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Alexander Mackenzie

Alexander Mackenzie painted by Thomas Lawrence (c.1800), courtesy National Gallery of Canada
Born 1764
Stornoway, Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Died March 12, 1820 (aged 55–56)
Cause of death Bright's Disease
Occupation explorer

Sir Alexander Mackenzie (Scottish Gaelic: Alasdair MacCoinnich) (1764 – March 12, 1820) was a Scottish explorer. Mackenzie was born in Stornoway on the isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. In 1774, his family moved to New York and then to Montreal in 1776 during the American Revolution. In 1779, he obtained a job with the North West Company on whose behalf he traveled to Lake Athabasca and founded Fort Chipewyan in 1788. He was sent to replace Peter Pond, a partner in the North West Company. From Pond, he learned that the First Nations people understood that the local rivers flowed to the northwest. Acting on this information, he set out by canoe and discovered the Mackenzie River on July 10, 1789 following it to its mouth in the hope of finding the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. As he ended up reaching the Arctic Ocean, it is conjectured that he named the river "Disappointment River" as it did not lead to Cook Inlet in Alaska as he had expected.[1] The river was later renamed the Mackenzie River in his honour.

In 1791, he returned to Great Britain to study the new advances in the measurement of longitude. Upon his return in 1792, he set out once again to find a route to the Pacific. Accompanied by native guides, French voyageurs and a dog called "Our Dog", Mackenzie left Fort Fork following the route of the Peace River. He crossed the continental divide and found the upper reaches of the Fraser River but was warned by the local natives that the lower portion of the river was unnavigable and populated by belligerent tribes.[2] He was instead directed to follow an established trading route by ascending the West Road River, crossing over the Coast Mountains and descending the Bella Coola River to the sea. He followed this advice and reached the Pacific coast on July 20, 1793 at Bella Coola, British Columbia, on North Bentinck Arm, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. Thus, he completed the first recorded transcontinental crossing of North America north of Mexico. He had unknowingly missed meeting George Vancouver at Bella Coola by 48 days. He had wanted to continue westward out of a desire to encounter the open Ocean but was turned back by the hostility of the Heiltsuk nation. At his westernmost point on Dean Channel, (on July 22, 1793), hemmed in by Heiltsuk war canoes, he inscribed "Alexander Mackenzie from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three!" on a rock using a reddish paint made of vermilion and bear grease and turned around to return to "Canada".[3]:418 The rock, near the water's edge in Dean Channel, still bears similar words which were permanently inscribed later by surveyors. The site is now Sir Alexander Mackenzie Provincial Park.

Inscription at the end of the Alexander Mackenzie's Canada crossing located at 52°22′43″N 127°28′14″W / 52.37861°N 127.47056°W / 52.37861; -127.47056[4]

He was knighted for his efforts in 1802 and served in the Legislature of Lower Canada from 1804 to 1808. In 1812, he married and returned to Scotland. Mackenzie died in 1820 of Bright's disease aged 56. He is buried in Avoch, on the Black Isle, Ross and Cromarty.


  1. ^ *Biography of Mackenzie, Sir Alexander at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
  2. ^ Journey of Sir Alexander Mackenzie - Bella Coola Grizzly Tours - Mackenzie Heritage Trail, BC
  3. ^ Morton, Arthur S; (Lewis G Thomas) (1973) [1939]. A History of the Canadian West to 1870-71 (2nd ed ed.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-4033-0.  
  4. ^ Alex MacKenzie From Canada by Land 22d July 1793


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