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Chapter 8

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 10

 p231  Chapter IX

From Chipewyan to Montreal and Scotland.
The Last Exploration.

During the winter of 1793‑94 Mackenzie remained at Fort Chipewyan, recuperating from the ill‑effects of his arduous journey and the intense strain he had been subjected to from the day he left Forks Fort until his return to that same place on August 24th. He was still a very young man, just thirty years of age. In that short term of less than a decade, beginning with the taking of his first venture to the wilds of Detroit until his return to the comparative peace and quiet of the orderly régime at Fort Chipewyan, there had been crowded experiences such as rarely fall to the lot of one man within the full allotted span of the life, and in that time he had borne upon his shoulders great responsibilities that had left their indelible impress upon him in body and in mind.

Happy and contented with what he had accomplished, he now relinquished the rôle of explorer and resumed that of fur‑trader, spending part at least of his leisure hours in arranging and writing his journal, the record of his travels. He was not content, however, in other respects. Roderick Mackenzie had been sent to another post, and to him his cousin wrote from Chipewyan on January 13th, 1794: "I wish we could contrive matters so that we could both go to the Portage. The Premier having arrived from England, we may expect him at the Grand Portage, where it will be right that all interested  p232 should meet him. I am fully bent upon going down, for I think it unpardonable for anybody to remain in this country who can leave it. What a pretty situation I am in this winter, starving and alone, without the power of doing myself or anybody else any good! The boy at Lac la Loche, or even my own servant, is equal to the performance of my winter occupation, and the profits, I am afraid, will be so small during the war​1 that it will not be worth any man's while to remain in it."

Alexander Mackenzie did not find the writing of his journal all that he had hoped. The mental strain endured during the summer of 1793 had left its mark. He found it difficult to concentrate his mind upon his writing. Doubtless he often wished Roderick were there with him to do most of the clerical work, for he had some literary ability, and Alexander had this in mind when he proposed that his cousin should revise and correct the manuscript.

Writing again to Roderick, the explorer referred to this work: —

Fort Chipewyan, 5th March 1794.

"Dear Roderick, — It is now the season I promised to write to you, and would wish I could fulfil another promise I made you last Fall and this Winter. I need not tell you I mean 'my Journal.' But be assured it is as great a disappointment to me as to yourself, for I wished that you should peruse it at your leisure before any other person, as I expected you would examine the calculations, and correct the diction with that freedom which one friend might expect from another.

"Last Fall I was to begin copying it, but the greatest part of my time was engaged in vain speculation. I took such a habit of thinking so long on a subject that I sometimes walked backward and forward, musing, for hours, at the end of which I could not tell what it was about.

"Did I sit down and write, I was sure that the very things I ought not to have been thinking of would occur to me instead  p233 of what I had to do. This one calling me to the garret, another to the cellar, and others to the shop, kept me so busy doing nothing at all that all I could do till the time I wrote you was to look over the men's accounts. In short, my mind was never at ease, nor could I bend it to my wishes.

"Though I am not superstitious, my mind caused me much annoyance. I could scarcely close my eyes without finding myself in company with the dead. I had visions of late which almost convince me that I have lost a near relation or a friend.

"It was the latter end of January when I began my work, thinking then that I had sufficient time, though the reverse is the case, and I will be satisfied, and so must you, if I can finish the copy for your perusal in the Spring. It is a work, I find, that requires much more time than I was aware of, for it is not at this moment a quarter finished."

This candid confession of his mental condition testifies more than anything else could do the depth of affectionate trust and confidence Mackenzie reposed in his kinsman. Casting aside all pretence, he avows without reserve that which few men would care to admit — a temporary loss of mental power. It is pathetic to read such a letter. Sick at heart, disappointed with himself, almost afraid of what his unhealthy visions might portend, he felt he must unburden himself to some one, and to whom better than his chosen friend and relative, Roderick?

True to his word, with the opening up of the rivers and lakes by the relaxation of the iron grip of winter, which had held them in subjection for many long dreary months, Mackenzie turned his back upon Fort Chipewyan, the pays d'en haut, the cradle, so to speak, of his great achievements, and went down to Grand Portage to attend the annual meeting. From his letters it is apparent he had no liking for the isolation incident to the life in the district over which he ruled. Perhaps when he left the fort he had caused to be built on the lake of the hills, he may have said farewell to it, but whether he did or not,  p234 he never saw it again. He never returned to it, or to any part of the western country.

