Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


The Last Will and Testament of Rhys Isaac

I only met Rhys Isaac a handful of times, but his generous spirit influenced my career in ways far beyond those brief exchanges. In Spring 2010 I enjoyed the privilege of holding a Gilder Lehrman fellowship at the John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Library of the Colonial Williamsburg foundation. The fellowship included lodging in the Prentis Kitchen just off DOG Street, in a house once occupied by Rhys Isaac. There, in the attic reached by a precipitously steep staircase and ceiling trapdoor, I found the “Last Will and Testament of Rhys Isaac,” which assigned all of the property within the house to “future fellows.” While not an official document or his real will, it speaks to the man’s kindness and legacy for future historians.

When I was a graduate student at William and Mary in the early 1990s, Rhys Isaac made frequent visits to the history department, always stopping in to ask how we grad students were doing. Each of us benefited from his optimism and confidence in our work in ways that went far beyond his official duties. That kindness reappeared over a decade later in the Prentis Kitchen. The house, a humble cottage with one bedroom, a bath, kitchen, and living room, had been Rhys and Colleen Isaac’s residence while in Williamsburg during the early 2000s, as he wrote Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom. The furnishings, bedding, dishes, and even television and radio had been purchased by Rhys, reportedly at Williamsburg yard sales. And he even left behind a bicycle that served to carry fellows around town. for someone coming from hundreds of miles away, wanting to devote every waking moment to research and writing, these amenities proved a great relief.

Other touches besides the mismatched furniture made the Prentis Kitchen feel more like a home than any of the hotel rooms or austere residences I had previously frequented during research trips. Rhys left behind more tea than I could drink in a year, legumes and grains sufficient to provision the Continental army during the Yorktown siege, and a bin of camping equipment, all “for the use of future fellows,” as his “will” stipulated. In case a fellow needed to contact the maintenance crew or throw the master switch for the circuit box, which was curiously outside and underground, Rhys left notes tacked about the house explaining how to accomplish each task. These kind touches, always done with a sense of whimsy, make the Prentis Kitchen special and rendered my residence there tremendously productive. for this I, and many former and future fellows, thank Rhys Isaac and honor his memory.

Since he left so much behind for other scholars, I think we should recognize his generosity, both material and intellectual. Perhaps the Prentis Kitchen should be renamed the “Rhys Isaac Cottage” in honor of its founder and most munificent resident.

Tom Chambers,
Niagara University