by Dorthea Calverley
In 1787 Peter Pond’s successor paddled into the Peace River country. He was twenty-four year old Alexander Mackenzie, a “brand new partner, recently appointed to replace Peter Pond in the rich Athabasca trade department” of the newly re-organized Northwest Company. He was destined not to be the first white man on the Peace, but the first to leave us a remaining written record of the area. Certainly he became its most famous figure.
Little is known of his early life except that he came from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides as a motherless boy of twelve. At the time the Seven Year War had ended but the American Revolutionary war was about to begin. England was poor; Scotland and the Isles, always poorer after the times of Bonnie Prince Charlie, were poorer still. The crofters or small farmers were being forced off their lands. Many like Mackenzie, father and son, found their way to the New England colonies. When the American Revolution almost immediately broke out the Mackenzies, loyal to the British Crown, were more akin to the Canadians who did not join in the Revolution. His father, a British officer, went back into the army, apparently, and died. He had sent his young son to Montreal for safety in 1779. Alexander probably attended a school of some kind for three years.
The Mackenzies of Stornoway seem to have been people of some standing, if not of wealth. Scots had always prized education. There were no schools as we know them today. Wealthy families had tutors and governesses for their children. Local clergymen conducted schools for bright pupils. Mothers from good families taught their children if necessary and taught them well. However he obtained it, young Alexander had a good education. He wrote a good hand. His beloved cousin, Roderick Mackenzie, was something of a scholar, for, when he took over Fort Chipewyan to release his cousin for exploration, his library of books there became noted in the writings of other travelers. Both Alex and his cousin later wrote books, naturally in the stilted English and non-standardized spelling of the day, but still authoritative accounts of their times. Roderick’s was translated into French, for he married a French girl and raised a bilingual family, through one of whom his writings were published in French translation.
At sixteen Alexander, and later Roderick, were apprenticed to the Montreal firm of Mr. Gregory, who later traded out of Detroit as the Gregory – McLeod firm and which still later was absorbed by the Northwesters.
An apprenticeship was the regular way to learn any trade. For a small salary a young boy would be bound over for a period of years to learn from an old master. From fetching and carrying and the humblest of jobs, the boy learned the business “from the ground up”. In the fur trade it meant acquiring a working knowledge of at least three languages, four if you were a Scottish Highlander or Islander who spoke the Gaelic. There was English since then, as now, Montreal business was in the sphere of the British; there was French to communicate with the hired voyageurs and workmen; there was at least one Indian tongue, to communicate with guides, and customers. The boy must learn how to buy trade goods that were attractive to the Indians and how to grade and process furs. To be a bourgeois or boss, he needed practical experience, part of which was to learn how much work he could get out of the voyageurs, and when an extra tot of watered run would overcome fear or laziness. Beyond that he needed to know bookkeeping. Above all he had to learn to live Indian fashion, which usually meant taking an Indian wife “after the fashion of the country” for without Indian women he would be helpless for clothes, food, or shelter.
In a way it was a form of slavery, for the white trader acquired his “wife” by a gift to her father. The fur trader and writer Godsell reports that a Metis, “Black” Mackenzie, around Peace River claimed descent from Sir Alexander, a claim which others confirmed.
Mackenzie seems to have been a bright pupil. In five years, at the age of twenty-one, his apprenticeship was over. He was sent “with a small adventure of goods” as a full-fledged trader, still affiliated with Gregory -McLeod Company, to seek his fortune. We find him soon after in the Peace River Country with Peter Pond.
Young, educated, handsome, and experienced, he must have made a dashing figure when he brought his first winter’s “take” to the great gathering place, Grand Portage, on Lake Superior. His firm had lately merged with the larger Northwest Company. Probably he and the equally ambitious, young and elegant Simon McTavish had met in Montreal. Mackenzie was now one up on McTavish, having been a wintering trader. Already McTavish saw him as a threat.
If a youngster of twenty-two or so had amassed so much profit as to be able to buy a share in McTavish’s company, McTavish would have an eye on him. In fact he feared him, for fear is one basis of hate. Young Alex would be well rid of in a far northern post. He was sent back to Athabasca with admonitions to attend to business on behalf of his new associates.
Mackenzie had other ideas. Fired by Peter Pond’s stories, he was bent on finding a way to the Pacific. He had snowshoed three hundred miles and back to visit his cousin Roderick. He had tried to enlist Rory’s help to manage service as a clerk in Alex’s post, and move to Chipewyan, taking his famous collection of books for company.