The first fruits of Mackenzie's exploration of the "Grand River," as the Mackenzie was sometimes called in those days, independent of the discoverer himself, was the building of a trading post eighty miles below the outlet of Great Slave Lake, by Duncan Livingston, by the order of the North‑West Company. Under his management the post flourished for the space of three years. He and three Canadians under him and an Indian interpreter were killed, however, in 1799, by the Esquimaux while on a voyage to the Arctic Ocean. A year or two later another party of traders under the leader­ship of John Clark suffered attack by the same race, narrowly escaped with their lives. These circumstances indicate that the fears of the Esquimaux so volubly expressed to Mackenzie by the Loocheux in 1789 were not without foundation.

In 1798, John Thompson, a Nor'‑Wester, established Fort de la Rivière Rouge, or Grand Marais, at the entrance of the Little Red River into the Peace River, the dimensions of the establishment being 24 feet by 26 feet. Two years later the same trader built a post on the Mackenzie River "in full view of the Rocky Mountains," and called it Rocky Mountain Fort. It was abandoned in 1805. Sir Alexander called it Old Rocky Mountain House.

With the advancing years, Simon M'Tavish, the dominant note in the affairs of the North‑West Company, became more domineering and more offensively sarcastic, more tyrannical, than ever. Among these who gathered at the great conference at Grand Portage, it was felt that the best interests of the traders stationed at the north and western posts, the so‑called wintering partners, were in jeopardy. They turned to Alexander Mackenzie to safeguard them. Envious they might feel of what he had done, but they were not slow to recognise the ability of the young man who had forced himself to  p235 the front, and to be willing to turn it to their own advantage.

It fell to his lot to take an active part in the proceedings at Grand Portage. The discontent with M'Tavish increased, and in 1795 a desire to cast off the intolerable yoke of Le Premier, the domination of Montreal, became very evident. Several of the partners left the company and associated themselves with the firm of Forsyth, Richardson, & Co., an independent Montreal firm that had been very active in the fur trade, chiefly about Lake Superior, and opponents of Simon M'Tavish. Self-interest restrained many others from following the example set by the seceding partners, and among them was Mackenzie himself. Reluctantly he agreed to remain a further period of three years with the North‑West Company, although his sympathies were altogether with the malcontents.

In 1794, after the meeting of the wintering partners at the Grand Portage, Mackenzie went to Montreal in the autumn, and on his way paid a visit to Lieut.‑Colonel Simcoe,​2 the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada,​3 at Navy Hall, Niagara. Navy Hall was a log building  p236 erected during the War of American Independence by order of General Haldimand for the accommodation of naval officers serving on Lake Ontario. Some necessary alterations and improvements were made in it, and it remained Simcoe's official residence during his term of office. Mackenzie found in the Governor a sympathetic and interested listener as he recounted the story of his explorations and discoveries. To him Mackenzie outlined the advantages that would follow the establishment of trading posts on the Pacific coast, and alluded to the possibility of diverting the trade of the northern posts to the Western Sea. He also pointed out the advantage and desirability of an amalgamation of rival trade interests, instancing the East India Company as one of these. In short, he placed before Lieut.‑Governor Simcoe a synopsis of the plan he subsequently urged upon Lord Hobart, as will be set forth at greater length farther on.

From Montreal, Mackenzie went to England, returning to Canada in the summer of 1795. He was then an agent or director of the Company, and one of its most powerful and influential members. On October 25th, 1797, he wrote to Roderick Mackenzie informing him "of the formation of a concern against the North‑West Company by Messrs Forsyth, Richardson, & Co., and others." He must have known of its existence long before he wrote that letter, and Roderick on his part must have learned of the opposition through the ordinary channels almost as soon as it developed.

The organisation of the new concern proceeded rapidly and vigorously. It became known by a variety of names — the Little Company, the New North‑West Company, the Little Society, — but soon, as if by general consent, by the algebraical letters X. Y., the explanation given for the selection of those letters being that they followed, and as the bales of goods for the North‑West Company were marked N. W., so those of the new partner­ship were marked X. Y. Still another title was bestowed upon it  p237 in the Athabasca district, where the rebels were dubbed "Potties," a corruption of the words "Les Petits," indicating the members of La Petite Compagnie, the Little Company.

