Who Was William Prout?
Prout was one of the 19 landowners who signed the 1791 agreement with President George Washington to convey portions of their land to the United States government to create a permanent seat of government.
William Prout is a very important person in DC history and made decisions that influence our lives today. Prout, who owned hundreds of acres east of the Capitol, was involved with Washington’s City’s first tavern and hotel and helped obtain a key public market (Eastern Market). He set up a fishery, sold dry goods, bricks, hay and most important, offered lots to rent with an option to purchase. He persuaded two church congregations to build houses of worship. He served on the City Council and promoted the construction of a bridge across the Eastern Branch, Anacostia River, at 11th Street, SE (today’s 11th Street Bridge).
William Prout is believed to be born in 1755 in England. William pursued a career as a merchant in London, on March 13, 1790 he went to Gravesend, near London, boarded the Olive Branch, and sailed for Baltimore, Maryland. Prout arrived in the United States at the beginning of George Washington’s second year as president. The First Federal Congress was just concluding a seven-year political battle over the location of a permanent seat of federal government. In July 1790 the Residence Act authorized Washington to choose a site for the 100-square mile district and to appoint a presidential commission (the first) to purchase land within the district for the use of the United States and to provide there suitable accommodations for the government. Thus were created the federal district (District of Columbia) within which was the federal city soon to be named after Washington. On March 11, 1791 Prout purchased between 400 to 500 hundred acres within what would become the city.
When the government relocated to Washington in 1800 William Prout’s primary property stretched for ten blocks along M Street, SE, it extended into the north-east quadrant of the city, including most of today’s Capitol Hill neighborhood and historic district. Nicholas King’s map of 1800 documented each of the 750 to 800 lots Prout owned after the division of his land with the federal government.
In 1805 Prout along with ferry owner and entrepreneur Adam Lindsey and designer builder Robert Alexander, wrote Thomas Jefferson (one of the three original DC Commissioners) permission to erect the market house variously known as Eastern Branch Market. In 1805, Jefferson authorized the men to proceed.
Prout, whose family in England included both Anglicans and non-conformists, was a member of the federal city’s first Episcopal Church, organized in 1794. For ten years, Christ Church, Washington Parish, met in a converted tobacco barn on Daniel Carroll’s property (one of the original 19 land owners). In 1806 Prout offered two of his lots with the proviso that a church be erected within a year; it was, and Christ Church, the oldest church building in the original city, still stands on Prout’s lots 6 and 7 on Square 877, in the 600 block of G Street, SE.
William Prout was one of the most successful of the original proprietors of Washington City. His entrepreneurial skills and sound business judgement prevented him from speculating beyond his means. Once he invested in the federal city, he did so wholeheartedly, living on his property and working to attract others by providing necessary services and amenities.
William Prout died in 1823, the National Intelligencer described him as one of the oldest residents of the city and that his character was above reproach, never were negative comments spoken about him. William Prout is buried in Congressional Cemetery. His large tombstone is in the oldest section of the cemetery, not far from graves of family members.