DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day

McDONELL, JOHN, Le Prêtre (1768-1850) – Volume VII (1836-1850)

d. 17 April 1850 in Pointe-Fortune, Upper Canada


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

RUSSELL, JOSEPH, businessman, shipbuilder, and office holder; b. 17 Aug. 1786 in Clackmannan, Scotland, son of Thomas Russell and Jannett —; m. 20 Sept. 1819 in Chatham, N.B., Ann Agnes Hunter, also from Clackmannan, and they had four sons and five daughters; d. 10 March 1855 in Great Salt Lake City (Salt Lake City, Utah).

Joseph Russell met with success in life, from his service in the Royal Navy beginning at age 12 to his role as a major financier of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (also known as the Mormon Church) in his sixties. Little is known of his early years, but New Brunswick legend claims that he was a midshipman on Horatio Nelson’s Vanguard at the battle of the Nile in 1798. Russell’s arrival in New Brunswick was unheralded and unrecorded; his first documented activity is his marriage in 1819. By 1826 he was the owner of several buildings in Chatham, one of which was the King’s Arms, a hotel he also operated. As the focal point in the community, this inn was the site of a dance school, the sheriff’s tax sales, and meetings of the fire company, the chamber of commerce, and the agricultural society.

Although shipbuilding is the activity for which Russell is best known in New Brunswick, he apparently did not become involved in the industry until 1827. That year he built and was one-third owner of a 387-ton schooner. Shipbuilding became his profession after fire destroyed his hotel and two other buildings on 19 Jan. 1831. The following year he purchased Francis Peabody*’s yard in Chatham and began constructing vessels as large as 732 tons at the rate of one a year. He sold this yard to Joseph Cunard* in 1839 and purchased John Fraser’s shipbuilding establishment on Beaubears Island.

The new yard was ideal: there was room to expand, and ships of 1,000 tons could be launched there. As well, river and land traffic to the upper Miramichi and Fredericton passed near by, and the location was remote enough to support a general merchandising business. Between 1839 and 1850 Russell built 21 square-rigged vessels ranging in size from 354 to 850 tons; five were launched during his peak year of 1844. It was at the height of this activity that he hired John Harley* as his master builder and George Burchill as his business manager; these two men ran a successful operation for Russell. The firm’s primary supplier and the purchaser of its ships was the British firm of Rankin, Gilmour and Company and its Miramichi branch, Gilmour, Rankin and Company [see Alexander Rankin]. The relationship was a personal as well as a business one, with partners of the Liverpool firm spending the winter with Russell at Beaubears and not in Douglastown at their Miramichi branch.

Russell’s success in shipbuilding was not reflected in his attempt in 1837, with six other businessmen, to establish the Bank of Miramichi. Although incorporated in January 1838, the bank was unable to sell shares beyond the initial subscription of £7,000, and did not open.

Russell did not neglect public responsibilities. He helped organize the Chatham Fire Company in 1824 and served as a fireman; 15 years later Captain Russell was still being praised for his efforts in containing fires. He was a member of the grand jury and overseer of the poor in Chatham in 1832. Although he never held elected office, he was involved in some minor political efforts and held appointed positions. In 1835 he was a member of the delegation which presented Lieutenant Governor Sir Archibald Campbell* with a petition from the citizens of Chatham asking that the increase in timber fees be rescinded. The petition was unsuccessful. Following the rebellions of 1837–38 in the Canadas, Russell’s resolution “detesting the behaviour of the rebels in Lower Canada and offering praise to those restoring order and crushing rebellion” was passed at a Chatham businessmen’s meeting. On 12 Feb. 1840 he was one of 17 men who successfully petitioned to have Richard Marshall Clarke, high sheriff of Northumberland County, removed for abuse of his office. After he established his business on Beaubears Island, he was overseer of the poor for Nelson Parish from 1840 to 1842 and was again a member of the grand jury in 1844 and in 1846. In the latter year he delivered a welcoming speech on behalf of the grand jury to Judge George Frederick Street of the Supreme Court on his arrival in the county to hold his circuit court sessions.

Russell was a founding member of the Anglican-oriented Miramichi Sunday School Society in 1832, and was a member of the first and several subsequent executive committees. The Russell family converted to Mormonism, probably as early as 1840 or 1841 when the missionary Alfred Dixon visited the Miramichi, but this conversion did not preclude involvement in other social and religious activities. In January 1841 the North British Society (after 11 April 1846 the Highland Society of New Brunswick at Miramichi) was established and Russell was not only an original member but also served as a director from 1841 until 1847. Russell’s wife was elected an executive member of the Miramichi Ladies Bible Society on 29 Sept. 1843 and remained a member until 1847.

