Sir Alexander MacKenzie
Sir Alexander MacKenzie. (1764 – March 1820, buried in Avoch)
Alexander Mackenzie is buried at Avoch, a few miles north of Inverness on the Black Isle.
Alexander Mackenzie is recognised as leader of the first European expedition to cross the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific, north of Mexico. Because of Mackenzie’s success the rich coastal territory we know as British Columbia today, is part of Canada. If he had been unsuccesful, it could be argued that British Columbia would probably have belonged to another country. Mackenzie was only 29 years old when he and his men made the extraordinary overland journey to Bella Coola.
Alexander Mackenzie was born in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Western Isles of Scotland in 1764. He emigrated with his father to New York at the age of 10 years. When he was 15 years old he entered the service of a Montreal firm engaged in the fur trade. At the age of 20, he obtained a share in the business and became a trader in the West. When he was 24 years old, he was put in charge of trade in the Athabasca region and settled at Fort Chipewyan on the South shore of Lake Athabasca, from here he staged two expeditions; one to the Arctic Ocean in 1789, and another to the Pacific Ocean in 1793.
When MacKenzie was 25 years old he set off to find the Pacific Ocean, but realised his lack of navigation skills was a massive handicap to an explorerer. Sir-Alexander-MacKenzie4.jpgSo decided to put this right by spending the following winter in England studying navigation, cartography and astronomy.
In 1792, at the age of 28 years, Alexander Mackenzie set off a second time from Fort Chipewyan, crossing the Rockies through the pass that bears his name, with canoes and voyageurs (people who engaged in the transportation of furs by canoe), the party consisted of himself, his cousin Alexander Mackay, six voyageurs and two Indians as hunters and interpreters. The 26 foot birch bark canoe, was only paper thin but it carried ten men and three thousand pounds of gear.
During the journey they came across Indians who had not previously seen white men, but had some iron which they had procured by trade with other natives who had journeyed a great length to the sea. The Indians told Mackenzie of the route from the Fraser River up the West Road River ( Blackwater River ) to the Bella Coola River and the sea, the first commercial overland route in British Columbia. Without the guidance of Indians, it is unlikely that Mackenzie would have been able to reach the Western Sea.
Mackenzie found the Natives dependent on the salmon runs and very superstitious so as not to displease the Salmon Gods. He was truly amazed with their boat handling techniques, they effortlessly poled their way down river through columns of water and the tallest trees Mackenzie had ever seen.
Mackenzie learned of hostile natives, but had quite a reputation for strength and fierceness which his crew respected and the voyageurs pleaded with Mackenzie to head back. “I have work to do here,” Mackenzie replied. “When it is finished we will go back, and not before.” Mackenzie, however was becoming apprehensive and commanded his men to load the canoe ready for an immediate departure. He managed to get an astronomic reading.
At four thirty the next morning they had paddled to Porcupine cove and a few hours later they pulled the canoe up on the beach at the Bella Coola village. The explorers proceeded up river, being received hospitably at the numerous villages.
The Nuxalk gave them all the smoked salmon they wished to carry and they set out on the trail up the mountain. Every man of Friendly village accompanied them for the first hour, then parted from them with signs of regret. That night the explorers were delighted in the feeling of being almost out of danger and well on their way homeward.
MacKenzies Route to the Pacific – A man of extraordinary physical strength, determination and perseverance, Mackenzie’s route to the Pacific proved too difficult for others to follow, but this does not diminish the value of his great 117 day expedition across Wild America.
In 1801 the journals of his exploratory journeys were published, he served in the Legislature of Lower Canada from 1804 to 1808.
In 1802 Mackenzie was knighted Sir Alexander Mackenzie by King George III, and recognized as leader of the first European expedition to cross the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific north of Mexico. Had Mackenzie failed to complete his epic journey across the continent to the Pacific Coast perhaps this rich coastal territory we know as British Columbia would probably belong to a country other than Canada. Mackenzie was only 29 years old when he and his men made the extraordinary overland journey to Bella Coola.
In 1812, he married and returned to Scotland. Mackenzie died in 1820 of Bright’s disease (kidney disease as we know it today), aged 56. He is buried in Avoch, on the Black Isle, Ross and Cromarty.
His grave is in Avoch church yard, the only grave marked with flags, it is open all year round for those who wish to visit and pay their respects to a great adventurer.
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