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First By Land

June 2024
17min read

The river that disappointed him bears his name, but Alexander Mackenzie’s great achievement in slogging to the Pacific is now almost forgotten.

The most momentous event in the geographical history of the North American continent, aside from its discovery, was the first complete crossing of it from coast to coast—a feat that was three centuries in the doing. This epochal achievement first confirmed the guesses of civilized man about the breadth and structure of the continent and led directly to the opening up of the West. Yet millions of Americans—indeed, most of us—know neither the date it was done nor the name of the man who did it.

Contrary to popular belief, it was neither Lewis nor Clark. Eleven years before they set out on their famous expedition—when Clark was still a young lieutenant fighting Indians on the Ohio River frontier and Lewis was a teen-age youth in Virginia—the man who would first conquer the continent was already on the last lap of his trip, paddling up an unknown river in western Canada two thousand miles beyond the frontiers of civilization.

He was Alexander Mackenzie, a thirty-year-old Scotsman in the fur trade. Mackenzie was attempting to breach the fabled Rockies, thread his way through the unknown rivers, chasms, and forests of the West, and slip unharmed through more than six hundred miles of savage-infested wilderness. He expected to accomplish this with a total expeditionary force of nine canoemen and himself, equipped with several rifles, one birchbark canoe, and three thousand pounds of food, clothing, and trading gifts. Mackenzie was one of that long-vanished breed of explorers who need nothing of civilized man’s benefits except his spirit.

Civilized man himself was, in that year 1793, established firmly only along the Atlantic coast and up the river valleys of the East. He knew little of the vast central plains, and the soaring uplands of the West were a white blank on his maps. But one leathery, hardbitten type had explored many hundreds of miles beyond the comfortable houses and streets of Montreal and Detroit. This was the fur trader, who dared to live among the Indians and barter for the pelts that Europe was so eager to buy.

The men of the North-West Company (the major competitor of the Hudson’s Bay Company) had learned to travel in Indian fashion, and so had been able without roads, wagons, or horses to push deep into the continent. Via the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, and thence by canoe through a tangled network of rivers, lakes, and forest portages, they gradually probed into the primeval wilderness of central Canada. In this great unknown they built a slender chain of tiny forts, which, by 1793, lay strung three-quarters of the way across the continent.

Alexander Mackenzie was one of these men. Born in Scotland, he came to America as a youth to make his fortune and worked for five years at a fur trader’s accounting desk in Montreal. Then he broke away from the countinghouse and went into the back country; here he toughened his body and mastered the skills of the explorer and fur trader. Soon he began pushing beyond the boundaries of the known trading area, trying to find new tribes and new river routes to the untapped regions.

Such exploring meant sleeping on the ground in freezing weather, living in filthy buckskins for months at a time, suffering the torments of fleas and mosquitoes, and enduring an almost suffocating loneliness with only illiterate Indians and French-Canadian voyageurs for companionship. Mackenzie himself later referred, in his laconic Scottish manner, to “the many tedious and weary days, the gloomy and inclement nights, and the toilsome exertions” of his explorations.

Ostensibly, profit was his motive; a man could become rich in a decade of fur trading if he survived it and if he kept bringing in the pelts. But there was more to it than potential profit. For, once the idea had seized him of being the first man to complete the crossing of the continent, it would not let him go. He gradually and hopelessly fell in love with it, as men in all ages have fallen in love with the idea of discovering something still unknown to the rest of mankind.

In 1789 Mackenzie finally launched himself and a small party of canoemen on a broad river that flowed west from Great Slave Lake, hoping it would carry him to the Pacific. He knew little of navigation, and when the river veered northward, he was unable to reckon how far off course he was going. Fifteen hundred miles later, he and his men found themselves canoeing along the shores of the Arctic Ocean, with the huge bulk of Alaska still between them and the Pacific.

Bitterly disappointed, he returned to his trading post in central Canada, but the dream would not leave him in peace. In 1791 he made the long, hard trip back to Montreal and thence to London, where he privately studied astronomy and navigation until he felt ready; the next year he came back to Canada and journeyed again to the trading regions, moving on from fort to fort, and finally pushing hundreds of miles beyond the last of them to build himself a new outpost in which to pass the winter.

Fork Fort, as he called it, was nothing more than a cluster of small log cabins surrounded by a palisade fence. It lay on a bank of the Peace River near the fork of the Smoky in what is now northern Alberta, several hundred miles north of the present United States-Canadian border and about as far west as modern Boise, Idaho; near that site today stands the little town of Peace River. This was as far as he could go before the winter of 1792-93 set in and froze his river routes. In the spring he readied his supplies, and on May 9, 1793, he and nine men—one Scotsman, six French-Canadians, and two Indian hunters—pushed off to conquer the Rocky Mountains in a canoe.

