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Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada by Land

The movement of the fur traders towards the Pacific now became a fevered race for the wealth of a new El Dorado. Astor's traders in New York, the Scottish and English merchants of the North-West Company in Montreal, the Spanish traders of the South-West, even the directors of the sleepy old Hudson's Bay Company - all turned longing eyes to that Pacific northwest coast whence came sea otter skins in trade, each for a few pennies' worth of beads, powder, or old iron. Rumors, too, were rife of the great wealth of the seal rookeries, and the seal proved as powerful a magnet to draw the fur traders as the little beaver, the pursuit of which had led them into frozen wilds.

Up in the Athabaska country, eating his heart out with chagrin because his associates in the North West Company of Montreal had ignored his voyage of discovery down the Mackenzie River to the Arctic in 17891, the young trader Alexander Mackenzie heard these rumors of new wealth in furs on the Pacific. Who would be the first overland to that western sea? If Spaniard and Russian had tapped the source of wealth from the ocean side, why could not the Nor'westers cross the mountains and secure the furs from the land side? Mackenzie had heard, too, of the fabled great River of the West. Could he but catch the swish of its upper current, what would hinder him floating down it to the sea? Mackenzie thought and thought, and paced his quarters up at Fort Chipewyan, on Lake Athabaska, till his mind became so filled with the idea of an overland journey to the Pacific that he could not sleep or rest. He had felt himself handicapped by lack of knowledge of astronomy and surveying when on the voyage to the Arctic, so he asked leave of absence from his company, came down by canoe to Montreal, and sailed for England to spend the winter studying in London. Here, everything was in a ferment over the voyages of Cook and Hanna and Meares, over the seizure of British trading ships by the viceroy of Mexico, over the Admiralty's plans to send Vancouver out to complete Cook's explorations. The rumors were as fuel to the flame that burned in Mackenzie. The spring of 1792 saw him hurrying back to Fort Chipewyan to prepare for the expedition on which he had set his heart. When October came he launched his canoes, fully manned and provisioned, on Lake Athabaska, and, ascending the Peace river to a point about six miles above the forks formed by its junction with the Smoky, he built a rude palisaded fur post and spent the winter there.

Spring came and found Mackenzie ready to go forward into the unknown regions of the west, regions as yet untrodden by the feet of white men. Alexander Mackay, one of the most resolute and capable traders in the service of the North-West Company, was to be his companion on the journey; and with them were to go six picked French Canadian voyageurs and two Indians as guides. They had built a birch bark canoe of exceptional strength and lightness. It was twenty-five feet long, some four feet in beam, twenty-six inches deep, and had a carrying capacity of three thousand pounds. Explorers and canoe men stepped into their light craft on the evening of May 9, 1793. The fort fired guns and waved farewell; the paddlers struck up a voyageurs' song; and the blades dipped in rhythmic time. Mackenzie waved his hat back to the group in front of the fort gate; and then with set face headed his canoe westward for the Pacific.

Recall what was happening now out on the Pacific! Robert Gray was heading home to Boston with news of the discovery of the great river. Vancouver was back from San Francisco carefully charting the inner channel of the coast. Baranoff, the little czar of the Russian traders, was coasting at the head of fifteen hundred 'bidarkies ' between the Aleutians and Sitka; and Spain was still sending out ragged pilots to chart the seas which she had not the marine to hold.

The big canoe went on, up the Peace River. Spring thaw brought the waters down from the mountains in turbulent floods, and the precipices narrowed on each side till the current became a foaming cascade. It was one thing to float downstream with brigades of singing voyageurs and cargoes of furs in spring; it was a different matter to breast the full force of these torrents with only ten men to paddle. In the big brigades the men paddled in relays. In this canoe each man was expected to pole and paddle continuously and fiercely against a current that was like a millrace. Mackenzie listened to the grumblers over the night campfire, and explained how much safer it was to ascend an unknown stream with bad rapids than to run down it. The danger could always be seen before running into it. He cheered the drooping spirits of his band, and inspired them with some of his own indomitable courage.
By May 16 the river had narrowed to a foaming cataract; and the banks were such sheer rock wall that it was almost impossible to land. They had arrived at the Rocky Mountain Portage, as it was afterwards called. It was clear that the current could not be stemmed by pole or paddle; the canoe must be towed or carried. When Mackenzie tried to get foothold or handhold on the shore, huge boulders and landslides of loose earth slithered down, threatening to smash canoe and canoe men. Mackenzie got out a towline eighty feet long. This he tied to the port thwart of the canoe. With the towline round his shoulders, while the torrent roared past and filled the canyon with the 'voice of many waters,' Mackenzie leaped to the dangerous slope, cut foothold and handhold on the face of the cliff with an axe, and scrambled up to a table of level rock. Then he shouted and signaled for his men to come up. If the voyageurs had not been hemmed in by a boiling maelstrom on both sides, they would have deserted on the spot. Mackenzie saw them begin to strip as if to swim; then, clothes on back and barefoot, they scrambled up the treacherous shore. He reached over, and assisted them to the level ground above. The towline was drawn taut round trees and the canoe tracked up the raging current. But the rapids became wilder. A great wave struck the bow of the canoe and the towline snapped in midair. The terrified men looking over the edge of the precipice saw their craft sidle as if to swamp; but, on the instant, another mighty wave flung her ashore, and they were able to haul her out of danger.

