By Jack Thomas Tomarchio
It is not uncommon for the Troop to receive gifts from the families of our members. Uniforms,
photos, medals and letters of City Troopers often find their way into the Armory every
year. It is rare, however, to receive a privately published biography on one of our members wholly
unsolicited. Several years ago, that was indeed the case when the Troop received a manuscript in
the mail written by a descendant of First City Trooper William Turnbull, No. 41. Troop records on
Turnbull are somewhat scanty, so this unexpected gift was a welcome one. The 36 page manuscript
sheds light upon the previously unknown career of one of our early and colorful members.
William Turnbull was born on March 10, 1751 in Stirling, Scotland, the youngest of seven children.
Arriving in Philadelphia around 1772, William was trained to be a “counting room clerk” or what
we now call an accountant. By 1774, William had his own company, dealing in cloth, cotton and silk.
Apparently he was successful enough in business to be elected as a member of the Gloucester Fox
Hunting Club, the organization that spawned the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry. With
hostilities looming with Great Britain, most of the Gloucester Fox Hunting Club men became
founding members of the Troop. William, however, choose a different path. With fellow
Gloucester Fox Hunter Sharp Delancy, he joined the Philadelphia Associators. Delancy was elected
a captain while William Trumbull served as one of his lieutenants. This unit, now known as the
2d Battalion 111th Infantry, 28th Division, during the early part of the war served picket duty from
the Rahway River to Woodbridge Creek in the northern part of New Jersey. Probably because of his
professional experience as a purveyor and trader in cloth, William found himself by 1776-77 acting
in the role of quartermaster for Pennsylvania regiments, securing supplies as an agent for the
Supreme Council of Pennsylvania. In late 1777 he was elected to the post of Commissioner for
Auditing Claims at the Board of Treasury for the Congress. His accounting experience most likely
qualifying him for this important posting. Still devoted to the cause, and perhaps seeking some
more adventure, William decided to re-join his Gloucester comrades and was elected to our Troop
the same year. Trooper Turnbull was actively in the field with the Troop for both the Battles of
Brandywine and Germantown in 1777 and continued to serve with us during the next two years. In
June 1780 he signed a letter with other members of the Active Roll Troop pledging personal sums of
money to support the credit of the National Bank of the United States. By late 1780, however, he
seems to have been released from active service with the Troop to concentrate upon his
quartermaster duties for the Army. Still the ardent patriot, Trumbull undertook yet another facet of
the Revolution, he became a privateer!
Sometimes called legal pirates, these men operated under a letter of marque which gave
them license to prey upon enemy shipping on the high seas. By 1782 Turnbull was the virtual
admiral of his own small fleet of six brigs totaling 60 guns and 200 hands. His partner in the fleet
was the famous millionaire financier of the Revolution, Robert Morris.
With the war ending, Turnbull turned to real estate and with his new business partner Pierre
Marmie who had previously been private secretary to the Marquis de Lafayette, they began to
purchase substantial lands in Western Pennsylvania. Their operations centered on a parcel of land
at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers where stood an old British fort known
as Fort Pitt. Buying Fort Pitt, Turnbull became one of the early settlers of a new community called
Pittsburgh. He and his partner set up an iron foundry in the area, and bought land across the river
on Mount Washington where they mined coal. By 1783, Turnbull was the leading citizen in the area.
William’s business had grown by the mid 1790’s to include iron foundries and mines in nearby
Westmoreland County in addition to a brewery in Pittsburgh. After several hard years building his
businesses, William decided to return to Philadelphia. It may have been because his partner Pierre
Marmie was by this time showing signs of mental illness. At any event, William came home to
Philadelphia in 1797 with the intent to resume his trading activities. Because of interference by
France and Britain with American trade on the high seas, Trumbull’s business ventures suffered. He
speculated in real estate in Philadelphia as well as in Ohio, Kentucky and Western Pennsylvania.
Beset by squatters in these “Western lands”, Trumbull was involved in numerous legal actions to
clear title on his lands. Eventually he withdrew from these endeavors, but not before having to
sell many of his real estate holdings in Philadelphia to pay his legal fees incurred in the western l
ands. To make matters worse, the War of 1812 also caused his business interests to suffer. Finally
in 1813, his health deteriorating and his businesses in tatters, William moved to Baltimore County,
Maryland to live at Montrose, the estate of his brother in law. It was here that William Trumbull
died on July 25, 1822 at the age of 71. The legacy of our early member was one service to his
country, coupled with a bold spirit both on the high seas and in the wilds of the new American
frontier. From cavalry trooper, to privateer, to possibly the first ironmaster in what was to become
America’s premier steel-producing city, William Trumbull, the original “Pittsburgh pirate” lived a
life we can all look back upon with admiration.