You might suppose that a man who could undertake such an adventure must have been ice-cold, steel-hard, and utterly fearless. Such indeed was the thin-lipped, gray-eyed young man as his canoemen saw him; but secretly he was tormented, torn by doubts and fears, and unsure of his own abilities. “I am so vexed and disturbed of late,” he wrote before the start of the journey, “that I cannot sit down to anything steadily.” If his timorous men had known it, the trip might never have gotten started, but Mackenzie was able to mask his feelings behind a calm, impassive face.

At first the trip went smoothly. Each morning Mackenzie woke his men at about 3 A.M. Among voyageurs it was the custom then to order a dram of rum all around, then in a matter of minutes roll the blankets up and be off in the canoe, puffing clay pipes and sometimes chanting a canoeman’s ballad for several hours of hard paddling before breakfast. With a few brief pauses, Mackenzie’s men continued on all day until 7 P.M., when they stopped, cooked dinner, pitched the tent, and then rolled themselves in their blankets and fell asleep on the hard ground. For eight days they proceeded in this fashion up the Peace River into the foothills of the Rockies, through a succession of green meadows and rolling hills; then, at 2 P.M. on May 17, they could for the first time see in the distance the faint snow-capped peaks of the Rockies. Soon afterward their troubles began.

As they approached the mountains, the river grew narrower and swifter, and the banks on either side became steep, rising sheer and rocky. By the nineteenth of May they were deep into the Peace River Canyon, an almost 25-mile-long zigzag slash in the backbone of the mountain range. Instead of smoothly paddling upstream as they had for the first eight days, now they had to fight for every yard against the rushing water, with the fragile canoe creaking and lurching under them. Their goods got soaked, had to be unpacked and dried in the sun, were repacked, and got soaked again.

So the day went—towing, poling, paddling, repairing rips in the canoe with spruce fibers and pine gum, unpacking to portage around impassable places, escaping from one near-disaster only to face another, until the sun went down and the chill wind bit into their fingers. “I could not but reflect, with infinite anxiety, on the hazard of my enterprize,” Mackenzie later admitted; but he concealed his anxiety behind a front of crisp command and constant reassurance to his exhausted and frightened men.

The next day was even worse. In one two-mile stretch they had to unload, portage, and reload four times, and finally they reached a spot from which they could see nothing ahead but unbroken rapids. There was a narrow beach of broken rock fragments just wide enough to permit them to tow the bouncing canoe along while the bowman and steersman stayed aboard and fought to keep her from being smashed against the rocks. Yard by yard, step by step, they worked their way upstream. Then suddenly one extraviolent wave broke over the bow and snapped the strained towline with a sickening twang.

For an endless instant Mackenzie watched, horrified, as his only means of transportation and the men in the boat were swept backwards toward destruction. But in the next second another freakish wave swept the canoe up and over a line of jagged rocks and washed her, unscratched, within a few feet of the bank. The canoemen instantly beached her and tumbled onto land, where the others joined them, shaken, white-faced, and muttering rebelliously.

Several men spoke out plainly, saying that it was impossible to proceed; the Indians had all told them so long ago; they would go no further. Mackenzie ignored all this and brusquely ordered the most outspoken of the men to get busy and find a way up the side of the canyon in order to locate a suitable camp site for the night. He summoned one of his two Indians to follow him and went off at once to reconnoiter. Behind him the voyageurs, their mood of rebellion nipped short, sullenly got to work.

The canyon ahead, as Mackenzie learned after a two-hour trip, was absolutely impassable, and its banks were too steep for portaging. He could think of no alternative except to carry the 25-foot canoe and its ton and a half of goods up and over the densely forested mountain, rejoining the river on the other side of it where presumably the canyon would end. It was, as he noted in his daily logbook, an “alarming” prospect; but a day of rest and preparation, and a hot meal of wild rice and sugar with the “usual regale” of rum on the side, gave his men courage enough to try it.

At daybreak on the twenty-second they began one of the most outlandish jobs of portaging in the annals of exploration. At the foot of the steep slope they began felling trees with their axes, dropping them parallel to the path and not completely severed from the stumps, as per Mackenzie’s orders, so as to make a crude railing on either side. As soon as a sizeable part of the pathway had been cleared, Mackenzie put several men onto the job of bringing up the supplies.