Mackay went ahead to see how far the rapids extended. He found that they were at least nine miles in length. On his return the men were declaring that they would not ascend such waters another rod. Mackenzie, to humor them, left them to a regale of rum and pemmican, and axe in hand went up the precipitous slope, and began to make a rough path through the forest. Up the rude incline the men hauled the empty canoe, cutting their way as they advanced. Then they carried up the provisions in ninety pound bundles. By nightfall of the first day they had advanced but one mile. Next morning the journey was continued; the progress was exactly three miles the second day and the men fell in their tracks with exhaustion, and slept that night where they lay. But at length they had passed the rapids; the toilsome portage was over, and the canoe was again launched on the stream. The air was icy from the snows of the mountain peaks, and in spite of their severe exercise the men had to wear heavy clothing.

On May 31 they arrived at the confluence where the rivers now known as the Finlay and the Parsnip, flowing together, form the Peace. The Indians of this region told Mackenzie of a great river beyond the big mountains, a river that flowed towards the noonday sun; and of 'Carrier Indians'2 inland, who acted as middlemen and traders between the coast and the mountain tribes. They said that the Carriers told legends of 'white men on the coast, who wore armor from head to heel' - undoubtedly the Spanish dons - and of ' huge canoes with sails like clouds ' that plied up and down 'the stinking waters' - meaning the sea. Mackenzie was uncertain which of the two confluents to follow - whether to ascend the Finlay, flowing from the northwest, or the Parsnip, flowing from the southeast. He consulted his Indian guides, one of whom advised him to take the southern branch. This would lead, the guide said, to a lake from which they could portage to another stream, and so reach the great river leading to the sea. Mackenzie decided to follow this advice, and ordered his men to proceed up the Parsnip. Their hearts sank. They had toiled up one terrible river; directly before them was another, equally precipitous and dangerous. Nevertheless, they began the ascent. For a week the rush of avalanches from the mountain peaks could be heard like artillery fire. Far up above the cloud-line they could see the snow tumbling over an upper precipice in powdery windblown cataracts; a minute later would come the thunderous rumble of the falling masses. With heroic fortitude the voyageurs held their way against the fierce current, sometimes paddling, sometimes towing the canoe along the riverbank. Once, however, when Mackenzie and Mackay had gone ahead on foot to reconnoiter, ordering the canoe men to paddle along behind, the canoe failed to follow. Mackay went back and found the voyageurs disputing ashore. They pretended that a leak had delayed them. From Indians met by the way, Mackenzie learned that he was indeed approaching a portage over the height of land to the waters that flowed towards the Pacific. One of these Indians was induced to go with Mackenzie as guide. They tramped ahead through a thicket of brush, and came suddenly out on a blue tarn. This was the source of the Parsnip, the southern branch of the Peace. The whole party arrived on June 12. A portage of 817 paces over a rocky ridge brought them to a second mountain lake drained by a river that flowed towards the west. Mackenzie had crossed the watershed, the Great Divide, and had reached the waters which empty into the Pacific.

The river which the explorers now entered was a small tributary of the Fraser, Some years later it was named by Simon Fraser the Bad River, and it deserved the name. Mackenzie launched his canoe downstream. The men's spirits rose. This was working with the current, not against it; but the danger of going with an unknown current became at once apparent. The banks began to skim past, the waters to rise in oily corrugations; and before the voyageurs realized it, they were caught by a current they could not stem and were hurried sidling downstream. The men sprang out to swim, but the current prevented them from reaching land, and they clung in terror to the sides of the canoe till an eddy sent them on a sandbar in the midst of the rapids. With great difficulty the craft was rescued and brought ashore. The stern had been torn out of the canoe, half the powder and bullets lost, and the entire cargo drenched.

The men were panic stricken and on the verge of mutiny; but Mackenzie was undaunted and determined to go forward. He spread the provisions out to dry and set his crew to work patching up the stern of the broken canoe with resin and oilcloth and new cedar lining. That night the mountain Indian who had acted as guide across the portage gave Mackenzie the slip and escaped in the woods. For several days after this most of the party trudged on foot carrying the cargo, while four of the most experienced canoe men brought the empty canoe down the rapids. But on June 17 they found further progress by water impossible owing to masses of driftwood in the stream. They were now, however, less than a mile from the south fork of the Fraser; the men carried the canoe on their shoulders across the intervening neck of swamp, and at last the explorers 'enjoyed the inexpressible satisfaction ' of finding themselves on the banks of a broad, navigable river, on the west side of the Great Divide.

