BELL, CHARLES NAPIER, militiaman, author, office holder, railway agent, grain expert, and historian; b. 9 Feb. 1854 in Perth, Upper Canada, son of James Bell and Jane Judd; m. 15 Feb. 1882 his cousin Alice Maud Georgina Bell in Toronto, and they had two sons and two daughters; d. 29 Aug. 1936 at Minaki, Ont.
Charles Napier Bell, whose father was the registrar of Lanark County, was educated at public schools in Perth. From a young age he had a great sense of adventure, and at 12 years old he enlisted with the 28th (Perth) Battalion of Infantry as a bugler to fight the Fenians. He remained with the unit until 1870 when, along with a young Samuel Benfield Steele*, he joined the Red River expeditionary force [see Louis Riel*] led by Colonel Garnet Joseph Wolseley*. He arrived at Fort Garry (Winnipeg) in the fall of 1870 and soon made the decision to remain in the west.
In Fort Garry Bell first found work as a warehouse clerk with merchants Alexander Begg* and Andrew Graham Ballenden Bannatyne*. A sociable man with a cheerful personality and a great deal of curiosity, he quickly became acquainted with the Red River settlers and spent much of his free time visiting their homes and recording their stories. In 1872 he described in his diary and in letters to his family a life that was busy and full. That year he set out on a trip along the North Saskatchewan River to explore the still-unsettled regions of the northwest. He bought a horse, a Red River cart, provisions, a gun, and trading goods, and lived with a hunting party of Métis. For the next year he traded with the Blackfoot, Assiniboin, and Cree, hunted bison, studied birds and animals, and wrote detailed observations. When he returned to Manitoba in 1873 he was asked by Lieutenant Governor Alexander Morris* for a report on his experiences. In the document Bell expresses his concern for the plight of the region’s indigenous people as the bison herds dwindled and more and more hunters trapped other game.
Bell found employment in Winnipeg as a clerk in the city’s customs house, probably in late 1873 or in 1874. A few years later he left that job to become a railway agent, which would remain his occupation for roughly a decade, first for the Canadian Pacific Railway and later for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St Paul Railroad. In 1882 he travelled to Ontario and there he married Alice Bell of Kingston. She returned with him to Winnipeg, where she participated in many charitable organizations, and they joined the congregation of Knox Presbyterian Church.
Bell became secretary of the Winnipeg Board of Trade in 1886, and, soon after, of the newly established Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange (WGPE), the Grain Survey Board, the Western Grain Standards Board, and a board responsible for assessing the quality of grain. He was able to attain these positions despite his limited formal education, in large part because there were few local candidates at the time. Although he appears to have had some minor business dealings in Winnipeg, his career became centred on advocating for the economic interests of the city and the Canadian west, particularly with regard to the commerce of cereals. On behalf of the organizations that he represented, he travelled to a number of imperial trade conferences abroad. The British Imperial Council of Commerce made him a permanent member. He served as secretary of the 1891 Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition, the royal commission on the shipment and transportation of grain in 1899, and the royal commission on transportation [see Robert Wilson Reford*] four years later. In 1916 he retired from his position at the WGPE (he was succeeded by Robert Magill*) and from the grain trade.
Passionate about history, Bell wrote many papers on the Canadian west. Some of his earliest articles were published by the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba (HSSM), of which he and George Bryce had been founding members in 1879, and he was its president in 1889–91 and 1913–29. He wrote primarily about early settlement in the province and its economic history. The subject of one of his essays was a scheme, which he enthusiastically supported, to create a transportation outlet through Hudson Bay. During the 1880s his work appeared in newspapers in Canada and abroad, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, an international academic society on the history of Paris, and a number of societies in the United States. His writing style was clear and entertaining, and he took pains to be impartial. For instance, upon the 75th anniversary of the battle at Seven Oaks (Winnipeg) [see Robert Semple*], in the Transactions (Winnipeg) of the HSSM, he admitted that it was difficult to determine the truth about the incident, and thus presented readers with first-hand accounts from both sides of the event from which they could draw their own conclusions: the first was from Red River settler John Pritchard* and the second from François-Firmin Boucher of the North West Company. His many contributions to the study of western Canadian history and archaeology were recognized when the University of Manitoba conferred on him an honorary lld in 1914. Over the years he had often written about the need to preserve documents and other materials relating to the history of the west, and in 1914 Premier Sir Rodmond Palen Roblin asked him and Professor Chester Bailey Martin* to form a commission that would build a foundation for the future Archives of Manitoba.
