Memorable Manitobans: Peter Warren Wentworth Bell (1831-1901)

Fur trader.

Among the forty-two unfortunate passengers who perished miserably when the ill-fated steamer Islander went to her doom early in the morning of 15 August 1901 near Juneau, Alaska, was Chief Factor Peter Warren Wentworth Bell of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and for many years a corresponding member of the Historical Society, Winnipeg. Mr. Bell was on his return to Victoria, BC, in company with Dr. John Duncan, MD, of that city - another victim - from a special journey made by them to Dawson City and Stewart River, Yukon Territory. On this occasion they both travelled by Peterboro canoe 700 miles of the distance between Skagway and Dawson, and from there to the Stewart, 90 miles each way, on horseback.

Mr. Bell was the eldest son of the late Chief Trader John Bell, a native of Argyllshire, Scotland, who for many years held the charge of Fort Good Hope, Mackenzie River, North West Territory, and was born at Norway House, Rupert’s Land on 21 December 1831. His maternal grandfather was Chief Factor P. W. Dease, of Dease and Simpson, the celebrated Hudson’s Bay Arctic explorers. In due time, like many of his country-born contemporaries, he was sent to school to the old Red River Settlement, and there, like many of them, he acquired a sound practical business education, under the zealous and talented Academy teacher of that time, the late Rev. John McCallum. Like many of them also, Mr. Bell began life as an apprentice clerk in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He entered on his duties in the Spring of 1852, and finally, after a progressively successful career of forty-two years, through the various grades of Clerk, Chief Trader, Factor and Chief Factor, he retired from the service in the autumn of 1893.

With the exception of a summer trip on which he accompanied his old master and life-long friend, Chief Factor and Resident Governor, Donald Alexander Smith (now Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, G.C.M.G., and Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company in London, England), when he presided at the last Fur-Trade Council, which met at Norway House in July, 1870, and again during the open season of 1886, when he was associated with Chief Trader E. K. Beeston, in conducting an inspection of the Company’s posts in Cumberland district, Mr. Bell’s entire period of service was passed at Trade Stations, and in charge of districts situated in the Montreal Department. Many of his earlier years were spent at various points on the lower St. Lawrence River and on the coast of Labrador, mainly under the present Lord Strathcona. He was for several outfits later Manager at La Cloche on Lake Huron, and for twenty years at Michipicoten district, on Lake Superior. Then he was situated for a year or two at Chapleau, CPR, as “headquarters” of the latter, and afterwards held the charge of Esquimaux Bay district, until he retired in 1893. It is almost needless to state that Mr. Bell was a very interested, faithful, and valued servant of the Company - his successive promotions prove this. In 1866 he received the commission of a Chief Trader; in 1872 that of a Factor, and in 1879 he attained the highest position - that of a Chief Factor - conferred upon any officer in their employ.

The Hudson’s Bay service has produced numerous men of good, and some of marked, ability; but it may be asserted with confidence that in point of physical courage, enterprise, and capability of endurance, the officers and servants of the Company have, as a class, the most distinguished record of any body of men in the British Empire, outside of the naval and military services. Those who personally knew and admired the genial, hearty, and energetic nature of the much lamented “Peter Bell,” will readily agree that in the foregoing respects he was fully entitled to rank with the very foremost of his fur-trade predecessors and contemporaries. Even to the last his cheerful fortitude was amazing.

The following testimony from an old and intimate Eastern friend will surely confirm all this; he recently wrote:

Late in the Fall of 1854 Mr. Bell was removed from the post of Godbout to Mingan, and on his way there he was shipwrecked and narrowly escaped drowning, in fact, it was thought he had perished, and a man was therefore sent from Isle Jeremie to replace him. He had an outpost also besides the charge of Mingan. This was named Natashquan, situated a hundred miles to the Eastward. During the winter he visited that place, and when returning therefrom while travelling with one man and a sled of dogs over rather thin and insecure ice, he and his man went through, as did the sled - the man was drowned, but Mr. Bell got hold of one of the dog traces and the dogs hauled him out to solid ice. This accident occurred on La Cornez river, some thirty miles from Mingan. He was wet through, of course, and had no thing to strike a fire with. He saved but one of his snowshoes and lost both mitts and cap! He kept tramping round the small island on which he landed, all night, in order to keep himself from freezing to death, he was afraid to travel during the darkness for fear of again breaking through the ice. There was not a solitary settler or hunter at that time between both points. He, however, started out at dawn next day - the accident had happened after sunset - and never stopped until he reached Mingan. When he got there he found his toes frozen and lost several of them. In my opinion this was a remarkable feat of endurance - few men would have got so far after such a cold bath, and under such terribly trying circumstances.

In 1856, Mr. Bell was appointed to Esquimaux Bay district, Labrador, then in charge of Mr. Smith, now Lord Strathcona. He took passage in the brigantine Independent the wind being contrary, they anchored at a small place called Tug Harbor. In the night the wind changed suddenly to the Southeast, blowing a gale right on the shore - the vessel dragged her anchors and got stranded. Mr. Bell was washed ashore clinging to the mainboom, and narrowly escaped drowning. It is believed that two of the crew perished! When the gale ceased the vessel was high and dry on the beach. The cargo was landed and piled on shore, then a new danger threatened, a number of Newfoundland fishermen arrived and were going to take possession of the goods, as they, considered all wrecks as fair game for plunder. Mr. Bell and the crew barricaded themselves behind the goods, and held them off with their guns until assistance arrived from Rigolette, which is about sixty miles from Tug Harbor.

After his retirement Mr. Bell resided for several years in Kingston, Ontario, and latterly at Vancouver, B.C. A well known Winnipeg passenger on the Islander who narrowly escaped death by drowning, states that he held a long cheery conversation with Mr. Bell in the saloon cabin, some three or four hours before she struck on a sunken iceberg. This was the last he ever saw of him; but as the body has never been recovered, in all probability, from what we know of his fertility of resource, and the experience acquired in previous shipwreck disasters, Mr. Bell on finding that the steamer was doomed, lost his life in attempting to fetch from his cabin a large number of letters that had been entrusted to him at Dawson for posting in Vancouver, as well as certain papers, etc., of value belonging to Dr. Duncan and himself. On this supposition he might have failed to reach the deck ere she took the fatal plunge, and consequently went to the bottom in her, along with a number of other similarly entrapped unfortunates, including the sad case of Mr. Keating, of Victoria, and his two sons. It is difficult for anyone who knew him, to imagine that he would not otherwise have succeeded in saving his own life. Mr. Bell was one of the best known and most popular of the Company’s officers. He was, also, like many of his inland colleagues in the service, a keen sportsman and an excellent shat, and he had no superior, and but few equals, as a traveller on snowshoes. The news of his untimely death was a terrible shock to his family, and it is still deeply regretted by his numerous friends and acquaintances throughout Canada, and by some also in the United States. In September, 1866, Mr. Bell was married in Belleville, Ontario, to the beautiful Miss Ellen S. Dupont, a sister of M Dupont, of Victoria, B. C. Three sons and two daughters were born to them. One of the daughters is married to Colonel Pemberton, of Victoria, and the other resides with her mother. Wentworth, the eldest son, is one of the Canadian soldiers in South Africa; the second, “Jack,” a noted Rugby and hockey player, formerly of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, Winnipeg, is now on the staff of the branch of that bank in Dawson, Y.T., and the third son is employed in connection with the Southern Pacific Railway, in the State of California.

Printed in Transactions of the Historical and Scientific Society, Series 1, No. 62, 1902.

Page revised: 7 April 2013

Memorable Manitobans

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