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(Sir) Alexander Mackenzie

Alexander Mackenzie

Alexander Mackenzie was born at Stornoway, Scotland, in 1764, to parents Kenneth and Isabella. In 1774, following the death of his mother, young Alexander and his father came to New York, where the senior Mackenzie served with other Loyalists in the King's Royal Regiment, until his death in 1780. Alexander was schooled in Montreal for a brief period, before being lured away to a life in the fur trade, joining Gregory, Macleod and Company. Mackenzie worked in the Montreal headquarters, and as a trader, first in Michigan, and then at Île-à-la-Crosse, until the firm's merger with the North West Company (NWC) in 1787. In the spring of 1788, Mackenzie, who was now a partner in the expanded NWC, would assume Peter Pond's duties as trader and explorer in Alberta's Athabasca Country, following the latter's departure in the wake of the John Ross murder (see Peter Pond biography).

artist's conception of Fort ChipewyanFrom his base at Fort Chipewyan, which he established in 1788, Alexander Mackenzie, as ordered by the NWC, spent the next five years in pursuit of a route to the Pacific. Interest in such a passage was intense, as the NWC feared that new American competitors, such as the Astors, would beat them to the potentially highly lucrative new market. His first expedition, commencing on 3 June 1789, was to complete the route from Great Slave Lake (NWT), down through the (later-named) Mackenzie River system, which Peter Pond had partially mapped in 1784-85. These efforts, however, would uncover the fact that Pond's cartography was inaccurate, and that the route, in fact, led to the Arctic, and not the Pacific, Ocean.

Facts about Fort ForkMackenzie's second attempt at the Pacific route began further to the southwest, on the Peace River. After wintering at Fort Fork, which he established near the confluence of the Peace and Smoky Rivers, the expedition departed on 9 May 1793. Loaded with trade goods and provisions, the party of six, which included two Aboriginal guides, moved westward, reaching the Fraser River (B.C.), which Mackenzie initially mistook for the Columbia, on 18 June. Following the advice of local First Nations people he had met, and traded with, at what is now known as Alexandria, the party avoided the Fraser's wild rapids, returning to the West Road River (a Fraser tributary) to continue the expedition overland. On 21 June 1793, following some encounters with the Bella Coola people, the expedition reached the Bentinck Arm of the Pacific, off Dean Channel (near the Queen Charlotte Straight). It was further down the channel, the following day, that Mackenzie made the following inscription (now restored) on a large rock: "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety three." The expedition commenced the return trip on the 23rd, with fireplace from Mackenzie's first fort Mackenzie arriving back at Fort Chipewyan on August 24. The value of the Mackenzie expedition, some 3700 kilometres round-trip, cannot be questioned. Not only did he map significant portions of the far northwest, which heretofore had not been documented, but he also succeeded where Peter Pond had failed - finding an accurate route to the Pacific. Much to Mackenzie's profound disappointment, however, the NWC did not consider his route applicable to their needs.

Floorplan of Fort ForkAlexander Mackenzie subsequently left the Northwest in 1794, spending the remainder of his life engaged in various activities, none too-far removed from the fur trade. He lobbied, unsuccessfully, for a major realignment of the trade (including a union of the NWC, HBC and the India Company); in 1801 published his journals (subsequently reprinted under the title, "Alexander Mackenzie's Voyage to the Pacific Ocean in 1793"), which included a history of the fur trade; received his Knighthood in 1802; and spent a brief period of time in Canadian politics as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, although without much enthusiasm, it would appear. In 1805 Mackenzie returned overseas. Sir Alexander Mackenzie died in Scotland on 12 March 1820, leaving a wife, Geddes (whom he had married in 1812), along with three children.

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