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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Mackenzie of Canada
Mark S. Wade

published by
William Blackwood & Sons Ltd.
Edinburgh and London 1927

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 3

 p17  Chapter II

The Advent of Alexander Mackenzie

Among the enterprising and prosperous firms of merchants of Montreal at the time of the organisation of the North‑West Company was that of Gregory, M'Leod & Co., the partners being John Gregory, an Englishman, and Alexander Norman M'Leod, a Scotsman. When the North‑West Company was formed, two traders from the American Colonies who had penetrated into the western plains, Peter Pond and Peter Pangman, and who felt aggrieved because they had not been taken into the combine, proceeded to Montreal with the object of interesting some merchants there in entering the fur trade in competition with that concern. They succeeded in enlisting the active interest of Gregory, M'Leod & Co. In the counting-house of that firm a young Scotsman named Alexander Mackenzie had been working for several years. Little did either the members of the firm, his employers, or the two disgruntled traders, Pond and Pangman, dream that the quiet, well-behaved, industrious, youthful clerk was destined to be the leading spirit in the fur trade centring in Montreal; still less did they foresee that he was to become a great explorer, the man who would first trace the great northern river that bears his name to where it debouches into the Arctic Ocean, who would first cross the continent north of Mexico to the waters of the western sea, the Pacific.

 p18  Alexander Mackenzie was a descendant of the Mackenzies of Seaforth —

"MacKenneth, great Earl of the North,

The Lord of Loch Garron, Glenshiel, and Seaforth," —

ancestors of the Mackenzies of Logis, Hilton, and Gairloch, to whom the Island of Lewis, of which Stornoway is the capital, at one time belonged. It was at Stornoway that Alexander Mackenzie was born in 1764, according to a written family record still extant.

[image ALT: A pencil and ink drawing of a small rectangular stone house, ground floor and a story above, seen at an angle. The short side has no windows or doors; the long side has an entrance door flanked by a window on either side, and the story above has three windows. The pitched roof has two small square skylights, and at each end of the roof there is a chimney, one lower than the other. The house sits on a very small plot of ground enclosed by what looks like a wooden fence. It is Luskentyre House, the birthplace of Sir Alexander Mackenzie in Stornoway, Scotland.]

Luskentyre House, Stornoway, Birthplace of Sir Alexander Mackenzie.

Rev. George Bryce states that Mackenzie's grandson informed him that his grandfather was born in 1763, but a year later is the date now accepted by his descendants. Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen (vol. III) and the Dictionary of National Biography both commit the same error in giving the date of his birth as 1755. It is possible that this mistake may be due to mistaken identity, for there was another Alexander Mackenzie in Canada at that time, and, strange to say, he too hailed from Stornoway, where his brother Colin was Comptroller of Customs; a third brother, Kenneth, was also in Canada. To make confusion more confounded it has been stated that Colin Mackenzie was the brother of Sir Alexander, but this is obviously incorrect; Sir Alexander had only one brother, whose name was Murdoch. I have before me a letter written by the pseudo Alexander Mackenzie to his brother Colin at Stornoway. It is dated "Canada, 6th June 1778," and is endorsed "Recd. 6 Septbr. 1778," and contains the following passage: "Tell our father I'll write him next fleet." If this means anything at all it would indicate that their father was then at or near Stornoway, whereas at that date Kenneth Mackenzie, Sir Alexander's father, was in Canada, a lieutenant in the Royal Forces. These facts prove conclusively that Alexander, Colin's brother, and Alexander, Kenneth's son, were two entirely different persons.

Sir Alexander Mackenzie's father, Kenneth Mackenzie  p19 of Melbost, was the son of Donald Mackenzie of Fairburn, whose father was Allan Mackenzie of Stornoway. Kenneth of Melbost, who is said to have been a very powerful man and bore the nickname of "Cork," was an ensign in the Stornoway Company raised by President Forbes to oppose the rising of 1745. He married Isabelle Maciver, a member of one of Stornoway's leading families, whose brother John Maciver, known by the sobriquet of "Ready Money John" because of his habit of paying cash for everything, was a well-to‑do merchant in New York. Kenneth and his wife resided at Melbost farmhouse, two miles distant from the town of Stornoway. Four children were the fruit of this union, two sons, Murdoch and Alexander, and two daughters, Sybilla and Margaret. The elder son studied medicine, and, as was a common practice at that period, went on a voyage as ship surgeon, probably on board a whaler, and was lost at sea.

