Sir Alexander Mackenzie, fur trader, explorer (born around 1764 near Stornoway, Scotland; died 12 March 1820 near Dunkeld, Scotland). Mackenzie was one of Canada’s greatest explorers. In two epic journeys for the North West Company in 1789 and 1793, he traversed the dense northern wilderness to reach the Arctic and Pacific Oceans. The first European to cross North America, he inspired subsequent adventurers and traders, such as the famous Lewis and Clark expedition sponsored by the American military (1804–6). The Mackenzie River, named in his honour, symbolizes Mackenzie’s important place as a pioneer and fur trader in Canadian history.
Early Life and Career
Mackenzie’s mother died when he was a young child. Facing economic depression in Scotland, his father moved the family to New York City in 1774. Because of the dangers posed by the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), Mackenzie stayed with family in Johnstown in the Mohawk Valley before heading north to Montréal, where he attended school in 1778. The following year, he became a clerk in the small fur-trading firm of Finlay and Gregory (later Gregory, MacLeod and Company). In various positions over the next several years, Mackenzie showed a talent for fur trading and came to enjoy the business. As a partner from 1785 to 1787, he took charge of the trading post at Île-à-la-Crosse. When his company merged with the North West Company in 1787, Mackenzie became a partner in the larger concern and soon embarked on a series of expeditions to open up new trading routes.
The North West Company
During the winter of 1787–88, Mackenzie was assigned to the company post on the Athabasca River as the second-in-command to Peter Pond, who had explored the region extensively. Based on discussions with First Nations, Pond was convinced that Cook's River (Cook Inlet, Alaska) on one of Captain Cook's charts was the mouth of the large river that flowed westward out of Great Slave Lake, and that it would provide a travel route directly to the Pacific. However, Mackenzie would test Pond’s theory on his own. Embroiled in a series of controversies, Pond left the company in 1788 and Mackenzie replaced him as its head of operations in the northwest. With the help of his cousin, Roderick Mackenzie, he established Fort Chipewyan on the southern shore of Lake Athabasca. From there, Alexander Mackenzie would set out the next summer to explore Pond’s route to the Pacific.
The 1789 Expedition
On 3 June 1789, with a small party of voyageurs and guides (including Nestabeck, a Chipewyan guide who was known as the “English Chief”), Mackenzie set out from Fort Chipewyan to look for the Pacific. After encountering difficult conditions along the Slave River and Great Slave Lake, including ice, rough terrain, mosquitoes and gnats, they made good time on what would later be called the Mackenzie River. According to Pond’s theory, that great river (the largest in Canada) flowed due west to the Pacific, but it soon became clear that it went north instead. Mackenzie followed the river until it reached the Arctic Ocean, at which point his party turned around and started for home, reaching Fort Chipewyan on 12 September. In just over three months, they had travelled more than 3,000 miles (over 4,800 km) through the Canadian wilderness. This was a tremendous accomplishment. Although the expedition added significantly to geographic knowledge of the northwest, it received little public notice and Mackenzie was left disappointed — he had not reached the Pacific and had failed to open up new trade routes for his company.
The 1793 Expedition
Undaunted, Mackenzie planned a second expedition to the Pacific. In October 1792, he moved from Fort Chipewyan to Fort Fork, a new post on the Peace River (or Unjigah).With a better understanding of western geography, on 9 May 1793 his party left Fort Fork and followed the Peace, Parsnip, and McGregor Rivers. They navigated the Fraser River (which Mackenzie mistook for the Columbia) as far as what would later be called Fort Alexandria – one of several places in British Columbia named in his honour. Advised by the local Carrier (or Dakelh) to complete the journey overland, Mackenzie travelled back up the Fraser, turned west, and arrived 12 days and 285 km later at the Bella Coola Gorge. After borrowing canoes from the local Nuxalk (or Bella Coola), they followed the Bella Coola River to the Pacific, arriving on 22 July. On a rock, Mackenzie used a mixture of vermillion and grease to write these memorable words: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.”
Had he arrived six weeks earlier, Mackenzie may have encountered naval explorer George Vancouver, who had sailed up the coast and made contact with First Nations, likely the Heiltsuk (Bella Bella) people. Perhaps because of that encounter, the Heiltsuk were suspicious of Mackenzie, but he handled the situation well and there was no violence. The group soon headed back to Fort Fork, and safely made the journey home in just one month; in total, they had travelled 2,300 miles (over 3,700 km) to the Pacific and back. Although the route was too rough for trading furs and goods, Mackenzie’s historic expedition made him the first European to cross North America north of Mexico.
After spending the winter of 1793–94 at Fort Chipewyan, Mackenzie decided to leave the northwest for good, travelling east to Grand Portage and then to Upper Canada. In 1794, he explained to John Graves Simcoe, lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, his vision for the North West Company, Hudson's Bay Company, and East India Companyto cooperate in expanding the fur trade throughout the Canadian northwest and along the Pacific coast. Although rejected at the time, some of his ideas for the reorganization of the Canadian fur trade were adopted in the nineteenth century.
A major partner in the North West Company, Mackenzie was based in Montréal from 1794 to 1799, but travelled to Grand Portage, New York, and Philadelphia on company business. In 1799, he severed ties with the company (owing in part to conflict with Simon McTavish) and sailed for England. The next year he joined a rival company, the XY Company or New North West Company (which quickly became known as Alexander Mackenzie and Company). In 1801, Mackenzie published his Voyages from Montreal to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans (1801), which garnered him considerable public and literary attention.
Mackenzie was knighted in 1802. That same year, he returned to Canada and helped negotiate a merger of the old and new North West Companies. After a short stint in the Lower Canadian Assembly (1804–8), most of which he spent in Britain, he retired to Scotland. In 1812, he married Geddes Mackenzie, who was only fourteen, and together they had a daughter and two sons. In deteriorating health, Mackenzie died in 1820.
Best known for his 1789 and 1793 journeys to the Arctic and Pacific coasts, Mackenzie was the first European to traverse the continent north of Mexico. Although his ideas for reorganizing the fur trade were rejected at the time, some of them were adopted in the nineteenth century. One of the great explorers of Canadian history, Mackenzie’s legacy includes the mighty Mackenzie River, as well as several places in British Columbia, including Fort Alexandria (now a National Historic Site), the town of Mackenzie, and Sir Alexander Mackenzie Provincial Park. Several schools in Canada have also been named in his honour.
Mackenzie’s book, Voyages from Montreal to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans (1801), would inspire and guide other explorers. Several editions were published, including a pirated French version and two German editions. United States President Thomas Jefferson presented an American edition of Mackenzie’s book to Meriwether Lewis, who would carry it to the Pacific on his famed expedition with William Clark in 1804–6.