Biography of Col. William F. Prosser

COL. WILLIAM F. PROSSER. – This gentleman was born near Williamsport, on the west branch of the Susquehanna River, in the State of Pennsylvania, of Welsh parentage, on the 16th of March, 1834. Shortly after his birth, his father removed with his family to Cambria County in the same state, where most of his earlier years were passed in occupations usual to boys whose parents are in moderate circumstances. His early educational opportunities were limited, and were only such as were afforded by a winter attendance upon the public schools of that day, and three terms of five months each at an academy in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in the years 1850 and 1851. Teaching in the public schools, surveying and reading law, occupied his time and attention until he was twenty years of age, when, impelled by that spirit of enterprise which actuates so many of the youth of the country, he left his home in Cambria County for California.

In 1854 the journey across the plains was long, tedious and laborious; and the party with which he traveled drove ox-teams, or rode on horseback, from the city of St. Charles, Missouri, to the new El Dorado of the West, nearly five months being required for the trip. He first engaged in mining on the American River, but in the spring of 1855 went to Trinity County, California, where he was employed in mining and other pursuits until the summer of 1861. In 1858, volunteers having been called for by the State of California to assist the regular United States troops in protecting the settlements about Humboldt Bay, he with others enlisted in the Trinity Rangers, a company of one hundred man, organized and mustered into the service in Trinity County, of which I.G. Messac was elected captain, and the subject of this sketch second lieutenant. After a successful campaign of great hardship, danger and severity, especially in the winter of 1858-59, the company was ordered back to Trinity and mustered out, Lieutenant Prosser and his brother officers receiving the special thanks of the state authorities. In 1860 he was the first nominee of the Republican party there for the state legislature; and, although Trinity County was strongly Democratic, and party feeling then ran very high, he was only defeated by a small majority.

In July, 1861, at the breaking out of the Rebellion, he disposed of his interests in Trinity County and returned East to participate in the tremendous struggle which had already commenced. Arriving in Washington, he was tendered a commission in the regular army by President Lincoln; but this he declined undertaking to enlist troops for the lamented Colonel E.D. Baker, who was in the meantime killed at Balls Bluff. Shortly afterwards he enlisted as a private in the Anderson Troop, a body of one hundred men selected for special cavalry service form all parts of Pennsylvania. this troop was ordered from Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, to Louisville, Kentucky, thence taking part in all the laborious marching and fighting which took place under General Buell, until the field of Shiloh was reached; and for efficient service in that battle it was especially complimented. While acting as quartermaster of this troop he was sent on special duty to Louisville; and while on the way, Lieutenant Prosser was captured by Morgan’s rebel cavalry, in June, 1862, paroled and sent to Annapolis, Maryland, for exchange.

While a prisoner the troop was increased to a regiment; and after his exchange he was temporarily assigned to duty as quartermaster of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry, the new regiment serving as such. he joined the regiment at Louisville and proceeded to Nashville, Tennessee, arriving in time to participate with about three hundred men of the regiment in the battle of Stone River. Of those three hundred men eighty were killed, wounded or captured in the first two days of the engagement. Shortly after that battle he was transferred to the Second Tennessee Cavalry, of which regiment he was commissioned major in March, 1863, lieutenant-colonel in March, 1864, and colonel in June, 1865. From the time of the transfer, however, he virtually commanded the regiment, and for a considerable time in 1864,a brigade of Tennessee troops consisting of the Second, Third and Fourth Regiments of Tennessee Cavalry and a battery of artillery. With his command he participated actively in all the campaigns of the Army of the Cumberland under Rosecrans, Thomas, Sherman, and at the siege of Knoxville under Burnside, taking part in all the principal battles of that army, and in a large number of skirmishes and minor engagements.

When the Confederate army under General Hood suddenly and unexpectedly appeared before Decatur, Alabama, on the 26th day of October, 1864, Colonel Prosser, who was then in command of the cavalry in the District of North Alabama, hastily gathered up about four hundred men and a battery of artillery of his command, and going out a short distance before that place disposed his force across the entire front of the line of battle of the enemy; and, taking advantage of some inequalities of the ground, he held the rebel army in check from ten A.M until night came on, thus giving General Granger time to call his scattered forces back to Decatur and put the place in a condition of defense. This delay saved the place; and, although General Hood remained before it several days, he failed to effect its capture, and moved off down the river to Tuscambia. The time thus gained enabled General Thomas to make the necessary preparations for the decisive battle of Nashville in December. The following spring brought the war to a close; and Colonel Prosser and his regiment were mustered out of the service July 6, 1865.

Attracted by the natural resources and advantages of Tennessee, he decided to locate there, and with the return of peace bought a farm near Nashville, and engaged in various business enterprises looking to the development of the country. In 1867 he became involved, much against his will, in the political struggles of those days, which were characterized by intensely bitter feeling. The result was that in the same year he was elected a member of the Tennessee legislature for two years, and in 1868 was elected a member of the Forty-first Congress from the Nashville District. His practical services in both bodies were not only highly satisfactory to the party by which he was elected, but were complimented by leading men of all parties without regard to their political proclivities. His efforts, more especially in behalf of internal improvements and general education, were highly appreciated.

In 1871 he was appointed postmaster at Nashville and for three years conducted the affairs of that office with great success. In 1871 he was also appointed by the governor of Tennessee one of the commissioners from that state to the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia; and for seven years he devoted considerable time to the preparation for and the closing up of the affairs of that exhibition. In 1873 he was one of a committee to visit the World’s Fair at Vienna for the purpose of investigating its management. For several years Colonel Prosser published an influential Republican newspaper in Nashville, Tennessee; and as a newspaper and magazine writer he has considerable distinction. Owing to continued and increasing ill health, contracted during the war, he determined to carry out his original purpose of returning to the Pacific coast; and in March, 1879, he came to Washington Territory as a special agent of the general land-office at Washington, District of Columbia. For more than six years he discharged the difficult and responsible duties of that position, not only to the entire satisfaction of the authorities at the national Capital, but of the people of Washington and Idaho Territories and of the State of Oregon, with whom he came in contact in the discharge of his official duties.

On the 6th day of April, 1880, he was married at Seattle, Washington Territory, to Miss Flora L. Thornton, daughter of H.G. Thornton, one of the early pioneers of the State of Oregon. In 1882 he located a homestead in the lower part of the Yakima valley, and subsequently became the founder, at the same place, of the town of Prosser, which is rapidly growing in business importance, and is situated in the center of a rich agricultural and stock-raising region.

This sketch is only a brief outline of some of the leading events in the busy life of Colonel Prosser; and it affords no room for reference to a number of positions of trust and honor which have been held by him, or to the many other valuable services he has rendered the country in an official and private capacity. Even in this brief review, however, we cannot but observe that the Colonel possesses in a very marked degree the qualities which lead to national distinction. We cannot but regret that he did not enter the regular army with the commission of lieutenant as Lincoln. intended. If the war had lasted four years longer, the military abilities which made him a colonel would have elevated him to the rank of major-general. Nevertheless we may in the meantime rejoice in the disposition which has made him a citizen of Washington and a city builder on our coast.


History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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