Alexander Mackenzie

Alexander Mackenzie : Biography

Alexander Mackenzie was born in Stornoway, Scotland, in 1764. When he was a young man he joined the Canadian-owned North West Fur Company and in 1778 he established Fort Chipewayan on Lake Athabasca. While working as a fur trapper in Alberta, he heard stories from local Indians that there was a water route to the Pacific ocean.

In 1789 Mackenzie and eight men and four wives set off in three canoes in an attempt to find this route. They paddled up the Slave River to the Great Slave Lake. At the lake they found another broad river (later given the name, the Mackenzie River) that headed north of the Rocky Mountains. They followed the river for forty days until it reached the coast. However, Mackenzie was bitterly disappointed to discover it was the Arctic rather than the Pacific ocean.

On his return to base Mackenzie asked the directors of the North West Fur Company for permission to make a second expedition to discover a water route to the Pacific ocean. The agreed and in May 1793 Mackenzie and a party of nine men in a 25-foot canoe, paddled up the Peace River. When it entered the Rockies the river narrowed into a stream and the men had to carry the canoe as the moved west. Eventually they discovered the Bad River (later called the Fraser River). In the rapids of this river the canoe capsized and the men were lucky not to be drowned.

Mackenzie's party had to abandon the canoe and had to walk over the Coast Mountains. They eventually found another river and with help given by some Bella Coola Indians they were able to get some canoes that enabled them to reach the Pacific Ocean. MacKenzie had discovered a Northwest Passage but it was a useless, unnavigable, route.

The North West Fur Company refused to allow Mackenzie to try again. He resigned in protest and returned home. Mackenzie now tried and failed to persuade the British government to fund an expedition to find a navigable route to the Pacific Ocean. As part of his propaganda campaign he published an account of his two expeditions, Voyages from Montreal.

Thomas Jefferson read Mackenzie's book and was impressed with what he had to say about the possibility of a Northwest Passage. Three years later Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the vast unknown lands to the west of the Mississippi. To help them on their mission Jefferson gave them a copy of Voyages from Montreal.

Alexander Mackenzie died in 1820.

© John Simkin, September 1997 - June 2013