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Sir Alexander Mackenzie


Sir Alexander Mackenzie

Sir Alexander Mackenzie
National Gallery of Canada
Born 1764
Stornoway, Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Died 12 March 1820 (aged 55–56)
near Dunkeld, Scotland, United Kingdom
Cause of death Bright's Disease
Occupation Explorer

Sir Alexander Mackenzie (or MacKenzie, Scottish Gaelic: Alasdair MacCoinnich, 1764 – 12 March 1820) was a Scottish explorer. He is known for his overland crossing of what is now Canada to reach the Pacific Ocean in 1793. This was the first east to west crossing of North America north of Mexico and predated the Lewis and Clark expedition by 10 years.

Early life

In 1764, Mackenzie was born at Luskentyre House in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis.[1][2] He was the third of the four children born to Kenneth 'Corc' Mackenzie (1731-1780) and his wife Isabella MacIver, from another prominent mercantile family in Stornoway.[3] When only fourteen years old, Mackenzie's father served as an Ensign to protect Stornaway during the Jacobite rising of 1745. He later became a merchant and held the tack of Melbost; his grandfather being a younger brother of Murdoch Mackenzie, 6th Laird of Fairburn.[4][5]

Educated at the same school as Colin Mackenzie, in 1774 his mother died and he sailed to New York to join his father and an uncle, John Mackenzie.[6] In 1776, during the American War of Independence, his father and uncle resumed their military duties and joined the King's Royal Regiment of New York as Lieutenants. By 1778, to escape the ravages of war, young Mackenzie was either sent, or accompanied by two aunts, to Montreal.[4] By 1779 (a year before his father's death at Carleton Island), Mackenzie had a secured apprenticeship with Finlay, Gregory & Co., one of the most influential fur trading companies at Montreal, which was later administered by Archibald Norman McLeod. In 1787, the company merged with the rival North West Company.


1789 Mackenzie River expedition to the Arctic Ocean

On behalf of the North West Company Mackenzie travelled to Lake Athabasca where, in 1788, he was one of the founders of Fort Chipewyan. He had been sent to replace Peter Pond, a partner in the North West Company. From Pond, he learned that the First Nations people understood that the local rivers flowed to the northwest. Acting on this information, he set out by canoe on the river known to the local Dene First Nations people as the Dehcho, (Mackenzie River) on July 10, 1789 following it to its mouth in the hope of finding the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. As he ended up reaching the Arctic Ocean on July 14,[7][8] it is conjectured that he named the river "Disappointment River" as it did not lead to Cook Inlet in Alaska as he had expected.[9] The river was later renamed the Mackenzie River in his honor.

1792-1793 Peace River expedition to the Pacific Ocean

In 1791, Mackenzie returned to Great Britain to study the new advance in the measurement of longitude. Upon his return in 1792, he set out once again to find a route to the Pacific. Accompanied by two native guides (one named Cancre), his cousin Alexander MacKay, and six Canadian voyageurs (Joseph Landry, Charles Ducette, Francois Beaulieux, Baptiste Bisson, Francois Courtois, and Jacques Beauchamp) and a dog simply called "Our Dog". Mackenzie left from Fort Chipewyan on 10 October 1792 and travelled via the Pine River to the Peace River. From there he travelled to a fork on the Peace River arriving 1 November where he and his cohorts built a fortification that they resided in over the winter. This later became known as Fort Fork.[11]

Mackenzie left Fort Fork on 9 May 1793 following the route of the Peace River.[11] He crossed the Great Divide and found the upper reaches of the Fraser River but was warned by the local natives that the Fraser Canyon to the south was unnavigable and populated by belligerent tribes.[12] He was instead directed to follow a grease trail by ascending the West Road River, crossing over the Coast Mountains and descending the Bella Coola River to the sea. He followed this advice and reached the Pacific coast on 20 July 1793 at Bella Coola, British Columbia, on North Bentinck Arm, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. Thus, he completed the first recorded transcontinental crossing of North America north of Mexico. He had unknowingly missed meeting George Vancouver at Bella Coola by 48 days.

He had wanted to continue westward out of a desire to reach the open ocean, but was stopped by the hostility of the Heiltsuk people. Hemmed in by Heiltsuk war canoes, he wrote a message on a rock near the water's edge of Dean Channel, using a reddish paint made of vermilion and bear grease, and turned back east. The inscription read: "Alex MacKenzie / from Canada / by land / 22d July 1793" (at the time the name Canada was an informal term for the former French territory in what is now southern Quebec.)[13]:418 The words were later inscribed permanently by surveyors. The site is now Sir Alexander Mackenzie Provincial Park and is designated a National Historic Site of Canada.[14]

In his journal Mackenzie recorded the Carrier language for the first time.[15]

Later life and family

In 1801 the journals of his exploratory journeys were published.[16][17] He was knighted for his efforts in the following year and served in the Legislature of Lower Canada from 1804 to 1808.

In 1812, Mackenzie returned to Scotland where he married the fourteen-year-old Geddes Mackenzie, heiress of Avoch. Her grandfather, Captain John Mackenzie of Castle Leod (great-grandson of George Mackenzie, 2nd Earl of Seaforth) purchased the estate of Avoch with money left to him by his first cousin and brother-in-law, Admiral George Geddes Mackenzie. Lady Mackenzie's father was a first cousin of the father of Sir George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company. Alexander and Geddes lived between Avoch and London. He died in 1820 of Bright's disease, at an age of 55 (his exact date of birth unknown). He is buried at Avoch, on the Black Isle.


The Alexander Mackenzie rose (explorer series), developed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, was named in his honour.[18]

The Mackenzie River is named for him.

There are schools in St. Albert, Alberta and Toronto, Ontario named after him.[19]


External links


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