Alexander Mackenzie - From Canada, by Land
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Alexander Mackenzie - From Canada, by Land

By the late eighteenth century, the west was slowly coming into focus for Europeans.
Alexander Mackenzie, the fur trade's most celebrated explorer, became the first European to cross the continent overland in 1793. (As portrayed by Albert Schultz in Canada: A People's History)
Alexander Mackenzie, the fur trade's most celebrated explorer, became the first European to cross the continent overland in 1793. (As portrayed by Albert Schultz in Canada: A People's History)
Maps had been made, cobbled together from limited exploration and anecdotal evidence from Indians. But it remained to find an overland route to the Pacific Ocean. The Hudson's Bay Company was still occasionally looking for it, under pressure from critics in England. In 1789 the North West Company began its own search.

Alexander Mackenzie was a twenty-five-year-old fur trader who had been born in Scotland on the Isle of Lewis. Mackenzie combined ambition, resolve and arrogance and grew bored with life in a North West Company trading post.

He was given the job of finding a route to the Pacific coast, then up to Alaska, across to Russia and on to England. But Mackenzie's first attempt took him up what is now the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean.

For his second voyage he had a compass, a sextant, a chronometer, a telescope and a working knowledge of navigation.
Alexander Mackenzie searched for a river route through the Rocky Mountains but eventually followed the advice of local natives and took an overland passage. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
Alexander Mackenzie searched for a river route through the Rocky Mountains but eventually followed the advice of local natives and took an overland passage. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
Mackenzie set off with nine men and a dog on May 9, 1793, paddling up the Peace River, looking for the continental divide. Mackenzie managed to cross the Rocky Mountains and reach the Fraser River by June 17. Shuswap Indians advised him that the river was too dangerous to navigate, that he should take the overland route they used to trade with the coastal Indians.

Mackenzie ran the idea past his men. "I stated the difficulties that threatened our continuing to navigate the river, the length of time it would require, and the scanty provisions we had for such a voyage; I then proceeded for the foregoing reasons to propose a shorter route, by trying the overland road to the sea..."

Mackenzie's men followed him.
Mackenzie's first trip
Mackenzie's first trip
The overland journey went smoothly. The native peoples who lived in the mountains had well established trading routes that led west.

A party of Nuxalk Indians guided them along one of the Grease Trails, named for the fish oil that coastal Indians brought inland to trade. It took a month to reach Dean Channel, an arm of the ocean. Tide marks on the rocks proved that it led to the Pacific Ocean. But at his very moment of triumph, Mackenzie faced chaos and near catastrophe.

They encountered hostile Bella Coola Indians. The Indians had already had unfortunate dealings with whites arriving in ships, probably the sternly imperial George Vancouver.
One of the Indians threatened Mackenzie.

His guide begged him to flee."In relating our danger, his agitation was so violent that he foamed at the mouth... My people were panic-struck, and some of them asked if it was my determination to remain there to be sacrificed."

Mackenzie had travelled too far to leave before he could prove that he had made it to salt water. Despite the imminent threat, Mackenzie took the time to fix his location, using his instruments to calculate the position of the sun. "I had now determined my situation," he wrote, "which is the most fortunate circumstance of my long, painful, and perilous journey, as a few cloudy days would have prevented me from ascertaining the final longitude of it."

Mackenzie had reached the salt water of the Pacific Ocean - he was within three hours paddling of the open water, but he never actually saw it.
He was the first European to cross the continent overland.

"I now mixed up some vermillion in melted grease, and inscribed in large characters... This brief memorial: Alexander Mackenzie from Canada, by land. The 22nd of July, one thousand seven hundrd and ninety-three."

Of his voyages, Mackenzie wrote, "Their toils and their dangers, their solicitudes and sufferings, have not been exaggerated in my description. On the contrary, in many instances, language has failed me in the attempt to describe them.
I received, however, the reward for my labours, for they were crowned with success."

Mackenzie published a successful book of his travels. He went on to become a listless, largely absentee parliamentarian, elected to the Assembly in Lower Canada. He found politics static and dull; it was the opposite of exploration. He quickly abandoned his seat and retired to Scotland. At the age of forty-eight, he married a fourteen-year-old named Geddes Mackenzie with whom he had a daughter and two sons. By the time the second son was born, Mackenzie was afflicted with Bright's disease, and he died suddenly the next year, in 1820.

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