Sir Alexander Mackenzie
(1764 - March 1820)
Alexander Mackenzie, Explorer and Fur Trader was born in Scotland in 1764 and emigrated with his father to New York at the age of ten. In 1779 he entered the service of a Montreal firm engaged in the fur trade. After working for five years in the companies Montreal office he obtained a share in the business and became a trader in the West. In 1788 he was put in charge of trade in the Athabasca region and settled at Fort Chipewyan on the South shore of Lake Athabasca. This was the staging point for the two expeditions which finally enabled him to reach the Pacific. He made two trips; one to the Arctic Ocean in 1789, and another to the Pacific Ocean in 1793.
Mackenzie left on his first voyage of exploration on June 3rd 1789. After crossing Great Slave Lake, the expedition followed the river that today bears his name to its mouth in the Arctic Ocean. His lack of knowledge in celestial navigation prevented him identifying his position accurately. He returned to Fort Chipewyan in 42 days on September 12th. This voyage of over 3000 miles had been accomplished in only 102 days. Mackenzie was deeply disappointed, even though he had been the first to explore one of the great rivers in the world, he had not obtained his objective - the Pacific. Mackenzie realized he had not been sufficiently trained in the art of location to make full effective his efforts as an Explorer. He determined then to get more education in that line, and the following winter spent six months in England studying navigation, cartography and Astronomy.
Leaving a second time from Fort Chipewyan on Oct. 10/1792 Mackenzie managed to cross the Rockies through the pass that also bears his name. To the Fur Traders, with canoes and voyageurs, any water route was a highway much favoured to the overland alternatives. Mackenzie's crew consisted of himself, his cousin Alexander Mackay, six voyageurs and two Indians as hunters and interpreters as well as Mackenzie's faithful companion, his dog. Their vessel was a 26 foot birch bark canoe with a four foot nine inch beam. Into the canoe three thousand pounds of provisions, arms, ammunition and trade goods were loaded. The bark craft was only paper thin but it carried ten men and three thousand pounds of gear. Mackenzie ran into great difficulty at the Peace River Canyon where the Peace River cuts through the wall of the Rockies. The party fought it's way up the canyon, then by scouting ahead determined that no boat could navigate such a water route.
Mackenzie's Journal states, "We now continued our toilsome and perilous progress with the line West by North, and as we proceeded the rapidity of the rivers current increased, so that in the distance of two miles we were obliged to unload four times, and carry everything but the canoe; indeed, in many places, it was with the utmost difficulty that we could prevent her from being dashed to pieces against the rocks by the violence of the eddies. At five we had proceeded to where the river was one continuos rapid. Here we again took everything out of the canoe, in order to tow her up with the line, though the rocks were shelving as greatly to increase the toil and hazard of that operation. At length, however, the agitation of the water was so great, that a wave striking on the bow of the canoe broke the line, and filled us with inexpressible dismay, as it appeared impossible that the vessel could escape from being dashed to pieces, and those who were in her from perishing. Another wave, however, more propitious than the former, drove her out of the tumbling water, so that the men were enabled to bring her ashore, and though she had been carried over the rocks by these swells which left them naked a moment after, the canoe had received no material injury. The men were, however, in such a state from their late alarm, that it would not only have been unavailing but imprudent to have proposed any further progress at present, particularly as the river above us, as far as we could see, was one white sheet of foaming water. That the discouragements, difficulties, and dangers, which had hitherto attended the progress of the enterprise, should have excited a wish in several of those who were engaged in it to discontinue the pursuit, might be naturally expected; and indeed it began to be muttered on all sides that there was no alternative but to return."
The party persevered and fought its way about half way up the canyon, then by scouting ahead determined that no boat could navigate such a water route. They camped for the night on a flat above the river, and on the morning of May 21st, because it was rainy and the men fatigued and disheartened, Mackenzie allowed them to rest until eight a.m. when he sent Mr. Mackay with three men and two Indians to look for a portage route. The next day they cut a road up the mountain and brought their baggage ( 3000 pounds less the food they had consumed ) up from the river.
After getting their baggage up, Mackenzie has stated; "The whole of the party proceeded with no small degree of apprehension to fetch the canoe and as soon as we had recovered from our fatigue, we advanced with it up the mountain, having the line doubled and fastened successively as we went up onto the stumps; while a man at the end of it, hauled it around a tree, holding it on and shifting it as we proceeded; so that we may be said, with strict truth, to have warped the canoe up the mountain." On the 23rd of May they advanced three miles, running into fallen timber and Devil's club, which added to their already considerable difficulties. They had passed most of the canyon and were down again on the water from where they could see the awesome force of the Peace River as it fights for its freedom from this rocky straightjacket. "It was really awful to behold with what infinite force the water drives against the rocks on one side, and with what impetuous strength it is repelled to the other; it then falls back, as it were, into a more straight but rugged passage, over which it is tossed in high foaming, half formed billows as far as the eye could follow it."
Several days later they came upon an Indian encampment. These people 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. They did not know of any river that flowed to the Ocean, but they did know of a large river that flowed to the South. Mackenzie engaged one of the Indians to go with his party as a guide. Several days later on June 12 they found the height of land and they were now entering into the watershed of the Pacific Ocean. Scouting ahead, two men brought back fearful tales of rapids, rocks and windfalls. Their new guide stated he wished to return to his people. He had been alarmed in going down some of the Rapids.
Three days later on June 17th they arrived on the banks of the Fraser River. Mackenzie wrote, "At length we enjoyed, after all our toil and anxiety, the inexpressible satisfaction of finding ourselves on the bank of a navigable river on the West side of the first great range of mountains."
Mackenzie started heading downriver and as he traveled learned of hostile natives and impassable river conditions ahead. The people told Mackenzie that they had traded with the people of the coast by traveling overland to the West. It took six days of travel they said and the trail was easy, without mountains and had been traveled so often that the path was well marked. At the Western end of the journey they met the people of a coastal valley with whom they bartered their dressed leathers and furs for metals, and beads. The Indians were telling 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. The stories of the evil nature of the natives downriver and the tough waters convinced Mackenzie to take the overland route to the West. Without the guidance of Indians, Mackenzie would have been unlikely to reach the Western Sea.
The explorers had to backtrack a long ways upriver to a point that they could start heading out the westward river to the Coast. There were many indications that they were on an Indian trade trail to the sea. The path was well marked, following natural contours; dwellings were frequent and meetings with Indians more than occasional. Many of the Indians had been to the coast and one party included a woman of the Coastal tribe. Mackenzie had crossed the plateau country West of the Fraser. The village of Algatcho had been passed and they had from there seen the seen the high white peaks of the coast range rising South and West of them. From Algatcho they had plunged down swampy meadows to the banks of the Dean River, which they crossed on a raft. They started the ascent through the Rainbow Mountains, a small extinct volcano range northeast of the coast range proper. The mountains were highly coloured with ridges of red lava shingles. Some of the slopes were creamy white striped with red... Mackenzie now understood what the Indian had meant by "the mountains that bleed" They climbed over a summit and, ". . . it began to hail, rain and snow, nor could we find any shelter but the leeward side of a huge rock. The wind also rose into a tempest, and the weather was as distressing as any I had ever experienced." From the slopes of the Rainbow Mountains they looked upon a great range of glacier-clad peaks, at the foot of which ran the river which would carry them to the sea.
One stupendous mountain rose so high its snow-clad summit was lost in the clouds. "We continued to descend till we came to the brink of a precipice, from whence our guides discovered the river to us, and a village on it's banks. This precipice, or rather succession of precipices's is covered with large timber, some of the loftiest cedar and fir I had ever seen." Mackenzie had descended into the Bella Coola Valley through the steeply precipitous valley of Burnt Bridge creek, thirty miles from where the Bella Coola river pours into the sea. Where the creek entered the Bella Coola river they rested at a community which was dubbed "Friendly Village" because of the hospitality of it's native inhabitant's. The feast to which their new hosts treated them illustrated that here was a land of abundance and stability and he realized he was among a people who had attained a high degree civilization.
Mackenzie found the Natives very dependent on the Salmon runs and very superstitious so not to displease the Salmon Gods. From here Mackenzie and his men were transported in thirty foot dugout canoes by the Nuxalk Rivermen. Mackenzie was truly amazed with the boat handling techniques of the Rivermen as they effortlessly poled their way downriver through columns of water and the tallest trees Mackenzie had ever seen. They landed the canoes ten or twelve miles downstream and came upon a large village. The explorers toured the village, which was by far the largest they had ever seen, Mackenzie named it 'Great Village'. South of the village a giant mountain rose to an altitude the explorers considered must be two miles. Its sides were hung with glaciers and in the late afternoon sun it's crevices and ribs looked like a huge monster rearing into the heavens. Twice the heavy thunder of a spring icefall shook the air, and the Indians all stopped and stared worshipfully up at the mountain. Noosgultz! they cried. The senior chief of the Great Village provided Mackenzie with a canoe and five of his men including one they called Young Chief, to take Mackenzie and his men to the sea. The poles which had propelled them downriver were now put aside and were replaced with paddles for Ocean going. Mackenzie had arrived at the head an inland fjord of the Pacific Ocean. By afternoon the strong inflow wind had come up.
