Mackenzie: 1789, 1792-1797

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Mackenzie, Alexander, Sir, 1763-1820.     [portrait]
Voyages from Montreal, on the River St. Laurence, Through the Continent of North America, to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans; in the Years 1789 and 1793 . . . . London, 1801. [Western Americana Collection: Gift of Philip Ashton Rollins]

Princeton's copy is inscribed by Mackenzie to "Lady Johnson," wife of Sir John Johnson, governor of Upper Canada.

Born in Scotland, raised in New York, and schooled in Montreal, Mackenzie entered the fur trade business when still in his teens, ultimately becoming in 1788 the supervisor of the Athabasca region for the North West Company, a rival to the Hudson's Bay Company. From his headquarters, Fort Chipewayan on Lake Athabasca, which today straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, Mackenzie made two historic trips. On 3 June 1789 he set out with a small party of Canadians and Indians, reached the Great Slave Lake, "discovered" the outlet river flowing from the lake (the Mackenzie River), and canoed down it to the Arctic sea, which they reached on July 15, noting the latitude of 69.7° N. Seeing ice off the coast and learning that the ground never thawed more than six inches down, he realized he had not reached the Pacific and thus called his great river "River Disappointment." He retraced his steps and reached the fort on September 12.

In this voyage, I was not only without the necessary books and instruments, but also felt myself deficient in the sciences of astronomy and navigation: I did not hesitate, therefore, to undertake a winter's voyage to this country [England], in order to procure the one and acquire the other. These objects being accomplished, I returned, to determine the practicality of a commercial communication through the continent of North America, between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans . . . [Mackenzie, p. v.]

As a result, with preparations behind, Mackenzie departed from Fort Chipewayan once again, on 10 October 1792. He proceeded west on the Peace River till the 1st of November and wintered at Fort Fork at 56.9° N, 117° 35'15'' W. During the winter and early spring months he hunted and traded with the Indians and was ready to continue his expedition via canoe on 9 May 1793 with a total of ten men and 3000 lbs. of provisions. The party labored up the Peace River, the Parsnip River, across the Continental Divide, and then canoed down the Fraser River to a point south of today's Quesnel. Persuaded by local Indians, they left the water route and started west over land, carrying packs weighing up to 90 lb. on their backs. Ultimately, with the help of Bella Coola Valley Indians, they reached Dean Channel on the coast, at a latitude of 52° 20'48'' N.

These Indians were of a different tribe from those which I hadalready seen, as our guide did not understand their language. I now mixed up some vermilion in melted grease, and inscribed, in large characters, on the South-East face of the rock on which we had slept last night, this brief memorial—‘Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand, seven hundred and ninety-three.' [Mackenzie, p. 349.]

Mackenzie was thus the first white explorer to cross the American continent—twelve years before the better-known expedition of Lewis and Clark. On the 24th of August they were back where they had started on the Peace River, having discovered no Northwest Passage. In the conclusion of his published account, he suggested a new goal for the British government:

The discovery of a passage by sea, North-East or North-West from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, has for many years excited the attention of governments, and encouraged the enterprising spirit of individuals. The non-existence, however, of any such practical passage being at length determined, the practicability of a passage through the continents of Asia and America becomes an object of consideration. . . . By opening this intercourse between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and forming regular establishments through the interior, and at both extremes, as well as along the coasts and islands, the entire command of the fur trade of North America might be obtained, from latitude 48 North to the pole, except that portion of it which the Russians have in the Pacific. To this may be added the fishing in both seas, and the markets of the four quarters of the globe. Such would be the field for commercial enterprise, and incalculable would be the produce of it, when supported by the operations of that credit and capital which Great Britain so pre-eminently possesses. [Mackenzie, pp. 409, 411.]

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