There are various versions of the story of Kenneth Mackenzie and his family, but that which I believe to be the true account is derived from the direct descendants and associates of the Mackenzie family as set forth in written family records. According to this account Kenneth's wife died at Stornoway, and her husband, with their son Alexander and the latter's two aunts, the Misses M'Iver, sisters of Alexander's mother, emigrated to New York, the place of residence of John M'Iver, Alexander's uncle, and brother of the two ladies who were of the party, in 1774. Alexander was then ten years of age.

Alexander's two sisters, Sybilla and Margaret, were to have accompanied them on the voyage, but had not yet gone aboard the ship with the others, the vessel being delayed by unfavourable winds, and were left behind when, taking advantage of a change in the wind, the captain suddenly set sail.

The following spring, 1775, began the war of American  p20 Independence, and Kenneth Mackenzie and his brother-in‑law Joseph M'Iver, or Maciver as it is spelled in some of the family records, joined the King's Forces, entering the Royal Yorks as lieutenants under the command of Sir John Johnson,​1 the boy Alexander being left in charge of his two aunts, who left New York and moved up to old Johnstown,​2 which is said to have been commonly known by the name of Sir John's Bush, which is probably the hamlet near Johnstown called Scotch Bush. The two ladies took the boy with them, and there he remained until 1778, when, feeling uneasy for his safety in the heart of a rebellious country, his aunts sent him into Canada in charge of Colonel M'Donell's mother, who took him to Montreal, where he was sent to school. Lieutenant Kenneth Mackenzie, Alexander's father, remained in the royalist army until his death, which occurred in 1780 at Carleton Island, near Kingston, south of Wolfe Island, in Lake Ontario, and which now belongs  p21 to the United States. In 1779, the year before the death of his father, Alexander entered the service of Gregory, M'Leod & Co.; he was then fifteen years of age.

Another version of the migration to New York is given by the late John N. Anderson, at one time provost of Stornoway, who took a keen interest in the life-story of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. He states in a letter he wrote to one of the Mackenzie clan, and which has been handed to me and now lies on my desk, that he obtained his information from a descendant of one of the explorer's sisters, but unfortunately he is so careless in his statements that they cannot be always accepted at par; in all probability he misconstrued or misunderstood the information given him. As an instance of the looseness of his statements, it may be pointed out that he refers to Sir Alexander as being "the first white man to cross the Rocky Mountains and reach the Island of Vancouver in British Columbia." It is common knowledge that Sir Alexander Mackenzie not only did not reach Vancouver Island but he never saw it, not even from a distance! The account given by Mr Anderson of Alexander's advent in the United States is that, Joseph M'Iver having invited Kenneth Mackenzie, his brother-in‑law, to visit him in New York, it was arranged that he was to be accompanied by his wife and two days and the boy Alexander. "He (Kenneth) and his son went on board the emigrant ship at night with their belongings, and the ladies were to follow next morning, but a terrible storm having sprung up during the night the captain, fearing his ship would drive ashore, took up anchor and drove out to sea. The storm continuing, the captain was unable to make the harbour of Stornoway again, and the ship continued on her way to America. Kenneth Mackenzie, however, got a promise from the captain that on his next voyage from Stornoway he would bring out Mrs Mackenzie and her daughters. Whatever was the reason, Mrs Mackenzie and her daughters did not go to  p22 America, but remained in Stornoway for a considerable time thereafter; in fact, Sir Alexander Mackenzie on his return to Stornoway found his mother still living, and there is a pretty story of how he reverenced her when he met her in Stornoway."

