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Significant Scots
Alexander MacKenzie

Scottish-born Alexander Mackenzie (1763-1820) entered the fur trade and from 1788 to 1796 commanded Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca in present-day Alberta for the North West Company. During this time he made voyages to the Arctic and Pacific oceans. Between these explorations he went to England to learn navigational science. In 1801 he returned to England to publish Voyages from Montreal, on the River St. Laurence, through the Continent of North America which chronicled his exploits in western Canada. After being knighted for his achievements in exploration, Mackenzie acted as a statesman in urging Britain to assert control over the Pacific Northwest.

Mackenzie was the second explorer to reach Lake Athabasca and the Great Slave Lake. Mackenzie not only followed the American Peter Pond to Lake Athabasca, he also based his route to the Pacific on Pond’s prediction that a river led from the Great Slave Lake to the Pacific Ocean. In 1789, when Mackenzie followed this river (which later bore his name), he reached instead the Arctic Ocean. Four years later he ascended the Peace River before crossing over the Continental Divide to the Fraser River— a river which he believed to be the upper reaches of the Columbia River and labeled the “Tacoutche Tesse or Columbia River” on his map. Mackenzie completed his journey in July 1793 by traveling over land another fourteen days to the Pacific Ocean at present-day Bella Coola, British Columbia. Mackenzie thus became the first European to reach the Pacific coast north of Mexico by traveling from the east.

Thomas Jefferson was aware of Mackenzie’s success at least as early as 1797, although he did not read the detailed account of the voyage until the summer of 1802. Jefferson’s attention doubtlessly would have been drawn to Mackenzie’s description of an easy crossing of the Continental Divide. Mackenzie’s claim that he traveled on a path that was only “eight hundred and seventeen paces in length over a ridge of 3000 ft. elevation” and his report that the mountains to the south were of even lower elevation, convinced Jefferson of the feasibility of an American expedition across the continent. Moreover, Mackenzie’s urgent recommendations that the British government secure control of the Pacific Northwest probably also hastened President Jefferson’s authorization of an expedition to the Northwest.

Additional information

MACKENZIE, SIR ALEXANDER – In the list of those adventurers who have explored the wild recesses of North America, and acted as the pioneers of Anglo-Saxon civilization, the name of Sir Alexander Mackenzie occupies a place inferior to none. Originally, however, an obscure mercantile adventurer, we are unable to ascertain the early training through which he not only became such an enterprising and observant traveler, but so excellent a writer in the account he has left of his journey. He is supposed to have been a native of Inverness, and to have emigrated to Canada while still a very young man. The first account we have of him is from himself, in his general history of the fur trade prefixed to the narrative of his travels, when he held a situation in the counting-house of Mr. Gregory, one of the partners in the North-West Fur Company. After he had been in this situation for five years, Mackenzie, in 1784, set off to seek his fortune at Detroit, having been intrusted for this purpose with a small venture of goods, on condition of proceeding to the back settlements or Indian country in the following spring. He accordingly set off on this half-mercantile half-exploratory journey with a party of associates; but on arriving at the scene of enterprise, they soon found themselves regarded as intruders by those Europeans who had established themselves in the country and full pre-occupation of the trade, and who not only opposed their progress, but stirred up the natives against them; and after the "severest struggle ever known in that part of the world," in which one of the partners of the company was murdered, another lamed, and a clerk shot through his powder-horn, by which the bullet was prevented from passing through is body, the jealous occupants at last admitted the new-comers to a share in their trade in 1787.

