Joseph Prentis

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Joseph Prentis
Joseph Prentis
Judge of the General Court
In office
January 4, 1788 – June 18th, 1809
6th Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates
In office
October 16, 1786 – January 8, 1788
Preceded byBenjamin Harrison Jr.
Succeeded byThomas Matthews
Member of the Virginia House of Delegates
from York County
In office
In office
Member of the Virginia House of Delegates
from James City County
In office
Member of the Virginia House of Delegates
from Williamsburg
In office
Personal details
Born(1754-01-24)January 24, 1754
Williamsburg, Colony of Virginia, British America
DiedJune 18, 1809(1809-06-18) (aged 55)
Williamsburg, Virginia, U.S.
Margaret Bowdoin
(m. 1778; died 1801)
  • Joseph Jr. (1783-1851)
  • John Brookes (1789-1848)
  • Elizabeth (1791-1864)
  • Mary Anne (1796-?)
Parent(s)William Prentis
Mary Brooke
RelativesJohn Prentis (brother)
EducationCollege of William & Mary

Joseph Prentis (January 24, 1754 – June 18, 1809) was a Virginia politician. He represented Williamsburg in the Virginia House of Delegates, and served as that body's Speaker from 1786 until 1788. From 1788 until his death, Prentis was a judge in the General Court of Virginia.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Joseph Prentis was the youngest son of Williamsburg merchant William Prentis (pre-1720-1765) and his wife, the former Mary Brooke. His great grandfather, also William Prentis (pre-1720-1765), had emigrated to the Virginia Colony from Norfolk County in England, settling in Williamsburg about 1725 and marrying another Mary Brooke, daughter of John and Mary Brooke of York County, Virginia.[2] Although orphaned at the age of 15, Prentis became a ward of lawyer Robert Carter Nicholas, then attended the College of William and Mary in his home town, where he studied law under George Wythe.[3] His elder brother John Prentis succeeded his father operating the store, and served as Williamsburg's mayor (1758-1760) before his death in 1775, when his nephew (this boy's cousin) Robert Prentis took over the family business. That business closed in 1779 because of wartime disruptions.[4]


Prentis was admitted to the Virginia bar and began a private legal practice. However, the American Revolutionary War began his political career. When George Wythe was away representing Virginia at the Continental Congress, Prentis was Williamsburg's other delegate in the Fourth Virginia Revolutionary Convention (of 1775), but was replaced by Edmund Randolph in the Fifth Virginia Revolutionary Convention (and Wythe also returned).[5] Thus he attended the convention session at St. John's Church in Richmond where Patrick Henry delivered the famous words, "Give me liberty, or give me death!".

When the Virginia House of Delegates when was formed in 1776, Prentis again represented Williamsburg. Over the next decade Prentis at various times represented nearby York County (1777–1778, 1782–1788) or James City County (1781-1782) in that body.[6][7] Fellow legislators elected Prentis a judge of the Court of Admiralty on June 5, 1776, but he resigned the following August 1, and again became a legislator (a part-time position, but one no judge nor executive officer could hold during his legislative service). Prentis became a member of the Virginia Privy Council in 1778, serving under Governor Patrick Henry. Prentis received a special appointment to attend the Session of the House of Delegates on May 7, 1781.

Upon his return to the legislature, Prentis represented York County until his judicial appointment discussed below. During the 1785 session, beginning on October 15, 1785, Prentis chaired the committee which prepared a bill to authorize Virginia's delegates to the Continental Congress to assent to the general regulation of commerce in the United States.[8] In 1786, fellow legislators elected Prentis their Speaker,[9]

On January 4, 1788 they elected him a judge of the General Court of Virginia. Prentis continued as such until his death two decades later. Also, Prentis was one of the revisers of Virginia's legal code in 1792.[10]

Personal life[edit]

Prentis married Margaret Bowdoin, the daughter of John Bowdoin of Northampton County on 16 December 1778.[11] The couple had eight children, but only four survived infancy or childhood. One of them, Joseph Prentis Jr. followed his father's path as a lawyer but lived in Suffolk County, Virginia. He married Susan Caroline Reddick, daughter of one-term delegate Robert Moore Reddick and granddaughter of multi-term delegate Willis Riddick of Nansemond County. Joseph Prentis Jr. served many years as clerk for Nansemond county and was a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-1830 (representing, Nansemond, Norfolk and other Hampton Roads counties, long after his father's death).[12][13]

In 1782 Joseph Prentis Sr. acquired Green Hill plantation, where he and his wife lived for the rest of their lives. Prentis enjoyed gardening and his papers, correspondence and even the naming of his home demonstrate that interest.

The published 1787 tax census does not include Prentis as a taxpayer in either York nor James City county, possibly because legislators were exempt from tax assessment (as normally indicated in the notes). His Williamsburg household included nine people in 1788, probably three of them enslaved.[14]

Death and legacy[edit]

Judge Prentis died on the 18th of June in 1809 at the age of 55. In addition to his son Joseph Prentis Jr's many years of service as clerk of Nansemond County mentioned above, his great grandson Robert Riddick Prentis also became a judge of the Supreme Court of Virginia. The Library of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville holds the Prentis family papers.[15]


  1. ^ Jamerson, Bruce F., Clerk of the House of Delegates, supervising (2007). Speakers and Clerks of the Virginia House of Delegates, 1776-2007. Richmond, Virginia: Virginia House of Delegates. p. 25.
  2. ^ Lyon Gardiner Tyler, "Judge Robert Riddick Prentis", Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography (1915) vol. 4. p. 445
  3. ^ Jamerson p. 25
  4. ^ Caroline Julia Richter, "The Prentis family and their library" (master's thesis, College of William & Mary 1985) p. vi, entire thesis available at
  5. ^ Cynthia Miller Leonard, The Virginia General Assembly 1619-1978 (Richmond: Virginia State Library 1978) p.118
  6. ^ Leonard, pp. 123, 127, 131, 142, 147, 151, 155, 158, 162, 166
  7. ^ Virginia House of Delegates Clerk's Office. "Joseph Prentis". House History. Virginia House of Delegates Clerk's Office. Archived from the original on 4 December 2020. Retrieved 3 May 2021.
  8. ^ Jamerson p. 25
  9. ^ Leonard pp. 160, 164
  10. ^ Jamerson p. 25
  11. ^ Tyler p. 445
  12. ^ Tyler p. 443
  13. ^ Leonard p. 354
  14. ^ Netti Schriener-Yantis and Florene Speakman Love, The 1787 Census of Virginia (Springfield, Virginia: Genealogical Books in Print 1987) p. 1447. As explained on the previous page, the 1787 list is missing for Williamsburg City, but the 1786 and 1788 lists are available. However, only two of the normal five columns contain data, unlike for other counties. In that 1788 list, George Wythe's household on the last page lists 3 and 0 and he freed slaves after his wife's death. Prentis' columns are 9 and 3.

See also[edit]