How much of this pleasant and entertaining story is based upon village and countryside gossip is open to conjecture, but the fact that Mr Anderson made so many errors, notwithstanding his apparent interest in the subject, throws a grave doubt over his alleged facts. In support of this criticism it may be pointed out that he says that Sir Alexander's sister Sybilla married a Mr Dowie, and the other sister, Margaret, became the wife of John Kirkland, and that Sir Alexander died "about 1819" while on his way north, while it is beyond question that Sybilla married Kirkland, Margaret wedded Captain Dowie, and Mackenzie died in 1820. Not only did Sir Alexander not see his mother at Stornoway or anywhere else after his return from Canada, but the family records show that she died before he first left Scotland!

In his younger days at Stornoway he had received the benefit of the educational facilities available there at that period. Reared in an invigorating climate, inured almost from the cradle to the chill blasts of raw winds, the salt spray of the sea, his muscles toughened by tugging at the oars of fishing boats, having as companions fishermen and sailors, Alexander was no sickly, white-faced, anaemic, city-bred lad when he sailed away from the port of Stornoway for the New World.

For years the Hudson's Bay Company had recruited the ranks of their employees from Scotland, and many of their ships bound for the trading posts on the shores of Hudson's Bay had as a chief point of departure the seaport of Stornoway on the Island of Lewis. The imagination of youth is easily kindled, and more especially  p23 in this case with those natures in whom dwells the spirit of romance and adventure, and such an one as young Mackenzie. The unknown beckoned him. It held out the promise of everything dear to the susceptible mind of vigorous youth — adventure, opportunity to acquire wealth and honours. The boy Alexander had seen other lads sail for the West to enter the service of the company of adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay, and who can say his ambition was not fired?

When he entered the counting-house of the Montreal firm of merchants and traders, Alexander Mackenzie was not slow to discern the advantages he enjoyed in that service as compared with that of the great Company, where he would have been trammelled and bound by the rigid rules that governed its employees.

For five years he worked in the office of Gregory, M'Leod & Co., acquiring a knowledge of the business in all its branches, absorbing the tales of the coureurs de bois and of the gay vivacious voyageurs, whose avocations brought them in direct contact with the fur‑traders and merchants. He learned of the customs of the country, of the Indians, of the hunters, and of the trappers, thus preparing himself for a more active participation in the stirring life of a trader. So well did he perform his duties, so great was his zeal, so indefatigable was he in all that pertained to the business of the firm, that his principals entrusted him with a small venture in goods with which he proceeded to Detroit, not an easy journey in those days. There were no roads through the dense forest with which Ontario was then covered, but there was the River St. Lawrence, and beyond that lay the great lake, over whose surface canoes laden with men and merchandise might travel. Traversing the intervening country on foot from Lake Ontario, Lake Erie was reached and its shores followed to Detroit, once a favourite rendezvous for traders. Mackenzie soon established  p24 friendly relations with the Indians in the back country, and prosecuted his business with characteristic energy and address, diplomatically overcoming the resentment of a party of European traders already established in that region. While he was engaged in this traffic his former employer, Mr Gregory, arranged that he should be admitted a partner in the independent enterprise in which he and Mr M'Leod were associated. This graceful acknowledgment of Mackenzie's worth and integrity was made by Mr Gregory without any solicitation. In such high esteem did Mr Gregory hold his quondam clerk that, not content with having performed this voluntary service, he despatched his partner, M'Leod, to Detroit to advise Mackenzie of it. Needless to say, the young trader accepted with alacrity the golden opportunity, and he at once agreed to the condition attached to the proposal that he should go to the Indian country, sometimes vaguely spoken of as the Saskatchewan country, the following spring, 1785. This being all settled, Mackenzie, now enjoying the rank of a bourgeois, set out for Grand Portage, where he joined his associates.

