Alexander Mackenzie was a Scot who discovered the Mackenzie River in the Canadian Arctic and was the first European to cross North America north of Mexico.
Name: Sir Alexander Mackenzie
Birth Date: 1762 – March 1820
Job Functions: Scottish Explorer, Fur Trader, and Businessman
Fields: Business and Exploration
Known For: First European to cross North America north of Mexico
Alexander Mackenzie was born near Stornoway on Lewis Island to a prominent military family. Upon the death of his mother, his father took him to New York in 1774 when he was 12 years old. During the American Revolution, his father, a loyalist, joined forces loyal to the King of England and died during the revolution. As the Americans gained strength and the war turned against England, the Mackenzie family moved to Montreal, Canada in 1776.
Mackenzie attended school briefly, and in 1779, he was employed to work as a clerk in one of the main Montreal fur-trading companies, Gregory and McLeod. He remained there for five years and in 1784 went to Detroit as a trader for the company. June 1785, Mackenzie was chosen to head the region of the Churchill River, with headquarters at Ile-a-la-Crosse in what is now northern Saskatchewan. At Ile-a-la-Crosse, Mackenzie managed a trading territory which stretched from Lake Athabasca to the Great Slave Lake and the upper regions of the Churchill River. Shortly after, Mackenzie and his cousin Roderick established Fort Chipewyan on the shores of Lake Athabasca.
Control of the Churchill allowed the Native American trappers to do business with the North West Company rather than having to travel hundreds of miles further down the river to trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company at Prince of Wales Fort. In 1787, Mackenzie’s firm merged with the larger North West Company.
At the time, the North West Company and the Hudson Bay Company were the two key trading companies in Canada. The Hudson Bay Company was doing business from outposts along the shores of the bay, and the North West Company had established trading posts in the country’s interior where Native Americans trapped furs and exchanged them for manufactured European goods and rum.
When the two companies merged, Mackenzie was now working with trader Peter Pond who had widely explored the Canadian interior. Over the years, Pond had gathered a lot of information from the Native Americans who he traded with, and he now had a general idea of the river system of the Canadian northwest.
“[Pond] learned of a large river (the Slave) that flowed into Great Slave Lake from the south and of a second river that flowed out of the western end of the lake and flowed to the Arctic. About this time, Pond became aware of the discoveries of Captain James Cook who had found Cook Inlet on the south coast of Alaska. Pond then came up with the theory that the river that flowed out of the Great Slave Lake flowed westward into Cook Inlet rather than north. If so, this would provide the much-sought-after route to the Pacific.”
Pond retired in 1788, a year after the merger, and Mackenzie was left to test the trader’s ideas through exploration. The North West Company wanted to expand its knowledge base on western Canada’s geography, and the various Native American tribes who inhabited it. To succeed in the lucrative fur trade, it was essential that traders be familiar with not only the land in which they trapped and transported animal skins, but also the relationships that traders fostered with the tribes that they traded with.
On June 3, 1789, Mackenzie set off in canoes on his exploration with a large party of traders and Native Americans from Fort Chipewyan in what is now far-northern Alberta. Included on this exploration was Nestabeck, a member of the Chipewyan tribe, who had previously guided Samuel Hearne on his historic overland trip to the Arctic Ocean along the Coppermine River.
Mackenzie and his team were hoping to discover a passage westward by way of a river, described to him by the Indians, which flowed out of Great Slave Lake. Travel was slow at first because of the large number of rapids on the Slave River. Once they entered the river flowing out of the lake – which has since been named the Mackenzie River after Alexander Mackenzie – the expedition covered approximately 75 miles a day and reached the river’s outlet to the Arctic Ocean on July 14, 1789. The team stayed for four days on an island in the Arctic Ocean before they embarked on the return trip to Fort Chipewyan.
Though Mackenzie discovered one of the world’s greatest rivers, he was very disappointed because it was of no practical use to traders. He decided that he would embark on another expedition to determine if he could find another route. Mackenzie spent the next three years on company business. In the winter of 1791-1792, Mackenzie went to London to learn more about navigation and surveying so that he could make more accurate measurements of locations. He studied longitude calculations and collected instruments. Mackenzie returned to Canada with a supply of rudimentary measuring instruments that he was to put to good use.
In the fall of 1792, Mackenzie met with his cousin Roderick to plan his second and greatest expedition. On October 10, 1792, Mackenzie set off on his second great expedition from Fort Chipewyan for the Pacific coast of Canada. He hoped that he would make contact with Russian traders to establish a trading route across Canada to the Far East. Unlike the Spanish and Portuguese explorers who wanted to get rid of the Russians, Mackenzie thought they could act as intermediaries in the lucrative Pacific trade with China.
This time, Mackenzie travelled west up the Peace River as far as its juncture with the Smoky River where he established Fort Fork. While on the expedition, Mackenzie stopped at trading posts along the way and traded rum and tobacco for furs and information. Before crossing the Continental Divide and beginning the descent to the ocean, the expedition was met by members of a western tribe that offered guidance in reaching the Pacific in hopes of establishing a trading relationship with the North West Company.
Mackenzie spent the winter to have an early start in the spring. Mackenzie set out again on May 9, 1793 with six voyageurs and began his quest for the Pacific again. After crossing the mountains, the party descended along the Fraser River for 150 miles and traveled overland to the Pacific coast of what is now British Columbia. This expedition and the voyage down the Mackenzie River combined to form the first crossing of North America above Mexico by a European.
Mackenzie found no Russian or Spanish traders, but instead Native Americans who were hostile to the Europeans. Mackenzie took a defensive position on a small island off the coast where he traded with non-hostile Native Americans who approached them.
On the morning of June 22, Mackenzie painted a simple inscription on a large rock in Dean Channel: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, July 22, 1793.” It is preserved today in a provincial park. Mackenzie started his return on July 23 and reached Fort Chipewyan onAugust 24, 1793.
Following the winter of 1793-1794, which he spent in Fort Chipewyan, Mackenzie headed back east with big ideas about uniting the two largest fur-trading companies, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company, and together they would cooperate with the East India Company to open a new trade route to China. He continued to advocate these ideas for years although they never materialized in quite that form. On his return to Montreal, Mackenzie became a director of a trading company and traveled every year to the annual meeting in Grand Portage until he retired and left for England in November 1799.
Mackenzie wrote and published the account of his expeditions –which he titled Voyages from Montreal Through the Continent of North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in 1789 and 1793 Vol. I – in December 1801 in England. He re-entered 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 a girl of 14 (he was 48) in 1812 and died on his estate on March 12, 1820.
Alexander Mackenzie’s Steps to Success
- In the years before the first trip north, Mackenzie gathered essential information about the geography of northern Canada from the tribes that came to trade at the newly established Fort Chipewyan.
- On his second trip, Mackenzie took a plan outlined by officials at the Northwest Company five years earlier, Mackenzie set out to make contact with the Russian, Spanish, and newly independent American traders conducting business on the Pacific coast of what is now British Columbia.
- Went to London to learn more about navigation and surveying so that he could make more accurate measurements of locations. He studied longitude calculations and collected instruments.
- Mackenzie was very persistent in his endeavors.
Why Alexander Mackenzie’s Contribution Matters
Alexander Mackenzie was an explorer who contributed greatly to his field. He also documented his travels in a book so that others may read about his experiences.
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Book links are affiliate links.
Science an Its Times, Volume 4, pages 19 – 21, 71
Science an Its Times, Volume 5
Encyclopedia of World Biography
Explorers & Discoverers of the World