The History of England

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Alexander Mackenzie. Through the rockies to the Pacific

Category: Famous people

Alexander Mackenzie. Through the rockies to the PacificAlexander Mackenzie was a man who did much to explore Canada from sea to sea during the early part of the 19th cen­tury. One of that country’s great­est rivers, the Mackenzie, was named after him.

Alex, as he was called by his friends, was born in 1764 in a small stone-built house near the sea on the island of Lewis, in the Scottish Herbides. Alex had two sisters and an elder brother. Later his brother became a ship’s doctor and fell overboard from a whaler and was lost at sea.

Alex went, as a little boy, to the village school, where he learnt to read and write and do sums. At the village school he made friends with the children of poor fishermen and farmers.

Among the many ships which came to the island of Le­wis were vessels carrying British goods to Canada. Alex loved the sea, and often went on board the ships and questioned the seamen about their voyages. They told him that the goods they carried would be taken into the wilds of Canada and America and exchanged with the American Indians for valuable furs.

Alex longed to know more about life in Canada and Ameri­ca—which was then still a British colony—and he longed to go with the seamen on their voyages to the New World. Many of his schoolfriends, when they left school, had become deck-hands on these ships and this made him very envious.

But it so happened that Alex went to America sooner than he had expected. When his mother died, shortly be­fore his tenth birthday, his father decided to take his family to America and join his wife’s brother, who had settled in New York a few years earlier. In 1775, when the Macken­zies had been living in America for about a year, the Ame­rican War of Independence broke out, the war which ended with the establishment of the United States.

Alex’s father took part in the war (on the British side) and Alex was left with his two aunts.

To Canada

The situation became so tense in New York that Alex’s aunts decided to send the boy to Canada, where conditions were much more peaceable. So, one morning, Alexander Mackenzie mounted a horse, with one of his aunts riding beside him, rode off to Canada.

They settled in the town of Montreal, at the time Ca­nada’s largest city on the great St. Lawrence River. Alex liked the city very much. He and his aunt lived in a wooden house not far from the harbour. This delighted Alex because he was again able to spend most of his free time at the harbour as he had done in Scotland.

He began to go to school again but soon he was offered a job as a junior clerk in a trading firm. Alex accepted the offer because he knew that his aunts were very hard up.

When Mackenzie was a young man of twenty, he was sent to trade with the Indians in the interior. In 1785 he set out to the north of Lake Superior, to take up his new job as a fur trader.

He worked together with Peter Pond, also a fur trader, who had always been eager to contact the trappers. It was said about Pond that he had journeyed farther north and west than any other trader.

Pond had some maps of Canada, and in the cold winter evenings, when the day’s work was ended, he liked to put the maps on the table and show Mackenzie some of the routes he had followed. He also talked of some of the jour­neys he would like to make, but he added that he would never make them at that time, as he planned to leave Ca­nada for ever. Pointing to the Great Slave Lake, he told Mackenzie that at the western end of that lake there was a large river which he believed must sweep round the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast of Canada. “After all,” he said, “no white man has ever yet crossed the Rockies.”

Mackenzie’s imagination was stirred. He decided to explore the river himself. He hoped to become the first man to cross the Rocky Mountains.

A Route to the Arctic

By the spring of 1789 everything was ready and on June 3 Alexander Mackenzie, then a man of twenty-five, began his great journey. He took with him a group of Indian guides, together with some of their wives. They set off from a village on Lake Athabasca in canoes made of birch bark.

By the following evening the party had travelled some seventy miles leaving Lake Athabasca and entering the Great Slave River. But the next day they ran into diffi­culties. The Great Slave River had many rapids with drops of up to 250 feet, and they were so treacherous that six times the party had to land and carry their canoes along the banks. Added to this, the fine weather broke, and they had to contend with wind, rain, and thunderstorms. It took them a week to reach the Great Slave Lake itself. And there they found that the water was frozen and they could pass only along the shallow shore. The weather was so unkind that it took them two weeks more to reach the western shore of the lake. At last, early in the morning of June 25, they left the lake behind them and came to the unexplored river about which Pond had told Mackenzie—the river now known as the Mackenzie. Before long they were travelling through country which had been unexplored by Europeans. The first task of the expedition had been car­ried out.

The strong current and rough waters of the rapids made things very difficult for Mackenzie and his party. They were constantly in danger of hitting submerged rocks and their canoes were often filled with water.