The point where they embarked, on the morning of June 18, was about thirty-five miles above the Nechaco, or north fork of the Fraser, just at the upper end of the great bend where the south fork, flowing to the northwest, sweeps round in a semicircle, joins its confluent, and pours southward to the sea. This trend of the river to the south was not what Mackenzie expected. He wanted to follow a stream leading west. Without noticing it, he had passed the north fork, the Nechaco, and was sweeping down the main stream of the Fraser, where towering mountains cut off the view ahead, and the powerful rush of the waters foreboded hard going, if not more rapids and cataracts. Mackenzie must have a new guide. The Carrier Indians dwelt along this river, but they appeared to be truculently hostile. On June 21 a party of these Indians stood on one of the banks and shot arrows at the explorers and rolled stones from the precipices. Mackenzie landed on the opposite bank, after sending a hunter by a wide detour through the woods behind the Indians on the other shore, with orders to shoot instantly if the savages threatened either the canoe or himself. In full sight of the Indians Mackenzie threw trinkets in profusion on the ground, laid down his musket and pistol, and held up his arms in token of friendship. The savages understood the meaning of his actions. Two of them jumped into a dugout and came poling across to him. Suspiciously and very timidly they landed. Mackenzie threw himself on the ground, and on the sands traced his path through the 'shining mountains.' By Indian sign language he told them he wanted to go to the sea; and, disarmed of all suspicion, the Indians were presently on the ground beside him, drawing the trail to the sea. Terrible rapids (they imitated the noise of the cataracts) barred his way by this river.

He must turn back to where another river (the Blackwater) came in on the west, and ascend that stream to a portage which would lead over to the sea.

The post of Alexandria on the Cariboo Road marks Mackenzie's farthest south on the Fraser. At this point, after learning all he could of the route from the Indians, he turned the prow of his canoe up the river. The Carrier Indians provided him with a guide. On July 4, nearly two months from the time of leaving the fort on the Peace River, the portage on the Blackwater was reached; the canoe was abandoned, some provisions were cached, and each man set off afoot with a ninety pound pack on his back. Heavy mist lay on the thick forest. The Indian trail was but a dimly defined track over forest mould. The dripping underbrush that skirted the path soaked the men to the skin. The guide had shown an inclination to desert, and Mackenzie slept beside him, ready to seize and hold him on the slightest movement. Totem cedar poles in front of the Indian villages told the explorers that they were approaching the home of the coastal tribes. The men's clothing was by this time torn to shreds. They were barefooted, bareheaded, almost naked. For nearly two weeks they journeyed on foot; then, having forded the Dean River, they embarked for the sea on the Bella Coola in cedar dugouts which they procured from Indians of one of the coastal tribes. Daily now Mackenzie saw signs of white traders. The Indians possessed beads and trinkets. One Indian had a Spanish or Russian lance. Fishing weirs were passed. There was a whiff of salt water in the air; then far out between the hills lay a gap of illimitable blue. At eight o'clock in the morning of Saturday, July 20, 1793, Mackenzie reached the mouth of the river and found himself on the sea. The next day he went down North Bentinck Arm, and, passing the entrance to the south arm, landed at the cape on the opposite shore. He then proceeded down Burke Channel. It was near the mouth of this inlet that he inscribed, in red letters on a large rock, the memorable words: 'Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three. Lat. 52 20' 48'' N.'

Barely two months previously Vancouver had explored and named these very waters and headlands. A hostile old Indian explained bellicosely that the white sailors had fired upon him. For this outrage he demanded satisfaction in gifts from Mackenzie. Few gifts had Mackenzie for the aggressive old chief. There were exactly twenty pounds of pemmican - two pounds a man for a three months' trip back. There remained also fifteen pounds of rice - the mainstay of the voyageurs - and six pounds of mouldy flour. The Indians proved so vociferously hostile that two voyageurs had to stand guard while the others slept on the bare rocks. On one occasion savages in dugouts began hurling spears. But no harm resulted from these unfriendly demonstrations, and the party of explorers presently set out on their homeward journey.

Mackenzie had accomplished his object. In the race to the Pacific overland he was the first of the explorers of North America to cross the continent and reach the ocean. Late in August the voyageurs were back at the little fort on the Peace River. Mackenzie shortly afterwards quitted the fur country and retired to Scotland, where he wrote the story of his explorations. His book appeared in 1801, and in the following year he was knighted by the king for his great achievements.


1 See another volume of this Series, Adventurers of the Far North, chap. iii.

2. The Takulli. This tribe cremated the dead, and the widows collected the ashes of their dead husbands and carried them during a period of three years: hence the name 'Carriers.'

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Pioneers of the Pacific Coast, A Chronicle Of Sea Rovers And Fur Hunters, By Agnes C. Laut, Toronto. Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1915


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