Bit by bit they brought everything up from the river as far as the camp site, and then went back for the canoe. This they had to hoist up the cliff a yard or so at a time, one man keeping a taut bowline about a tree above while the others heaved and lifted from below. Beyond the camp site they used the same method till they reached the summit of the steep slope.

The next day the ascent became less rugged as they got beyond the canyon walls. The men continued to work in two groups, one going ahead and chopping out a path through the woods, the other bringing up the goods and the canoe. The ground was a succession of hills and defiles, and the woods gave way to thorny briar and dense underbrush which were terrible to clear away. Sometimes it must have seemed madness to go another yard. “At five,” Mackenzie later recalled, “in a state of fatigue that may be more readily conceived than expressed, we encamped near a rivulet.” They had made three miles that day.

The third day of the mountain portage went a little better, as they began to work their way down the steep slopes. By four that afternoon they had come four more miles; shaking with weariness, they suddenly emerged from a dense stand of pine and saw the river before them, calm, wide, and placid. A little way downstream it narrowed, plunged between vertical rocks, and then broke into foaming rapids. The mountain portage, about eight miles long in all, had brought them out just above the beginning of the Peace River Canyon and had pierced the first great ridge of mountains leading them into the heart of the Rockies.

Now the river wound around crookedly in an elevated area cradled by the Rocky Mountains on all sides. For six uneventful days they paddled steadily upstream, seeing signs of Indians, but meeting none. On May 31 they arrived at a fork where two rivers joined, one coming from the northwest and the other from the southeast: the former seemed to be in the right direction and was broad and calm, while the latter seemed to lie in the wrong direction and was narrow and swift.

The men argued vehemently for the former, and Mackenzie himself would have preferred it: but he believed in the wisdom of the Indians, and he was determined to follow the route an old Beaver Indian warrior had described to him months ago. He ordered his paddlers to take the southeast fork. (He was wise to follow the Indian’s advice: this fork was the Parsnip River, which was to prove a useful route; the other, now called the Finlay, would have merely lost him among steeper mountains to the north.)

In the following days Mackenzie knew many hours of discouragement and despair. The Parsnip, now at flood, was a difficult river for canoemen, so swift that any progress was exhausting. The canoe ripped open, but they patched and regummed it. Only Mackenzie’s continually varied techniques of handling his men kept them on their way: as for him. the hope of finding a portage to a west-flowing river which he could follow downstream to the Pacific seemed to fade day by day.

For already he had come nearly 400 roundabout miles and used up one month of the precious, shortlived summer: if he did not soon find the legendary portage of which the old Indian had spoken, all would be in vain. Then on the afternoon of June 9 he smelled smoke and heard the sound of people rushing about in the woods just ahead. They turned out to be a little band of rather scraggly Indians who shouted defiantly and made warlike gestures; but Mackenzie, who was sympathetic to the Indian mind, recognized that they were more frightened than bellicose. Patiently and gently he made overtures through his two Indian hunters, and after some two hours of reassurances the Indians and the explorers were assembled amiably about a campfire, exchanging gifts and information.

They told Mackenzie that they knew of no downflowing river which emptied into the “Stinking Lake” (the Indians’ name for the Pacific). The impatient explorer questioned the Indians for hours, passed a sleepless night, and was up at dawn to resume his interrogation. “The Sun, however,” he related, “had risen before they left their leafy bowers, whither they had retired with their children, having most hospitably resigned their beds, and the partners of them, to the solicitations of my young men.” Finally he learned that one of them did know of a west-flowing river, but it did not empty into the ocean. He was greatly relieved: he supposed that the native had never followed the river to the Pacific and therefore simply did not understand that it had to empty there.

Having persuaded one of the Indians to accompany the party as a guide. Mackenzie pushed off again. For two days they worked their way up ever-narrower and shallower streams until they reached a tiny lake which was the source of the Parsnip-Peace system. Here they found a beaten path, apparently a much-used portage, and carried their goods and their canoe along it. As they passed over a low ridge, Mackenzie saw several rivulets tumbling down some nearby rocks; two of the streams flowed back to the cast, and two others flowed on toward the west. “We are now going with the stream,” he noted confidently.

But the first week of the descent was frightfully difficult. They were wrecked once in a boiling rapids and later had to cut a portage through forest and swamp for three days. Finally they arrived at a wide navigable river (later named the Fraser) which flowed southerly before winding toward the Pacific. Down this river they proceeded with relative ease, gaining more mileage in three days than they had in the previous seven or eight.