The acquaintanceship which Mackenzie had acquired of the country and the native tribes, during a residence of several years at Fort Chipewyan, situated at the head of the Athabasca Lake, in the territory of the savages to the west of Hudson’s Bay, and the intelligence, courage, and enterprising character which he had already displayed, pointed him out to his employers as a fit person to be sent out on an exploring expedition through the regions lying to the northwest of their station – at this time still a terra incognita to British exploration, and supposed to be bounded by the Arctic Ocean. Upon this Argonautic quest he accordingly set off, in a canoe of birch bark, from Fort Chipewyan, on the south side of the Lake of the Hills, on June 3, 1789. His crew consisted of a German, four Canadians, two of whom were attended by their wives, and an Indian chief; and in a smaller boat were the chief’s two wives, and two of his young men who were to serve as hunters and interpreters: a third Canoe that followed was in charge of one of the company’s clerks, and carried also their provisions, clothing, and ammunition as well as mercantile presents for the Indians along whose territories they would have to pass. This voyage, which continued 102 days, was of a sufficiently eventful character; and the difficulties, dangers, and privations which the party encountered, as well as the courage, wisdom, and perseverance with which Mackenzie encountered and surmounted them, can scarcely be appreciated in the present day, when the districts which he visited have now become familiar, while the wild tenants by whom they were occupied have disappeared. Six days after he had embarked on the Slave River he reached the Slave Lake, that was almost wholly frozen over; and after encamping six days among the ice, that sometimes gave way under them, he once more embarked, and skirting along the edge of the lake, he reached, on the 29th of June, the entrance of the river which flows from its western extremity, afterwards called, in honour of his discovery, the Mackenzie River. On the 15th of July, the principal purpose of his search was crowned with success, for after having followed the north-west course of the river, he arrived at the great Northern Ocean, in lat. 69. After having erected a post at the place of discovery, on which he engraved the latitude of the place, his own name, and the number of persons who accompanied him, he retraced his course, and arrived in safety at Chipewyan Fort, on the 12th of September.

After little more than a year of repose at home, or rather a year of active trading, the bold traveller was alert upon a new journey, and one of greater importance than the former, being nothing less than an attempt to reach the Pacific—an adventure which no European in North America had as yet accomplished, or, as far as is known, had even attempted. Again, therefore, he left Fort Chipewyan, on the 10th of October, 1792, and proceeded up the Peace River. "I had resolved," he says, "to go as far as our most distant settlement, which would occupy the remaining part of the season, it being the route by which I proposed to attempt my next discovery, across the mountains from the source of that river; for whatever distance I could reach this fall would be a proportionate advancement of my voyage." He set off, accompanied by two canoes laden with the necessary articles of trade, and prosecuted the enterprise partly by water and partly by land. The dangers he underwent were, if possible, still greater than before, not merely from natural obstacles, but the hostility of the blunders of the wild tribes with whom he came in contact; and it is strange as well as not a little interesting, to read in his narrative, not only of manners that are fast disappearing from the world, but of large Indian communities that have either dwindled into families, or utterly passed away. After nine months of persevering travel his aim was accomplished, for he had penetrated across the mountains, and through the North American continent, to the shores of the Pacific; and having reached the point of his ambition, he mixed up vermillion in melted grease, and inscribed upon a rock on which he had passed the night, this short memorial: Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three." It was a necessary precaution, as only the day after, when he was upon his return homeward, he very narrowly escaped assassination from the natives. He arrived at the fort on the 23d of August, 1793, and thus takes leave of his readers: "Here my voyages of discovery terminate. Their toils and their dangers, their solicitudes and sufferings, have not been exaggerated in my description. On the contrary, in many instances language has failed me in the attempt to describe them. I received, however, the reward of my labours, for they were crowned with success."

After he had returned to Fort Chipewyan, Mackenzie appears to have devoted himself, for a time at least, to that profitable trade in furs which his enterprises had so greatly tended to enlarge and benefit. He also prepared for the press his narrative, which was published in London in 1801, with the following title: "Voyages from Montreal, on the River St. Lawrence, through the Continent of North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans, in the years 1789 and 1793. With a Preliminary Account of the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Fur Trade of that Country. Illustrated with Maps, 4to." The value of his exertions were so justly appreciated, that soon after the publication of this work he received the honour of knighthood. From this period we so completely lose sight of Sir Alexander, that we know neither his after history, nor the period of his death; but from a biographical volume of living authors, published in 1816, we ascertain that he was still alive at that date.

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