Texas Pioneer Josiah Hughes Bell

A plaque commemorating Josiah Hughes Bell in West Columbia, Texas

A plaque commemorating Josiah Hughes Bell in West Columbia, Texas

Josiah Hughes Bell, the founder of East and West Columbia, Texas, was one of Stephen F. Austin’s original colonists and Austin’s trusted friend. Austin left Bell in charge of the colony when he had to go to Mexico City in 1822 to confirm his empresario grant with the new Mexican government. Thus Napoleon and his men meet with Bell, rather than Austin, when they arrive at the Brazos River in Napoleon in America. At the time, Bell was finding it hard to keep the colonists’ spirits up.

American businessman

Josiah Hughes Bell was born on August 22, 1791, in Chester District, South Carolina, the son of John and Elizabeth (Hughes) Bell. John died when Josiah was five years old. At the age of 11, Josiah Hughes Bell was sent to Nashville, Tennessee, to apprentice with two uncles who were hatters. Ten years later, he moved to the Missouri Territory and began his own hat manufacturing business. During the War of 1812, Bell fought against the Indian attacks instigated by the British.

In 1818, Bell sold his business and went to visit his mother, who was living in Kentucky. While there he met and married Mary Eveline McKenzie. They settled in Natchitoches, Louisiana, where Bell developed a prosperous business. Unfortunately, his business partner disappeared with all of the profits.

Austin colonist

Josiah Hughes Bell moved to Texas, which was then part of Mexico, and joined a Missouri friend, Stephen Austin. Austin’s father Moses had received permission from the Spanish government to settle three hundred Anglo-American families in Texas, but died before completing the task. Stephen Austin took over his father’s job.

On October 6, 1821, at Nacogdoches, Stephen Austin granted Josiah Hughes Bell permission to settle along the Brazos River.

He is to receive nine hundred and sixty acres as head of his family and in addition to that three hundred and twenty acres for his wife and one hundred and sixty acres for each child and slave, one half of which is to be taken in an oblong on the River and the other half back from the River. The said land must be inhabited and cultivated within one year and there must be paid me twelve dollars and fifty cents per hundred acres one half on the receipt of the title and the other half in twelve months which is to be in full for all surveying and other expenses. (1)

As Mexico had recently declared its independence, Austin was obliged to travel to Mexico City to seek the new government’s authority to give the settlers title to their land. Since Bell was one of his most trusted friends, Austin left him in charge of the small number of families who had already arrived, as well as the incoming colonists.

On January 17, 1822, Bell wrote to Austin:

I have only time to drop you a line in haste as the bearer is in a hurry. All things are going on well and people crowding on their way to the Brassos [Brazos] and Colorado [Rivers] and are all coming for your claim. You will find that they will all crowd for your settlement notwithstanding what the few may say that are opposed to your [interest]. We understand here that [James] Long is well received by the Government. He may have some influence hereafter and situated as things are at present you would do well to pay attention to that circumstance and as his good will may be of service an early attention will in my opinion be no disadvantage. My anxiety for your [interest] makes me take this liberty at present…. You may rest assured that old [James] Dill does and will do you all the injury you [he] can. (2)

Austin was gone for over a year and a half. Despite Bell’s efforts to keep spirits up, some of the settlers became demoralized by Austin’s long absence, the unclear status of their grants, a bad drought, and the hostility of the Indians. Austin wrote to Bell from Mexico City in July 1822: “I fear some of the settlers may have become a little discouraged at my long absences and at the uncertainty in which they have remained, but I assure you that I have been labouring hard the whole time for your good.” (3) He also promised that the government would send a body of troops “with whose aid I think the Comanches may be humbled.” (4)

The troops were never sent. Bell was left having to deal with the colony’s security, as well as matters of justice. In May 1823 he wrote to Texas Governor José Félix Trespalacios:

On the twenty first of March last there was a Frenchman who called his name Bt. Rashall a citizen of the United States of America passed through this neighbourhood. [H]e had in company with him a man he said was an Indian. Rashall had a small cavallard sixteen in number of horses and mules of different brands. [A]s they passed through the neighbourhood of the Colorado they stole thirteen head of horses from Mr. Buckner and Parker, came on to Martin Varner living on the road in the neighborhood of the Brazos and stole four head from him, and passed on across the Brazos intending to make their escape for the United States. We raised a party of men and followed them near the Trinity river and overtook them, and they having no passport we brought they back, and on examination found them guilty of theft. I detained the cavallyard and started the men on to [San] Antonio under a guard for your instruction. [A]t the Colorado, the Alcalde and Commandant stopped them, and directed the guard to return, saying they had instructions from your excellency not to send any guilty of such crimes on but to decide on the case ourselves. [T]heir doing so put it out of my power to send them on after they returned as we have not horses for that purpose and men could not leave their crops having lost so much time already. [B]eing convinced of the guilt of Rashall I took the property I found to be his, to pay the expense of apprehending them, and also to pay for the property they stole and did not return. There was one hundred and fifty dollars of the stolen property we could get nothing for, which was lost to the owners. … The manner in which I acted appeared from every evidence I could get on the subject to be as near justice as was in my power to come at and I wish your Excellency so soon as convenient to say whether the part I acted was right or not. We are much at a loss for instructions from that place, as we have never received one official line since the officers were elected. Be so good as to give us instructions when you can with convenience (5)

