Governor and Senator, Rhode Island
Size: 0.25 linear feet
Catalog number: MSS 733
Processed by: Lori Salotto, June 2000
©Rhode Island Historical Society
William Sprague (1830-1915) was born in Cranston, Rhode Island to Amasa Sprague (1798-1843) and Fanny (Morgan) Sprague (1798-1883). He was educated in Rhode Island and New York. Sprague's father Amasa and his uncle William were partners in A. & W. Sprague, a calico printing mill in Cranston. In 1845, at the age of fifteen, young William began working at the A. & W. Sprague company store. The following year, he became an assistant at their counting house firm in Providence, and at age eighteen became a bookkeeper. At this time, 1848, he also joined the Providence Marine Artillery Company as a private and eventually worked his way up to colonel. Upon his uncle's death in 1856, he inherited the company with his brother Amasa and their cousin Byron, and expanded it into a thriving business. In 1859, Sprague went on a tour of Europe to continue his education on military affairs. Upon his return he was chosen as a candidate in the 1860 gubernatorial race, which he then went on to win. Sprague was known as the "War Governor" because he personally led his troops to the front as soon as Lincoln asked for volunteers. He was in the battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861 when his horse was shot out from under him. He was given a commission as a Brigadier General, but was unable to continue his military service without giving up his governorship.
When Sprague failed to be re-elected as governor in 1863 he was elected to the U.S. Senate and served until 1875. He met his future wife, Kate Chase (1840-1899), soon after he went to Washington. Kate was the daughter of Salmon P. Chase, the Secretary of Treasury under Lincoln and a future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Sprague and Chase had four children: William Jr. (1865-1890), Ethel (1869- ), Catherine (1871- ), and Portia (1873- ). Their marriage was not a happy one, and their marital discord came to a head in 1879 when scandal arose over Kate's alleged improper relationship with New York senator Roscoe Conkling. The resulting violent incidents led to extensive newspaper coverage of the Spragues' marriage, and Kate accused William of infidelity, brutality, intoxication, and failure to support her and the children. She was granted a divorce in 1882, was granted custody of their three daughters, and was allowed to take back her maiden name. The son, Willie, remained with William.
Prior to Sprague's public marital woes, he had been dealing with serious financial difficulties. His company, A. & W. Sprague, had become a leading Rhode Island business and by 1873, Sprague controlled much of the state's business and political scene. At the time of the general economic crisis of 1873, which hastened the failure of A. & W. Sprague, the company had 10,000 operatives, 280,000 spindles, and 28 printing machines. Besides involvement in the textile industry, Sprague also had concerns in timber and saw mills in Maine and water power in South Carolina. He owned almost all the stock in the Union Street Railroad Company and was president of the Providence & New York Steamship Company. He also had controlling interests in Perkins Sheet Iron Company, Rhode Island Horseshoe Company, Sprague Mowing Machine Company, Comstock Stove Foundry, and American Horse Nail Company. He controlled three national and two savings banks as well. When A. & W. Sprague failed, it created financial complications for the state for years to come. Many suits were filed against the business upon its failure and a trustee was given control of Sprague's estate and company. Sprague's extravagant summer house, Canochet, in Narragansett Pier, was auctioned off. The day it was to be turned over, Sprague, his son, and other armed sentinels stood their ground and the new owner did not take possession.
After his financial problems had abated somewhat, Sprague again ran for governor in 1883, but he was soundly beaten. He also married again to Dora Inez Calvert (1859-1938), and they lived at Canochet until it burned in 1909. At that point they moved to Paris and resided there until Sprague's death on September 11, 1915. He was buried at Swan Point Cemetery.
Byrnes, Garret D. "O! What a fall there was...," Providence Sunday Journal, September 30, 1973, 9-11.
Lockwood, Allison. "The Life of Kate Chase Sprague," American History Illustrated, April 1983:27-32.
Mohr, Ralph S. Rhode Island Governors for 300 Years, 1638-1954,160-161. Oxford Press,1954.
Rhode Island Cemetery Database
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Scope and content:
This collection ranges from 1861 to 1889. It consists of correspondence and a scrapbook relating to William Sprague and his family. The scrapbook is the portion of the collection which is of the greatest general interest. It contains newspaper clippings about Sprague's financial troubles, divorce from his wife, and his son's trouble with the law. It was apparently compiled by Anna P. (Sprague) Watson, whose father Byron Sprague was cousin and business partner of William Sprague. A ledger was used to paste the articles in. The original ledger had numbered pages, but many pages were apparently removed before it was converted into a scrapbook. Pages 179-181 have several manuscript items regarding the Watson family and their relationship to the Spragues, dated 1869-1881.
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This collection came from three different accessions. Five letters (all have transcribed copies) dated 3/9/1861, 1/27/1867, 2/10/1867, 10/7/1867, and 3/9/1872 were donated as part of a large gift from Frederick S. Peck in 1944. Four short letters to Wingate Hays, U.S. District Attorney in Providence, dated 5/20/1866, 9/23/1866, 12/16/1866, and 3/10/1869 were purchased from James A. Tyson in 1966. The scrapbook was donated by Dexter Lewis, grandson of Anna P. (Sprague) Watson, in 1957.
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Box 1, folder 1: Correspondence 1861-1889
March 9, 1861: letter from Gov. Sprague to a Mr. Cook discussing the Providence Journal as being "extreme enough for the most ultra." He then goes on to say, "Avoid parties. Fight general principles. Drive hard the nail of patriotism, & country. R.I. has had a wonderful influence in harmonizing Washington."
May 2, 1866: letter to Wingate Hayes acknowledging report of the case of U.S. vs. Grant.
September 23, 1866: letter to Wingate Hayes discussing executive clemency.
December 16, 1866: letter to Wingate Hayes discussing Hayes's removal.
January 27, 1867: letter to Arthur M. Kimball discussing an agreement dealing with a patent case in the manufacture of screws.
February 10, 1867: letter to Arthur M. Kimball discussing an agreement dealing with a patent case in the manufacture of screws.
October 7, 1867: letter to Arthur M. Kimball asking that he be sent an abstract of Kimball's figuring for payment.
March 10, 1869: note to Wingate Hayes discussing a law being debated in the Senate.
March 9, 1872: letter to H. B. Aylsworth discussing his sentiments about certain R. I. politicians. "Lippitt never did one real service to our state. Mayor Pearce never reached a place until I raised him beyond that of a chatterbox ... measure men by what they are and what they do, try them, sound them; then if the verdict is favorable, trust them and use them, if not, use them, but as long as the emergency exists, and drop them. This I did with Anthony, Burnside, Dixon, Jenckes, Woodbury. Each of whom are mere tools and fools of others."
May 21, 1889: letter to General Henry M. Cist indicating that Sprague had not received General Boyton's letter.
Box 1, folder 2. Scrapbook, pages 1-18, 21-28, 33-38, 47-58
Box 1, folder 3. Scrapbook, pages 67-68, 71-82, 87-96, 101-106, 109-118, 125-140, 143-144
Box 1, folder 4. Scrapbook, pages 147-156, 159-191
Box 1, folder 5. Scrapbook enclosures, re unidentified event expense, 1869 (Watson family?)
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Cist, Henry M. (1839-1902)
Divorce - Rhode Island
Kimball, Arthur M. (1809-1889)
Rhode Island - Politics and Government
Sprague, Kate (Chase) (1840-1899)
Sprague, William Jr. (1845-1890)
Watson, Anna P. (Sprague) (1852-1904)
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