Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Mackenzie, Alexander (1755?-1820)

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MACKENZIE, Sir ALEXANDER (1755?–1820), North American explorer, is believed to have been born at Inverness about 1765. According to his own account he entered in 1779 the counting-house of Messrs. Gregory & Co., Toronto, one of the partners in the North-west Fur Company, started in 1783 to oppose the Hudson's Bay Company's monopoly. In 1784 he was sent by his employers to Detroit with a small venture of goods, on condition that he penetrated into the back settlements, or Indian territory, in the ensuing spring. He set out with some companions on this half trading, half exploring enterprise, but the European traders already established in those ports treated them as intruders, and stirred up the Indiana against them. After 'the severest struggle ever known in this part of the world,' during which one partner was murdered and several wounded, the intruders were admitted to a share in the trade in 1787.

Local knowledge and experience, gained by several years' residence at Fort Chippewayan, a trading post with the Chippewas, at the head of Lake Athabasca, in the Hudson's Bay territory, pointed Mackenzie out to his employers as a fit person to explore the then unknown region of the north-west, supposed to be bounded by the Frozen Sea. He set out from Fort Chippewayan with a small party of Canadians and Indians in birchbark canoes on 3 June 1789. The voyage, full of perils and difficulties, surmounted with indomitable pluck, skill, and perseverance, occupied 102 days. A week after leaving, the party reached the Great Slave Lake, which they found covered with insecure ice. Skirting the lake on 29 June, they discovered the outlet of the river, flowing from the lake to the north-westward, and since named the Mackenzie Elver. This they descended to the point where it enters the Arctic Sea, in lat. 69° N., which they reached on 15 July. Setting up a post with his name and date of visit, Mackenzie retraced his steps, arriving with his party at Fort Chippewayan on 12 Sept. 1789. After a period of hometrading, during which he improved his knowledge of surveying and nautical astronomy, he started again from Fort Chippewayan on 10 July 1792, with the object of reaching the Pacific coast, an enterprise never before attempted by any European. The journey proved yet more perilous and difficult than the preceding. After nine months of persevering travel, Mackenzie, the first white man who crossed the Rocky (or Chippewayan) Mountains, reached the Pacific coast near Cape Menzies, in lat. 62° 21' N., and long. 128° 12' W. Greenwich, on 22 June 1793. He inscribed on the face of a rock the date of his visit, a not unnecessary precaution, as he was nearly murdered by the natives when starting on his return journey the next day. He arrived at Fort Chippewayan on 23 Aug. 1793. Subsequently he appears to have devoted himself to the profitable pursuit of the fur trade, and to have amassed considerable means. He published in England in 1801 a narrative of his explorations in the northwest, entitled 'Voyages on the River St. Lawrence and through the Continent of North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in the years 1780 and 1793. With a Preliminary Account of the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Fur Trade of that Country,' London, 4to. The work, which contains some excellent maps, was dedicated to George III. On 10 Feb. 1802 Mackenzie was knighted. Although retaining a partnership in the North-west Company, he set up a rival fur company, under the style of 'Sir Alexander Mackenzie & Co.,' which in 1804 was amalgamated with the older North-west Company. The latter (long after Mackenzie's death) was absorbed into the original Hudson's Bay Company. Mackenzie appears to have afterwards resided some time in Canada. He represented Huntingdon County in the provincial parliament, and was involved in litigation with Lord Selkirk, arising out of that nobleman's unfortunate attempts at colonisation. In 1812 he married a Miss Mackenzie, and appears to have bought an estate at Avoch, Ross-shire. When journeying to Edinburgh with his wife and young children he was taken suddenly ill at Mulnain, near Dunkeld, and there died on 11 March 1820.

A portrait was painted by Lawrence and engraved by Westermayer.

[Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen, vol. iii. ; Appleton's Cycl. of American Biog. ; Mackenzie's Voyages, &c ; Notes to Brymner's Reports on the Canadian Archives ; Reminiscences of the Hon. Roderick Mackenzie in Masson's Les Bourgeois de la Comp. de Nord-Ouest, 1889, 1st ser. vol. i. in which work, and in Encycl. Americana, art. 'Fur,' and in Lippincott's Gazetteer of the World, much collateral information will be found.

H. M. C.