William Trent: Factor of Ambition

Jason Cherry


On December 1st, 1784, along a cold and wintry Fourth Street in Philadelphia, Major William Trent sputtered his last breath surrounded by friends and family and soon became forgotten in history....

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On December 1st, 1784, along a cold and wintry Fourth Street in Philadelphia, Major William Trent sputtered his last breath surrounded by friends and family and soon became forgotten in history.

The son of a Philadelphia shipping merchant and the namesake for the capital of New Jersey, Trent’s own legacy as a gentleman, throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century was always remembered for his controversial role at Fort Pitt in “gifting” smallpox blankets to the Indians that early summer of 1763. The truth is, however, over the course of his life Trent was always given an unfair depiction as a scapegoat and blamed for villainy that was not his own creation.

A seasoned veteran officer of three different conflicts, he was praised for his “frame of speech to the Indians, in their style”. He was also the factor for one of the most powerful land speculating companies in the world because of his notorious reputation of excellent penmanship and ledger keeping. By the eve of the American Revolution, Trent became the courageous face of westward expansion that began diligently alongside his friend and “king of the traders” George Croghan.

From the author of Pittsburgh’s Lost Outpost: Captain Trent’s Fort, comes a new definitive look through the eyes of a misunderstood backcountry merchant who not only overcame obstacles and suffered loss, but whose strong quill and rebellious interactions with future founding fathers Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, ambitiously helped shape and form the future United States of America.

What Others Are Saying:

“Willam Trent was an omnipresent figure in America at its most critical times. As an agent of change operating in an imperial world, he travelled vast distances at home and abroad. The author traces his story with a master’s stroke, unlikely to be surpassed. Cherry’s biography of William Trent is superb.”—Brady J. Crytzer author of The Whiskey Rebellion: A Distilled History of an American Crisis

“Highlighting one of the most influential, but least known, personalities of the colonial Pennsylvania frontier, Cherry’s biography of William Trent illuminates the dangerously
intertwined worlds of trade, diplomacy, warfare, and land speculation that defined the 18th-century Ohio Country. A longtime business partner of trader George Croghan, commander of the first fort at the site of present-day Pittsburgh, and a key conspirator in the plot to spread smallpox to Lenape leaders in 1763, Trent’s complicated, and often contradictory, career is covered in minute detail. Students of the colonial fur trade, early Western Pennsylvania history, and American Indian diplomacy will want to consider this well researched work.”—Andrew E. Masich, PhD, President & CEO, Senator John Heinz History Center

"In William Trent: Factor of Ambition, Jason Cherry reconstructs the dramatic life of a Pennsylvanian fur trader and soldier who played a key role on colonial America's Appalachian frontier during an era of momentous conflict involving European powers and indigenous nations, especially the French and Indian War and the ensuing Pontiac Uprising. In unprecedented detail, and drawing upon meticulous research, author Jason Cherry offers valuable insights into an individual whose remarkable commercial and military career often intersected with pivotal events and personalities, witnessing, for example, the rise of the young George Washington. The informative core narrative, which covers Trent's lifespan from c.1722 to 1784, is enhanced by a deep knowledge of the landscape in which his exploits unfolded, and the material culture of the diverse societies he experienced.—Dr. Stephen Brumwell, author of George Washington: Gentleman Warrior

by Jason A. Cherry
Page Count: 474
Trim Size: 6 x 9
Publish Date: February 29, 2024
Imprint: Sunbury Press
Genre: History

BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Adventurers & Explorers
HISTORY / United States / Colonial Period (1600-1775)
HISTORY / US History / Mid-Atlantic

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Eugene Procknow
The Surprising Allure of Backcountry Commerce in Revolutionary America

William Trent’s story, a stark departure from the typical narratives of wealthy elites during the Revolutionary Era, offers a unique perspective on this pivotal period in early American history. Unlike his contemporaries, Trent was a backcountry, not a port city merchant; he pursued commerce, not war with Native Nations, and endured many hardships, not a life of ease and luxury. Independent Historian Jason A. Cherry masterfully recounts a remarkable life spent developing business relationships on the western frontier with Native Americans and English settlers, shedding new light on the economic and social dynamics of the time.

Born into the most prominent family in Trenton, New Jersey, William started life with many financial and social advantages. While he followed his father into the merchant business, William conducted a trading business in the Ohio country, modern-day western Pennsylvania, and West Virginia rather than in the port cities of Philadelphia and Trenton. The Native Americans eagerly sought manufactured goods, including guns, ammunition, metal products, and clothing. In exchange, Trent received animal skins and furs, most of which were transported to Britain and Europe. It was a lucrative trade for both parties.

However, starting in the 1740s, three colonial wars damaged and later destroyed his businesses, accumulating large debts. Trent attempted to regain solvency by transitioning to large-scale land speculation and sales. He invested and participated in managing two large investor land consortiums, the Ohio Company and the Indiana Company. In 1769, Trent sailed to London to obtain Royal charters, securing the rights to vast tracts of land in the Ohio Valley. Doggedly, he pursued Crown approval in the British capital for six years, only giving up due to the outbreak of the American Revolution.

Returning to Trenton, William purchased a riverfront farm and Delaware River ferry and, after an uncertain period, signed a loyalty oath to the Patriot cause. However, William’s eyesight had deteriorated by this time, and other physical ailments had kept him from serving in the military. Wartime ravishing further deteriorated Trent’s farm and financial condition. He passed in 1784 with few assets and many debts. His commercial successes could not withstand the damages of four wars and the change in governments.

Cherry's narrative is not just about Trent; it's a tapestry of interactions between Trent and well-known founders, offering a fresh perspective on their lives and contributions. For instance, Trent once used George Washington as a courier, a testament to the close ties between these historical figures. He also co-invested with Benjamin Franklin, showcasing the diverse interests and entrepreneurial spirit of these early American leaders. Readers will find this unique perspective on commercial activities in the backcountry, aided by meticulous research and attractive photos, most of which the author provides, a valuable addition to their understanding of Revolutionary Era history.