Robert Bell correspondence, 1874-1908


Date: 1874-1908 | Size: 0.25 Linear feet, 77 items


The letters concern a variety of topics, the most significant being Canada, geography, Indigenous peoples, paleontology, geology, and the Geological Survey of Canada. Correspondents include Franz Boas, Elliot Cones, William Isbister, J. M. LeMoine, James C. Pilling, and E. F. S. J. Petitot.

Background note

Robert Bell was born in Toronto on June 3, 1841, and was educated at McGill University, receiving degrees of B.Sc. in 1861 and M.D. in 1878. He also received degrees of LL.D. from Queen's University in 1893 and D.Sc. from McGill, 1901, Cambridge, 1903 and Edinburgh, 1903.

He began work for the Geological Survey of Canada in 1857; held the Chair of Natural History and Chemistry at Queen's University from 1863 to 1867; was appointed A ssistant Director of the Geological Survey in 1877; Chief Geologist in 1890; and was Director of the Geological Survey from 1901-1906.

The work done by Robert Bell in the field of Canadian exploration is unparalleled. He was the medical officer, naturalist, and geologist on the "Neptune" Expedition of 1884 and on the"Alert" Expedition of 1885 to Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay, and he was the geologist of the "Diana" Expedition to Baffin Island in 1897. Among the rivers he surveyed were the Slave, Athabaska, Beaver, Churchill, Hayes and its branches, Nelson, Winnipeg, English, Albany, Kenogami, Nipigon, Moose, Harricanaw, Broadback, Nottaway and the upper Gatineau. The Bell River which he surveyed in 1895 was officially named after him. He also made the first surveys of some of Canada's largest lakes, including Great Slave, Nipigon, Suel, Osnaburgh, and parts of Lake Athabaska, Lake Winnipeg and Lake of the Woods.

In addition to his explorations, Bell published more than two hundred reports and papers on such a wide variety of topics as geology, biology, geography, forestry and folk-lore.

Perhaps the single most important aspect of the career of Robert Bell was the role he played as the catalyst of Canadian science. Bell's reports, surveys, papers, and wide range of interests brought him into international circles, and with him, Canadian science. Because of the nature of his work - exploration -he was in close and continuous contact with international geographic scholars and authorities in the United States, England and Scotland. Because of the"Renaissance" nature of his education and interests, he could communicate on a scientific level in many disciplines and with many scientists throughout the world. Because of the fact that all of this diversity and ability was to be found in one man, Bell became a focal point of international scientific endeavour at the same time being both the impressario of Canadian science and the tie that bound Canadian scientific research to that of the United States, England, and Scotland.

Collection Information

Physical description

77 items.


Purchased from Montreal Book Auctions Ltd., (cat. 112), and accessioned, 11/10/1978 (1978 1596-1602ms).

Indexing Terms

Corporate Name(s)

  • American Museum of Natural History. Department of Anthropology
  • Geological Survey of Canada
  • International Congress of Americanists
  • World's Columbian Exposition (1893 : Chicago, Ill.)


  • Geography -- Canada.
  • Geology -- Canada.
  • Inuit

Detailed Inventory

Allen, Joel Asaph letters to Robert Bell
  box 1:
folder 1
Boas, Franz letters to Robert Bell
1886-1887 box 1:
folder 2
Boas, Franz letters to Robert Bell
1888-1889 box 1:
folder 3
Boas, Franz letters to Robert Bell
1890-1903 box 1:
folder 4
Boas, Franz letters to Robert Bell
1904-1908 box 1:
folder 5
Coues, Elliott letters to Robert Bell
  box 1:
folder 6
Isbister, William letters to Robert Bell
1880-1895 box 1:
folder 7
LeMoine, Sir James MacPherson letters to Robert Bell
1888-1903 box 1:
folder 8
Pilling, James Constantine letters to Robert Bell
1884-1894 box 1:
folder 9
Petitot, Emile Fortune Stanislaus letters to Robert Bell
  box 1:
folder 10