in 1998, was told by the president of the organization that runs what is now a museum at the site that it was William Hickling’s grandfather who changed the pronunciation from PresCOTT to PresKIT as a way to symbolize his family’s separation from England.

However you choose to pronounce Prescott, as Courier editor Tim Wiederaenders concluded in a 2016 column, it’s really a Gershwinesque you-say-potato debate. The town of Prescott has had a major impact on Arizona history either way, as William Hickling Prescott would surely appreciate.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.