James Mackenzie, brother of Roderick, was in charge of Fort Chipewyan in 1799‑1800, and kept a regular journal, as all traders were supposed to do. Under date of May 23rd, 1800, he writes: "This morning about 11 o'clock the Potties arrived, debarked, and encamped on Little Island, near the Fort. Perrone having boasted of having come here only by spite to this company, and of having traded 40 skins in the Bustane Island previous to his arrival, Mr Finlay wrote him a letter enquiring into the truth of this report," &c. This entry would show that Alexander Mackenzie did not intend to leave the pickings of the Athabasca trade entirely to his former associates. His thoughts would naturally revert to his old posts when he laid his plans for waging war against the North‑West Company. The same diarist, under date of May 25th, 1800, states that "about 12 o'clock last night, Mr Stuart and Mr Wentzel went off with three men and a few pieces for the Peace River. The former is to build a post for the Beaver Indians between Grand Marais and Lafleur's Fort, and the latter is to work for Brousseault at Grand Marais." The post that John Stuart established on this occasion was probably Horseshoe Fort, which lies between Forks Fort above Smoky River and Finlay's New Establishment.

In 1797 the X. Y. Company erected warehouses and other buildings at Grand Portage, little more than half a mile distant from the quarters of the North‑Westers, a small stream, Pigeon River, that there empties into the bay, separating them. Subsequently, when the older Company removed their headquarters to the mouth of the Kaministiquia and named the place Fort William, after Honourable William M'Gillivray, a prominent partner, the X. Y. Company followed them there. They  p238 became at once worthy rivals and opponents, not only of the North‑Westers but of the older Hudson's Bay Company as well, both organisations feeling the effect of the new factor in the fur trade. From their base at Grand Portage they invaded and took possession of the Red River of the north, the Assiniboine and Swan Rivers, and of the country to the south, soon extending their operations as far west as Mackenzie's old district, the Athabasca region. The same tactics that had obtained at an earlier period in the history of the trade, unfair competition and the lavish use of alcoholic liquors — and that were attended by disastrous consequences on the former occasion, — were again adopted, and with signally unhappy results.

The feeling between Simon M'Tavish and Alexander Mackenzie increased with the passage of time. They cordially disliked one another, and the mutual antipathy reached its culmination at the annual meeting of the North‑Westers in the spring of 1799. On that occasion Mackenzie bluntly warned his partners of his intentions to sever his connection with the Company. The wintering partners, those who best knew his worth and understood the spirit of the man, begged him not to desert them, entreated him to remain with them, but to all their prayers he turned a deaf ear. He had decided upon his course of action, and was not to be diverted from it any more than he was deterred from pursuing his journey to the Pacific by the murmurings and discontent of his companions on that great expedition. He had set his mind upon leaving the old Company, and he carried out his intention that same year.

That November saw him again in England, and he soon succeeded in finding a publisher for his book, 'Voyages from Montreal on the River St Lawrence, through the Continent of North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans, in the years 1789 and 1793,' which was published in 1801. Although he had clearly intended at one time  p239 that his cousin Roderick should revise the manuscript, there is nothing to show that it was ever done. Perhaps it is more interesting because of its lack of literary polish. The plain unadorned recital of the two journeys has a greater appeal than the choicest diction could ensure. It came before the English people at a time when such books were rare, for travellers in distant fields were few in those days. The work brought the explorer conspicuously to the front. He was lionised and petted and fêted, and King George III rewarded him with knighthood.

Perhaps some influence other than the recognition of Mackenzie's discoveries led to the creation of the new knight. The King's fourth son, Edward, Duke of Kent (Note E), afterwards the father of her late Majesty Queen Victoria, had been stationed in Canada — i.e., Quebec and Nova Scotia — for several years, beginning with 1792, and within that period had formed the acquaintance of Alexander Mackenzie, and taken him into his favour and as a travelling companion. After leaving Canada the Duke of Kent maintained a correspondence with the fur‑trader, and when Mackenzie went to London he was again taken in hand by the Duke, who once more made him his companion in travelling about Great Britain. For the royal son to suggest to his royal sire the propriety of conferring knighthood upon his friend, who was a famous explorer to boot, was nothing more than what might be naturally expected.

Before returning to Canada after receiving the honour of knighthood, Sir Alexander journeyed to Ayr to see his sisters, who were visiting relatives there. During his brief sojourn in that town a grand ball was given in his honour, the function being largely attended by the gentry of the town and district.

Mackenzie's return to Montreal in 1802 was almost in the nature of a triumphal entry. Appreciated and honoured by the king and his son, the Duke of Kent, lauded by the English people as a great traveller and discoverer,  p240 the author of a history of the fur trade in Canada, he was received with open arms by the people of the great city on the St Lawrence. His old friends, the members of the X. Y. Company, placed him at the head of that concern, which now often was given another name, that of "Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Company."

