Scarbrough was educated in Europe.
William moved to Savannah about 1798 and soon attained a leading place in the life of the community, becoming one of Savannah’s so-called “Merchant Princes” of the era. He engaged in shipping and trade, apparently in partnership with Robert Isaacs.
The event that raised Scarbrough to more than local prominence was his support of the first transatlantic steamship venture. The initiative came from Moses Rogers. Scarbrough became interested with a score of other Savannah business men, obtained from the Georgia legislature on December 19, 1818, the incorporation of the Savannah Steamship Company with a capital stock of $50, 000, and was one of the directors. Under the supervision of Rogers at New York, the company purchased and equipped the 350-ton vessel, which was named the Savannah.
The Savannah left New York on March 28, 1819, and reached Savannah in eight days and fifteen hours, using the engine only forty-one and a half hours. The next few weeks were probably the proudest of Scarbrough's life. President Monroe visited the city in May, spent several days as Scarbrough's guest, and was taken on a trip down the Savannah River on the new ship. On her famous trip, she sailed from Tybee Light on the Georgia coast on May 24, 1819, and reached Liverpool on June 20, making the trip in twenty-seven days but using steam for only eighty hours, on eight different days. Later, she was sold, became a New York-Savannah sailing packet, and was wrecked on Long Island in 1822.
The importance of her voyage has often been discounted, particularly by the British, who point out that she was at best an "auxiliary steamer. " The chief drawback was the lack of space for fuel in addition to sufficient cargo to make her profitable. The effort was premature; and permanent transatlantic steam service had to wait almost two decades.
There is little definite information about the later years of Scarbrough's life. It is said that he later went bankrupt, but this was occasioned probably not so much by the Savannah as by the yellow fever epidemic of 1820, as well as the fire and the storm of that year, all of which dealt staggering blows to the trade of the little city.
He died in New York City, where the arrival of the Sirius and of the Great Western on April 23, 1838, seven weeks before his death, marked the successful achievement of what he had attempted earlier.
In 1805 Scarbrough married Julia Bernard of Wilmington, a belle celebrated for her wit and beauty. They had at least three children.