William Parks (d. 1750)


William Parks was the first authorized printer in Virginia, the first “public printer” for the colonial government (1730–1750), publisher of the first authoritative collection of Virginia’s laws (1733), and proprietor of its first newspaper, the Virginia Gazette (1736–1750). Born in England, Parks began producing official documents for the Maryland colony in 1726 and became its official printer the next year, with responsibility for all government publishing. In 1728, he expanded his business to Virginia, working as the public printer for both colonies from 1730 until 1737, when Maryland authorities accused him of neglecting his work and terminated his contract. In Virginia, his work was praised and it often flattered the local gentry. More importantly, it marked a shift by the colonial government from manuscript to print media while also enabling the growth of a public sphere in Virginia, especially through the publication of the Virginia Gazette. Responding to a story in that newspaper, a member of the House of Burgesses accused Parks of libel in 1742, but the General Assembly determined the story was true and so dismissed the charges. In the meantime, Parks published the Virginia Almanack, served as Williamsburg’s postmaster, and built a large estate of property in Maryland and Virginia. His paper mill was the first south of Pennsylvania. Parks died in 1750 aboard a ship bound for England, where he was buried.

Early Years

Parks was born possibly in Shropshire County, although the date is unknown. There, he published the Ludlow Post-Man in October 1719. His first and only son was baptized in Ludlow the same year. He moved to Hereford in 1721, to Reading in 1723, and then to North America. Parks came to America with his wife and son. A daughter, Eleanor, was born sometime later. In March 1726, Parks appeared before the Maryland General Assembly, answering its call for a printer. By that fall, Parks had opened an office in Annapolis and began printing the laws promulgated, or declared to be in effect, during each legislative session. In September 1727, he published the first number of the Maryland Gazette, the colony’s first newspaper, and a month later he published the first compilation of Maryland’s laws, at which time the Maryland Assembly confirmed him as their official printer with the responsibility of producing whatever imprints the government required. Parks partnered with Edmund Hall late in 1732 to produce the Gazette. He remained the colony’s printer until 1737.

Having secured the Maryland position, Parks proposed to the Virginia General Assembly in February 1728 that he publish a collection of Virginia’s laws then in force, as he was completing for Maryland. The General Assembly agreed and further proposed that Parks also publish the laws of each assembly. The entrepreneurial printer agreed. It was soon obvious, however, that he needed an office in Virginia to execute the work there. In the winter of 1729–1730, Parks traveled to England to acquire the tools for a new office in Williamsburg. On his return, he moved his family to Virginia, maintaining his office in Annapolis and his position as Maryland’s public printer. However, at the end of 1734, he began reducing his Maryland presence by closing the Maryland Gazette. The colony would be without a newspaper until 1745. In May 1737, the Maryland General Assembly terminated Parks’s contract.

Virginia’s Public Printer

Printing the Virginia Gazette

In Maryland, Parks had been accused of neglecting his work, but the reality was that he had taken on more work than he could handle. To prevent a recurrence in Virginia, he took more care to flatter the colony’s authorities. First, he published John Markland’s Typographia: An Ode to Printing (1730), a paean to Sir William Gooch, the governor who had approved the invitation to Parks. Then he produced the General Assembly’s desired compilation of the laws then in force (1733), followed by a manual for county court justices—The Office and Authority of a Justice of the Peace (1736)—both produced with the aid of George Webb, a respected New Kent County justice. In August of 1736, he returned to the newspaper trade, issuing the first Virginia Gazette, a publication that would continue until the capital moved to Richmond in 1780. Like its Maryland predecessor, the Gazette was a weekly paper that was the source of official news and information. Yet it also featured advertisements for the land, slaves, goods, and services that facilitated the colony’s economic growth, to the authorities’ avowed satisfaction.

By 1750, only about a third of Parks’s substantial income came from government work. The Virginia Gazette turned a handsome profit for him and, from 1731 onward, he also published a Virginia Almanack, a staple among the region’s planters. Yet his smaller activities yielded wealth as well. He printed vast numbers of blank forms and account books that helped lubricate colonial commerce. He sold books imported from England in sheets, binding them according to his customers’ specifications. He also published three to four books per year written by Virginia authors, including the first cookbook and first medical manual printed in British America. Parks even served as Williamsburg’s postmaster. The only activity that apparently failed him was the paper mill he constructed in 1744 on Archer’s Hope Creek south of Williamsburg. The first of its kind in the southern colonies, the mill produced inferior-quality paper and did not survive Parks, despite the patronage of Benjamin Franklin.

Unlike his Maryland experience, Parks’s twenty-year Virginia tenure provoked little controversy among the gentry, with the only tensions coming in the 1740s. In 1742, he published an unflattering story in his Gazette about a sitting burgess who had moved to another county in an attempt to hide a conviction for stealing sheep as a young man. The burgess accused Parks of libel, but the printed story was proved to be true. Drawing on the precedent of the Zenger trial of 1735, in which a newspaper editor in New York successfully defended himself from a similar suit by that colony’s governor, the General Assembly dismissed the charges. Then in 1749, Parks was caught in a dispute between the governor’s Council and the House of Burgesses when he published in his Gazette a hostile opinion of the Burgesses from the Council’s journals, by order of its president, Thomas Lee; again, once the truth was revealed, and his complicity disproved, the matter was dropped.

