Modern Pioneer - - Front Page - Alexan­der Macken­zie By Dar­ryl Quidort

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.

A Pro­mo­tion

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.”

Birch-bark Voy­age

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.

Sec­ond At­tempt

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.

Per­sis­tence Pays

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 Canadahis­­zie Bella Coola Tours, Jour­ney of Alexan­der Macken­zie


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