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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
William Cowan Prescott

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[This information is from Vol. III, pp. 114-118 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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Portrait of William Cowan Prescott

Portrait: William Cowan Prescott

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For nearly half a century William Cowan Prescott has been a prominent figure in the legal circles of Herkimer county and the Mohawk valley as a leading attorney of Herkimer and partner in the former well known, law firm of Steele & Henderson. He was born in New Hartford, Oneida county, New York, December 11, 1848, and like many another successful professional man, spent his boyhood days on his father's farm. The district schools of Herkimer county furnished him his early education. In 1867 he was a member of the graduating class from the Utica Academy, where he had been studying for several years and from there went to Tufts College, Massachusetts, where he completed the full four-year course and graduated with high honors. Early in life Mr. Prescott was called upon to exercise some of the substantial qualities that have characterized his later career, for his father was financially unable to give him an expensive college education and he was forced to earn part of the money for his tuition and living expenses by teaching school. While this inevitably involved sacrifice and hard work on the young man's part, his college days were not all work and studies. As an undergraduate he was initiated into the Zeta Psi fraternity, in which he took an interested part and became nationally prominent. In 1870 he presided over the national convention, which was held that year in Easton, Pennsylvania.

As Mr. Prescott had undertaken his college work with the view to preparing for the legal profession, it was only natural that he should look about for a favorable opening in this line of work immediately after leaving school. Shortly after his commencement he came to Herkimer and began the reading of law in the office of Earl, Smith & Brown. He was admitted to the bar of New York state in 1875 and at once formed a partnership with the Hon. Robert Earl, who was in the same year elected judge of the court of appeals. Mr. Prescott then associated himself with the late Samuel Earl and their partnership continued until 1882, when he formed a partnership with the late Abram B. Steele, which existed under the firm name of Steele & Prescott until the death of Mr. Steele in 1913. In the more than three decades that these two exceptionally able men were associated their firm attracted a large volume of important legal business. During part of the period Mr. Steele held the office of district attorney, which brought the firm into prominence in connection with some quite celebrated criminal cases. In these, as elsewhere, his exhaustive research into all the details of the case and careful construction of the argument, won for Mr. Prescott the admiration and confidence of the profession and the laity alike. in recent years his practice has been confined chiefly to surrogates court work, in which he has a large clientele. Following the death of Mr. Steele in 1913, Mr. Prescott took as a law partner, Miss Essie R. Henderson, an able attorney and one of the brilliant professional women of the county.

Unlike many members of his profession Mr. Prescott has never been attracted by the honors and emoluments of a public career, but on the contrary has chosen to seek advancement in the strict confines of the law. The offices he has held have been of local character, which he filled from a sense of civic duty only. Upon the formation of the police and fire commission in 1887 he was chosen one of the board and made its chairman. He was reappointed to this office in 1888 and served until he resigned in 1892. In 1896 he was elected president of the village and he also has served for a year as village attorney. Mr. Prescott's friends induced him to accept the nomination for a member of the legislative assembly of New York from Herkimer county in the autumn of 1892 and he was elected by a handsome majority, and reelected in 1893 for a second term. Mr. Prescott's political affiliations have always been with the republican party.

In many ways outside of political circles Mr. Prescott has shown his interest in the welfare of the community and has given much time and effort to the promotion of civic work. Some years ago he was instrumental in raising the public fund for the extension of the Adirondack & St. Lawrence Railroad to Herkimer, which resulted in great commercial benefits to the village. He belongs to and is a former director of the very progressive Chamber of Commerce and is a member of the board of directors of the Herkimer Free Library. For forty years he has been a member of the vestry of Christ's Episcopal church of Herkimer, which he formerly served as a warden and treasurer. He has also been interested in the work of the Young Men's Christian Association. In Masonic circles Mr. Prescott holds an honored position as past worshipful master of the Herkimer Lodge, No. 423, F. & A. M.; belongs to the chapter, commandery and consistory, having attained the thirty-second degree; is a Noble of the Mystic Shrine; and was grand marshall of the Grand Lodge from 1890 to 1892. As an amateur gardener this busy attorney has met with gratifying success and his flowers and vegetables more than reward him for the time and thought he spends on his garden each summer. He is fond of traveling and likes to spend his more extended vacations visiting new scenes or places of exceptional interest.

On the 5th of September, 1876, Mr. Prescott and Miss Frances M. Cotten of New York city were united in marriage. Mrs. Prescott was the daughter of Charles B. and Charlotte (Mabie) Cotten of that city and came from a family of English descent. The first Cottens in this country settled in New England in the seventeenth century, and in later generations they played an honorable part in the War of the Revolution. Mrs. Prescott was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the first regent of the General Nicholas Herkimer Chapter, in which she always took a deep interest. She was also a member of the Progressive Club of Herkimer and an active worker in the church. When death called Mrs. Prescott on September 25, 1896, in the prime of a busy and useful life, her passing was mourned by a wide circle of friends who have never ceased to regret that a woman of such charming personality and ability should be taken from a life that was so full of good for others.

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