After the General Assembly ordered a new compilation of Virginia laws in 1749, Parks embarked for England in search of new tools. He died of pleurisy on April 1, 1750, just nine days after leaving Hampton, and he was buried in England at Gosport. Although Parks’s estate was substantial—he owned a town lot in Williamsburg (that later burned in the 1890s and was rebuilt as the Williamsburg Printing Office); property in Maryland; a house in New Castle, Virginia; a Hanover County farm that included the building where the county court then met; a score each of cattle and hogs; and twenty slaves—it was devoured by debt and litigation fees. Parks’s outstanding publishing commitments were completed by his shop foreman, William Hunter, with the help of the estate. That performance made Hunter Parks’s successor as Virginia’s public printer.

A less-evident impact that Parks had in Virginia comes through his daughter, Eleanor Parks. She married John Shelton, of Hanover; their daughter, Sarah Shelton, was the first wife of Patrick Henry.

Autumn 1727
William Parks publishes the first set of Maryland "session laws" from the 1726 assembly after the governor and his Council settle a yearlong dispute.
September 19, 1727
William Parks publishes the first number of the Maryland Gazette, the colony's first newspaper.
October 1727
The Maryland General Assembly confirms Parks as the "Printer to the Right Honourable, the Lord Proprietor, and the Province."
February 22, 1728
William Parks proposes to the General Assembly that he print the colony's collected laws. The assembly agrees and offers further work.
Winter 1729—1730
William Parks travels to England to purchase equipment for the first Williamsburg printing office.
Summer 1730
William Parks commences publishing in Williamsburg, producing the "session laws" for the May 1730 General Assembly.
October 1730
William Parks publishes the first edition of the Virginia Almanack, intended for the Chesapeake region in 1731.
June 10, 1732
The General Assembly formally fixes William Parks's salary at £120 with the title "Printer to the Colony."
December 1732
William Parks forms a partnership with Edmund Hall, who operated his Annapolis, Maryland, printing office, to publish the Maryland Gazette jointly.
With help from George Webb of New Kent County, William Parks publishes A Collection of All the Acts of Assembly, Now in Force, In the Colony of Virginia in Williamsburg, the first compilation of Virginia laws.
William Parks publishes Every Man His Own Doctor: or, The Poor Planter's Physician by John Tennent, the first guide to domestic medicine printed in America.
November 29, 1734
William Parks publishes the last number of his Maryland Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, ending his partnership with Edmund Hall.
William Parks publishes the first handbook for Virginia's county court justices, The Office and Authority of a Justice of the Peace, written by George Webb.
August 6, 1736
William Parks publishes the inaugural number of the Virginia Gazette, the colony's first newspaper.
May 27, 1737
The Maryland General Assembly terminates William Parks's public-printing contract for neglect of the colony's work. Parks, also serving as Virginia's public printer, moves the equipment from his Annapolis, Maryland, office to Williamsburg.
December 18, 1738
The General Assembly increases William Parks's annual salary to £200.
William Parks publishes the first edition of The Compleat Housewife: or, Accomplish'd Gentlewoman's Companion by the late Eliza Smith, the first cookbook printed in America, which saw numerous later editions.
Spring 1744
William Parks opens a paper mill on Archer's Hope Creek outside of Williamsburg, the first such mill in British America south of Pennsylvania.
October 18, 1744
The General Assembly increases William Parks's annual salary to £280.
William Parks publishes William Stith's History of the First Discovery and Settlement of Virginia, the most celebrated nonfiction work of his Virginia press.
May 10, 1749
The General Assembly engages William Parks to publish a new compilation of Virginia's laws following revisions they made in 1746 and 1748.
May 11, 1749
William Parks is called before the House of Burgesses to explain a hostile opinion of the Burgesses from the journals of the governor's Council published in his Gazette; he is released once his explanations are corroborated by the Council.
March 23, 1750
William Parks embarks for England to resupply his Virginia press.
April 1, 1750
William Parks dies of pleurisy onboard the Nelson, en route to England; William Hunter succeeds him as Virginia's public printer.
July 1750
William Hunter suspends publication of the Virginia Gazette until the estate of William Parks is probated.
April 1751
William Hunter completes William Parks's last commission, the revised Laws of Virginia, two months before its deadline.
  • Kropf, Carl R. “Some New Light on William Parks,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 91, no. 1 (1983): 92–97.
  • McMurtrie, Douglas C. The First Printing in Virginia: The abortive attempt at Jamestown, the first permanent press at Williamsburg, the early gazettes, and the work of other Virginia typographic pioneers. Vienna: Printed for Herbert Reichner Verlag, 1935.
  • Wroth, Lawrence C. William Parks: Printer and Journalist of England and Colonial America. Richmond, Virginia: Appeals Press for the William Parks Club, 1926.
APA Citation:
Rawson, David. William Parks (d. 1750). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/parks-william-d-1750.
MLA Citation:
Rawson, David. "William Parks (d. 1750)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 15 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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