Thus far there had been many a situation where only Mackenzie’s courage—vastly greater than that of the tough, forest-hardened men under him—had pulled the expedition through: now came an even more remarkable example of that cold, perfect self-control which he was so often able to assume at will. On their fourth day along the Fraser, a large group of Indian warriors swarmed out onto the river bank, shouting fiercely and loosing a volley of arrows that dropped all around the canoe.

Mackenzie wanted desperately to talk to them about the river route ahead, but no words of his Indian hunters could pacify the wild mob. Finally, relying on his own insight into Indian psychology, he decided on a daring approach, beaching his canoe on the opposite shore, he ordered his men to remain in sight of the hostile warriors, while he himself walked alone far up the bank.

As he expected, two of the braves now came over in a canoe, curious and eager to inspect him, yet still more frightened than bloodthirsty. With soft words, friendly gestures, and the offer of mirrors and some beads, he soon made friends with them and sent them back to their tribe to carry the word. In a short time the explorers and the Carrier Indians (as they were later called by white men) were gathered together, jabbering away at each other without hostility.

At first adverse reports of the river beyond did not deter Mackenzie; but as he continued downstream they were repeated with a discouraging frequency. The Carrier Indians told him that the Fraser not only became wild and impassable, but that warlike tribes would certainly annihilate his little band. In any event, the river was said to be very long and roundabout and altogether too slow a route for Mackenzie’s diminished supplies.

Mackenzie was dreadfully downcast, thinking of the wasted effort and the impossibility of continuing downstream. As often happened, he betook himself to one side to mull in solitude. But soon, as he later told the story, “instead of continuing to indulge [these reflections], I determined to proceed with resolution, and set future events at defiance.” Knowing from coastal exploration data where the Pacific lay, and knowing his own present position, he calculated there were about 200 miles remaining and decided to strike off overland and walk toward the Pacific. If this seemed a wild scheme, it was at least better than giving up altogether.

But what would be the point of such an endeavor, even if it succeeded? He had started out to find a fur-trade route to the Pacific, but a route that involved a two-week walk would be totally impractical. In that sense, his exploration was already a failure.

Yet Mackenzie had long since lost his purely monetary motives and now was being driven on by the desire for pure knowledge. Alexander Mackenzie, a bewhiskered, hard-working mercantile adventurer, was thoroughly under the sway of that most civilized quality we call “intellectual curiosity.”

Before quitting the river, Mackenzie spent several days having his men build a complete new canoe from fresh bark and cached it and some food for their return. On July 4 they finally struck off on foot with an Indian guide. Their departure point was just above the Blackwater River, a small branch of the Fraser which lies in the central part of British Columbia.

For the next two weeks they struggled westward, laboring up and down the mountain slopes with ninety-pound packs of food and gear on their backs. Gradually the portage eased as they descended from the semibarren uplands into the luxuriant forests of the Pacific coastal slope. A young brave would guide them from his tribe’s village to that of the next tribe, where he would introduce them, get from Mackenzie a knife or piece of cloth in payment, and then return home. Mackenzie would meanwhile dicker for a new guide for the next day. At no time did Mackenzie’s men actually have to repel an Indian attack; Mackenzie was almost invariably able to calm the hostility and fear of the Indians and in every case to continue his journey without disaster.

After nearly two weeks they reached a river called the Bella Coola by the local Indians, and from this friendly people Mackenzie was able to borrow a canoe and several braves. From village to village they hurried down the swift stream. On July 19, Mackenzie came upon a village of six houses built on palisades 25 feet high; when he climbed up to chat with the inhabitants, he could see the river emptying in the distance into a narrow blue-green arm of the sea.

In the morning the Bella Coola Indians were fearful of going with them further, for they probably were afraid of the warlike tribes who lived along the coast. Finally, however, two young Bella Coola braves went along to guide them in a large canoe. By 8 A.M. that day Mackenzie must have tasted the heady saltiness of the water, though the mouth of the channel was still out of sight.

They spent the night uneventfully on the shore of the channel, although the two Bella Coolas were extremely nervous and one of them actually deserted. The next morning they paddled onward many miles down the inlet (today called Dean Channel) without getting clear of the maze of inlets and islands. Mackenzie, satisfied that he had reached the sea, and worried by the low state of his provisions, decided that he should settle upon a good place from which to take his final astral readings, and then return immediately.

Just then three canoes bearing fifteen Indians approached them fearlessly and pulled alongside to study the explorer. Their leader, in a hostile manner, repeatedly informed Mackenzie that a white man named “Macubah” had come in a “large canoe” and fired upon him and his friends not long before. (Captain George Vancouver had been along that coast in a British vessel several weeks earlier.)

