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    Sir Alexander Mackenzie

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0483                                                                                                                  

    (Jeannette Mirsky)


            Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1763 ?-1820), Canadian fur trader and explorer,

    was born near Stornoway on the Scottish Isle of Lewis, the largest of the

    Hebrides. The date of his birth, sometimes given as 1764, was, according to

    his grandson, 1763. When he was ten his mother died and he and his father

    came to New York, but, with the outbreak of the American Revolution, the father

    sent the boy to Montreal to continue his schooling and then enlisted in the

    King's forces.

            In 1779, Mackenzie entered the service of Gregory, McLeod & Company, fur

    merchants. For the next five years he clerked in their Montreal office, then

    had one year at Detroit and two years on the Churchill as an active fur trader.

    When his firm became part of the North West Company, he was promoted to a winter–

    ing-partnership and sent to take general charge of the Athabaska country, suc–

    ceeding Peter Pond. Mackenzie had Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabaska built in

    1788; it was to be his headquarters for eight years and the place from which he

    began both his expeditions. In 1789 he went to Great Slave Lake and thence, via

    the unknown Mackenzie River, to the Arctic Sea (Whale Island; 69° 14′ N.). He

    called that northward-flowing waterway the Disappointment River, since by it he

    had hoped to reach the Pacific Ocean.

            Mackenzie's calibre and capabilities emerge in the varied activities he

    pursued between his voyages of discovery: two years (1789-91) were spent con–

    solidating the trade he had opened up in the Mackenzie River basin — thus proving

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    to his partners the economic worth of his journey; then (1791 and 1792), to

    equip himself for further exploration, he traveled all the way to England,

    secured the most modern surveying instruments, and, by intensive study, learned

    to use them easily and accurately.

            Mackenzie hurried the long way back to Fort Chipewyan and immediately

    started on his second voyage, his second attempt to reach the Pacific. This

    time he was successful and became the first European to cross North America,

    north of Mexico (1793). By way of the Peace and its tributary, the Parship,

    his small party reached the continental divide across which lay the headwaters

    of the Fraser. This they descended as far as the Blackwater, a western tributary.

    From there they marched overland to the Bella Coola which carried them to an in–

    let of the Pacific (Dean Channel: 52° 20′ 48′ N.).

            At thirty, Mackenzie had completed both of his extraordinary journeys; the

    rest of his life was spent in the fiercely competitive, bitter, bloody struggle

    that marked the organization and integration of the fur trade in Canada. For

    some years he remained in Montreal, acting as an agent for his wintering-partners

    and sat in the legislative assembly of Lower Canada as a member for Huntingdon.

    In 1799 he withdrew from the North West Company, joined the XY Company, and, un–

    til 1804 when it was reunited with the parent firm, he was the acknowledged head

    of the XY Company. Not until his Voyages from Montreal Through the Continent of

    North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans
    was published in 1801 were his

    achievements proclaimed to Europe and the United States; the following year his

    fame and wealth earned him a knighthood. In 1808 he returned to Scotland and

    four years later married Geddes Mackenzie (no relation); he had three children:

    Margaret, Alexander, and George. He died March 12, 1820, at Mulnain (or Mulin–

    earn), Scotland.

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    EA-Biography. Mirsky: Sir Alexander Mackenzie

            Mackenzie sums up those aspects which motivated morthern exploration in

    North America: he stands at the end of a long line of French and English ex–

    plorers who over two centuries had penetrated ever deeper into the continent

    in their efforts to reach the Pacific by canoe as well as those who tried to

    sail to the same goal by way of the Northwest Passage; he was a fur trader to

    whom new territories meant greater returns in pelts and profits; he was a Pedlar,

    a derisive term applied to the fur traders of the St. Lawrence by their com–

    petitors, the men of the Hudson's Bay Company.

