by Dorthea Calverley
[Note: Today, we usually use the ‘Mackenzie’ spelling, but old documents bearing his signature use ‘Mac Kenzie’ about half the time.]
Alexander Mackenzie took over Pond’s House from 1787 to 1789. One of his first decisions was to send two men, McLeod and Boyer, overland to meet the Beaver Indians and to build a post on the Peace River. This Boyer did, near Fort Vermilion, to become the first white man on record ever to see the Peace. Brian Hitchon, writing in his book Alberta: a Natural History, says that Pond had “sent a man to stand on the banks of the Peace.” Mackenzie was a hustler. In 1789 he sent his cousin Roderick to build a new headquarters at the first Fort Chipewyan on Athabasca Lake. There, fish were plentiful to supplement the uncertain supply of game. From there Mackenzie made his dash to the Arctic. At the mouth of the river that bears his name, is the terminus of the road-river route that begins at Dawson Creek and ends at Aklavik. Barges have been built here by the Streeper Brothers, not so long ago, to be trucked to Fort Nelson and floated to the sea. The terminus of his trail was established one hundred and twenty-five years before the beginning of the Alaska Highway.
In 1790 Mackenzie sent A. McLeod to build two more posts up the Peace. One became famous as Fort Fork near the confluence of the Peace and Smoky Rivers, a few miles upstream from the present town of Peace River. Its exact site was rediscovered and excavated in 1927. Here Mackenzie wintered before his famous dash to the Pacific, starting on May 9, 1793. Although they had no names at that time, many spots now well known to us were noted in his journal. Mackenzie had learned surveying on a recent trip to England so he could ascertain latitude and longitude with reasonable accuracy. He stopped first directly north of the present-day Eaglesham to caulk the overloaded canoe, carrying ten men, a dog, and three thousand pounds of freight. He camped at the mouth of the Spirit River. Paddling against the current, they made the Dunvegan Flats by evening. There the canoe ran onto a sandbar. On the night of May 14, they camped on Raspberry Island, at Rolla Landing, the first white men by land to sleep on British Columbia soil. During the day, they noted the mouth of the river we call the Pouce Coupe today. Even on George Dawson’s map of 1879, it was known as the d’Echafaud or Scaffold River. On May 15 they noted the Kiskatenaw or Mud River, and the Beatton River mouth, and camped about six miles below Taylor Flats. On May 16 they noted the river they called l’Epinette, or in English, the Pine. The next time you drive past Bear Flats by evening, look down from the high road; somewhere down there on May 16, 1793 the smoke of campfires curled up, while the men talked about the two “grisly and hideous bears” they had seen.
At Farrell Creek they first saw the mountains still shining under the winter’s snow — after all, the ice was hardly out of the river!
At noon they came to an island near present-day Hudson’s Hope. Although they saw a deserted Indian encampment of eight lodges, they missed the old well-known Indian Portage Road. Their Indian guides must not have been as familiar with the route as they claimed to be.
The river, half a mile wide above the canyon, plunges into a fault it found in the rocks after the last glacier had dumped a moraine dam across its former valley. In places one could almost throw a stone across it. The waters with incredible force dashed in house-high billows against the upended strata of snaggle-tooth rocks tilted up when the Rockies rose. Mackenzie got his canoes past the big island, where he was not too frustrated to note geese nesting as they did again in 1970. He also noted the coal seams in the banks. He probably walked up the lovely “glen”, now a park near Hudson’s Hope. In the end he gave up and ordered the men to cut a twelve-mile portage around the terrible canyon.
All of his landmarks above the W.A.C. Bennett Dam are now under Williston Lake. Until 1967, when the dam began to fill, the Ne Parle Pas and the Finlay Rapids were infamous. I portaged around them too in 1957, but I am glad that I saw them!
On July 22, 1793, Mackenzie reached salt water at Bella Coola and wrote his famous inscription, using grease and vermilion powder which he has brought to trade to the Indians for use as face paint. Captain George Vancouver in his great white ship had visited the place and named it only two months before. Some of Vancouver’s men had shot at the Indians, creating hostility which was transferred to the next group of white men they saw. Mackenzie, short of food and with clothing in rags, could not wait to give his men a celebration feast with some rum diluted with less water than usual. Neither could he look for the Russian traders he had heard about on his recent trip to England, so he could not drive any bargains with all his spare cash which he had brought along for such an opportunity.
When he got back to Fort Chipewyan, he made arrangements for trading posts to be built, and a further search made for an easier route to the Pacific Ocean. Then he started back for the head office in Montreal, never to return further West than Grand Portage on Lake Superior.
He was only twenty-nine, but he was bone-weary of hardships and endurance tests. His enterprises had made him wealthy – so why not enjoy it?
One never hears it mentioned by how narrow a squeak the Peace River Country escaped being discovered by an American company. Mackenzie, more than any other man, kept Western Canada from becoming a state in a United States reaching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic.