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Memorable Manitobans: Alexander MacKenzie (1764-1820)

Explorer, fur trader.

Born in Stornoway, Scotland, he emigrated to New York with his father and siblings in 1774. His father joined a Loyalist regiment and sent Alexander to school in Montreal. In 1779 he became a clerk in the Montreal office of a fur-trading operation that would become the North West Company, actually going into the field in 1784 and heading to the far West in 1785. He went to the Athabasca River in 1787 as second-in-command to Peter Pond, succeeding him in 1788 as fur trader and explorer.

His first journey of discovery in 1789 down the large river that flows from Great Slave Lake (now the Mackenzie River), which he hoped led to the Pacific Ocean, was predicated upon Pond’s knowledge and theories. What Mackenzie discovered was that the river opened into the Arctic Ocean. Mackenzie was the ideal explorer, very strong and determined, and was anxious to try again. He learned a bit of surveying technique, and headed off in 1792 up the Peace River, then to the McGregor River and finally the Fraser, which he eventually followed to the Pacific in 1793. Although he remained in the fur trade until 1799, at this point he left for England and published his Voyages from Montreal ... to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in 1801 to wide acclaim. This work, written in collaboration with his cousin Roderick and journalist William Combe, was extremely influential in a variety of quarters. It got Mackenzie his knighthood. It provided the NWC with a vision of a coast-to-coast trade, and its descriptions of Red River country first led Lord Selkirk to the region.

Mackenzie and Selkirk joined forces in 1808 to buy Hudson's Bay Company stock, although Mackenzie apparently did not understand the extent of the grant Selkirk wanted, for he opposed it in 1811. Soon after he retired to Scotland. He died near Dunkeld, probably of Bright’s disease.

There are papers in the Archives of Manitoba and in the Hudson's Bay Company Archives.

See also:

The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, edited by W. K. Lamb (1970) (4 volumes).

Alexander Mackenzie and the North West by Roy Daniells (1969).

Alexander Mackenzie, Explorer: The Hero Who Failed by J. K. Smith (1973).

Alexander MacKenzie, Dictionary of Canadian Biography V, 537-43.

Sources:

Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 3 August 2020

Memorable Manitobans

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