            In an effort to reach the Pacific, Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain

    marked out the valley of the St. Lawrence. Henry Hudson and, after him, Groseil–

    liers and Radisson, employees of the Hudson's Bay Company, placed their hopes in

    Hudson Bay. By the middle of the 18th century, explorers had worked their way

    through the maze of lakes and rivers and reached far inland: from Montreal the

    V e é rendryes went as far as the upper Miseouri and the Black Hills of South Dakota,

    while Henry Kelsey and then Anthony Henday, employees of the Hudson's Bay Company,

    reached the headwaters of the South Saskatchewan. Both groups sighted the Rockies

    whose mountain mass would have effectively checked both lines of advance. The

    situation was radically changed when Fond (1778), following Indian information,

    crossed the difficult Methye Portage and so bridged the Churchill-Saskatchewan

    country with the Athabaska country. He had penetrated into the Mackenzie basin

    whose system of waters was all surmise and hope.

            The union of Montreal firms into the North West Company in 1787 ended the

    murderous competition among them and welded them into an efficient organization

    that, by coordinating the pemmican trade of the prairies with the fur trade of

    the forest belt, vastly increased their sphere of operations. This made it pos–

    sible for Pend to reach the Athabaska country. The new company set standards

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    for river navigation and a policy for dealing with new Indian tribes; it created

    a trained, disciplined corps of assistants; it gave Mackenzie a partnership and

    sent him to replace the aging Pond.

            If the grandiose plan and the investigations preliminary to the exploration

    of the northwest were Pond's, the execution and final triumphs were Mackenzie's.

    Both men were moved by the same impulse, the same needs: they were impelled to

    trace the waterways that would carry them northwestward into - it was hoped –

    Cook's Inlet (then called Cook's River) so that they might travel overland dir–

    ectly to the fabulously rich marine fur trade of the Northwest coast which the

    Russians had discovered. They envisioned establishing a North West Company

    factory on the Pacific so that their agents could shuttle between their termini

    and so lighten the burdensome costs of their long lines of transportation. Fur–

    thermore, new territory was a constant imperative since a region became seriously

    depleted of its beaver after five years of ruthless exploitation. Mingling with

    these basic economic factors was the unvanquished dream of the Northwest Passage.

            The merger of the independent firms into the North West Company was the

    first notable step in the process that culminated in the greater union of all the

    Canadian fur-trading Companies (1821). The economic forces which propelled this

    union - to combine the territorial franchise granted in its charter to the Hud–

    son's Bay Company with the matchless personnel and organization of the North West

    Company - was strenuously opposed by both parties from 1800 to 1821. In this

    protracted, involved, violent struggle Mackenzie played a leading role; he was

    its main advocate and, by a variety of means - financial and physical - tried

    to effect the solution that was finally forced on both reluctant companies by

    threatened bankruptcy. Mackenzie's contribution to the Union of 1821 (he had

    died the previous year) was that the new, revitalized Hudson's Bay Company now

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    enjoyed a continental domain.

            Mackenzie's successes - unmarred by fatality - depended on the superlative

    organization of the North West Company as well as his own innate qualities. His

    obedient Canadian crews were trained to a strenuous routine and inured to dangers

    and hardships; he was properly supplied with provisions and clothing, ammunition

    and arms for hunting as well as for defense, and his canoe was stocked with

    trade goods that insured a friendly welcome from new tribes; he was accompanied

    by Indian hunters, interpreters, and guides. Historically, Mackenzie's voyages

    have added significance because he relied on the proven techniques of the fur

    trader - techniques that aolved simply and adequately the demands of food, cloth–

    ing, shelter, and transportation. Handsome, quiet-mannered, ardent, Mackenzie

    was a born leader. He believed in his own abilities to realize his hopes and

    ambitions; his courage could surmount a crisis or sustain him over years of

    struggle. Endowed with rare qualities of judgment, his authority over his men

    was natural and acceptable and inspired them with loyalty and determination –

    yet when necessity demanded it, he drove them as relentlessly as he drove him–

    self. The mystery of the northwest had challenged Mackenzie and his genius lay

    in his meeting this challenge and his triumph both as a business man and as an



    First Journey: To The Arctic Sea

            With Mackenzie in 1789 went four Canadians, Francois Barrieau, Charles

    Ducette, Joseph Landry, and Pierre Delorme, two of them attended by their Indian

    wives; a German, John Steinbruick; an Indian, English Chief, his two wives, and

    two of his followers; and Laurent le Roux, a clerk in the North West Company.