The struggle between the redoubtable M'Tavish and Mackenzie now assumed titanic proportions. Each leader put forth his best efforts to achieve supremacy. Competition that had been keen rose to heights unparalleled in the annals of the trade. Methods that would scarce bear the light of day were resorted to. Traders and their subordinates were encouraged to adopt any means to gain the upper hand in trading with the Indians, who were shamelessly and shamefully plied with unstinted liquor. Quarrels, fights, bloodshed became as frequent as in the old days before the amalgamation of the free-traders, the French adventurers on the Saskatchewan. M'Tavish reorganised the North‑West Company, extended its activities, rented the "King's posts" on the Lower St Lawrence, and established posts on Hudson's Bay under the very nose of the Hudson's Bay Company. Mackenzie sent traders to the Peace River, and sought by every possible means to counteract the plans of his skilful rival.

When the contest was at its very height, suddenly came peace. Simon M'Tavish died in 1804. The rupture that had begun in 1796, and extended to 1804, was healed by the death of the disturbing element. Proposals for an amalgamation of interests were made, and the two concerns became merged under the old name of the North‑West Company, an agreement being entered into by all the partners of each concern. The agreement was signed by Alexander Mackenzie, John Richardson, John Forsyth, and John Ogilvie of the X. Y. Company in person, the other members being represented by power of attorney. For the old North‑West Company the  p241 actual signers were John Gregory, William M'Gillivray, William Hallowell, and Roderick Mackenzie, the other partners' signatures being affixed by authority of power of attorney, as in the case of the other organisation. It will be noted that Roderick Mackenzie was one of the signatories for the North‑West Company. Upon the retirement from that Company of Alexander Mackenzie in 1799, Roderick was made partner in his stead, the latter's acceptance causing a coolness between the cousins which lasted until after the amalgamation.

As indicative of the renewed energy thrown into the business of the reorganised Company, trading posts were founded at several points down the Mackenzie River, and in this may be seen the hand of Sir Alexander, who never forgot for one moment what he had learned of the resources of the scene of his first voyage of discovery. In 1804 a fort was built sixty miles north of the mouth of Great Bear River, and another still farther north, one hundred miles beyond the Ramparts. The first-mentioned was removed in 1810 to the mouth of Great Bear River, and named Fort Norman; subsequently it was moved forty miles up‑stream, and after several other removals it was finally fixed at its present site. The second post established in 1804 and named Fort Good Hope was later moved, and ultimately came to rest on the east side of the Mackenzie, two miles above the outlet of Hare Indian River. About the same time, perhaps a year later, Fort Simpson was established at the confluence of the Liard with the Mackenzie. In 1807, Willard Ferdinand Wentzel, a Norwegian, who had entered the service of the North‑West Company in 1797, was in charge of it.

Making Montreal his place of residence, Mackenzie took an active interest in public affairs and in the social life of the city and the colony of Lower Canada. The site of his residence in Montreal, near the top of Simpson Street, is marked by a tablet recording the fact let into the wall of a house. He sat in the Legislative Assembly  p242 as representative of Huntingdon county, an English-speaking constituency of Lower Canada (Quebec), but he did not take kindly to political life, and soon retired from his parliamentary career.4

In 1795 the explorer became a member of the famous Beaver Club, which was founded ten years earlier, an exclusive organisation to which none were admitted as members who had not passed a winter in the pays d'en haut. Unanimous vote was essential to election. Established with a view to the providing of a social medium in which the asperities of rival trading interests might be removed, and the several commercial ventures welded into one harmonious whole, its original member­ship included many names that are part and parcel of the history of the west. Four of the charter members had made their initial journey to the Indian country before 1760 — Chaboillez, Blondeau, Campeau, and Des Rivières. Others who had wintered beyond the great lakes in the early days of the Montreal participation in the fur trade in that distant field were the three Frobishers, the two M'Gills, Alexander Henry, Gabriel Coté, Lous Ainse, James Finlay, George M'Beath, Matthew Lessey, Peter Pond, John M'Namara, David M'Crae, and Jean Jobert.

Although a member for many years, it was not until after 1804 that Mackenzie took any very active interest in the affairs of the club. In 1807 it was reorganised, and regular meetings were held once a fortnight from December to April each winter until 1817, when it ceased to exist. Several subsequent attempts to resuscitate it proved abortive.

One of the rules of the club provided that the regular club toasts should consist of five — The Mother of All Saints, The King, The Fur Trade, Voyageurs' Wives and Children, and Absent Members. After the regulation toasts had been honoured, members were permitted to  p243 drink as they pleased. Another rule exacted regular attendance, very much as the modern Rotary Clubs and kindred social organisations do to‑day. Illness or absence from Montreal were the only legitimate excuses. Each member was required to wear the club medal, with its sky‑blue ribbon, on club days, or pay a fine of one dollar.

