Backgrounder Article from  Parks Canada

Sir Alexander Mackenzie (c. 1762-1820)

One of the greatest explorers of Canada and fur traders of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Sir Alexander Mackenzie advanced geographical knowledge and helped expand the most lucrative commerce of his day. In 1789, accompanied by Dene leader Aw-gee-nah, he became the first European explorer to reach the Arctic Ocean by paddling the entire river that would later bear his name. Then, with the assistance of various Aboriginal guides, Sir Mackenzie undertook the first successful journey to the Pacific Ocean via interior waterways, reaching his final destination in 1793. As the first recorded person to cross the continent north of Mexico, he published his maps and travel journals in 1801 thus making his experiences and observations available to other Europeans. Through his explorations and keen business sense, Mackenzie contributed to the expansion of the fur trade farther into northern and western Canada, during critical years of intense competition among fur trading companies.

Born circa 1762 in Scotland, Mackenzie moved to Montréal in 1778. Living in the hub of fur-trading activity and attracted to adventure and financial opportunities, Mackenzie became involved in the commerce of furs. He spent the years 1785-87 in charge of the post at Île-à-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan, for Gregory, McLeod and Company, until the firm joined the North West Company. Mackenzie then quickly rose to prominence as a partner and agent in what would become a major fur-trading force and fierce rival to the Hudson’s Bay Company.

While in the West, Mackenzie founded Fort Chipewyan and decided to test the theory that the large river leading from Great Slave Lake would flow into the Pacific Ocean. From June to September 1789, he and his party (Dene guide Aw-gee-nah, voyageurs, Aboriginal hunters and women) embarked on a long and difficult voyage to find the inland northwest passage, following the river following the waterway that would later be called the Mackenzie River. The unexplored river would not however take them to the Pacific Ocean, but to the Arctic. In preparation for a second journey to reach the Pacific, Mackenzie studied navigation and astronomy and acquired new instruments in England. Confident, he returned to Canada and set out with another crew in May 1793 to find a navigable route to the Pacific. They crossed the Rocky Mountains, paddled the Fraser River, trekked the height of land on foot, and descended the Bella Coola River to the Dean Channel. There the explorer inscribed on a rock the words “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.”  

Despite his feats of exploration, Mackenzie fell out with other North West Company partners when he proposed that the firm cooperate with the Hudson’s Bay Company and the East India Company in order to facilitate trading with Asia. Consequently, he left western Canada for Montréal in 1795. When his partnership agreement expired in 1799, he resigned from the North West Company and departed for England, where he was hailed as a hero and published his Voyages from Montreal, which attracted wide attention and earned him a knighthood in 1802. That year, Mackenzie returned to Montréal as a shareholder in and a leader of the XY Company (later Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Company), a powerful, yet short-lived rival to the North West Company; they eventually merged in 1804. Mackenzie did not live long enough to see the merger of the fur trade companies in 1821 as he had proposed.

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Title of the image:  Alexander Mackenzie by Thomas Lawrence (c. 1800)
Source of the image: National Gallery of Canada No. 8000
This work is in the public domain: the artist Thomas Lawrence was deceased more than 100 years ago.

Image Titled: Alexander Mackenzie by Thomas Lawrence (c. 1800)
Copyright: National Gallery of Canada No. 8000
This work is in the public domain: the artist Thomas Lawrence was deceased more than 100 years ago.

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