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About Alexander MacKenzie – Explorer

Explorer Alexander MacKenzie

Alexander Mackenzie was born at Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland in 1764. He came to North America in 1774, and was employed as a clerk in the fur trade in 1779. By 1787, he was a wintering partner in the Northwest Company, and was posted at Ft. Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca under the direction of fur trader Peter Pond.

Based on information and maps provided by Pond: Mackenzie, Laurent Leroux, a guide known as English Chief, his two wives, five voyageurs, two of their wives, and two young natives set out on June 3, 1789 to follow a large river flowing west from Great Slave Lake in search of a Northwest passage to the Pacific (Mackenzie in Lamb, 1970, p. 163). On July 13, Mackenzie and his party reached salt water, although it was the Beaufort Sea and not the Pacific Ocean. Mackenzie, realising that his navigation and mapping skills were inadequate, completed another two years in the fur trade and then returned to England in the fall of 1791 for further schooling in astronomy and cartography.

After a winter's studies, Mackenzie returned to Canada in the spring of 1792 with a proper set of instruments and tables, improved skills and renewed determination. Fully concentrated on the task ahead, Mackenzie pushed west to newly constructed Fort Fork, near the junction of the Smoky and Peace Rivers, where he spent the winter preparing for his next and last great voyage.

In May, 1793, Mackenzie departed on a difficult passage by canoe and foot through the Rocky Mountains. Mackenzie and his crew of six voyageurs, two natives and Alexander Mackay arrived on the Pacific Ocean near Bella Coola, British Columbia, inscribing in vermilion paint on a rocky outcrop on the shore of the Dean Channel: "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety three." Mackenzie returned to Grand Portage in 1794 and was commended for his efforts, although the route he followed and recorded did little to contribute to the business of the Northwest Company. The route Mackenzie followed was too difficult to be practical as a trading route.

Mackenzie returned to Montreal and acted as an agent for the Northwest Company until 1799, after which he retired to England. In 1801, Mackenzie's book "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 1993" was published. The publication of Voyages and Mackenzie's subsequent proposals drawing attention to the importance of the Pacific coast were perhaps as notable achievements as Mackenzie's journeys across Canada. In 1802 Mackenzie was knighted by King George III. Alexander Mackenzie served as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada from 1804 to 1808. In 1812, Mackenzie married and purchased an estate in Scotland. Mackenzie died in Britain in 1820 of Bright's disease.

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