The family moved to Beaubears Island in 1846 or 1847, and the move meant a cessation of most of their civic and social involvement. Russell may have delayed changing his place of residence until his children were beyond school age. But the timing may also have been the result of religious persecution. He was a devout Mormon by this time, and in the winter of 1847–48, while trying to address an indoor meeting of Mormons in Chatham, he was harassed by a crowd. He attempted to reason with them but, despite his former association with the town, his civic involvement, and his age, he was physically beaten so that he had to stop preaching.

Russell’s involvement with the Mormon Church continued to grow. In anticipation of its projected mission, a 627-ton barque launched in 1846 was named Zion’s Hope and he sailed with it on its maiden voyage to Liverpool to offer it to the British church to carry emigrants to California on their way to Deseret (Utah). However, when the British church members were unwilling to operate the ship and to finance its voyage, the offer lapsed.

After meetings in Boston in 1848 with Wilford Woodruff, one of the 12 apostles of the Mormon Church, Russell made plans to sell his business and to move to Deseret. Woodruff maintained contact with Russell during that winter and went to Miramichi in July 1849. The two travelled to Bedeque (Central Bedeque), P.E.I., and re-established a church there, before parting company at Shediac, N.B., on 5 August. Russell continued his efforts to sell his business but an auction advertised for 12 September did not take place. Economic conditions were generally depressed and only the previous year the Cunard yard, the largest in the area, had gone bankrupt. Then, on 29 September, Harley and Burchill agreed to buy the business, tentatively valued at £750, although Russell claimed it was worth between £6,000 and £7,500. The final price of £1,000 for both business and inventory was set as Russell was about to set sail from the Miramichi for the last time.

The Russells probably left the Miramichi on the last ship that he had built, the Omega, when it sailed for Liverpool on 24 June 1850. There, he settled his accounts with his long-time mentors, Rankin, Gilmour and Company, and collected what was due to him, some £11–12,000. He also met with two of the Mormon apostles to discuss the creation of the Deseret Manufacturing Company. This firm was to manufacture beet sugar in Utah territory, thus eliminating the Mormons’ dependence on imported sugar. When it was incorporated on 22 Aug. 1851, Russell’s contribution of £4,500 made him the principal shareholder. He left Liverpool late in 1851 to set up the company, the machinery for which, sent from England, came overland from New Orleans. He was totally dissatisfied with the operations of the company, and it was dissolved on 5 March 1853. The enterprise was reorganized but was never successful; Russell died on 10 March 1855, without seeing it finally fail.

In neither New Brunswick nor Utah was Joseph Russell a dominant figure, but in both places he was respected and successful. In the Morman Church he had access to the leader, Brigham Young, and at his funeral in Utah one of the Mormon apostles delivered the eulogy. On the Miramichi he had been a successful shipbuilder and his community efforts were publicly praised. He had built 29 reputable ships, and had amassed $70,000 by the time he retired in 1850.

Burton Glendenning

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Hist. Dept. (Salt Lake City, Utah), Journal hist. of the Church, Alfred Dixon, letter, 5 Oct. 1841; Patriarchal blessings, 12: 335; F. D. Richards, diary, 29 Aug. 1851; Wilford Woodruff, diaries, box 2, folder 3, 1848–49, especially 15 Feb. 1849; box 3, folder 1, 1855; Brigham Young coll., church related businesses, constitution of the Deseret Manufacturing Company, 22 Aug. 1851; miscellaneous minutes, box 47, folders 7–8. PANB, MBU, II/8/3/1; II/13/5/4; RG 18, RS 153, A7–8; I7/1. Highland Society of New Brunswick at Miramichi, A.D. 1847; incorporated I1th day of April 1846 (London, 1847). Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star (Liverpool, Eng.), 17 (1855): 346. Gleaner (Chatham, N.B.), 1829–50. Mercury (Miramichi, N.B.), 1826–29. Burton Glendenning, “The Burchill lumbering firm, 1850–1906: an example of nineteenth century New Brunswick entrepreneurship” (ma thesis, Concordia Univ., Montreal, 1978). Louise Manny, Ships of Miramichi: a history of shipbuilding on the Miramichi River, New Brunswick, Canada, 1773–1919 (Saint John, N.B., 1960). Grant Nielsen, Joseph Russell, Miramichi shipbuilder and financier (Brossard, Que., 1980). John Rankin, A history of our firm, being some account of the firm of Pollok, Gilmour and Co. and its offshoots and connections, 1804–1920 (2nd ed., Liverpool, 1921)

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Burton Glendenning, “RUSSELL, JOSEPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 17, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/russell_joseph_8E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/russell_joseph_8E.html
Author of Article:   Burton Glendenning
Title of Article:   RUSSELL, JOSEPH
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   April 17, 2024