BELL, JOHN, HBC chief trader and explorer; b. c. 1799 on the Island of Mull, Scotland; d. 24 June 1868 at Saugeen, Ont.
John Bell joined the North West Company in 1818 as an apprentice clerk. His early years with that company, and, following the coalition of 1821, with the Hudson’s Bay Company, were spent in the Winnipeg River area. In 1824 Bell was transferred to the company’s Mackenzie River District; while there he married Nancy, daughter of Peter Warren Dease, an HBC chief factor. In the winter of 1825–26, Bell was appointed clerk at the company’s most northerly post, Fort Good Hope.
The HBC board in London and Governor George Simpson* were eager to expand trade westwards from the Mackenzie. They thought that the Colvile (now Colville) River, recently discovered at the Arctic coast by Peter Warren Dease and Thomas Simpson, flowed from the southeast and would provide a route for this expansion. They therefore gave instructions to Bell in 1838 for exploration west of the Mackenzie. In the summer of 1839 he explored the Peel River from its junction with the Mackenzie, and the following year he established a post, Fort McPherson, on its banks; he was to be in charge of the post until 1845. Appointed chief trader in 1841, Bell crossed the mountains to the west of the Peel in 1842 and descended what was called the Rat River (later the Bell River) to its junction with the Porcupine. On the latter river he was deserted by his Indian guide and had to return to Fort McPherson. It was not until 1845 that he successfully followed the Porcupine River to its confluence with the Yukon. In 1846 at the height of his achievements Bell left the area on account of ill health. His exploration had paved the way for the highly profitable expansion of the company’s trade to the Yukon River via a practicable route. Robert Campbell*’s route, discovered in the 1840s, from Fort Simpson to the Yukon River via the Liard and Pelly rivers proved to be infinitely more arduous.
In the summer of 1847 Bell returned from furlough in Canada to conduct an advance party north from York Factory for the expedition of 1848–49 in search of Sir John Franklin* to be led by Sir John Richardson and Dr John Rae*. His services to the expedition over the winter of 1848–49 were chiefly to organize living accommodation at Fort Confidence and ensure a supply of provisions. Against his wishes Bell was retained by the company in its Mackenzie River District after 1849, taking charge of the district in 1850–51.
At his own request, and in line with the views of Rae who did not consider Bell fitted to the command of the district because of his fear of responsibility and insufficient knowledge of business methods, Bell left Mackenzie River in 1851 first for Oxford House and then Cumberland House where he took charge of the district, 1852–53. From 1853 to 1857 Bell supervised the company’s Athabasca District from Fort Chipewyan. Following a year’s furlough (1857–58), spent at least partly in Montreal, Bell’s final years with the HBC were spent in Canada East at Sept-Îles and at Weymontachingue in the Saint-Maurice District. He resigned because of ill health in March 1860.
Bell settled at Saugeen where he farmed. He died there in 1868, leaving two sons and five daughters. His son Peter Warren Bell was in the employ of the HBC from 1852 to 1895, attaining the rank of chief factor.
HBC Arch. A.1/62, p.75; A.11/28, ff.285d., 303d.–4; A.33/2, f.75; A.34/1, p.100; A.44/5, p.13; B.80/a/7, 4 June 1828; B.80/a/16, 25 June, 3 Aug. 1839; B.134/b/14, p.700; B.134/b/19, f.387; B.134/c/101, f.156; B.134/c/108, f.381; B.134/c/111, f.22; B.157/a/1; B.200/a/5, 14 Sept., 30 Oct., 10, 13 Dec. 1824; B.200/b/12, ff.2d.–3d.; B.200/b/15, ff.5–6; B.200/d/37, f.2; B.239/f/12, f.11; B.239/g/5, f.7; B.239/k/2, pp.31, 62, 86, 125, 154, 176, 197, 220, 249, 271, 318, 380, 401; B.239/k/3, pp.12, 47, 71, 99, 120, 139, 454, 476; D.4/23, f.160, p.211; D.4/67, f.30; D.4/69, pp.39–40; D.4/70, f.248; D.4/71, ff.121, 133; D.4/74, pp.112, 387–88; D.4/75, f.372d.; D.4/77, f.35d.; D.4/78, ff.307d.–9d.; D.4/79, ff.224, 229; D.5/7, f.250; D.5/15, ff.464–64d.; D.5/28, ff.378–78d.; D.5/48, f.153; D.5/51, f.436; E.4/2, f.2d.; E.11/2, f.93; F.4/32, p.979. Somerset House (London), Probate Department, will of John Bell, 1 July 1869. Documents relating to NWC (Wallace). Hargrave correspondence (Glazebrook). HBRS, III (Fleming).