Mackenzie and his crew bucked the weather out the inlet but were forced into, and set up camp in Green Bay. The Young Chief caught and killed a large porcupine which they had for dinner. The next day they were on the water early in the morning heading west out Burke Channel. They rounded the dreaded Mesachie ( Evil ) Nose into the calm waters of Labouchere channel and then into the Dean Channel. Here they met three canoes carrying fifteen men, and when they closed with them the men started talking with Young Chief. "One moon ago," one of the Indians said, "two big canoes were here filled with whitemen. Bad White Men. One man, Chief called "Macubah", he shot at my friends and me. One other bad man, white man, called "Bensins", hit me across back with long knife. "White man bad" the Indian chanted. Historians believe that "Macubah" and "Bensins" were the Indian's interpretations for the names of Captain Vancouver and his naturalist, Menzies. At the mouth of Elcho harbor they found a rock which had the appearance of being fortified. They were now surrounded by ten canoe loads of natives who appeared to be restless. Some of the natives appeared to be trying to annoy the whitemen, while others kept inviting them to visit their village in Elcho harbor. Mackenzie, fearful there would be mischief if he were to go there, refused. About sunset all the natives departed, taking with them Young Chief. At sundown the men retired and a double watch was established. Nothing occurred in the night to disturb them.
Next morning two canoes came from the village in the bay for trading purposes. Young chief rode in one of the canoes, and when he landed he tried to convince Mackenzie that he should leave at once. He explained "These people are from another nation, the Bella Bella, that live among the islands in the setting sun. They are as thick as mosquitoes and will kill you. They are planning an attack now." Mackenzie and his voyageurs did not like the sound's of this. They certainly were not in a desirable position for defense.
Mackenzie had quite a reputation for strength and fierceness that the crew respected and the voyageurs pleaded Mackenzie to head back. "I have work to do here," Mackenzie replied. "When it is finished we will go back, and not before." Two canoe loads of people were seen approaching, but they contained five men and their families rather than warriors from the west. 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. Then, even in the sight of approaching canoes, he calmly mixed some vermillion (salmon roe) in melted bear grease and inscribed in large characters on the southeast face of the rock on which they slept last night, this brief memorial:
22d July 1793
In order to relieve tension, Mackenzie allowed a move eastward up the channel. They landed near the mouth of Cascade Inlet. He managed to get a reading from the stars which gave him pleasure; "I had now determined my situation, which is the most fortunate circumstance of my long, perilous and painful journey." It was ten in the evening when he had finished his recordings and gave his men permission to start the return journey. This they did with great enthusiasm. 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 upriver, being received hospitably at the numerous villages. Mackenzie again admired the river skills of the Nuxalk boatmen who were fishing and traveling on the river. When they were following riverside trails they passed through the finest timber Mackenzie had ever seen. Some of the cedars were 24 feet in girth and tremendously high.
The explorers arrived at Friendly Village on Burnt Bridge creek and visited with their friends for three hours. 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. The explorers left behind the summer of the Bella Coola valley and camped that night on top of the edge of the snow fields. They were so tired they could hardly crawl about to get firewood and after a hearty supper of roast salmon they sat about the fire and talked of their adventures, delighting in the feeling of being almost out of danger and well on their way homeward.
"Such was the depth of precipices below," commented Mackenzie in his diary, "and the height of the mountains above, with the rude and wild magnificence of the scenery around, that I shall not attempt to describe such an astonishing and awful combination of objects: of which indeed, no description can convey an adequate idea."
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 1802 Mackenzie was knighted Sir Alexander Mackenzie by King George 111, 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 another country, other than Canada. Mackenzie was only 29 years old when he and his men made the extraordinary overland journey to Bella Coola.
Sir Alexander Mackenzie died in Britain in March 1820 at the age of 56. Mackenzie's Rock, on the north shore of Dean Channel and at the mouth of Elcho harbour, is marked with a large cairn and preserved in Sir Alexander Mackenzie Provincial Park. It has only been 210 years since Mackenzie and his hardy Voyageurs visited the West Coast, not a long time ago in comparison to the history of the old country Europe. The awesome natural beauty of the area remains as it was and little has changed on the Central Coast since those days.
Come to Bella Coola and relive the experience, and the majesty of Sir Alexander Mackenzies incredible overland and nautical route to the Pacific Coast on the Alexander Mackenzie Heritage Trail.
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