While Alexander Mackenzie was engaged at Detroit in his first independent fur trading venture, there arrived in Canada from Scotland, in September 1784, his cousin, Roderick Mackenzie, with letters of introduction to Peter Stuart of Quebec. Roderick presented the credentials, and consulted with Stuart as to the best course for him to adopt with a view to his material advantage. Mr Stuart advised him to enter the fur trade. In accordance with this advice Roderick Mackenzie proceeded to Montreal and succeeded in finding employment with Gregory, M'Leod & Company. In June 1785 he began his career as a trader, embarking at St Ann for the northwest under a three years' engagement. The brigade — a term applied to the flotilla of canoes employed in making these voyages — was under the guidance and in charge of one La Londe, a middle-aged guide well known to  p25 voyageurs. The usual route was up the Ottawa River — portaging at the Carillon Rapids, Long Sault, and Chute au Blondeau — to the Chaudière, and thence by the west branch of the Ottawa to its headwaters, making the Vaz portages to a small stream that conducted them to Lake Nipissing, thence down French River to Georgian Bay, and up the St. Mary's River into Lake Superior.

At Long Sault on the Ottawa, the brigade was joined by Mr Gregory, the senior partner, Duncan Pollock, recently engaged in the fur trade among Michilimackinac Indians, and James Finlay, jun., Gregory's brother-in‑law and son of the old trader, James Finlay, who had long before adventured as far as the Saskatchewan River. Young Finlay was of the same age as Roderick Mackenzie, and on the same footing in the service. When they arrived at Thessalon on Lake Huron, near the mouth of St. Mary's River, Gregory and Finlay separated from the main party and went to Michilimackinac, leaving Duncan Pollock in command. Soon afterwards they were met by Peter (Bastonnais) Pangman,​a and a few days later they were joined by Mr Gregory, James Finlay, and Alexander Mackenzie.

All the members of the new concern assembled at their headquarters at the group, with the exception of Mr M'Leod, whose duty was to manage the affairs at Montreal. Those gathered together at Grand Portage were John Gregory, Peter Pangman, John Ross, and Alexander Mackenzie, partners; Duncan Pollock and Laurent Leroux, clerks; and Roderick Mackenzie and James Finlay, apprentice clerks. Peter Pond, he who had been so keen in urging Gregory, M'Leod & Company to compete with the Frobisher and M'Tavish interests, had soon deserted them and gone back to his former associates. At the conference that ensued it was decided that John Ross should proceed to Athabasca, Alexander Mackenzie to English River (Churchill River), Pangman to Fort des Prairies (the Saskatchewan district),  p26 and Duncan Pollock to Red River. These assignments made, the several parties departed for their respective posts, leaving the establishment at Grand Portage in charge of the veteran Pierre L'Anniau. Roderick Mackenzie also remained at the same place, together with eighteen voyageurs, to erect buildings and make other necessary preparations for the prosecution of their enterprise. That winter Roderick superseded L'Anniau, and in the summer of 1786 he accompanied Alexander Mackenzie to English River, and was placed in charge of the post at Lac des Serpents. To that same locality came William M'Gillivray in the interests of the North‑West Company. Side by side stood the posts of the two rival concerns. The competition was keen, each striving to acquire the greater number of furs, but always they maintained the most friendly personal relations. In the spring of 1787, when they set out for their respective headquarters at the Grand Portage, they travelled in company, the rival crews singing their chansons in chorus.

So keen was the competition between the North‑West Company and the Gregory-M'Leod concern that the rivalry of the Hudson's Bay Company was, for the time, completely over­looked. At the head of the North-Westers were men determined to brook no opposition they could possibly overcome or prevent, and their competitors soon discovered that every obstacle that their more experienced opponents could place in their way was made use of to incommode and annoy them. Vigorous as was the younger and smaller company, it was no match for the older and more powerful organisation. (Note A.) Neither benefited by the bitter rivalry, and the wiser heads soon decided that the saner course to pursue was to sink their differences and combine their forces. Fortunately these wiser counsels ultimately prevailed, but not until financial losses and bloodshed had left their mark.

 p27  It has been stated above that John Ross was despatched to the Athabasca country in the interest of the young company. Thither the deserter, Peter Pond, had also been sent by his old associates, the North‑West Company. Pond did not enjoy a very savoury reputation. He was unscrupulous, overbearing, and had been accused of the murder of a Mr Wadin, a rival trader, some years before. He had been tried at Montreal for the crime, but his guilt had not been proved and he had been set at liberty. John Ross found his competitor far from sharing the feeling of good-fellowship displayed by M'Gillivray and some others of the North‑West Company. On the contrary, Pond's conduct was such as to give rise to frequent quarrels between the traders. In one of these disputes Ross was shot and killed. This act served to bring the competing organisations to their senses, and their union was effected in July 1787. The news of the murder was conveyed to Grand Portage by Roderick Mackenzie, who was at Isle à la Crosse at the time. In a light canoe manned by five voyageurs he hastened to headquarters with the disturbing intelligence, accomplishing the journey in a month of hard travelling.