    Le Roux accompanied them as far as his poet on Great Slave Lake, carrying addi-

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    tional provisions and supplies; the Indians, who had their own small birch–

    bark canoe, served as interpreters and hunters; while the main party and all

    their baggage occupoed a regular trader's canoe. English Chief was to be a

    problem as well as a prop; his man did keep the expedition well cupplied with

    food but he, himself, seems to have used his wits mainly to try to prevent

    Mackenzie from pushing on and then to insist on his turning back. The party

    was supplied with pemmican (it got moldy by mid-July) in case the hunting and

    fishing should fail, and bags of it were cached at regular intervals to insure

    their safe return. Hunger never became a matter of concern.

            At nine in the morning of June 3, 1789, they left Fort Chipewyan and that

    first day covered about 36 miles (as far as Le Roux's post the way was known).

    The schedule Mackenzie set up shows what he expected of the party and what they

    accomplished as routine performance. The second day between their start at 4 A.M.

    and their unloading of the canoes at 7:30 P.M. they covered about 80 miles.

    (Mackenzie computes the distance at 61 miles. In all his estimates of mileage

    it is important to bear in mind that he was faced with the problem of driving

    his men and, at the same time, minimizing the distance they had made into the

    unknown. This consistent underestimating was not corrected when he wrote up

    his journals, years later.) That day, June 4th, they crossed to the northwest–

    ern tip of Lake Athabaska where the mouth of the Peace River and the streams

    flowing from the lake combine to form the Slave, there a mile wide and with a

    strong current.

            The next day they embarked at 3 A.M., portaged six times for a total dis–

    tance of 2-1/2 rough, arduous miles (passed the Portage des Noyes that marked

    a dangerous rapids where in 1786 a part of five were drowned), and camped at

    5:30 P.M. because the men and the Indians were very tired - having made 30 miles.

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    They were getting into their stride. The following morning they were off by

    2:30 A.M. Headwinds, weather cold enough to oblige the Indians to use their

    mittens, rain, and snow made their progress slow. They reached Great Slave

    Lake on June 9th and, working their way through shoal water inside a long sand–

    bank, arrived at Le Roux's post. Except near the shore, the lake was still

    covered with ice; here they had to wait for the way to open, a way unknown save

    for the mere statement of the traders that somewhere from out the western end

    of the lake a great river flowed to the west.

            Great Slave Lake in 300 miles long and 50 miles wide and though the very day

    they arrived the rain and wind began to break up the ice, Mackenzie waited only

    until the 15th to resume his journey. To attempt to cross in a bark canoe a

    large body of water still heavily packed with immense fields of ice, which were

    set in motion by sudden spring gales, demands courage, skill, and leadership.

    Open water led them from island to island, northwestward across the lake; then

    they followed the north shore to the west and southwest, probing into deep bays –

    each time hoping that it would lead them to the river. Hosts of mosquitoes tor–

    mented them even though the weather was far from warm. On June 23rd they met a

    band of "Red Knife" (Copper or Yellowknife) Indians and in order to save time in

    circumnavigating the bays, Mackenzie hired one of the Indians to guide him to the

    river outlet. The guide was worse than useless and finally admitted that it was

    eight years since he had been in that vicinity; for six exasperating, fruitless

    days they searched each indentation in vain. Not until June 29th did they locate

    the 10-mile-wide outlet of the Great Slave Lake. Their first major problem had

    been solved.

