Alexander Mackenzie from Canada to Bella Coola
The first Crossing of North America
In the late 1700’s the search was on for the North West passage. If a trade route could be found across the North American continent then commerce between Europe and the Far East would be much easier and therefore more cost effective. This was the holy grail of exploration at the time and the person who could find the route stood to benefit handsomely.
One of the key players in this search was Alexander Mackenzie. He was born in 1764 in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis of the West Coast of Scotland. He immigrated to North America together with his father, first to New York and then on to Montreal.
At the age of 15, young Alex was hired by a fur trading company as office help but eventually worked his way up to fur trader. In this capacity, and working for the North West Company, he was sent to Fort Chipewyan on the south shore of Lake Athabasca in what is now North East Alberta.
At the time this was the western end of European reach on the North American continent and nothing was known about points further west. Even the coast was not yet mapped and constituted a major blank to cartographers, the last big bit of Terra incognita outside the arctic regions.
The draw of the unknown and the promise of trade was what sparked Alexander Mackenzie, at the ripe age of 25, to embark on the first of two expeditions. The first, launched in 1789, saw him head north on the Slave River. This turned out to be a bad choice in terms of his objectives, but he did discover a major new river, which today bears his name, and he followed it to its terminus in the Arctic Ocean.
The second expedition was launched in 1792. Setting out in a 25 foot long birch bark canoe with his lieutenant, 6 French Canadian Voyageurs, and two Indians hunters who would also act as interpreters, they headed west on the Peace River. After 3 weeks of intense uphill paddling, they camped and waited out the winter.
The following spring they continued west and crossed the continental divide, eventually ending up on the Fraser River. At the time Alexander Mackenzie believed it to be the “River of the West”, today’s Columbia River with its mouth on the Oregon Coast.
He followed the Fraser River south until it became too wild for his canoe and at that point headed west overland eventually arriving in the Bella Coola Valley on July 17th, 1793. With the support of the local First Nations people and their canoes, Alexander Mackenzie paddled down the Bella Coola River and onto salt water in North Bentinck Arm. They continued paddling west, in search of the open Ocean, but were turned back by a hostile tribe in three canoes at what is today know as Mackenzie’s rock. Here he inscribed “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the 22nd of July 1793”.
This is the first documented crossing of North America north of Mexico and he thus completed an extraordinary journey. Furthermore, it was accomplished a full 12 years before the much larger, government supported, and more famous Lewis and Clarke expedition.
In 1802 Alexander Mackenzie was knighted by King George III for his remarkable exploration in Canada and became Sir Alexander Mackenzie.