The situation in the Athabasca required the attention of a firm hand, a resolute tactful mind. The partners of the North‑West Company cast about for the man possessing the necessary qualifications, and they settled upon Alexander Mackenzie, then only twenty-four years of age. Young as he was he had proven himself to be a man of mettle, determined, daring, resourceful, inured to hardship, and a successful trader. What he had done at Detroit, and what he had accomplished as a bourgeois in the Gregory-M'Leod organisation, showed his capabilities. To him, then, the North‑West Company, just reorganised on a broader basis, turned to handle affairs in the far‑off district that Peter Pond had ruled to such unfortunate purpose.

The route followed by Mackenzie was by a series of  p28 portages to Rainy Lake, and thence to Lake of the Woods. A short portage at Rat Portage, from the lake to Winnipeg River, gave access to Winnipeg Lake, into which flow the Red River of the North from the south and the Saskatchewan from the west, and out of which flows the Nelson River into Hudson's Bay. It was up Lake Winnipeg to the Churchill River that Mackenzie had journeyed to his first assignment. Now he was to ascend the great Saskatchewan to follow in the footsteps of Finlay, Pond, and the others who had gained the interior by its means. Soon after entering that river the great rapids, three miles long, were encountered, necessitating a portage of nearly a mile. Two miles above another and shorter portage, that of the Roche Rouge, had to be made, and after passing still more rapids Cedar Lake was reached, on which was the old French post of Fort Bourbon. Passing Cumberland House on Sturgeon Lake, the lake itself was entered and traversed, whence the route ran northerly to Beaver Lake, Heron Lake, &c., and by Frog Portage to the Churchill River. Turning westerly the course ran through Otter Lake, Black Bear Island Lake, Mouse Lake, Knee Lake, Lake of Isle à la Crosse, Lake Clear, Buffalo Lake, and so on to the Clearwater River which empties into the Athabasca River, on whose banks stood the post which was to be his headquarters for the district placed under his control.

Alexander Mackenzie reached Athabasca Fort on 21st October 1787. It had been established by Pond in 1778, who, after the formation of the original North‑West Company, had sent a clerk, Laurent Le Roux, to Great Slave Lake to open trade with the Indians there, the post being named Fort Resolution. Subsequently another post was established on the Little Lake and named Fort Providence. While on his way to the posts on Great Slave Lake, Cuthbert Grant lost five men, two canoes, and several packages of goods in the autumn of 1786 in the rapids at Portage des Noyes,​b on the Slave River below  p29 what is now called Smith's Landing. One of Mackenzie's first acts was to close the posts on Great Slave Lake, then the most northerly of the company's outposts. When at Fort Athabasca the young trader familiarised himself thoroughly with the conditions of the trade in that district, and determined upon making some radical changes. Before carrying his plans into execution, however, he paid a visit to Rainy Lake in July 1788, and succeeded in having Roderick Mackenzie, then stationed at English River, transferred to his own district. Already Alexander Mackenzie was fired with ambition. He had learned of the existence of a great river running northward out of Great Slave Lake, and he longed to discover into what ocean it emptied its waters. Did it flow into the frozen sea, the Arctic Ocean, or did its course run in such a direction as to cause its current to flow into the western sea, the Pacific? Samuel Hearne had discovered a large river, the Coppermine, which debouched into the Arctic, and Hearne was a fur‑trader even as he. What Hearne had done he felt that he could do, and he wanted opportunity to make the venture. To do this he felt he must have a trustworthy lieutenant to leave in charge of his post during his absence, and where could he find a more reliable man than his own cousin, Roderick? Self-interest and the ties of blood would, in themselves, ensure faithful service, but besides those influences was the integrity of the man whose honourable disposition was a yet more powerful factor in justifying the confidence of his chief than the mere fact of kinship would guarantee.