His behavior was most threatening, and Mackenzie, outnumbered, dared not risk a fight in the open. He ordered his men to paddle on toward a ruined village on shore where he hoped to take up a good defensive position, but the hostile Indians followed him and were joined by still other canoes. When they landed, the Europeans were surrounded by some fifty sullen warriors who loafed about, insolently poking and prying into their possessions. Finally they left toward sundown, not having mustered up enough anger to start a fight.

After an uneasy night, the voyageurs were anxious to depart, but Mackenzie wanted to spend an entire day double checking his navigation. His men begged and pleaded with him to let them get out at once, and the young Bella Coola Indian was so frantic that he actually foamed at the mouth. “Though I was not altogether free from apprehensions on the occasion,” Mackenzie later noted in his driest possible British manner, “it was necessary for me to disguise them. My reply was … that I would not stir till I had accomplished my object.”

In between his observations of the sun, Mackenzie melted some animal grease and mixed vermilion pigment in it; then on the face of a commanding rock he inscribed the words: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.” (The grease paint rapidly disappeared, but in our own century the place and the very rock have been relocated and identified.) At ten o’clock that night, when he had timed the emersion of the first satellite of Jupiter, he told the men he had finished his job; despite the darkness and their fatigue, the canoe was launched within minutes and the paddlers were speeding the frail craft up the channel with greedy strokes.

All night they continued, and shortly after dawn they landed near the village of the young Bella Coola Indian, who jumped out and ran for home.

Mackenzie followed swiftly, to see what the Indian was up to, but as he burst into a clearing before the stilt-legged houses, the Scotsman was set upon by two formerly friendly Bella Coolas carrying daggers. He raised his gun and they stood fast, while others joined them. The mystery was soon clear: their leader was none other than the coastal chieftain who had spoken about “Macubah,” and who had evidently come here in the meantime to stir up trouble. Slowly the Indians encircled Mackenzie, and then one leaped upon him. The explorer jerked himself free, expecting to kill one or two before being slain, but at this moment one of his men emerged from the woods, and the Indians took flight, idiotically climbing up into their houses.

Assembling his men, Mackenzie, more angry than fearful, determined to frighten the Bella Coolas so that there would be no recurrence of the incident. With guns primed, he marched his men to the houses and ordered the young Bella Coola Indian down. When he descended, Mackenzie demanded the return of his hat and cloak and other articles which had been stolen in the scuffle plus a quantity of fish—yet true to his nature, he paid for the fish in goods. The Indians, thoroughly cowed, were vastly relieved to see him and his men pile into the canoe and paddle off eastward.

With this, the worst was over. On the return voyage, being lightly laden and familiar with the route, they sped along, passing from tribe to tribe in comparative peace. The several depots of buried food were in perfect order, the newly built canoe was waiting for them where they had left it, and the terrible portage at the Peace River Canyon, where they had cut their road over a mountain, was still in good condition.

On August 24, one month after starting back, and three and a half months after beginning this incredible trip, Mackenzie and his men rounded a turn on the Peace River and saw ahead their tiny palisaded home—Fork Fort, the winter outpost from which they had started in May. They broke out a flag and let off a fusillade of shots which brought the two caretakers rushing out to welcome them.

Mackenzie’s great dream had now been realized and his fever was quenched. Detesting the boredom, suffering, and toil he had willingly endured, he soon returned to Montreal and busied himself in the management end of the fur trade, while he relished the pleasures of elegant clothing, a fine house, and a gay social life. In 1801 he published the journals of his two expeditions and with their appearance the civilized world came to regard him as a celebrity. Honors were heaped upon him, and King George III knighted him in 1802. From 1805 on, Sir Alexander lived chiefly in Scotland, where he married in 1812 and lived as the Laird of Avoch until his death in 1820.

Today his Fork Fort is marked by a simple monument with a bronze plaque, but the Indian villages he slept in have long since vanished without a trace. The trails he followed have been obliterated by time and the weather, or overlaid by modern roads, and few men ever see the rock on which he painted his name. For ironically enough, it is not at the scene of his great triumph that his name has been immortalized, but in the northern part of Canada where he first wrongly followed a river to the Arctic Ocean.

There, a vast chunk of remote, unpopulated land is called the District of Mackenzie, and the mighty Mackenzie Mountains and the Mackenzie River border it on the west.

And that is a paradox indeed, for he himself had named the river not the Mackenzie, but the Disappointment. His disappointment has made his name immortal; his achievement is almost forgotten.

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