William King was born in Scarborough, Maine February 9, 1768 the son of Captain Richard and Mary (Black) King. He was among the youngest of eight siblings including a much older half-brother. His family was one of the most illustrious in Maine at the time. His father became prosperous supplying lumber to English shipyards in Massachusetts. By the time William was born his father had lost all his money and died when William was seven years old. So, William was sent to work at a sawmill to help make a living for his family.
William’s older half-brother, Rufus, had been sent to Columbia University and made a name for himself in politics. Because of his father’s early death William did not have the educational advantages of his brothers. He was largely self-educated by extensive reading and listening to elders. To the end of his life he could neither spell correctly nor speak grammatically, having no time to master these refinements. He learned arithmetic and how to save money through necessity. But he was intelligent, ambitious and had confidence in himself. At about the age of 21 he decided to leave home and drove his yoke of black steers (his father’s only legacy) on foot forty miles along the coast to Topsham. There he found a job in a saw mill on the Androscoggin River. Living frugally, he amassed enough cash within six months to own the saw and within a year owned the mill. He prospered by entrepreneurial spirit delving into a variety of businesses including significant real estate investments and shipbuilding ventures.
He moved on to Bath where he established one of the first shipyards in Bath and became the largest merchant shipping owner in Maine. When he became frustrated dealing with Boston banks, he founded and became president of the first bank in Bath. He acquired stores, warehouses, wharves and ship yards. In order to fill the holds of his rapidly growing fleet, he bought up huge tracts of land and planted them to potatoes to ship to the West Indies and developed orchards to export fruit to Europe. His shipping fleet grew, carrying goods farther afield and bringing back goods including cotton from New Orleans. In 1809 he founded the first cotton mill in Brunswick.
In 1795 he became active in politics and represented Topsham in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1795 and 1799. When he moved to Bath he represented that town in 1804. He served in the Massachusetts Senate for Lincoln County 1807 – 1811.
By age 25 he was financially secure, socially settled and a local civic leader. At one time he owned the entire township of Kingfield in Franklin country. His town house in Bath was one of the most elegant in the country, furnished with treasures brought home by his ships from all over the world. Here he entertained the intellectual, political and social leaders of the new America. By this time he had married Ann Nesbeth Frazier from a well-to-do Boston family. Through his cultivated wife, he acquired a certain degree of polish, although the cloak of manners never rested very easily on his shoulders. They had two children, Mary Elizabeth King, born 9/28/1817 and Cyrus William King, born 12/25/1819.
During his time in Boston serving in the Massachusetts legislature the seeds of distrust were sown which convinced him that Massachusetts would not look out for the best interests of Maine residents. They looked at the territory of Maine as a source of revenue by extracting its natural resources and their motives were corrupt. Agitation for secession started as early as 1785 but conflicting loyalties, depending upon one’s financial dependence to Boston and social status, kept Maine divided.
At the beginning of the War of 1812 Massachusetts made King Major General of the militia, in charge of the Maine district. He devoted much of his attention to coastal shipping and defenses. He also led recruiting efforts for the regular army for which he was made a Colonel in the United States Army. But Massachusetts gave little support to the territory of Maine and the people of Maine were left to fend for themselves in the fight against the British. The War of 1812 changed the will of Maine people. After the war, armed with a long list of grievances about the maltreatment of Maine by Massachusetts, William King started touring and agitating for secession and statehood.
On July 16, 1819 King called a meeting of town officials in Portland where, after four previous unsuccessful attempts, they voted overwhelmingly to petition the United States Senate for statehood and designated William King to become the first governor. Voters ratified the statehood petition ten days later. William King then went to Washington at the opening of the 1820 Congressional term to lobby for Maine statehood. His brother, Rufus, was a United States Senator from New York at the time and ushered his brother around the Capitol and introduced him.
Meanwhile, the Missouri Territory was causing problems when it failed to win statehood several times because northern Senators feared its admission as a slave state would tilt the federal balance-of-power to the south. If it did not get ratified as a state by the end of business on March 15, 1820, its petition would expire and Missouri would have to start petitions anew. Within hours of the deadline, an amended bill to appease both sides was offered called The Missouri Compromise which required that one new free state be admitted for each new slave state admitted. Senators fast-tracked the Maine petition so that it would be the free state to offset Missouri.
William King served as governor from March 15, 1820 to May 28, 1821 at which time, President James Monroe named him as a special minister to negotiate a treaty with Spain. King resigned as governor to take the position of U.S. commissioner. By 1824 he had successfully negotiated a treaty that kept the U.S. from becoming embroiled in issues surrounding the Mexican struggle for independence. He returned home and resumed private life.
He continued as a prominent business man, investor and ship-owner. Even though he had a very limited education he served for years as a trustee and overseer of Bowdoin College and as a trustee of Colby College.
William died at home June 17, 1852 and is buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in Bath.