After passing the Liard, Mackenzie saw a great bar­rier in the distance, which lie pointed out to his compan­ions. He thought they were coming to the Rocky Moun­tains. But after a few miles the river changed course, and the barrier disappeared out of sight.

Strange hissing sounds in front of them gave the explo­rers their next worry. The noise became so persistent that some of the men took fright. During their journey the party had questioned a number of Indians about the river, and all had told them to beware of rapids. But they had also told them that evil spirits visited the river, and that terrible people and animals “as large as mountains” lived in that land. The Indians easily believed anything about the country away to the north of them, country which they themselves had never visited and about which they really knew very little. Mackenzie himself did not believe all their stories, but some of the others did and when they heard these strange sounds, they were frightened and tried to make Mackenzie turn back.

Mackenzie refused to listen to them. He felt more and more certain that in time they would cross or by-pass the Rockies and reach the Pacific Coast; and he told his party that he was determined to continue his journey to the end of the river.

Eventually they found that the hissing was caused by the strength of the current. They met with none of terrors about which they had been told; they discovered that all the rapids could be overcome, and there were no savages or animals “as large as mountains”.

On July 10, just five weeks after leaving the village on Lake Athabasca, the party reached the delta of the river, and there Mackenzie took a careful observation of his po­sition. He had thought that sooner or later the river would lead him to the Pacific. When he discovered the truth he was very disappointed, because he found that he was far to the north-west of where he had imagined himself to be. Instead of coming to the Pacific Ocean, he was, in fact, approaching the Arctic Ocean. On climbing a high hill, he saw a great barrier of ice across the river mouth and the sea beyond the ice.

Because Alexander Mackenzie had neither crossed the Rocky Mountains nor reached the Pacific, he could not see that he had achieved anything. He even wanted to call the new river the Disappointment.

But Mackenzie’s expedition was a great success: he had discovered and explored a river more than 2,500 miles long, and brought back valuable information about a vast area of country hitherto unknown.

Again to the Rockies

Mackenzie, however, was determined to try to find another way through the Rockies. Before starting his new expedition he went to London to study navigation and other sciences.

He spent several months in London, visiting various scientific museums and buying books and astronomical instruments. Every evening in his poor flat he read books and often continued his studies well into the night. When he was ready for his new expedition he returned to Canada.

Mackenzie decided to start his second expedition by way of the Peace River. He started on May 9, 1793.

The journey was difficult from beginning to end, and this time the dangers were very real. Within twenty-four hours the canoe became so leaky that they had to repair it. Almost as soon as the canoe was afloat again, Mackenzie dropped his pocket compass into the water. Some time later the canoe ran aground and had to be repaired a second time.

While his men were repairing the canoe Mackenzie ex­plored the countryside. A party of Indians told him that he would reach the Rocky Mountains in ten days’ time. On May 17, he wrote in his diary with delight, “At two in the afternoon, the Rocky Mountains appeared in sight, with their summits covered with snow…”

But, as the expedition came nearer to those mountains which no man had crossed before, the river grew more and more difficult and dangerous. There were a lot of rapids, canyons, and treacherous rocks, often hidden under the water.

Mackenzie had to change his plans constantly. When conditions allowed they continued their journey by water; but when this became too dangerous they towed the canoe along the riverbank. When even towing was impossible, the explorers had to carry both their canoe and their sup­plies. Their progress was very slow.

Then a group of natives appeared. One of them took a lump of charcoal and drew a map on a piece of bark, showing Mackenzie the shortest way to the Stinking Lake, as the natives called the Pacific.

But Mackenzie’s troubles were by no means over. The canoe was by then so battered that they had to build a new boat; food supplies ran low.

By July 4, the party readied a place from where they had to continue their journey overland.

As they tramped with the heavy weights on their backs, they met many Indian tribesmen, most of whom were friendly and hospitable. The natives gave them good food and shelter for the night. At one place they were so friendly that Mackenzie named the place Friendly Village.

At last, on the morning of July 22, 1793, Mackenzie reached the coast a little to the north-east of Vancouver Island. The following day Mackenzie wrote in large letters, on the side of the rock on which they had slept: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.”

Thus Alexander Mackenzie completed one of the great­est feats of North American exploration. On his first expedi­tion he had explored a river and found a route to the Arctic; on his second expedition he had broken through the Ro­ckies and opened a way to the Pacific as well.

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