The Beaver Club's meeting-place prior to 1807 is not recorded, but in that year meetings were held at the City Tavern, and afterwards at an establishment known by various names — Montreal Hotel, Dillon's Coffee House, Dillon's Hotel, and Dillon's Tavern — which stood on the south-west corner of St James Street and the Place d'Armes. It was pulled down in 1858, and the building of the Liverpool, London, and Globe Insurance Company erected on the site. After 1807 the meetings took place first at Palmer's Tavern, next at Tessyman's. In 1817 the Mansion House Hotel was used for the purpose. Colonel Landmann, in his interesting work 'Adventures and Recollections,' gives a lurid word-picture of a dinner at which he was present, given by Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Hon. William M'Gillivray, then living together in bachelor quarters, to the North‑Westers, members of the Beaver Club. Landmann was the invited guest of Mackenzie and M'Gillivray.

"In those days," says Landmann, "we dined at four o'clock, and after taking a satisfactory quantity of wine, perhaps a bottle each, the married men . . . retired, leaving about a dozen to drink their health.

"We now began in right earnest and true highland style, and by four o'clock in the morning the whole of us had arrived at such a degree of perfection that we could all give the war‑whoop as well as Mackenzie and M'Gillivray. We all could sing admirably, we could all drink like fishes, and we all thought we could dance on the table without disturbing a single decanter, glass, or plate, by which it was profusely covered; but on making the experiment we discovered that it was a complete  p244 delusion, and ultimately we broke all the plates, glasses, bottles, &c., and the table also; and worse than all, the heads and hands of the party received many severe contusions, cuts, and scratches. . . . I was afterwards informed that one hundred and twenty bottles of wine had been consumed at our convivial meeting, but I should think a good deal had been spilt and wasted."

But this uproarious dissipation did not prevent Mackenzie from arousing two of his guests at nine o'clock to journey down the St Lawrence to Quebec. He and M'Gillivray went with them to Port-au‑Tremble, and then returned. These occasional lapses from sobriety do not indicate that Mackenzie was intemperate habitually, but he was no "spoil-sport."

At the meeting of the club in September 1808, among the guests was John Jacob Astor, afterwards the promoter and head of the Pacific Fur Company, the founders of Astoria, a trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River, in 1811. Astor's headquarters were in New York, but he also had an office and warehouse in Montreal, at the corner of Vaudreuil Lane and St Thérèse Street, and had business dealings with Alexander Mackenzie, the X. Y., and the North‑West Company. He made a proposal to the latter Company to associate with him in forming an establishment on the Columbia, and, upon its rejection, he enlisted in his service a number of experienced North‑Westers, and sent them out to the Pacific coast to put into effect the plans he had formed. Probably at the dinner in 1808 he took advantage of the golden moment to do a little quiet lobbying among the North-West partners.

The Author's Notes:

1 Between England and the French Republic.

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2 'The Makers of Canada,' vol. VII pp188, 189.

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3 John Graves Simcoe, son of Captain John Simcoe and his wife Katherine Stamford, was born at Cotterstock, Northumberland, on February 25th, 1752. He entered the army, and saw service in North America. Returning to England after the surrender of Yorktown, he was promoted to the rank of Lieut.‑Colonel. In 1782 he married Elizabeth Posthuma, only daughter of Colonel Thomas Gwillin of Old Court, Herefordshire. He was elected M. P. for the borough of St Mawes, Cornwall, and after the passing of the Canada Act was appointed first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada (Ontario), whither he proceeded in 1791. Governor Simcoe was beloved by the Iroquois, who named him "Deyotenhokarawen," meaning "the open door." At the close of his term of office he returned to England in 1796. He was sent to Santo Domingo in 1797 to pacify the rebellious blacks. Promoted to Lieut.‑General in 1800‑01, he was Commandant at Plymouth, and was later appointed Commander-in‑Chief in India. While preparing to proceed to his new appointment he died at Exeter on October 26th, 1806.

Thayer's Note: Several biographies of him have been written. The fullest is reportedly The Life of John Graves Simcoe, First Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Upper Canada, 1792‑96 (Toronto, 1926). Scott Duncan Campbell's John Graves Simcoe (The Makers of Canada series, 1909) is online at Archive.Org; a good detailed sketch is online at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
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4 His tenure of office began August 6th, 1804, and ended April 27th, 1808.

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