From Stornoway to the Pacific

 Sir Alexander Mackenzie

Sir Alexander Mackenzie

As the early morning mists were being burnt away by the rising sun on the Pacific coast of what is now Canada’s British Columbia, a young man, not yet thirty years of age, mixed some melted bear grease with red pigment. Watched by his companions, he walked slowly to a large rock and painted on its flat surface the words: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada by land, 22nd July 1793”.

A few brightly dressed native Indians discussed among themselves what these strange symbols might mean, but could make nothing of them. The simple statement was, in effect, a title deed to the most prodigious feat of exploration in North American history.

The young man, Alexander Mackenzie, had become the first to cross the continent of North America from coast to coast, by river and portage. A true feat of heroic exploration which had been preceded in 1789, by the discovery of an important river route to the Arctic, later named in his memory as the Mackenzie River. Today, Alexander Mackenzie is commemorated in the Mackenzie District of North-West Territories, Mackenzie Valley, Mount Mackenzie and the Mackenzie Pass, the highest point, 6000 feet above sea level between Montreal and the Pacific.

Alexander Mackenzie is one of the great names in the history of North American exploration.

Alexander Mackenzie was born in Stornoway in 1764, in a slate roof building called Luskentyre House at the site on which Martin’s Memorial Church now stands. A small plaque, hardly noticed by passers-by, records his achievements and the long association of Stornoway with Canada.

 Sir Alexander Mackenzie

Sir Alexander Mackenzie courtesy of National Gallery of Canada

After his mother’s death, the young Alexander went with his father to New York where his uncle, another Lewisman, “Ready Money” John Maciver gave them lodgings. Within a year both men found themselves involved in the American War of Independence.

For his own safety, the young Alexander was sent to a school in Montreal where he finished his education. From there, he joined the fur-trading business of Gregory, Macleod and Company, which was later absorbed into the North West Company and became a chief rival of the more famous Hudson Bay Company. Although aged only fifteen years, Mackenzie proved to be a quick learner and by the time he was twenty, had demonstrated a shrewd talent for business and a canny ability to make friends with the Indians of the back country, whose pelts he purchased for his Company. Mackenzie soon impressed his superiors and was made both agent and partner, the latter on condition that he move out of Montreal and go to the largely unknown north-west.

In 1785, Mackenzie found himself on the edge of the great Canadian wilderness, in charge of the North West Company’s headquarters at Grand Portage, on what is now known as the Churchill River. He then moved to Fort Athabasca. where he met the fur-trader, Peter Pond, himself a bit of an explorer and, above all, a maker of maps. Pond’s maps, though fascinating, were hardly accurate charts of Canada’s unknown wildernesses. Distances were estimated with generosity. Rivers tended to wander off as tentative squiggles. And vast areas were left blank. Even so, Pond was highly regarded by the fur-trapping fraternity in Canada.

Both Pond and Mackenzie spent a winter together at a new trading post at Fort Chipewyan, enough time for Mackenzie to question Pond closely and to become fired with two ambitions. One, to identify the mouth of a river which might go north, or east to the Pacific. The other, to open up new vistas for the burgeoning fur trade.

On the morning of the 3rd of June 1789, after making sure the North West Company’s affairs were in good hands, Mackenzie set out on his first venture in exploration. His companions consisted of a rather motley crew of four Canadians, a German and Indians accompanied by their wives. Two canoes carried the party and their baggage for the journey.

It is difficult to imagine today, the many difficulties met by Mackenzie and his party as they went north from Fort Chipewyan up the Slave River and into the Great Slave Lake. Despite the fact that it was summer, massive ice-packs, driftwood and rushing frozen waters made for almost impossible passage. As he travelled north-west, Mackenzie thought he was en route for an opening into the Pacific Ocean, across the Rocky Mountains. But his river unexpectedly changed direction to the north end and, on 13th July 1789, he emerged at a place called Whale Island in what is now called the Beaufort Sea.

Strangely, Mackenzie’s discovery of this river route to the Arctic Ocean was taken as commonplace. The hard-fought trek was merely a bit of an adventure. In fact, it laid a British claim to the Arctic seaboard flanking the mouth of what was to become the Mackenzie River.

Having failed to reach the Pacific, Mackenzie gave himself a sabbatical. He visited London to study navigation and buy the necessary accurate instruments which were essential if his maps were to be of any use for future travellers.

He returned to Canada in April 1792 and, by September, back at Fort Chipewyan, he was busy making plans for a new expedition, this time to discover a river route to the Pacific. Very little information was known about what lay beyond the Rocky Mountains. Occasionally Indians, coming into Fort Chipewyan, would relate tales about warlike tribes, impassable canyons, dangerous rapids, fast-flowing rivers, all of which Mackenzie took with the proverbial pinch of salt. But he was still able to piece together some hard factual information which was to be useful to him a year later.

On 9th May 1793, Mackenzie set off from Fort Fork, where the Smoky River joins the Peace River. The swirling vortex of the Peace River Canyon, 300 feet deep and 25 miles long, was the worst water in America and challenged Mackenzie and his men to the limit. The trip was fraught with danger and on several occasions, his companions doubted his sanity. Often, the canoe could not be paddled, and both it and baggage had to be carried around slippery cliffs to the next stretch of valuable water. Then they reached a junction. On one side was the River Finlay, going north and on the other, a tributary called the Parsnip, flowing from the south. The former was broad, smooth and looked safe. The Parsnip was narrow, swift and dangerous. Everything hinged on the word of an old Indian who had convinced Mackenzie that the more difficult journey up river was the correct route. And so the Parsnip River it was – a decision which was to test every one of them to their physical limits.

Cold, often drenched with icy water, threatened by hostile Indians, Mackenzie and his team eventually reached a maze of small streams. The Parsnip was, in turned out, a paper tiger. Still heading westwards, canoe and baggage had to be carried over a hill to a small lake whose waters were found to flow into the Pacific. More hardships were still waiting for the expedition before a river mouth was reached at a place called Bella Coola. Then, on 22nd July 1793, Mackenzie achieved his objective and reached the Pacific Ocean – ensuring a British claim to the Canadian coastline which would not be politically recognised until many years later.

After returning to Fort Chipewyan, Mackenzie spent a few more years in Canada, publishing an account of his voyages which would gain him world-wide fame and recognition as an explorer.

Some years later, he returned to Britain. In 1812, he married and set up home on the Avoch Estate in the Black Isle, raising a family of three and enjoying the role of a benevolent laird. He built the sea wall that protected the road between Avoch and Fortrose and was also instrumental in laying down an oyster-bed in Munlochy Bay for the benefit of the local fishermen.

Returning from a visit to Edinburgh on March 11th, 1820, he fell ill near Dunkeld and died the following morning. He had always suspected that the rigours of his expeditions had taken their toll on his health.

He was buried at Avoch Parish Church where his grave is still well tended. It is now a place of pilgrimage for visiting Canadians.

He never returned to Stornoway, his birthplace. However, in July 1929, a public ceremony in the town, saw the placing of a commemorative plaque on the wall of Martin’s Memorial Church. In Canada, his achievements were recognised and preserved in a postage stamp and in a special issue of a silver dollar.

Frank G. Thompson.