William Trent (1715—c.1787) was a fur trader and merchant based in colonial Pennsylvania. He was commissioned as a captain of the Virginia Regiment in the early stages of the French and Indian War, when he served on the western frontier with the young Lt. Colonel George Washington. Trent led an advance group who built forts and improved roads for troop access and defense of the western territory. He was later promoted to the rank of major.
Trent had gone into fur trading by 1740, aided by capital from his father, a wealthy shipping merchant of Philadelphia who was the founder of Trenton, New Jersey. The younger Trent took on George Croghan, an Irish immigrant, as his partner, as he was effective in developing trading networks with Native Americans.
In 1744, Trent purchased vast lands in the Ohio Country west of the Appalachian Mountains. From then through the 1780s, he was a key figure in encouraging westward expansion by Anglo-American settlers past the Appalachian barrier, as he wanted to sell his land in parcels for development.
Early life and education
Trent was born in 1715 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (then described as western Pennsylvania in historic accounts) as the youngest child and son of William Trent, a prominent merchant and trader in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and his second wife, Mary Coddington, who was 25 years younger than her husband. The second son born to Mary Coddington Trent, William was her only child to survive to adulthood. Her first son died in infancy. Trent's father had four children with his first wife, Mary Burge Trent, who had died in 1708. They were James, John, Maurice, and Mary Trent.
Trent senior founded Trenton, New Jersey by buying a large tract of land in 1714 below the falls of the Delaware River and developing his country house there. Moving to the new site in 1721 with his family, Trent also platted the town around his house. The young Trent grew up with his father's wealth, gained from trading and shipping in furs, dry goods and slaves, with merchants and interests in the North American and Caribbean colonies, and England. His father had interests in 40 ships. His father served in the provincial governments in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
With capital from his father, Trent had a stake to buy goods and begin fur trading in the Ohio Country. Much of the upper Ohio Valley had been conquered by the Iroquois nations, based in New York and northern Pennsylvania, and they kept it open by right of conquest as their hunting ground. They had needed new grounds after exhausting some of the fur game to the East.
In 1744, Trent made large land purchases from Native Americans in the Ohio Country along the Ohio River, west of the Appalachian Mountains.
He took George Croghan, a young immigrant from Ireland, as a partner in the fur trade. Croghan had quickly proved adept at establishing a trading network among the Indians. He followed the French practice of establishing posts in existing Native villages, rather than expecting them to come to a separate English post. In addition, Croghan soon learned the Unami language of the Lenape (Delaware) and the Mohawk language of one of the Iroquois tribes. He was also involved in land speculation, usually holding property for a short period of time.
French and Indian War (1754-1763)
The Virginia Regiment recruited men in Virginia and Pennsylvania in 1754 before the outbreak of the war. As pay was low, there was high turnover in the lower ranks. Trent was commissioned as a captain and commanded a company, then likely 25-40 men.[notes 1] The young George Washington was promoted from Lt. Col. to Colonel to command the Regiment.
When the Regiment moved across the Appalachian divide along Nemacolin's Trail, Trent was assigned to take the advance company. He established two forts that were later taken and destroyed by the French: Fort Prince George, begun February 17, 1754 and Fort Hanger. The first was built after Washington returned from his diplomatic mission warning the French to leave the Ohio Country. Trent and his forces built Fort Hanger (Hangard) later that year on Redstone Creek. It was at its confluence with the Monongahela River and near the Ford of the river by Nemacolin's Trail.
Trent and his men had not completed Fort Prince George when a large French military expedition of 600 soldiers, led by Sieur de Contrecoeur, surrounded the English colonists. They forced Trent to surrender and return with his men to Virginia. The French force included engineers. After demolishing Fort Prince George, they began building the larger, more complex Fort Duquesne (at present-day Pittsburgh).  The English later captured Fort Duquesne during the war.
The officers of the Virginia Regiment decided to continue their campaign to secure the trans-Allegheny region for the Ohio Country. Their strategy was to build a wagon road to Redstone Creek, the nearest point of descent for larger traffic to the Monongahela River. After gaining reinforcements, they would attack and recapture the Forks of the Ohio. The Virginia Regiment began building a road from Wills Creek, intended to cross the mountains to Redstone Creek. Captain Trent was sent ahead with an advance party and supplies carried by pack animals, while Lt. Col. Washington oversaw the main column improving the road through the Cumberland Narrows Pass over the divide.
|“||Wednesday May 1
George Washington's Regiment sets off from Wills Creek, now Cumberland, Maryland. Washington and his officers decide to press on regardless of recent French advances in the area particularly the beginnings of a fort at the Forks of the Ohio. Thus their mission remains to construct a road to Redstone Creek (present day Brownsville, Pennsylvania) and await sizable reinforcements. Then the army will go by water to take the Fort Duquesne at the Forks of the Ohio from the French.
