Alexander Mackenzie Becomes the First European to Cross the Continent of North America at Its Widest Part

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Alexander Mackenzie Becomes the First European to Cross the Continent of North America at Its Widest Part


As an agent of the Northwest Company trading furs in western Canada, Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1755?-1820) became the first European to cross the continent of North America at its widest part, north of the Spanish territories in Mexico. He achieved this feat in two landmark expeditions: exploring the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean at Beaufort Sea (1789) in Western Canada and traveling overland from Lake Athabasca to the Pacific Ocean over the Canadian Rockies (1793). While working towards expanding the reach of the Northwest Company, Mackenzie made new contact with tribes that had never before seen Europeans and created new trading routes for furs and other goods in western Canada.


By the late eighteenth century, two royally chartered companies dominated the fur trade in Canada: the Hudson's Bay Company, doing business from outposts along the shores of the bay, and the Northwest Company, which had established trading posts in the country's interior, where furs trapped by the Native American tribes were exchanged for manufactured European goods and rum. Complex trading relationships between the tribes of North America already existed, and independent traders and trappers had for years been infiltrating the cross-continental trade. The royally chartered companies sought to expand that trade by creating trading posts where the tribes could bring furs for exchange and that would serve as exchange centers in the company's trade network.

Alexander Mackenzie began working in the offices of the Northwest Company at the age of 16 in the last days of the American war for independence. In the Montreal and Detroit offices of the company, he learned the fur trade and eventually formed a venture that sent him out into the interior of the country to make contact with the Native American tribes that sold furs to the company.

Mackenzie established trading relationships with the tribes that lived in the Canadian interior and founded trading posts along the rivers that led to Hudson's Bay. These posts were able to intercept the river trade that otherwise would have gone to the shores of Hudson's Bay to be traded by the Hudson's Bay Company, the Northwest Company's chief competitor.

After gaining control over a large portion of Canada for trade, Mackenzie established a trading post on the shore of Lake Athabasca that would become the base for his later expeditions to the Arctic and Pacific Oceans. In the years before the first trip north, Mackenzie gathered essential information about the geography of northern Canada from the tribes that came to trade at the newly established Fort Chipewyan.

On June 3, 1789, Mackenzie departed from Fort Chipewyan in canoes, traveling across Lake Athabasca and up the Slave River to Great Slave Lake, where he had been told he would find a large river that would take him to the Pacific Ocean. The expedition consisted of two canoes, a group of trappers already familiar with the southern portion of their route, and a member of the Chipewyan tribe named Nestabeck whom Mackenzie called English Chief. (Almost 20 years earlier Nestabeck had accompanied the Chipewyan leader Matonabbee when he guided Samuel Hearne [1745-1792] on the overland trip from Hudson's Bay to the Arctic Ocean along the Coppermine River.) In early June ice still blocked some waterways in northern Canada, and the expedition had difficulty finding the northbound outlet from Great Slave Lake. The expedition spent the final week of June looking through the lake's icy marshes for the source of the river known by the Cree as "swiftly flowing waters" and now known by Canadians as the Mackenzie River.

The river proved to be wide and navigable as the Native Americans had described. Traveling along the large river's current, the expedition was able to cover about 75 miles (121 km) each day. By the middle of July the expedition noticed that the river had taken a turn towards the northwest and that the Rocky Mountains still lay between them and the Pacific Ocean. As they continued north Mackenzie continued trading with Native American settlements he encountered, exchanging their furs for ironware, rum, and tobacco and hoping through these trades to learn more of the local geography. Mackenzie's trading gifts with newly encountered tribes contrasted with his management of his own expedition members, who by July 8th were threatening to abandon the demanding and relentless Mackenzie. Mackenzie was able to get his men to continue, and they canoed past abandoned Inuit settlements and whale carcasses along the river until they reached an island from which they could see nothing but ice-covered water for 6 miles (9.65 km). They reached the river's delta on the Arctic Ocean on the July 14, 1789. Navigational instruments clearly showed that they had not reached the Pacific. When a rising tide of saltwater swamped baggage they had left out of the canoes, the disappointed crew returned upriver, arriving back at Ft. Chipewyan on September 12, 1789.

On his next expedition during 1792-93, Mackenzie again tried to reach the Pacific Ocean. Taking a plan outlined by officials at the Northwest Company five years earlier, Mackenzie set out to make contact with the Russian, Spanish, and newly independent American traders conducting business on the Pacific coast of what is now British Columbia. Mackenzie was rumored to have wanted to proceed from the Pacific along the established Russian trading routes to Siberia. The trip would have been the realization of a 300-year-old goal of establishing a trading route to transport North American goods over the continent to the markets in Asia. Russian traders already had a firm presence that would extend as far south as California and were taking North American furs across the pacific to the trading port of Kiatka. There the furs were sold to the caravans that carried them to Peking and from there throughout China. Rather than evict the Russian traders from the Pacific coast as the Spanish had tried to do, Mackenzie hoped that through the Russians he could link their trading network to Asia and create a series of outposts from London to Montreal through Fort Chipewyan to Kiatka and Peking.

On October 10, 1792, the expedition began canoeing west up the Peace River towards the Continental Divide. Stopping at existing trading posts along the way, they continued to trade rum and tobacco for furs and information. The trading presence of the Canadians to the east and the Russians on the coast to the west had strengthened contacts between tribes between the two economic powers. Before crossing the Continental Divide and beginning the descent to the ocean, the expedition was met by members of a western tribe that offered guidance in reaching the Pacific in hopes of establishing a trading relationship with the Northwest Company. Unlike the voyage to the Arctic Ocean, however, the explorers did not have the advantage of a large river to carry them all the way downstream. After spending the winter in the newly established Fort Fork, the expedition paddled upstream along the Peace and Parsnip Rivers at just the time of year when they were overflowing with melting snow from the mountains. After crossing the Continental Divide the expedition wrongly thought they had reached the headwaters of the Columbia River. To avoid going as far south as the mouth of the Columbia River at the present boundary between Washington state and Oregon, the expedition decided instead to travel the final 150 miles (241 km) to the Pacific overland. The expedition arrived at the coast on July 20, 1793.


Once at the coast the expedition found no Russian or Spanish traders, but instead Native Americans who were hostile to the Europeans. Mackenzie established a defensive position on a small island off the coast where he continued trading with nonhostile natives who approached them. In the end Mackenzie's voyage to the Pacific did not establish a strong trading relationship with Russia or even a thoroughfare across the Rockies to transport good and settlers.

Mackenzie's explorations, however, did help to develop a trade network for the Northwest Company. His goals were financial rather than scientific as he sought to expand the Northwest Company's trading territory. The Company would continue to be a strong financial presence in northwestern Canada well into the twentieth century. That presence was due, in large part, to Mackenzie's efforts in expanding the company's presence in the Canadian interior, where it would become a force for economic development even after the decline of the fur trade.


Further Reading

Daniels, Roy. Alexander Mackenzie and the North West. London: Faber, 1969.

Gough, Barry. First across the Continent: Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Lamb, W. Kaye, ed. The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

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Alexander Mackenzie Becomes the First European to Cross the Continent of North America at Its Widest Part

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