Monday, 3 January 2011

Montgomery Bell (1769-1855) - Scotch-Irish industrialist

The Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville and the Montgomery Bell State Park carry the name of a 19th century Scotch-Irish industrialist who had Ulster-Scots ancestors on both sides of his family.

Montgomery Bell was the youngest of ten children and was born on 3 January 1769 in West Fallowfield Township (now Highland), Chester County, Pennsylvania.  His parents were John Bell and Mary Montgomery Patterson, who were both Scotch-Irish Presbyterians.

Bell was too young for active service in the American Revolution but he watched as five brothers marched off to war.  He had little opportunity for formal education and at the age of sixteen was apprenticed to a tanner.  Soon after this he joined his brother, Patterson Bell, in the hatter's trade and at the age of twenty he moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where his recently widowed mother lived.  Montgomery Bell opened a hatter's shop in Lexington and employed twenty men in the making and selling of hats.  He also operated grist mills and lumber mills and met with considerable financial success.

In 1802 Bell decided to move to the Cumberland region of Tennessee.  He gave his hat business to his nephew, Patterson Bean, sold some of his property and in September 1802 he appointed his lawyer power of attorney to liquidate his remaining assets.

Montgomery Bell worked for a year for James Robertson, the founder of Nashville, and his wages, together with the money raised from the sale of his businesses, enabled him to purchase Robertson's share in the Cumberland Iron Works.  He also bought 640 acres of land, which provided iron-rich soil and virgin timber that could be converted into charcoal.  The total cost for the iron works and the land was $16,000.

The iron works lay about twenty miles south of Clarksville, a frontier county seat on the Cumberland River.  As the area grew new counties were created in the following year and Bell quickly became active in the civic affairs of the new Dickson County.  He was appointed as one of the five justices of the peace and became a member of a committee to choose a county seat.  Later he was named to a county board of education.

Bell developed his iron business with great energy and in 1805 he bought the Yellow Creek Iron Works, which had just been opened by a competitor in Montgomery County.  In 1808 he bought a 4,800 acre stand of timber and iron ore and the following year he was producing more than two hundred tons of pig iron a year.  The following year his brother Patterson Bell, anticipating war with England or France, urged him to cast cannon balls and offer them to the United States Army.  Soon Bell had government contracts to supply not only cannon balls for the army but also canister for the navy, to be delivered at the Gulf of Mexico.  The cannon balls used by Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans were forged by Bell.

His work force consisted of white immigrants from North Carolina and Virginia and also slave labour.  At one point he owned more than three hundred slaves and at busy times he hired more.

After the War of 1812 Bell suffered from the decline of government contracts and increasing competition and in 1825 he sold Cumberland Furnace for $50,000.  Bell built his last furnace near present-day Dickson in 1845 and named it Worley Furnace after one of his trusted slaves, James Worley.  This was an unusual honour for an African-american in the early 19th century.  By that time Tennessee ranked third among the states in iron production and most of the state's pig iron production came from Middle Tennessee.

However by the 1840s Bell was well into his seventies and his iron manufacturing activities declined substantially.  He had moved to Nashville and there he enjoyed horse racing and other sports.

Bell was interested in the future welfare of his slaves and representatives of the American colonisation Society in Tennessee convinced him that colonisation in Liberia would best ensure their safety and happiness.  As a result he sent several groups to Monrovia in the early 1850s, at considerable expense to himself.  The transfer of one group of thirty-eight cost him $3,000 for transportation and several thousand dollars more for tools and supplies to go witth them.

Montgomery Bell died on 1 April 1855 and at the time of his death he was living in an old dilapidated house near the Narrows of the Harpeth but his will provided $20,000 for the establishment in Nashville of a school for boys and $1,000 for the First Presbyterian Church in Nashville.
  • The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture
  • Robert E Corlew, A History of Dickson County: Nashville, 1956
  • George E Jackson, Cumberland Furnace, A Frontier Industrial Village: 1994

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