Little is known about William Trent despite his once local prominence. Even his date of birth is uncertain. Some sources say that he was born about 1653-1655 at Inverness in the Scottish Highlands; others attribute the date of his birth to 1666 when he was baptized at South Leith in southeast Scotland. Exactly when he emigrated to the American colonies is also unknown. We do know that by 1693 William Trent had followed his brother, James, to Philadelphia, as we find him on the tax rolls in that year. We think, too, that about this same time he married his first wife, Mary Burge. Apparently it was through her family connections that William Trent eventually acquired the land at the falls of the Delaware River where he would build his country seat.
William Trent became a very successful and wealthy merchant, trading with Great Britain and the Colonies and participating in the slave trade. At one time he owned an interest in over forty ships, exporting such products as tobacco, flour and furs while importing wine, rum, molasses and dry goods. He also imported African and West Indian slaves and indentured servants from the British Isles. Soon Trent became one of the wealthiest men in Philadelphia.
William Trent’s Family
William Trent and his first wife, Mary Burge Trent, had four children who survived to adulthood – James, John, Maurice and Mary. Mary Burge Trent died in 1708, perhaps in childbirth. Though a contemporary noted in a letter to William Penn that Trent was greatly affected by her death, he married his second wife, Mary Coddington, just two years later.
Mary Coddington Trent was nineteen at the time of her marriage. She was the stepdaughter of Anthony Morris, a prosperous Philadelphia brewer and merchant who was a business associate and contemporary of her new husband. The couple and Trent’s children from his previous marriage continued to live in Philadelphia. In 1711 Mary Coddington Trent gave birth to a son, Thomas, who died that same year. Another son, William was born in 1715 and survived.
In 1714 Mary Coddington Trent was one of three young women from prominent Philadelphia families rumored to have been seduced by Francis Philips, the rector of Christ Church. Philips was ordered back to England by the Bishop of London in October 1715, presumably in disgrace.
Trent’s Country Seat
Coincidentally, 1714 was also the year that William Trent acquired 800 acres of land in New Jersey from Mahlon Stacy, Jr. He soon began construction of a large brick dwelling house overlooking the falls of the Delaware River. But it was not until late in 1721 that the Trent family left Philadelphia to take up permanent residence in their new country home. While a resident in rural New Jersey, Trent was elected to the Assembly, commissioned a Colonel of one of the militia regiments and also became New Jersey’s first resident chief Justice in 1723.
On Christmas Day, 1724, William Trent died suddenly from a “fit of apoplexy,” or what we might call today a stroke. At the time of his death, Trent was between the ages of 58 and 69. His widow was 33, and her son, William Trent, Jr., was 9. Where he is buried is also unknown.
In March of 1737, three enslaved Africans were arrested in Trenton for poisoning; among the possible victims: William Trent!! They were found guilty and hanged. Was William Trent really murdered, or was his sudden death later used by these men as “proof” of the efficacy of their poison?