Pond had built the Athabasca Fort on the Elk, or Athabasca River, about forty miles from its mouth in the Lake of the Hills, Lake Athabasca. Alexander Mackenzie was not satisfied with its situation, and now that he had his kinsman with him he carried into effect the changes he had already determined upon. He sent Roderick down to the Lake of the Hills to select a site and erect thereupon a new fort. Until 1785 Pond's fort  p30 was the only trading post in that territory, at which date the posts on Great Slave Lake were established. Mackenzie wiped out all that Pond had done. He began his rule of the extensive domain committed to his charge by starting with a clean slate, as it were. By this centralisation of his post he hoped to meet the trading requirements of the Indians. The new location was not too far removed from the old fort to incommode those Indians accustomed to trade there, and it brought appreciably nearer those other tribes dwelling north of the lake. It had the additional advantage of being close to a winter supply of food — that is to say, the fish to be obtained from the lake itself. The new post was named Fort Chipewyan, and, says Mackenzie in his 'Voyages,' stood "on a point on its (Lake Athabasca) southern side, at about eight miles from the discharge of the river." The post was an important one. From it expeditions were sent in all directions in search of trade. The men under his command numbered from ninety to one hundred souls, and to keep them supplied with food was no easy task. Herein lay much of the wisdom that prompted the removal of the headquarters of the district to the lake. Every day the sixty fathom nets were set so that the supply might ever be plentiful, for upon fish the men sustained life almost entirely, the amount of flesh meat obtained being altogether inadequate.

Alexander Mackenzie left the old fort for Fort Chipewyan shortly before Christmas 1788, and remained there until February 1789. During that period it may be readily imagined what formed the chief subject of conversation between the cousins, the chief and his trusty aide. The thoughts of Alexander ran upon the exploration of the unknown river. The germ that inspires men to face the untrodden places of the earth had found a favourable medium in him for its development, and his brain was busy with plans for the carrying out of his purpose, for he had fully determined in his own mind  p31 that nothing short of death would deter him from making the voyage. He had men and materials at his disposal. He would leave the affairs of the company in the capable hands of Roderick, while he himself would, in the course of his explorations, not omit to further the objects of the North‑West Company with respect to the prosecution of the trade.

The Author's Notes:

1 Sir John Johnson (1742‑1830) was the son of Sir William Johnson who, born in Ireland in 1715, went to America in 1738 to take charge of the estates of his uncle, Sir Peter Warren. For his services against the French and the defeat of Dieskau at Lake George, he received the thanks of Parliament, a vote of £5000, and a baronetcy. He died in 1774, and in that same year his son, Sir John Johnson, was appointed major-general of militia. He raised and commanded the "King's Royal Regiment of New York" (and it was in this body that Kenneth Mackenzie and John M'Iver served) to fight against the Revolutionists. His possessions being confiscated by the rebels, he laid waste all that region, burning villages and farmhouses in retaliation. He fled to Canada in 1776, and served under St Leger against Arnold the following year. In May 1780, Sir John, at the head of 500 British regulars, his own Loyalist troops, the Royal Greens, and about 200 Indians and Tories, raided Johnstown, an object being to recover family plate concealed at Johnson Hall.

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2 Johnstown, located in the Mohawk Valley, Fulton County, New York State, witnessed during the Revolution the invasion by the British under St Leger, the battle of Oriskany, Sullivan's Indian expedition, and frequent depredations by Loyalist troops and Indians under Sir John Johnson and other leaders. The town was founded by Sir William Johnson, who induced settlers to locate there, and who built Johnson Hall there.

Thayer's Notes:

a A mistake. According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, Bastonnais Pangman — first name unknown, possibly Joseph — was the son of Peter Pangman, born in 1778 and thus a child about seven years old. The father is obviously meant, here as elsewhere.

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b Properly Portage des Noyés (Wade omits almost all accents), that is, "Drowned Men's Portage".

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Page updated: 5 Jun 17