Austin seemed pleased with Bell’s efforts. Upon his return to the colony in August 1823, he wrote to Bell:

I rely greatly on your prudence and judgment in preserving harmony and content amongst the settlers. It now depends altogether on my will to admit or reject who I please, and if there are any who are not worthy I must be informed of it that they may be ordered off, and if the order is not obeyed it will be enforced with rigor. (6)

In March 1824, Austin appointed Josiah Hughes Bell as lieutenant of the militia within the Brazos district.

The said Bell will adopt all necessary measures to protect the said settlements from the attacks of the Karankawas, Cokes, or any other Indians, and to chastise them for any depredations they may commit within said limits without waiting for orders from his superior officer, avoiding in all cases the shedding of blood where more gentle means are likely to produce the proper effect…. The said Bell will also watch over the public peace and the observance of the laws generally and forward on to the Alcalde of the District for trial all persons who violate them. He will also be attentive that no vagabond or fugitives from justice are harbored or protected within his command nor any persons who are avowedly enemies of the Mexican Nation, giving an account to me of all such and if necessary apprehending and forwarding them to the Alcalde for trial. He will be particular to give frequent statements to me in writing of all his official acts, as also of the arrival of any vessels or emigrants or any other remarkable occurrence. And I command all persons to obey the said Bell accordingly, under the pains and penalties prescribed by the law. (7)

Founder of East and West Columbia

Bell’s land grants were located on the west side of the lower Brazos. He built his home there and developed a sugar plantation. A town called Marion, or Bell’s Landing (now known as East Columbia), grew up around a river landing he constructed. It became the most important shipping point in the colony. In 1826, Bell laid out the town of Columbia (now called West Columbia), two miles west of Marion.

Josiah Hughes Bell became a prosperous colonist. He built a hotel in Columbia to accommodate the many travellers who came to visit him. He also constructed a school. Bell was loyal to the Texas cause during the Texas Revolution. Columbia served as the capital of the Republic of Texas from September to December 1836.

Josiah Hughes Bell died in Columbia on May 17, 1838, at the age of 46. He and Mary had eight children: Samuel (1819), Elizabeth Lucinda (1820), Thaddeus (1822), James Hall (1825), William (1828), John (1832), May (1834), and Amanda (1836). Mary Bell died in 1856, after being thrown from a carriage.

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  1. Eugene C. Barker, ed., Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1919: Vol. II: The Austin Papers, Part 1 (Washington, 1924), p. 415.
  2. Ibid., p. 466.
  3. Ibid., p. 534.
  4. Ibid., p. 535.
  5. Ibid., pp. 636-37.
  6. Ibid., p. 681.
  7. Ibid., pp. 759-760.

6 commments on “Texas Pioneer Josiah Hughes Bell”

  • Curt says:

    Oh, the things you stumble across on the internet! I’m sitting in present day Chester county South Carolina and I believe while researching my family I stumbled across the Bell family in some form or another.

    I never had any inkling that there was that much of a connection. Many from here made their way to Texas by way of Missouri or Arkansas. Makes perfect sense once there is some context.

    Great post!

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Curt. It’s lovely to hear from someone in Bell’s home county. Glad you stumbled across the post!

  • Bob Arnold says:

    I am a direct descendant of Josiah Hughes Bell and have written a book primarily about he and his son, James Hall Bell, the first native Texan elected as a justice in the Texas Supreme Court. The book is First in Texas. I would like to know about your interest in Bell. He is my great, great, great grandfather and I was recently involved with having a Texas historical plaque erected for him at the cemetery in West Columbia where he is buried.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Lovely to hear from you, Bob. Josiah Hughes Bell is a character in my novel, Napoleon in America.

    • Rebecca Smith says:

      Hello Bob. Josiah and Mary are my g g g grandparents as well. I have been fascinated by them for years. Flora Bell was my grandmother.
      I would love to talk to you and learn anything about their tie in Kentucky.
      I have located Josiah’s grandfather’s grave and plan to go there next summer. He is our immigrant ancestor.
      I would love to read your book.
      Rebecca

      • Shannon Selin says:

        How nice to hear from another Bell descendant, Rebecca. I’ll put you in touch with Bob so you two can communicate directly.

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I rely greatly on your prudence and judgment in preserving harmony and content amongst the settlers.

Stephen F. Austin to Josiah Hughes Bell