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Montgomery Bell (1769-1855)

Montgomery Bell, early Tennessee industrialist and ironmaster, was born in West Fellowfield Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, the youngest of ten children, to John Bell and Mary Patterson (spelled by some members of the family as "Pattison"). Too young for active service in the Revolution, he watched as five brothers marched off to war. Bell had little opportunity for formal education. He was apprenticed at the age of sixteen to a tanner but soon joined his brother, Patterson Bell, in the hatter's trade. At age twenty he moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where his recently widowed sister lived and opened a hatter's shop; he employed twenty men in the making and selling of hats. He also operated grist mills and lumber mills in Lexington and apparently met with considerable financial success.

In 1802 Bell moved to Tennessee's Cumberland region, where he bought James Robertson's interest in the Cumberland Iron Works and 640 acres of land for sixteen thousand dollars. He obtained the purchase money from the sale of his Lexington enterprises, supplemented by a year's work for Robertson. Why Bell entertained an interest in iron manufacture is not known. He was no doubt aware of the enormous growth of the Cumberland area, and as a youth he had been acquainted with iron smelting in Chester County. The acreage he purchased was necessary because of its iron-rich soil and the virgin timber, which could be converted into charcoal for the smelting process.

The iron works lay some twenty miles south of Clarksville, a frontier county seat on the Cumberland River. The area's growth created new counties in the following year, and Bell quickly became active in the civic affairs of the new Dickson County. He was appointed as one of 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 designed to form a school authorized by the legislature.

Bell pursued the iron business with characteristic vigor and success. 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. By the following year, he was producing more than two hundred tons of pig iron annually. In 1809 his brother Patterson, anticipating war with England or France, urged Bell to cast cannon balls and offer them to the United States Army. Accordingly, in the following year, he offered to the secretary of war "12-, 18-, and 24-pound ball" to be delivered at New Orleans for "ninety-two dollars a ton." 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 labor for Bell's iron works came from two sources. He hired white immigrants from North Carolina and Virginia, and he used slave labor. At one point he owned more than three hundred slaves and hired more in busy seasons from among slave owners in the neighborhood.

After the War of 1812 Bell suffered from the decline of government contracts and increasing competition from ironmasters like Richard Napier, who had built a large and successful furnace nearby. In 1825 Bell sold Cumberland Furnace to Anthony Van Leer for fifty thousand dollars. Bell built his last furnace near present-day Dickson in 1845 and named it "Worley Furnace" after one of his trusted slaves. By that time Tennessee ranked third among the states in iron production, and most of the state's pig iron came from Middle Tennessee.

Bell was well into his seventies by the 1840s, and his iron manufacturing activities declined substantially after that. Already he had moved to Nashville, where he enjoyed horse racing and other sports. Increasingly, he considered the future welfare of his slaves. Representatives of the state chapter of the American Colonization Society convinced him that colonization in Liberia would ensure their safety and happiness, and he sent several groups to Monrovia in the early 1850s. The transferal of one group of thirty-eight cost him three thousand dollars for transportation and several thousand dollars more in tools and supplies sent with the slaves for their use upon arrival.

At the time of his death Bell lived in an old dilapidated house near the Narrows of the Harpeth, where earlier he had constructed a tunnel to facilitate iron manufacture at a furnace he called Valley Forge. Friends and servants buried him near the banks of the Harpeth. Today, a stone marks his grave in an all but abandoned small cemetery.

Bell's will provided for twenty thousand dollars to be used for the establishment of a school for boys to be located in Nashville and one thousand dollars for the First Presbyterian Church in Nashville. The funds for the school were invested wisely and ultimately used to establish Montgomery Bell Academy. Other lands and funds were willed to heirs of his brothers and sisters.

Suggested Reading

Robert E. Corlew, A History of Dickson County, Tennessee (1956).

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010