            The Mackenzie (as the river is now rightly called) soon narrowed to a half

    mile in width and a strong current carried them rapidly along between banks of

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    yellow clay which were strewn with large quantities of burned wood. A stiff

    breeze drove them on at a great rate under sail, and Mackenzie was further

    heartened to note that the river was carrying them to the west. For 300 miles

    as the river flowed ever westward he continued to hope that he had found the

    path to the Pacific. On July 2nd the morning was very foggy, and whe, at 9 A.M.,

    it cleared they saw a cluster of mountains, their tops lost in the clouds,

    stretching as far as they could see to the south. It was a tantalizing sight

    of the Rockies; but with it came the disappointing realization that the direction

    of the river had changed, it was now running northward, parallel with the moun–

    tains. The river was not going to lead them through the mountain barrier to the


            Northward, swiftly they traveled. The Indians complained of the "persever–

    ance" with which he pushed forward, they were not accustomed to such unrelenting

    effort. Everywhere they saw Indian encampments, some recent, some old; the sur–

    rounding countryside was dotted with small lakes inhabited by great numbers of

    swans; the only trees were pine and birch, small in size and few in number; at

    places the current was so strong that it produced a hissing noise like a boiling

    kettle; the weather which had been almost sultry now turned extremely cold; they

    were drenched by sudden short thunderstorms, they were plagued by mosquitoes.

    On July 5th they met five families of Slave and Dog-Rib Indians, who were so

    panicked by fear at the approach of the white men that they failed to understand

    their own language when English chief spoke to them. Reassured by gifts - knives,

    beads, awls, rings, fire-steels, flints, and hatchets - and introduced to tobacco

    and grog, they soon became over-friendly. Inquiries about the lower river netted

    Mackenzie the size of their ignorance and the shape of their fears. He was warned

    that old age would overtake his party before they could reach the sea and return,

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    that they would encounter monsters of horrible shape and destructive powers,

    that they would be stopped by two impossible falls, and that game would become

    so scarce that they must perish from hunger. It took all of Mackenzie's author–

    ity and persuasion to convince English Chief of the folly of these combined

    statements; he succeeded, in consideration of a kettle, an axe, and a knife in

    inducing one of the Indians to accompany them as guide.

            Mackenzie's purpose in securing guides was twofold. As an experienced

    fur trader he had high respect for the natives' knowledge of their terrain and

    knew that white men advanced into the unknown along trails known and used by

    the Indians; he also had, in the living person of the native, a proof and re–

    assurance of his peaceful motives - it was the surest and quickest way to disarm

    the suspicions and allay the fears of the tribes into whose territory he had

    penetrated. And always with these guides who had been momentarily lured out

    of their terror by priceless gifts of iron and steel there was the difficulty

    of keeping them with the party; it became necessary to post a guard lest they

    escape during the night.

            The descent of the river presented no problems, no hazards, and their guide

    served his purpose as a messenger of good will and reconciled them to the numer–

    ous bands of Indians whom they met. The Indians gave them presents of fish,

    hares, and partridges and, in turn, were presented with articles which delighted

    them; they agreed to collect their surplus pelts and have them ready for Mackenzie

    when he could return upstream in about two months.

            On July 7th the river narrowed and for 7 miles ran through the Ramparts,

    lofty, perpendicular, white rocks. It was as they emerged from this landmark

    that their guide began to complain, to voice his fears of the Eskimos whom he

    characterized as a wicked and malignant people. The next day they exchanged this

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    guide - he had become so troublesome that they were forced to watch him day

    and night - for another, only to discover that they had not changed the problem –

    the new guide was a replica of the old.

            Shortly after they had embarked at 4 A.M. (July 10th), both banks became

    low, the river widened and separated into many channels. They had reached the

    arctic delta of the Mackenzie. That they were unaware of this important fact,

    that they were at a loss before the maze of channels that confronted them, must

    be put down to their being misled by the sight of snowy mountains that stretched

    to the northward as far as they could see. Only when Mackenzie took an observa–

    tion later that day that gave him 67° 47′ N. latitude, a northing that surprised

    him, was he willing to admit to himself that the river he had followed was, to

    his disappointment, about to empty into the "Hyperborean Sea." If that was the

    goal, that he was resolved to reach even if it meant their not being able to re–

    turn to Fort Chipewyan that season. He eat up all night to observe the sun.

