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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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Alexander Mackenzie (1764 - 1820)

Alexander Mackenzie, the first explorer to cross North America, was born in Scotland in 1764. At the age of ten, he emigrated to New York and four years later came to study in Montreal. At only 15 years old, Mackenzie became a clerk in the company of fur merchants Finlay and Gregory (which became Gregory, MacLeod and Company in 1783). Five years later, he was offered a share in the company on the condition that he went to Grand-Portage.

Portrait: Alexander Mackenzie

The American Revolution ended just as Mackenzie's career was starting. The creation of the Canadian-American border diverted the attention of the Montreal merchants from the basin south of the Great Lakes, which had become American territory, to the northwest, in Canadian territory. Mackenzie, located by Gregory, MacLeod in just this region, found himself in the right place at the right time, with the Montreal merchants ready to invest in finding a commercial route to the sea -- which was now known to be in the west, thanks to Captain James Cook. Mackenzie followed his dream of being the first to find this route.

From 1785 to 1787, Mackenzie traded furs at Lac Île-à-la-Crosse for Gregory, MacLeod and Company. John Ross's assassination in the winter of 1786-1787 moved the competitors to unite in an effort to decrease violence. Gregory, MacLeod and Company merged with the North West Company, and Mackenzie was made a partner. To acquire a fur trading monopoly from London, the North West Company promoted its explorations and its knowledge of the northwestern territory. The Company asked Mackenzie to spend the following winter with Peter Pond in Athabasca as he was to succeed him in the region.

Image: Mackenzie River

Mackenzie was to ascertain whether the river (later named after him) flowing out of Great Slave Lake actually did go to Cook Inlet in Alaska, as Pond believed it did. On June 3, 1789, Mackenzie left Athabasca with the Chipewyan chief called "English Chief," some First Nations women, four Canadian voyageurs, a young German, and servants. Mackenzie's expedition descended the river, a distance of 6 987.5 kilometres, in 14 days. For close to 1 950 kilometres, Mackenzie did travel somewhat to the west but, at Camsell Bend, his heading became due north. After some hesitation, Mackenzie continued to the Arctic Ocean and stayed on Whale Island (Garry) for four days, where he observed white whales as well as the ebb and flow of the tides. Going up-river was much harder and took almost two months. The discovery of one of the longest rivers in the world did not enthuse Mackenzie's partners in the North West Company. As it did not lead to the Pacific it was of no immediate use to them. Mackenzie himself was disappointed. Nevertheless, he started playing with another idea -- going west on the Peace River.

Before Mackenzie could undertake his next voyage of exploration, he needed to add to the information he had gathered from Native people other data from previous explorations and better instruments for pinpointing his geographical position. His meeting with Phillip Turnor, the Hudson's Bay Company's surveying and astronomy expert, at Cumberland House convinced him to go to London in the winter of 1791-1792 for the required training and instruments. He brought back a compass, a sextant, a chronometer and a telescope. Using surveys conducted by Cook on the Pacific coast and by Turnor at Fort Chipewyan, Mackenzie found that Pond had underestimated the distance between Fort Chipewyan and the Pacific Ocean. He had to ready his expedition for longer distances in light of this information.

Arriving from London, Mackenzie passed through Montreal and then traveled to the junction of the Peace and Smoky rivers to spend the winter. He had already crossed almost half the planet by ship, canoe and on foot. On May 9, 1793, he left with nine people: Alexander MacKay, second in command, two Native people and six voyageurs.

Shortly after leaving, terrified by the portages in the canyons of the Peace River, some of the voyageurs begged Mackenzie to turn back, but the explorer persuaded them to go on. At the fork of the Parsnip and Finlay rivers, an old Native man suggested to Mackenzie that he make the portage above the Parsnip to reach the river that flowed west. After crossing many streams and swamps, Mackenzie went down the McGregor River and then the Fraser. At one camp, some Native people strongly advised him against going down this river, which was impassable in places and whose mouth was very far away. They recommended another route to reach the ocean. Mackenzie then went back up the Fraser to the West Road River, crossed the valley of the same name, reached the Mackenzie Pass at 6 000 feet of altitude and entered the deep gorge of the Bella Coola. Here he met the amiable nation of the Bella Coola and called their settlement "Friendly Village." Two days later, going down the tumultuous river, he saw six curious little huts built on stilts on a height of land. "From these houses I could perceive the termination of the river, and its discharge into a narrow arm of the sea," wrote Mackenzie. He had just crossed the continent.

Image: Title page of Mackenzie's voyages of 1789 and 1793   Image: Page from Mackenzie's voyages of 1789 and 1793 Image: Page from Mackenzie's voyages of 1789 and 1793

"At about eight we got out of the river, which discharges itself by various channels into an arm of the sea. The tide was out, and had left a large space covered with sea-weed. The surrounding hills were involved in fog. The wind was at West, which was a-head of us, and very strong; the bay appearing to be from one to three miles in breadth. As we advanced along the land we saw a great number of sea-otters. We fired several shots at them, but without any success from the rapidity with which they plunge under the water."

(Mackenzie 1801, 340-341)

On the sea, at Dean Channel, some Bella Bella, who were not very friendly to the explorers, told Mackenzie that he had missed George Vancouver by slightly more than six weeks. The following morning, Mackenzie mixed vermilion with melted grease and wrote this inscription on the southeast face of a rock: "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three".

Two days later, Mackenzie and his men turned back and, traveling an average of 53 kilometres per day, they reached Fort Chipewyan in a month, everyone alive and well. But this trip was too long, too expensive and too difficult for Montreal trade. Mackenzie suggested that the Hudson's Bay Company, the North West Company and the East India Company seal an agreement, but this greatly irritated his partners. He then founded his own company -- the XY Company -- in 1798, which amalgamated with the North West Company in 1804. The amalgamation of the North West Company with the Hudson's Bay Company would not come until March 1821.

Published in 1801, the account of Mackenzie's voyage greatly contributed to spreading knowledge about the continent. On February 10, 1802, he became Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Gradually, Mackenzie retreated from the fur trade and finally returned to Scotland. He married there and fathered three children. He died in January of 1820.

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