Come July, our favorite reality-television program, Antiques Roadshow, is on its way to Knoxville. You might wonder why Knoxville’s never been on before—over its 16 years, Roadshow has visited less antique towns, and smaller ones. But we should admit that Knoxville has never been known as a center for fine artisans, or even of collectors. Art historians I’ve talked to have expressed frustration that Knoxville’s wealthy old families rarely bought or saved much art of great value. When we have extra money, we tend to spend it on cars and boats and swimming pools, things that rarely last long enough to get interesting.
Knoxville was once a furniture center, but it was mostly factory-made stuff, not the sort of thing Roadshow’s Keno twins are likely to flip over. When it comes to objects, we’ve always been a practical town.
Even our local daily’s antiques column is perpetually dismissive of the value of its readers’ treasures, often suggesting an “insurance replacement value” in the two digits. Do insurance agents insure doodads for $50?
I have no idea what they’ll find here. But Knoxville stuff occasionally turns up on the Roadshow when it’s parked in other cities. A recent episode exposed one that startled me. In Corpus Christi, a Texan brought in a fine silver knife with silver sheath, identified as the work of Samuel Bell. Apparently a real rarity, it was appraised at over $60,000. On the show, every interesting detail gets a close-up, but in this rare case, the appraiser declined to show Bell’s mark to the camera. It’s imitated by counterfeiters.
The guy who made it is the same Samuel Bell who was twice mayor of Knoxville. He once had a shop on Gay Street. Considering that he’s one of the best-known artisans who ever lived in Knoxville, Samuel Bell may be somebody we ought to know about.
The son of British parents, Bell (1798-1882) was born and raised in Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. He worked in War of 1812-era weapons factories before moving to Knoxville at age 21 and setting up shop here as a silversmith.
Why he came here, I don’t know. The year 1819 was the worst year in history to move to Knoxville. The city had just lost its capital status, once its only reason for existing, and in the new steam era, travel was frustrating. While Bell lived here, steamboat travel was hazardous, and railroads never quite punched through the mountains. Knoxville, or what was left of it, stagnated.
Bell was a good sport. At his downtown Knoxville shop, Bell made all sorts of things: jewelry, swords, clocks, fine tools. Bell was also known in Texas, because in his downtown Knoxville shop he created the silver spurs Sam Houston wore at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836.
He was best known for his large Bowie knives, which were stamped Samuel Bell, in a little arc, above “Knoxville, Tennessee,” on two lines, with stars fore and aft. The funny thing about that, according to California Bowie knife expert William Williamson: Although Bell was an acknowledged master craftsman, his “Knoxville, Tennessee” imprinted knives—the ones he sold in his Gay Street shop—were probably manufactured in Sheffield, England, by Bell’s specifications. They’re so valuable that Bell’s “Knoxville” knives have been counterfeited in England even recently.
Bell lived here for 33 years, most of his adult life. He and his English-born wife, Eliza, had a large family. Well-liked, in the 1840s Bell served two non-consecutive terms as Mayor of Knoxville. He owned a lot of property and was involved in a lot of businesses. When you research antebellum Knoxville, you find Samuel Bell’s name here and there.
But I’ve seen his name most often in terms of his relationship with his famous younger half-brother, George Washington Harris. Just 5 when he came to Knoxville with Bell, Harris apprenticed in his shop as a silversmith and jeweler. It was his trade for a while, but Harris is best remembered as a writer, creator of the reckless frontier character Sut Lovingood, a forerunner to Huck Finn. He’s a major figure in early American literature, but silver enthusiasts rarely mention him in thumbnail sketches of his big brother Sam.
You’d think that by his mid-50s, a prosperous former mayor in the mid-19th century would be pretty much done, looking forward to retirement. But after his spells as mayor, Bell suffered some financial reversals, partly the result of a friend not coming through on a debt, according to Williamson’s 1989 article on Bell in Blade magazine. Bell decided to sell his shop to aspiring young jeweler David Hope, in 1852. Hope was the first of a family of jewelers later known as Hope Brothers. If you stand under the awning at Sapphire on Gay Street and look up, you can see the engraved marble sign for their early 20th-century store.
In the early 1850s, Knoxville was a frustrating place to live, anyway, still lacking railroad connections, with limited commerce and industry. Among Knox County’s 17,000 citizens were few customers with enough money for the fine jewelry and silverwork that Bell excelled in. The first couple of waves of Tennesseans to populate Texas had already left, but Bell followed in their wake. He brought his wife and most of his children, including three sons who were already skilled silversmiths themselves. (One was named Powhatan Bell, after Pocahontas’ dad.) They floated all the way down the river to New Orleans, took a boat across the Gulf to Texas, and made their way overland to San Antonio. There, Bell reconnected with his old East Tennessee chum Sam Houston, lived another 30 years, and became much more famous as a silversmith.
Bell wasn’t able to pay off his Knoxville debts until after the Civil War, when he was close to 70.
Antiques Roadshow will be in Knoxville on July 13. In the meantime, have a look in your silverware drawer and see if you have anything with an interesting mark suggestive of the name of Samuel Bell.