Post war, 1763—1787
Trent was a soldier-of-fortune during the various local Indian wars in Pennsylvania and present-day Maryland and West Virginia, and the French and Indian War. He commanded the militia at Fort Pitt during Pontiac's Rebellion.
During the siege of Fort Pitt, Trent recorded in his journal that blankets from the fort's smallpox hospital had been given to the besieging Indians during a parley. Trent wrote, "Out of our regard for them, we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect." The full passage from the journal is: "The Turtles Heart a principal Warrior of the Delawares and Mamaltee a Chief came within a small distance of the Fort Mr. McKee went out to them and they made a Speech letting us know that all our [posts] as Ligonier was destroyed, that great numbers of Indians [were coming and] that out of regard to us, they had prevailed on 6 Nations [not to] attack us but give us time to go down the Country and they desired we would set of immediately. The Commanding Officer thanked them, let them know that we had everything we wanted, that we could defend it against all the Indians in the Woods, that we had three large Armys marching to Chastise those Indians that had struck us, told them to take care of their Women and Children, but not to tell any other Natives, they said they would go a speak to their Chiefs and come and tell us what they said, they returned and said they would hold fast of the Chain of friendship. Out of our regard to them we gave them two Blankets and a Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect. They then told us that Ligonier had been attacked, but that the Enemy were beat of"  Less than two weeks later, the British commanding general Jeffery Amherst ordered the use of smallpox against the Native American tribes.
Some credit Trent with being among the founding fathers of Pittsburgh. In later life, he became a land speculator in the western Pennsylvania region, as he sold off some of the lands he had bought in 1744.
- Commission members: Thomas Lynch Montgomery, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg Richards, John M. Buckalew, George Dallas Albert, Sheldon Reynolds, Jay Gilfillan Weiser; compiled by George Dallas Albert. George Dallas Albert, ed. The Frontier Forts of Western Pennsylvania (Report By the Commission to Locate the Site of the Frontier Forts of Pennsylvania). W.S. Ray, state printer. Retrieved November 29, 2010.
Note: Page 382 discusses the 'Hanger' fort (literally in French: "storehouse") (a blockhouse) site on Redstone Creek founded in 1754 vs. the Dunlap Creek site of Fort Burd— the one is at the ford; the other is located on the larger (canoe friendly) stream.CS1 maint: Uses authors parameter (link)
- Slick, Sewell Elias. William Trent and the West. Harrisburg: Archives Pub. Co. of Pennsylvania, 1947.
- Crawford, Mitch Native Americans of the Pontiac's War.
- Peter Koch (1994) Peter Koch (1994). "It Happened in 1754 (Fort Necessity - A charming field for an encounter), timeline". Fort Necessity National Battlefield. National Park Service. Retrieved November 30, 2010.
- The William Trent (d. 1724) Ledger, 1703-1709, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, accessed 20 August 2012
- "It Happened in 1754 (Fort Necessity- A charming field for an encounter)". Retrieved November 30, 2010.
Commission members: Thomas Lynch Montgomery, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg Richards, John M. Buckalew, George Dallas Albert, Sheldon Reynolds, Jay Gilfillan Weiser;. "The frontier forts of western Pennsylvania". In George Dallas Albert. Report By the Commission to Locate the Site of the Frontier Forts of Pennsylvania. W.S. Ray. p. 382. Retrieved November 29, 2010.
Note: pp 382 specifically discusses the 'Hanger' fort (literally in French: "storehouse") (a blockhouse) site on Redstone Creek founded in 1754 vs. the Dunlap Creek site of Fort Burd. The first is at the ford; the other is located on the larger (canoe friendly) stream.CS1 maint: Uses authors parameter (link)
- Perhaps equal in importance to the actual site of Fort Burd is that of the earlier fort known as Hangard, at the mouth of Redstone Creek, about a mile north of the Castle.
- Peter Koch (1994). "It Happened in 1754 (Fort Necessity- A charming field for an encounter)". U.S. National Park Services. Retrieved November 30, 2010.
Wednesday April 17, 1754
The Virginia Regiment arrives at Wills Creek (known as Cumberland, Maryland today). While in Wills Creek, Washington learns that Trent's company, the advance party of the Regiment, who had been sent to start building the fort at the Forks of the Ohio, had been surrounded by a 600-man French force and forced to return to Virginia. The French destroyed the British fort and started building their own, more sizable fort, Fort Duquesne.
- The French means "storehouse"
- Elizabeth A. Fenn, "Biological Warfare in Eighteenth-Century North America: Beyond Jeffery Amherst" Archived April 3, 2015, at the Wayback Machine, The Journal of American History, March 2000
- Harold B. Gill Jr., "Colonial Germ Warfare", CW Journal, Spring 04, at History.org
- Anderson, Crucible of War, 541–42; Jennings, Empire of Fortune, 447n26.