Patterson was born free in New Kent County and was the son of Rebecca Ann Patterson, a free woman and landowner, and probably a white man, John Bailey, who by his will at the time of his death about 1847 left her ninety-one acres of land and William Patterson three acres. On November 22, 1832, Patterson married Mary Ann Dungey, who was a relative of Jesse Dungey, who also served in the House of Delegates. Before her death on November 15, 1848, they had at least three daughters. Patterson acquired about eighty-seven acres of Dungey family land at the time of her death. On March 14, 1850, he married Lutilda Bailey. They had at least four daughters and five sons.
The United States Army camped on Patterson’s property in 1864 and consumed or carried away a considerable supply of provisions, for which he later filed a claim of $658.50 and was compensated with $228. In 1866 Patterson was one of the founders of Second Liberty Baptist Church composed of Black former members of Emmaus Baptist Church, which licensed him to preach in October 1867. Four years later Patterson ran for a seat in the House of Delegates. As a result of redistricting after the 1870 U.S. Census, New Kent and Charles City counties had been combined into a single district, and the two African American incumbents agreed not to compete for the seat. New Kent delegate William Henry Brisby campaigned anyway, but when a third candidate entered the race he feared that splitting the Republican vote would give the election to the Conservatives and so he called for a second convention, at which Patterson, his friend and “a thorough going union man and republican,” was nominated. Patterson went on to defeat easily the white Conservative candidate by a vote of 867 to 571 for a two-year term in the House of Delegates.
The Conservative Speaker of the House appointed Patterson to low-ranking seats on the relatively inconsequential Committees on Public Property and on Resolutions. With no previous experience in public office, Patterson was not an active member. He introduced a bill that passed during the second session, in 1873, to prohibit cutting trees or other actions that would “obstruct the free passage of boats, canoes or other floating vessels, or fish” in the lower reaches of Sycamore Creek in New Kent County. The most important vote that Patterson cast was with the majority to override the governor’s veto of a bill to prohibit payment of taxes with interest-bearing coupons from the bonds that the state issued in 1871 to refinance the public debt. Payment of taxes with coupons starved the treasury of revenue needed for financing the new public school system.
Patterson did not run for a second term in 1873. His mother was recorded in several census returns as living with his family, most likely on the land that she inherited, until her death in 1880, at which time the county allowed him to inherit her property “as compensation for his services rendered in the past (6) years of her life.” Curiously, the land tax returns listed the property in her name up until the time of his death. Patterson farmed and served as a minister, but perhaps in part as a consequence of caring for his large family he did not prosper. He and his wife mortgaged a plot of land encompassing almost fifty acres to borrow money in 1884 to pay off a bank loan, and then the following year had to sell that property to repay the man who had lent them the money. In 1886 they sold two small parcels of their land, and near his death Patterson was in arrears for non-payment of the tax on five acres of land. In the last year of his life, his property had dwindled to thirteen acres of land worth $19.50 and the remaining 108.5 acres of land listed on the tax rolls in his mother’s name that was worth $217.
Lutilda Patterson died on October 15, 1887, and William Harvey Patterson died at his home on May 24, 1895. He was buried in a family cemetery in New Kent County.