HISTORIC EXPLORER AND FUR TRADER
TWELVE YEARS BEFORE LEWIS AND CLARK made their historic overland trip to the Pacific Ocean, explorer Alexander Mackenzie had already attained that goal, though documentation of his journey isn’t nearly as widespread.
Born to Explore
Born in Scotland, Alexander arrived in New York in 1774 as a 10-year-old boy. His mother had died, and a severe economic depression prompted his father to leave Scotland and seek his fortune in the American Colonies. Within months of their arrival, the American War for Independence broke out. His father joined the British Army to fight against the patriots. The son of a Loyalist, young Alexander was sent to Montreal (Quebec, Canada) for his safety. There, he entered an apprenticeship with Finlay, Gregory & Company, a fur-trading concern that eventually became the powerful North West Company (NWC).
As a physically strong young man craving adventure, Alexander did well in the fur-trading business. Favorably impressed, his employers offered Alexander a share in the company. As they looked farther north and west for new sources of valuable furs, he was sent to a fort on the Athabasca River.
The NWC’S ambitions to secure valuable furs played an important part in Alexander’s future explorations of uncharted territory. The company submitted to the Governor of Quebec its intention “of exploring … between the latitudes of 55, and 65, all that tract of country extending west of Hudson’s Bay to the North Pacific Ocean.” The NWC planned to fill in the empty spaces on the map while in search of furs.
In 1788, Alexander was promoted and sent to build Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca’s south shore. He was also ordered to explore the large river flowing out of Lake Athabasca in hopes of finding a possible northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean. This would open up a much shorter route to the fur-trading markets in the Orient. Alexander undoubtedly welcomed the assignment. He ranked, “the practicability of penetrating across the continent of America [as] this favorite project of my own ambition.”
On June 3, 1789, Alexander left Fort Chipewyan on his inaugural discovery voyage. Several birchbark canoes carried his group of voyageurs and native hunters. Traveling down the river to Great Slave Lake was difficult because of dangerous rapids. Then, ice delayed them as they found the big lake still frozen over. When they found the outlet, and left the lake on a large river, progress downstream was swift.
In his journal, Alexander wrote, “it is evident these waters must empty themselves into the Northern Ocean.” He was correct. They soon reached the edges of a vast, icebound body of saltwater, the Arctic Ocean. On July 16, they turned around and raced the coming winter back upstream, reaching Fort Chipewyan on Sept. 12. The round trip was more than 3,000 miles, and was completed in only 102 days.
Although Alexander had explored and mapped a large, previously unexplored area, he was frustrated by his failure to find a northwest passage. He called the big river, which was more than 1,000 miles long, the Disappointment River (now the Mackenzie River). Without a northwest passage, the exploration was of little practical use to the company. However, Alexander wasn’t throwing in the towel.
Three years later, on Oct. 10, 1792, he started up the Peace River from Fort Chipewyan in a 25-foot canoe with 3,000 pounds of cargo and 10 people aboard. This time, Alexander’s cousin, Alexander Mackay, six voyageur paddlers and two Indian hunters accompanied him. They ascended the Peace River to the junction of the Smokey River where they built a small fort to overwinter.
In spring 1793, they continued up the Peace River where it became more and more dangerous. Entering the Peace River Canyon, they found it so treacherous that they had to line the entire canoe. Alexander wrote in his journal, “as we proceeded, the rapidity of the river’s current increased so that in the distance of two miles we were obliged to unload four times and carry everything.” By scouting ahead, they learned that the river was impassible. They carried the cargo up the cliffs to the top, then returned to winch the big canoe up with ropes.
The portage around the canyon was long and exhausting. The men complained and wanted to quit and go back, but Alexander was a great leader and encouraged them to continue. Back on the river and above the canyon, they continued to paddle against rapids and a swift current.
Along the river, they met Indians who’d never seen a white man. An old Indian told Alexander that at the headwaters of the river a portage would take them over the divide to a large river flowing west. The information was correct, but the route was long and exhausting. After they reached the divide, small streams led west to a larger river. Alexander wrote, “After all our toil and anxiety, the inexpressible satisfaction of finding ourselves on the bank of a navigable river on the West side of the great range of mountains.”
That river proved to be so fast and dangerous that he named it Bad River (now the Fraser River). They lost their canoe when it capsized, and the men narrowly escaped drowning. After four days of walking downstream, they met Indians who advised them to turn around for they would certainly be killed by natives downstream.
Alexander had to backtrack upstream and take an Indian trail over to the Bella Coola River. There they found a well-traveled Indian trail that led to the friendly Bella Coola Indians. With borrowed canoes, they again started toward the ocean. They came upon curious Indian houses built up on stilts. “From these houses, I could perceive the termination of the river, and its discharge into … the sea,” wrote Alexander.
He used his instruments to find his position, and before leaving, he mixed vermilion paint and wrote on a large rock the famous inscription: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twentysecond of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.” The first overland journey across North America had been completed.
Alexander arrived back at Fort Chipewyan on Aug. 24, 1793, after completing a journey of more than 2,300 miles in 117 days through unexplored wilderness. Once again, he brought his crew home safely, and kept peaceful relations with the Indians he’d met. With determination and perseverance, he found his northwest passage. However, the route proved too difficult for others to follow.
One Remarkable Explorer
Alexander Mackenzie was knighted by King George III in 1802, and recognized as “leader of the first expedition to cross the North American continent from Atlantic to Pacific north of Mexico.” Surveyors later found the rock painting and deeply inscribed the words to preserve them. The area is now within the Sir Alexander Mackenzie Provincial Park. Sources: Dictionary of Biography, Mackenzie, Sir Alexander Canadahistory.com/mackenzie Bella Coola Tours, Journey of Alexander Mackenzie
PHOTO IS PUBLIC DOMAIN VIA WIKIPEDIA