BELL, JAMES, merchant, carpenter, and landowner; b. c. 1739 in Great Britain, likely in England; m. Margaret Christie, daughter of William Christie of Stirling, Scotland; d. probably 5 July 1814 in Chambly, Lower Canada.
By his marriage James Bell became the nephew of Gabriel Christie* , who had come to Canada during the Seven Years’ War and whose purchase of numerous seigneuries during the period 1764–66 made him the uncontested master of the upper Richelieu region in the second half of the 18th century. James Bell arrived at Chambly with his wife and probably a son, Alexander, some time between 1765 and 1772, and he settled on the banks of a stream, the Rivière Montréal (Rivière L’Acadie). He traded in wheat, meat, spirits, building materials, carriages, and horses. Like many British merchants who had come to Canada at that time, he tried to take advantage of circumstances and established links with the Canadians on whom his success in business directly depended. He did not let language or religion stand in the way but mastered French and occasionally allowed people to call him Jacques; he even had a son and a daughter baptized in the Roman Catholic church of the parish of Saint-Louis (Saint-Joseph) at Chambly: William in January 1773 and Margaret the next year. In business he used French-speaking notaries and for his construction work he hired several Canadians.
Bell was an opportunist, particularly during the American invasion of 1775–76. The assertion that he embraced the American cause probably requires qualification: rather, Bell saw the arrival of the revolutionary troops on the Richelieu as a chance to make money. Therefore, like a number of British merchants in Montreal such as Thomas Walker*, he did not hesitate to offer the enemy his help. His knowledge of the terrain, his great skill as a carpenter, and his resources as a merchant made him valuable to the invaders. Working in turn under Major John Brown and brigadiers-general Richard Montgomery*, David Wooster, and Benedict Arnold, he helped to supply them and was particularly involved in overseeing the repair work on Fort Chambly and the building of numerous bateaux, “gundeloes,” and carriages, for which he also supplied much of the material. But the American army had limited means and Bell suffered the fate of many other suppliers: nine invoices, totalling £2,100 15s. 9d., remained unpaid.
In the summer of 1776 the retreating enemy troops left Quebec soil. After that Bell offered his services to the king. With men he had hired, he cut considerable quantities of wood for the crown, built a barracks and two blockhouses at the mouth of the Richelieu, and constructed many bateaux as well as a score of artillery tumbrels. In June and July 1777 he went to Fort Ticonderoga (near Ticonderoga) and then to Fort George (Lake George) with the British expedition sent into New York under Major-General John Burgoyne* to confront the American army.
Back at Chambly again, Bell encountered difficulties in his commercial pursuits. In 1781, with his business in stone and other materials at a standstill, he asked Governor Haldimand for a job, as well as a licence to cut wood and quarry limestone for construction. He could not obtain reimbursement of the considerable sum the American government owed him, which he estimated in 1792 at £4,021 10s. 11d., despite numerous attempts and even a brief change of residence to “Little Charzy” (Chazy, N.Y.). Unable to repay his own debts, he was sued by Simon Fraser Sr, Moses Hart*, and David Alexander Grant in the period 1795–1802; as a result, on a number of occasions he suffered distraint or sale by auction, which stripped him of some 20 pieces of land in the seigneury of Chambly, the barony of Longueuil, and Hemmingford and Shefford townships. Shortly before 1800, at the time he moved to Quebec, Bell was close to ruin. In 1802 he presented a petition to the British government seeking lands for himself and his family in recognition of his “unquestionably uniform” loyalty and the services he had rendered the king during the American revolution.
James Bell nevertheless returned to spend his final years on the banks of the Rivière Montréal; he may have made a living there from some acres of land that he apparently still owned at Chambly. Sick and bed-ridden, he made his will on 27 April 1814; leaving his children William and Margaret £6 each, he made his wife his residual legatee. He died early in July probably on the 5th, at the age of 75, and was borne to his grave with ceremony by fellow masons from Dorchester Lodge No.3, of Dorchester (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu), which he had helped found in 1792. His wife endeavoured to obtain payment from the United States of the debt owed her husband, but she died on 10 Sept. 1831 without having succeeded.
ANQ-M, CEl-39, 14 janv. 1773, 9 juin 1774; CEl-79, 12 Sept. 1831; CNl-43, 27 avril 1814. ANQ-Q, CN1-284, 10 nov. 1800. AP, Saint-Athanase (Iberville), Notes du notaire Didace Tassé, 19 sept. 1874. Arch. du séminaire de Trois-Rivières (Trois-Rivières, Qué.), Fords Hart, G, no.1, F-B, 57. BL, Add.