Senator Wilcox was the son of Deacon Isaiah and Mary Pendleton Wilcox, and the Uncle of Rasselas Wilcox Brown, born at Danube, Herkimer County, New York on May 30, 1794. He was a descendant of early Rhode Island settler Edward Wilcox of Portsmouth, England, an early mercantile partner of Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams. The Speaker’s father was a noted frontier clergyman and his Uncle Asa, a prominent New York legislator.
After embarking on a career as a Connecticut merchant, William served with distinction during the War of 1812 and later became the sheriff of Allegheny County, New York. He married twice: Betsy Paine in 1814, and several years after his first wife’s passing, to Esther Swift of Toland, Connecticut. The Wilcox family moved to Williamsville, Elk County in 1831, William finding employment as an agent for the Richards and Jones Land Company. He relocated in Sergeant Township, McKean County (near Port Allegany) by 1837, serving as postmaster, and later constructing the Portland Mills Sawmill, a tannery, and a hotel and tavern on the Ridgway and Smethport stagecoach line.
William’s timber business grew to one of the state’s largest, the future Speaker becoming a prominent member in community and Commonwealth affairs. He served as an early Elk County associate judge and was later (1840) elected sheriff of McKean County. Senator Wilcox repeated as an associate judge in 1843, returning to a third term in 1857. A loyal Porter Democrat, McKean voters sent Wilcox to the state House of Representatives from 1835 to 1842, and again from 1857 through 1861. Judge Wilcox’s debut in the House followed a heated campaign. At the McKean-Elk-Clearfield nominating convention, the Clearfield delegation bolted and nominated James T. Leonard for a vacant seat. Considerable conflict arose over Leonard’s proposed legislation to permit the “free-fluming” of timber to Williamsport, where the logs could be transformed into finished product. The move was not in the best interest of Wilcox and his fellow Elk and McKean County lumbermen, who favored the existing law permitting “barging or rafting” timber. Sending the logs loose would not only divert business from the two counties, but also posed a safety threat, as timber might flow downstream uncontrolled. The senator ultimately won the contest, protecting private logging interests in Elk and McKean.
After his first stint in the House, William gained an 1842 state Senate seat, serving through 1845. On April 29, 1844, he became Speaker, serving until January 7, 1845. Wilcox advocated privatization of state rail lines, however, believed that smaller division branches should be bundled for sale with larger operations. His argument countered the concerns of other senators, who felt small, rural communities should have locally owned freight routes, free of the monopolistic temptations of gigantic firms. To leave the lines isolated, Wilcox believed, only invited corruption and presented the state with no option but to invest the same kind of time and money in legislative oversight, as it had when the lines belonged to the Commonwealth.
Concerning other issues, the Speaker evaded a repeal motion relevant to the Fugitive Slave Act by postponing the question to a point in the future, which turned out to be two weeks after adjournment. Serving a single three-year term, he chaired only the 1844 Militia Committee.
A flood destroyed Wilcox’s timber business in 1861, but his entrepreneur son led him toward a new enterprise as a contractor, producing ties for the booming railroad business. Eventually, William’s son, Alonzo Isaiah Wilcox, inherited the business and enjoyed a lucrative career as a supplier for the Philadelphia and Erie Railroad; the Jersey Shore and Pine Creek Road; the Rochester, Nunda, and Pennsylvania Railroad; the Bradford, Bordell, and Kinzua Railroad; the Equitable Pipe Line Company; and the Tide Water Company.
Senator Wilcox’s influence on McKean and Elk counties was significant. The town Wilcox (Elk County) received its name as an honor to William and son Alonzo. The senator was a person of “commanding appearance and cheerful, genial disposition.” Colonel Wilcox was “remarkable for his public spirit and enterprise … and free to give his money and energy to the advancement of the public good – noble and generous hearted at all times.” He died at his McKean County farm on April 13, 1868.