Sir Alexander Mackenzie, fur trader and explorer, was born on the 12th of March, 1764.
The term ‘intrepid’ was coined for guys like Alexander Mackenzie. Having left his native Scotland when but a lad, Mackenzie was lured by a spirit of adventure to a life in the fur trade. He didn’t work for the Hudson’s Bay Company, which is probably the first such firm on people’s lips when the North American fur trade is mentioned, but in later life, he lobbied, albeit unsuccessfully, for a major realignment of the trade. He wasn’t short of ambition as his goal was a union of the big three clubs at the time; the other two being the North West Company, which had expanded as a result of its merger with Gregory, MacLeod and Company in 1787, and for whom Mackenzie did work, and the India Company. Interestingly, in 1821, the year after Mackenzie died, the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company did merge their operations, which then reached from the Arctic Ocean in the North to the Pacific Ocean in the West. In those days, nobody had ever heard of the monopolies commission and cartels were de rigueur. Perhaps it was understandable to seek to pool everyone’s resources in such an inhospitable and hitherto unexplored environment. In fact, exploration was to become Mackenzie’s forte and is that upon which his fame rests.
Mackenzie once declared that, “the practicability of penetrating across the continent” was the “favourite project of my own ambition.” He spent five years in pursuit of that ambition, which was manifest in the desire to find a route to the Pacific and achieve the first crossing of the full width of North America. Interest in such a passage was intense, but there was no ‘Wacky Races’ competition to see who would be first. Later, after the turn of 19th Century, there would be competition from the American Fur Company of John Jacob Astor and the Russian-American Company, but in 1789, those traders didn’t exist and the potentially highly lucrative new market was there for the taking. Mackenzie mounted two remarkable expeditions chasing his dream and, during the latter of those, he did indeed find his way to the Pacific Ocean and was able to go for a paddle at the beach.
Mackenzie’s first expedition was sidetracked by the inaccurate cartography of Peter Pond, with whom he’d set up Fort Chipewyan. The result of that trip was his ending up at the Arctic, rather than the Pacific, Ocean. However, Mackenzie simply tried again and that second expedition was more fundamentally successful. That excursion involved a round trip of approximately 3700 kilometres, during which he was able to map significant portions of the far northwest, the value of which cannot be questioned. Of course, those regions had not been documented before, but not only that, Mackenzie had succeeded where Pond had failed – in finding an accurate route to the Pacific. Was he intrepid or was he intrepid? Mackenzie was also noteworthy for the astonishing speed and efficiency with which he travelled. On both his famous trips, he brought his crews home safely and, in spite of numerous contacts with the indigenous peoples in North America, never fired a shot in anger.
Alexander Mackenzie was born in Stornoway, on the Island of Lewis, on the 12th of March, 1764. In 1774, following the death of his mother, the ten year old Alexander and his father went to New York. Mackenzie senior served with Loyalists in the King’s Royal Regiment during the Revolutionary War of Independence (how’s that phraseology for appeasement?) and Alexander was sent to a school in Montréal. After that schooling, such as it was, he was lured away to his life in the fur trade, first joining the traders Finlay and Gregory and later, Gregory, MacLeod and Company. Initially, the young Mackenzie worked in the Montreal headquarters of Gregory, MacLeod and Co. He then became a trader, at which he worked at first in Michigan, and then at Île-à-la-Crosse, until the firm’s merger with the North West Company, in 1787. By the following year, Mackenzie had become a partner in the expanded company and, from the spring of 1788, he was a trader and explorer in Alberta’s Athabasca Country. And, it was from his base at Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca that Alexander Mackenzie set out in pursuit of his goal of finding a route to the Pacific.
His first expedition began in June 1789 and was intended to complete the route to the Pacific from the Great Slave Lake, through what was later named the Mackenzie River system. When, on that jaunt, he reached the Arctic instead of his intended destination, he was nevertheless pacified by its being considered an achievement in itself. Mackenzie’s second attempt at the Pacific route began further southwest, on the Peace River. After wintering at Fort Fork, which he established near the confluence of the Peace and Smoky Rivers, his expedition departed in May, 1793. Loaded with trade goods and provisions, Mackenzie’s party of six, including two native guides, reached the Fraser River in June. Following the advice of the local inhabitants, the party avoided the Fraser’s wild rapids and returned to the West Road River to continue the expedition overland. Later, in June that same year, following some encounters with the Bella Coola people, the expedition finally reached the western ocean at the Bentinck Arm of the Pacific, off Dean Channel (near the Queen Charlotte Straight).
It was near that location that the intrepid Mackenzie cut his famous inscription, which has since been restored, on a large rock. Instead of writing, “We wos ’ere!”, Mackenzie wrote: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety three.” For posterity and in 1801, Alexander Mackenzie published his journals, which were later reprinted under the title, “Alexander Mackenzie’s Voyage to the Pacific Ocean in 1793”. That publication included an excellent history of the fur trade. Then, in 1802, in recognition of his achievements, Mackenzie was knighted and thereafter, he spent a brief, but unimaginative, period of time in Canadian politics as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada. In 1805, Sir Alexander Mackenzie returned to Scotland, where he died, near Dunkeld, on his birthday, the 12th of March, in 1820.