Alexander Mackenzie was a trader who explored northwestern Canada in an effort to open up new territories to the fur trade. In his explorations he traced the 1,100-mile (1,770-km) course of the river now named after him from the Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean, near what is now the northern border between Canada and Alaska. He also became the first European explorer to cross the North American continent at its widest point north of Mexico.
Mackenzie was born in Stornoway on the Scottish island of Lewis to a prominent military family. At the age of 12 his family immigrated to New York as part of a large migration of Scots to North America. In New York during the American Revolution his father joined forces loyal to the King of England and died during the revolution. As the war turned against England, the family moved to Montreal, Canada, where Mackenzie began working in the offices of the North West Company, one of the principal trading companies in Canada along with its main competitor, the Hudson's Bay Company.
In 1784 Mackenzie was offered a partnership in a fur trading form on the condition that he conduct an exploration of the Canadian interior the following year. The exploration was intended to increase the North West Company's knowledge of western Canada's geography and the Native American tribes that inhabited it. The fur trade at the time depended on the familiarity of traders with not only the land in which they trapped and transported animal skins but also the relationships that traders fostered with the tribes that they traded with.
As much a businessman as an explorer, Mackenzie reached Ile à la Crosse in 1785. There he was able to manage a large trading territory stretching from Lake Athabasca to the Great Slave Lake and the upper regions of the Churchill River. Control of the Churchill allowed the Native American trappers to do business with the North West Company rather than having to travel hundreds of miles further down the river to trade with the Hudson's Bay Company at Prince of Wales Fort.
Soon after, with a cousin, Mackenzie established Fort Chipewyan on the shores of Lake Athabasca. It was from Ft. Chipewyan that Mackenzie based his later expeditions down the Mackenzie River and to the Pacific coast.
On June 3, 1789, Mackenzie left Fort Chipewyan with a group of trappers and a member of the Chipewyan tribe named Nestabeck, whom Mackenzie called English Chief. Nestabeck had accompanied the Chipewyan leader Matonabbee from 1770 to 1772 when he guided Samuel Hearne (1745-1792) on his historic overland trip to the Arctic Ocean along the Coppermine River. Traveling down the river the expedition was able to cover about 75 miles (120.7 km) each day, and they reached the river's delta on the Arctic Ocean on July 14, 1789. The group realized they had reached the ocean only by accident when a rising tide swamped their baggage. The return upriver was slower, and they arrived back at Ft. Chipewyan on September 12 of the same year.
On his next expedition, conducted between 1792-93, Mackenzie set out from Fort Chipewyan for the Pacific coast of Canada in hopes of making contact with Russian traders there and fulfilling the goal of establishing a trading route across Canada to the far east, as Spanish and Portuguese explorers had hoped to centuries before. Rather than get rid of the Russian traders, Mackenzie thought they could become intermediaries in the lucrative Pacific trade with China. The expedition traveled west up the Peace River to the Continental Divide. After crossing the mountains the party descended along the Fraser River for 150 miles (241 km) and traveled overland to the Pacific coast of what is now British Columbia. This expedition and the voyage down the Mackenzie River combined to form the first crossing by a European of North America above Mexico.
Before his death in 1820, Mackenzie consulted John Franklin (1786-1847) in preparation for his disastrous expedition to map the northern coast of Canada. Mackenzie stressed the advantage of using members of the local tribes and Inuit as guides for their knowledge of the area. Almost 30 years later Franklin's disappearance in an Arctic naval expedition and the rescue attempts once and for all put to rest the search for a shipping route over the Canada's northern coast that would link the northern Atlantic trade routes with the Pacific.
Alexander Mackenzie (1822-1892) was a Scottish-born Canadian political leader. He was head of the Liberal party and the first Liberal prime minister of Canada.
On Jan. 28, 1822, Alexander Mackenzie was born near Dunkeld. His parents were poor, and young Mackenzie left school to apprentice himself to a stone mason. At the age of 20 Mackenzie emigrated to Canada, where he soon found work in his trade at Kingston, Upper Canada. Prospering, Mackenzie moved to Sarnia, further west, as builder and contractor. He was also a concerned citizen, and in 1852 he became the editor of the Lambton Shield, a tiny newspaper that nonetheless served to give him access to the world of politics. In 1861 he ran successfully for the Assembly as a Reformer, and in 1867 he was elected to the first Parliament of Canada, where he became the leader of the opposition to the government of Sir John Alexander Macdonald. For a time in 1871/1872 he was treasurer of Ontario, but in 1872 he determined to devote his time to federal politics.
The Macdonald government was pressing ahead with plans for a transcontinental railroad but had unfortunately become too close in its relations with financiers and contractors. The resulting "Pacific scandal" drove the government from office in disgrace, and Mackenzie became prime minister on Nov. 7, 1873. The Mackenzie administration had some able men in it, but the Liberals had bad luck in taking power at the onset of a long business depression. Mackenzie's only remedy was to trim expenses to the bone and to halt the construction of the railway. The depression continued unabated.
There were some real successes, however. As a convinced democrat, Mackenzie extended the right to vote and introduced the secret ballot. A Supreme Court was established, the Royal Military College of Canada was founded, and the nation was pushed toward independence after Mackenzie and his attorney general, Edward Blake, trimmed the powers of the governor general to interfere in affairs of state.
For all these accomplishments, however, the nation was unhappy, and when the Conservatives began to advocate a protective tariff to encourage the development of Canadian industry, they found ready audiences. Mackenzie, as a free-trade Liberal, regarded the tariff as an abomination, but not enough of the electorate agreed with him and the Liberals were defeated in 1878. For 2 years more the dour Scot led the Liberals. He remained in Parliament until his death on April 17, 1892, in Toronto.
A study of Mackenzie is Dale Thomson, Alexander Mackenzie:Clear Grit (1960). There is also substantial material on him in J. M.S. Careless, Brown of the Globe (2 vols., 1959-1963). An excellent study of the history of liberalism in Canada, in which Mackenzie is discussed, is Robert Kelley, The Transatlantic Persuasion: The Liberal-Democratic Mind in the Age of Gladstone (1969). □