    "At half past twelve I called up one of the men to vew a spectacle which he had

    never seen before; when, on seeing the sun so high, he ... could scarcely be

    persuaded by me that the sun had not descended nearer the horizon, and that it

    was now but a short time past midnight."

            It was the very next day, July 12th, that Mackenzie actually discovered

    the Arctic Sea. The morning began cold with a violent rain. They proceeded

    on their meandering course through country so naked that scarce a shrub was to

    be seen (only where the land was high was it covered with grass and flowers),

    borne by a strong current to the entrance of a "lake." It appeared to be cover–

    ed with ice; they could see no land ahead. Looking to the west they could dimly

    see a chain of mountains stretching north beyond the edge of the ice; to the

    east they saw many islands. The water over which they paddled was still fresh,

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    though it felt the ebb and flow of the tide. The lake was the Arctic Sea.

            The next five days (July 12-17) Mackenzie spent trying to explore the

    sweeping, semicircular bay into which the river debouched. He paddled over the

    treacherous, windswept waters that lay between the icefield and the shore. In

    his frail bark canoe he crossed the fqce of the delta and at great risk tried

    to find a path eastward past the islands, past the icefield westward to Bering

    Strait and the desired Pacific. On July 14th he pursued some whales that came

    into the bay, "a very wild and unreflecting enterprise." That night whom he

    camped on one of the islands (Whale Island) he left engraved on a post the lati–

    tude of the place, his name, the number of persons in his party, and the date.

    Trying to untangle the riddle of water, land, and ice was made more difficult

    by the fogs which alternated with heavy winds. Their nets secured them fish

    and their guns kept them supplied with swans, seese, cranes, and caribou; they

    found many Eskimo camps, empty of people but filled with their possessions.

    Everything made by the Eskimos displayed great skill; a square, two=gallon stone

    kettle beautifully chiseled out of solid rock; canoe and sledge frames made of

    whale bones fitted, strengthened, and sewn into shape; dishes, troughs, and other

    utensils. All this they found - but not an Eskimo did they meet whom they could


            On July 16th they made for the river and stemmed the current; almost immed–

    iately they left the cold and fogs and winds behind them and, though the change

    in temperature was agreeable, it brought with it the mosquito menace. The middle

    of the next afternoon they reached the first spruce tree, which though small,

    had grown in ground that never thaws deeper than five inches. Proceeding home–

    ward through the delta they found the valleys and lowlands near the river rich

    in cranberry bushes and a great variety of plants and herbs unknown to any of

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    them. Mackenzie walked along the bank with English Chief; he found it "dis–

    agreeable and fatiguing [for] though the country is so elevated, it was one

    continual morass, except on the summits of some barren hills." On July 21st they

    left "the channels formed by the islands for the uninterrupted channel of the

    river, where we found the current so strong, that it was absolutely necessary to

    tow the canoe with a line." Confusion and uncertainly were behind them; before

    them the river clearly marked their course, the towline enabled them to stem the

    current better than could have been done with paddles; and that night they en–

    camped at the spot where they had spent the night of July 9th. The descent of

    the Mackenzie River from Great Slave Lake had taken 14 days; it would take 38

    days to return to that spot. It was a race against the onrushing winter, against

    the ice that sealed the waters, against the first snow which would fall early in


            The river had fallen a good three feet since they floated down with its current

    and now along the broken, stony beach the men marched towing their canoe. Mack–

    enzie, with English Chief, used this opportunity to make side excursions to near–

    by Indian bands. On July 22nd he met a group who had contacts with the Eskimos,

    sometimes warlike, sometimes peaceful, as the latter came inland to hunt caribou

    and seek flint stones for their spears and arrows. Mackenzie learned that this

    group had been told by the Eskimos that they had seen "large canoes full of white

    men to the Westward, eight or ten winters ago, from whom they obtained iron in

    exchange for leather. The lake where they met these canoes is called by them

    Belhoullay Toe , or White Man's Lake." Reports of Europeans on the Pacific! Two

    days later Mackenzie was shown a small river from whose banks, rocky and steep,

    the Indians and Eskimos collected their flint; here he picked up pieces of yellow

    petroleum wax. Occasionally a wind from the north enabled the men to change their

    arduous towing for sailing; repeated entries tell of sultry weather, of insupp o rt-

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    able heat seasoned with sudden violent rain and hail storms.