Active in Winnipeg’s social life, Bell was a member of the Manitoba Club, the St Charles Country Club, the Canadian Club (president in 1912), and the local masonic lodge, which had elected him grand master in 1895, and he served as a member of the Supreme Council 33rd Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry of Canada. For many years he was on the board of trustees of the Winnipeg General Hospital. One of his minor offices, to which he had been appointed in 1896, was consul for Guatemala at Winnipeg.
A lover of ice skating, Bell had travelled by this method in 1877 from Winnipeg to Selkirk, a distance of over 22 miles, in two and one-quarter hours. He is credited for introducing figure skating to western Canada, and he coached Winnipeg speed skater Jack McCulloch (also originally from Perth), who would win the 1897 world championship held in Montreal.
Bell died in 1936, at the age of 82. A tireless supporter of western Canadian interests, it was said that he was identified with nearly every public and business movement in the city that was not of a political character. A passionate advocate for the history of the west, he created a life that was a mirror of its growth and development. Although he shared many of the values and traditions held by its commercial elite, his writing indicates that it is not as a businessman that he would have wished to be remembered. The spirit of adventure that took him out to the northwest with little more than a horse and a Red River cart remained with him his whole life, which was committed to the future of the Canadian west and to the memory of its past.
The DCB/DBC would like to thank Jim Blanchard, former head of reference services at the Elizabeth Dafoe Library, Univ. of Man. in Winnipeg, for his assistance during the preparation of this biography.
Charles Napier Bell’s publications include Our northern waters … (Winnipeg, 1884), The Selkirk settlement and the settlers … (Winnipeg, 1887), and many articles in the following Winnipeg newspapers: Commercial, the Country Guide and Nor’-West Farmer, the Manitoba Free Press, and the Manitoba Sun. He also wrote several articles that appeared in the Trans. (Winnipeg) of the Hist. and Scientific Soc. of Man., including “The affair of ‘Seven Oaks,’” 1st ser., no.43 (1891–92), 16–24. A list of his contributions to this journal can be found at the Man. Hist. Soc., “Memorable Manitobans: Charles Napier Bell (1854–1936)”: www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/bell_cn.shtml (consulted 27 Sept. 2018).
AM, MG10 F2 (Hist. and Scientific Soc. of Man. fonds); MG14 C23/3/2 (Notebook and account book of Charles N. Bell); MG14 C100 (Robert and Agnes Bell fonds). Evening Tribune (Winnipeg). A. F. J. Artibise, Winnipeg: a social history of urban growth, 1874–1914 (Montreal and London, 1975). Alexander Begg and W. R. Nursey, Ten years in Winnipeg: a narration of the principal events in the history of the city of Winnipeg from the year A.D. 1870 to the year A.D. 1879, inclusive (Winnipeg, 1879). R. [C.] Bellan, Winnipeg first century: an economic history (Winnipeg, 1978). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898 and 1912). W. J. Healy, Winnipeg’s early days … (Winnipeg , 1927). D. A. MacGibbon, The Canadian grain trade (Toronto, 1932). W. L. Morton, Manitoba: a history (Toronto, 1957). Douglas Owram, Promise of Eden: the Canadian expansionist movement and the idea of the west, 1856–1900 (Toronto, 1980). Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange, Annual report (Winnipeg), 1889–1908.