Philander Prescott, for whom the town of Prescott was named, recorded the following information for his journal “...towards Spring (1839) I had one offer from the officers (of Fort Snelling) to go down to the St. Croix and take charge of a claim they had taken up for a town site. They agreed to furnish me with $1,000 to build a house and store with, and give me 1/8 of all the land and buildings. I had nothing to do, so I accepted their offer and went to work.”
A trading post had already been established at the confluence of the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers the previous year. By 1840, when the first St. Croix County Board was elected, it granted Philander a license to establish a ferry across the St. Croix River at or near its mouth. This led to the beginning of the present town.
By the early 1850’s, Philander had sold his claim in Prescott to two speculators named Copp and Maxson who continued to develop the Prescott community.
Philander was born in 1801 in Phelpstown, New York. His father, who was a local physician, died when Philander was 10, leaving his mother with 6 children. When she too died, Philander went west at the age of 18 eventually arriving at Fort Snelling.
While working at the Fort, he met his future wife Mary who was the daughter of a Sioux Indian Chief. Philander and Mary married and had 9 children. They lived in the Fort Snelling area, along the shores of Lake Calhoun, where he was superintendent of farming; and in Richfield where he established a mill in 1854.
He was in demand by government officials as an interpreter for conference and treaty negotiations. On August 18, 1862, during the Indian uprising, while he was employed at the Lower Agency in Redwood County, he was ambushed and killed. Mary and the children were taken prisoners but later escaped. She lived 5 more years, dying in 1867. Both are buried in the Layman’s Cemetery in Minneapolis at Cedar Avenue and Lake Street.
This is the only known likeness of Philander Prescott, a picture owned by his daughter Lucy Prescott Pettijohn. It was loaned to Edward Bromley, Minneapolis, who drew a portrait. In 1911, Bromley presented the portrait to the City of Prescott, requesting it be displayed in the council room.
The writings of Philander Prescott, in spite of the fact that he may have had only a grade-school education, have been invaluable. His personal experiences had been recorded at the urging of Governor Alexander Ramsey, and miraculously, the manuscripts were not lost during the Indian Uprising of 1862.
Later, in 1893, his daughter, Lucy Prescott Pettijohn, gave them to Ramsey and the Minnesota Historical Society. His handwritten manuscript was unpublished until 1966 when Donald Dean Parker of the University of Nebraska edited and published THE RECOLLECTIONS OF PHlLANDER PRESCOTT, Frontiersman of the Old Northwest, 1819-1862.
Another invaluable piece of writing was done by Prescott for Henry R. Schoolcraft who discovered the source of the Mississippi River. Schoolcraft asked Prescott to contribute 3 articles on the history, customs, and religion of the Sioux Indians and to be included in his 6 volume report printed in 1851-57. He called Prescott a man of “...integrity of character, and unimpeachable veracity. A plain man, without pretense to education, he records simply what he has seen and heard.”
All text used with permission from Helmer Printing, Inc. Copywrite 2007-2008. All Rights Reserved.
Prescott Area Chamber of Commerce, 237 Broad St., Prescott, WI 54021
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