            On July 26th Mackenzie heard from a Dog-Rib Indian of another river — on

    the other side of the mountains to the southwest — that flowed to the Pacific

    (the Yukon ?). There was no waterway to this river — the natives who knew of

    it went over the mountains. The next day another Indian drew a map of the north–

    west, again mentioned a river at whose mouth "there was a Belhoullay Couin, or

    White Men's Fort. This I took to be Unalasoha Fort, and consequently the river

    to the West to be Cook's River; and that the body of water or sea into which

    this river [the Mackenzie] discharges itself at Whale Island, communicates with

    Norton Sound. I made an advantageous proposition to this man to accompany me

    across the mountains to the other river, but he refused it." Repeated and in–

    sistent inquiries netted him tales that were ridiculous and absurd — of a people

    who had the extraordinary power of killing with their eyes. But - and this may

    account for the air of tension and strain that runs through the entries for the

    return journey - Mackenzie was convinced that "the interpreter, who had long been

    tired of the voyage, might conceal such a part of their communications as, in his

    opinion, would induce me to follow new routes, or extend my excursions." As the

    days passed he "found my interpreter very unwilling to ask such questions as were

    dictated to him, from the apprehension, ... as would prevent him seeing Athabasca

    this season." It would appear that English Chief fully understood Mackenzie's


            Near where the river from Bear Lake empties into the Mackenzie he found

    (August 2nd) lumps of iron ore, and a short distance beyond he sighted the smoke

    and inhaled the sulphurous smell of the famous burning lignite banks. As they

    progressed up the river they found that the water had fallen so much that many

    shoals were laid bare; day after day they battled the swift current, their labors

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    lightened only when a strong aft wind made their sails useful. Food was always

    to be had; their nets yielded a supply of fish, the hunters brought in game;

    they picked up pemmican that had been cached, or they gorged on a variety of

    delicious berries that lined the river banks. They reached the entrance to

    Great Slave Lake on August 22nd, but the wind was so violent it was not safe

    to venture out and they camped by the shore; two days later they met Le Roux

    who had come to meet them and bring news of the Indians who were to have awaited

    them with their treasure of skins. Until the 27th of August fierce winds kept them

    tied down. When fine weather set in they started out and three days later had

    crossed and were at Le Roux's post. There English Chief left to contact the

    Beaver Indians and induce them to bring their skins to this new station.

            September came and with it strong winds, cold rain, and the need to exert

    every ounce of strength to reach their winter quarters. The entries are bare

    and brief. On September 10th the rain and hall of the forenoon were followed

    by snow in the afternoon and a hard freeze during the night. But Fort chipewyan

    was almost in sight - they arrived back there on September 12th. "Here, then,

    we concluded this voyage, which had occupied the considerable space of 102 days."

    Thus precisely and with a strong flavor of disappointment Mackenzie ends his

    journal of this magnificent voyage. That he had covered 3,000 miles in one short

    summer and in his canoe, had charted the course of the second longest river in

    North America were discounted by his not having reached the Pacific. Perhaps it

    was not so much disappointment as a sense of waste; to a man of such energy and

    Perseverence, to a man conscious of the strategic importance of being first in

    a race, this expedition to the Arctic was a false start, wasted time and effort.

    He still had to find his way to the Pacific - and soon.

