Sir Alexander Mackenzie

The Scottish explorer, fur trader, and businessman Sir Alexander Mackenzie (ca. 1764-1820) was perhaps the most venturesome of all the explorers of the Northwest of North America. He was the first to travel overland to the Pacific Coast.

Alexander Mackenzie was born near Stornoway on Lewis Island. Upon the death of his mother, his father took him to New York in 1774. During the American Revolution his father fought as a loyalist, and he sent Alexander to safety in Montreal. A brief period of schooling was followed by his entry as a clerk into the trading firm of Gregory and McLeod. He remained there for 5 years and in 1784 went to Detroit as a trader for the company.

The next year Mackenzie was offered a partnership in the XY Company if he would go to the Saskatchewan River to join the competition with the North West Company in the fur trade. Two years of sharp hostility, which included at least two killings, led to a merger of the two companies. Mackenzie now became a wintering partner in the Nor'Westers and, in 1788, was placed in charge of the Athabasca Department. He took his cousin Roderick with him to oversee the trade, which left him free to indulge his ambition to explore.


Descent of the Mackenzie River

It was Mackenzie's passion to reach the Pacific Ocean overland. In the summer of 1789 he set out, hoping to discover a passage westward by way of a river, described to him by the Indians, which flowed out of Great Slave Lake. After 3 weeks exploring the north shore of the lake, they found the outlet. Unknown to Mackenzie, of course, it was one of the great rivers of the continent and led to the Arctic Ocean. He embarked optimistically on this river to which he would give his name, as its original course was westward. He became more and more gloomy, however, as the direction of the river swung to the north. He persevered in his search, visiting previously unknown Indian tribes little beyond a Stone Age culture. They reached the sea in early July but realized it only by the movement of the tides.

Mackenzie established a post on Whale Island, north of the delta of his river, to mark the limit of his journey. The arduous return brought the party back to Lake Athabasca by mid-September. They had traveled almost 3,000 miles in a little over 3 months, along the Mackenzie River to the sea and back. The feat brought little satisfaction to Mackenzie or his employers because of the lack of trading possibilities in the north and his own disappointment in not finding a westward route through the mountains.

Mackenzie spent the next 3 years in company affairs. In 1791 he went to Montreal. He spent the next winter in London studying, especially longitude calculation, and collecting instruments. He had not abandoned his hope of reaching the Pacific. By the fall of 1792, he was once again in the west, where he met cousin Roderick and planned his second, and greatest, expedition.


Land Route to the Pacific

Mackenzie set out in October and wintered up the Peace River in order to have an early start in the spring in his assault on the Rockies. Fur trading during the winter discharged his duty to the company, and on May 9, 1793, with six voyageurs, he began his quest for the Pacific again. By the end of the month they reached the forks of the Peace, deep in the mountains. They followed the south fork (Parsnip River) to its source and, on June 17, crossed over to the turbulent Fraser.

After a difficult week descending this river they abandoned the attempt, retraced their route, and struck overland on July 4. Eighteen days later they reached the Pacific near the mouth of the Bella Coola River. A simple inscription was painted on a rock face: "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, July 22, 1793." He was the first to cross the continent north of the Spanish possessions.

Mackenzie retired from the company in 1799 and published his Voyages in 1801 in England. He reentered the fur trade, first in competition with his old company and then again as a member of it. But his interest was waning. He was knighted in 1802. In 1805 he was elected as a member of the Lower Canada Assembly. Three years later he returned to Scotland. He married in 1812 and died on his estate on March 12, 1820.


Further Reading on Sir Alexander Mackenzie

Several editions of Mackenzie's own accounts have been published; but W. Kaye Lamb, Dominion Archivist of Canada, is preparing what probably will be the definitive edition of Mackenzie's writings. Of the several good studies of Mackenzie and his travels in the west, the most recent are Phillip Vail (pseudonym for Noel Bertram Gerson), The Magnificent Adventures of Alexander Mackenzie (1964), and Roy Daniells, Alexander Mackenzie and the North West (1969). Older but still useful are M. S. Wade, Mackenzie of Canada, The Life and Adventures of Alexander Mackenzie, Discoverer (1927); Arthur P. Woolacott, Mackenzie and His Voyageurs: By Canoe to the Arctic and the Pacific, 1789-93 (1927); and Hume Wrong, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Explorer and Fur Trader (1927).


Additional Biography Sources

Hing, Robert J., Tracking Mackenzie to the sea: coast to coast in eighteen splashdowns, Manassas, Va.: Anchor Watch Press, 1992.

Mackenzie, Alexander, Sir, First man West: Alexander Mackenzie's journal of his voyage to the Pacific coast of Canada in 1793, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976, 1962.

A narrative or journal of voyages and travels through the northwest continent of America in the years 1789 & 1793, Fairfield, Wash.: Ye Galleon Press, 1979.