The Explorations of Alexander Mackenzie | The Canadian Encyclopedia


The Explorations of Alexander Mackenzie

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

"I now mixed up some vermilion in melted grease, and inscribed, in large characters, on the South-East face of the rock on which we had slept last night, this brief memorial-Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three."

Sir Alexander Mackenzie, propelled by the fur trade and his own wanderlust, was the first European to traverse the North American continent north of Mexico. His 6,400 km trek to the Pacific on behalf of the North West Company (NWC) revealed the promise of the Canadian Northwest and much of the geography of western North America. All who followed, including Lewis and Clark 12 years later, benefited from his endeavors, but Canada benefited most of all. Mackenzie's journey linked the Northwest with Canada, "rather than letting it come under the sway of our larger neighbor to the south." The NWC, as the principal of that westward expansion, has been called the forerunner of Confederation. Mackenzie "embodied that spirit and led it forward."

Mackenzie, aged 12, emigrated from Scotland to North America in 1774, just before the American Revolution erupted. When his father joined the British army, Mackenzie, motherless, was left with two aunts who sent him to Montreal in 1778. Montreal, the centre of the fur trade, enticed Mackenzie in 1779 to enter the industry that must have seemed an exciting occupation to a boy who was nearly a man. Only five years after joining the firm of Finlay, Gregory and Company he was sent to Detroit as a trader. The firm's partners, noting Mackenzie's business and leadership skills, offered him a partnership "on condition that [he] would proceed to the Indian country in the following spring, 1785." The "Indian country" was the Canadian Northwest.

Mackenzie's fame rests on the two remarkable voyages he undertook to the Arctic and the Pacific Ocean. Engraving by Thomas Lawrence (courtesy NAC/C-2146).

Mackenzie saw an opportunity to explore and to acquire personal wealth. His story embodies the history of Canada's fur trade, which is as much about exploration as economics. Competition for fur was intense, especially after New France was ceded to Great Britain in 1763. The Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company engaged explorers and cartographers to extend their trading networks.

Between 1774 and 1821, the rival companies established 601 posts throughout the Northwest, trying to gain the confidence of native populations and merging with smaller companies.

Mackenzie's company initially resisted joining the NWC. Peter Pond, one of the partners, was implicated in a murder during a dispute between the companies, which became a catalyst for the eventual merger. Pond, experienced but considered "eccentric," couldn't be fired immediately. In 1788 he was sent to the Athabasca country with Mackenzie, the only person likely to be able to handle him, as his second-in-command - and replacement. Pond believed Cook Inlet was the mouth of a large westward-flowing river that would provide a route to the Pacific. Pond's influence impelled the two expeditions that made Mackenzie famous.

Mackenzie set out from Fort Chipewyan on the Athabasca River in 1789 to test Pond's theory. After an arduous 2500 km canoe trip he found himself at a colossal dead end, for the river flowed to the Arctic, not the Pacific, Ocean.

Despite the first expedition's difficulties, Mackenzie immediately began planning a second. He determined that a possible route lay up the Peace River. He set out again in May 1793, with Alexander Mackay, six voyageurs and two Beaver natives. They navigated treacherous rapids, made numerous difficult portages and stopped repeatedly to maintain their heavily laden birchbark canoe.

Several times they nearly lost their canoe to the swift current, almost losing the men trying to keep the canoe from being swept away. Mackenzie's leadership was tested when the men wanted to turn back, but he persuaded them to continue, with the help of a little rum.

They completed part of the journey overland, guided by Nuxälk-Carrier people, a distance of over 400 km through rugged terrain. The final westward leg of their journey was completed by canoe down the fast-flowing Bella Coola River, finally emerging on the Pacific Coast.

When Alexander Mackenzie reached the Pacific "from Canada, by land," he played a momentous role in forging lucrative trading partnerships for Canada. But his more significant contribution was his role in establishing a great nation.