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    Second Voyage: To The Pacific

            Mackenzie's second voyage of exploration, though not commemorated by a

    river named in his honor is, from every aspect, a more brilliant, sustained,

    and historically significant effort. In the first he had only to find a par–

    ticular river and follow it to its mouth. In the second he had to give substance

    and order to vague geographical hints, to reconcile the "great river which is

    reported to run parallel with and falls into the sea westward of the River in

    which I voyaged," (spoken of by the Mackenzie River Indians) with the river the

    Athapaskan Indians had mentioned to Pond, "the Peace River, which descended from

    the Stoney or Rocky Mountains." To shorten the trail as much as possible, he had

    a new post built 250 miles west of Fort Chipewyan, at the junction of the Peace

    and Smoky rivers. He arrived there in October 1792, and there he wintered. His

    invincible determination is felt in the last letter he dispatched before starting

    out, enclosing "a couple of guineas; the rest I take with me to traffic with the


            Here, in brief, is the chronology and the route they followed. They started

    May 9th from the Peace River post to ascend a turbulent river high and angry with

    spring floods, and by May 18th reached the Peace River canyon where the maddened

    water tore a canyon path through the Rockies. Three days they spent heroically

    trying to force their way through and then had three exhausting, perilous days

    portaging around that impassable section. From May 24th to June 12th they con–

    tinued up the Peace and thence to the source of its tributary, the Parsnip. On

    June 12th they crossed the continental divide - carrying their canoe along a beaten

    path over a low ridge of land "eight hundred and seventeen paces in length" - and

    reached Bad River, a tributary of the Fraser. Until July 4th they fought an ex–

    hausting way through a nightmare country of bewildering, shallow streams, deep

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    morasses, and tangled forests. Mackenzie had to contend with terrified guides

    whose only thought was to desert; he had to handle the discontents, the fears,

    the "fainting spirits" of his subordinates; and, as he reached the large Pacific

    Coast Indian settlements (he first encountered them along the Fraser), he was

    almost without the reassuring help of language, for he had gone beyond the lang–

    uage area of his guides.

            Repeatedly warned by the Fraser River Indians that their river was too long

    and too broken by had fells and rapids to use as a path to the ocean, Mackenzie

    was forced to the only alternate route suggested. He had his men cache their canoe

    where the Blackwater joins the Fraser and then, carrying provisions and trade

    goods, they started for the coast on foot. Their overland march lasted until

    July 17th, when they straggled into "Friendly Village," the first populous set–

    tlement on the Bella Coola River. In a borrowed canoe they descended the river

    to where it flows into the North Bentinck Arm, thence they passed through La

    Bourchere Channel to Dean Channel and past Cascade Inlet to a point near Elcho

    Harbor. There, on a rock, in vermilion paint, he wrote: "Alexander Mackenzie, from

    Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety–

    three." By a more seven weeks he missed Vancouver, whose boats had (June 3rd)

    been at that very spot.

            From July 17th, when they met their first coastal Indians, to July 26th,

    when they started back along their overland trail, Mackenzie, single-handed,

    had to counter the hostile suspicions and aggressive behavior of the natives

    while at the same time he had to deal with his men who were exhausted and anxious

    to the point of hysteria. It was his physical and moral strength that happily

    conquered all difficulties. Their return, along the outward route, was swift

    and easy; on August 24th they arrived back at the Peace River Fort. It had taken

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    them 75 days to reach the Pacific and only 33 to return.

            Mackenzie's journals have clarity, color, and well-written passages of

    exciting narrative. In addition to his been observations on man an nature, to

    his daily recording of events and experiences, his entries have the precision

    of a guide book. The volumes, which have been often reprinted, include "An

    account of the rise and State of the fur trade" — a rich source for the details

    of the economy and the aborigines of the Canadian North as they existed at the

    close of the 18th century.


    Mirsky, Jeannette The Westward Crossings: Balboa: Mackenzie: Lewis and Clark .

    Knopf, New York, 1946.

    Wade, M. S. Mackenzie of Canada. The Life and Adventures of Alexander

    , Discoverer. Blackwood, Edinburgh and London, 1927.

    Wrong, Hume Sir Alexander Mackenzie, explorer and fur-trader . Macmillan,

    Toronto, 1927.


    Jeannette Mirsky

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