Let’s not think of Alexander as a dewy-eyed young romantic, indulging an itching foot for fun, or dreaming of going to the Pacific like the young man who was asked why he wanted to climb a mountain — “Because the mountain is there.” He had one objective — to make money.
If finding the long sought route to China — presumed by Peter Pond to be only fifty leagues away — was the way to get the most in the shortest time he was game to do whatever was necessary. Once he had found that none of the rivers north or west were suitable for the fur brigades to the Pacific, he quit the country and never returned. He wrote that “I think it unpardonable in any man to remain in this country who can afford to leave it.”
Nevertheless, in his book, published years later, he described the beauty and fertility of the Peace River valley in glowing terms, almost with affection.
When he returned from the Arctic [in 1789] he went out once more to Grand Portage. One would have thought that Simon McTavish would have been overjoyed to hear that the youngster, in one hundred and two days had covered three thousand miles by canoe, and mapped a river which now bears Mackenzie’s name. Mackenzie called it “The River of Disappointment” for it flowed to the Arctic, not the Pacific.
Actually McTavish, the wealthiest man in Montreal, was furious! Not for him a future fur empire. Bring in those furs now! Sure, with Roderick’s’ help, Mackenzie had got enough to buy himself a second share in the company, but he could have had more if he had attended to business!
Mackenzie had more — he had the company’s permission to take a year’s leave of absence. McTavish and the other Eastern partners had to do without a little extra commission on sales, for a time. They didn’t like it a bit! He realized that he needed better instruments for surveying, and more mathematical and astronomical education. Somehow he talked himself into a years’ furlough in England and a course at what would be University now. The Northwest Company was a democratic operation. All the partners had to vote. With Simon McTavish already jealous, it was no small victory for so young a partner, only twenty-four or five, to get his way, against the wishes of the soft but greedy partners from the East.
At twenty-eight he was manager of the company’s richest post, chief of the wintering bourgeois, a double shareholder, and an accomplished traveler, with a world-record exploring voyage behind him. He had visited the Old Land, and undoubtedly got a taste of good living at the home of Roderick’s father, his uncle. Alexander was handsome, with a scholar’s mind in an athlete’s body. He had a businessman’s brain years ahead of its time, harnessed to a drive to make money. Besides he had apparently the calm personality, courage, and character to draw men to him and get them to follow him into the unknown. Even more impressive was the ability to get his scholarly cousin, Roderick, to conquer his aversion to business enough to handle a trading-post, sitting it out with his beloved books while Alexander went in pursuit of more wealth — and a dream.
Doubtless Simon McTavish had hoped so formidable a rival would succumb to the easy life in England, and never come back. When Alex next showed up in Montreal, McTavish ordered Alex again to keep his nose to the Company grindstone, in a company where every partner (except McTavish himself) had had to man a wintering post before he could buy a share.
During his first year in the Athabasca, Mackenzie had laid the groundwork for his exploration. In 1788 he sent two assistants, McLeod and Boyer, on foot to find the Peace River Indians, the Beavers, who were sending in fine furs through the Cree middlemen. The explorers took an old Indian trail towards Sagitawa, now Peace River town. A little later Boyer built a post near Vermilion Chutes. These are the first white men recorded to have seen the Peace. In 1789 Mackenzie’s cousin, Rory, established Fort Chipewyan on the south shore of the Lake Athabasca where fish could supplement the food supplies, to save hauling them in. Some seasons it was difficult to get enough for the establishment.
On his return from England Alexander had two other forts built in what is now Alberta. One was some miles downstream from Peace River Town. The other was called Fort Fork, about twelve miles upstream from Peace River Town, where the Peace and Smoky Rivers meet, a really strategic position. The ruins of this fort were rediscovered in 1927. It was intended as a head start for his planned trip up the Peace. The palisades and bastions of Fort Dunvegan were not started until the winter of 1805-1806.
Now the spotlight turns on what is now British Columbia. On May 14, 1793, Mackenzie’s party, on its dash from Fort Fork to the Pacific, camped on an island opposite today’s Rolla Landing, probably Raspberry Island. Surely a historic event — the place where the first known white men camped overnight on BC’s mainland. Ten men, a ton and a half of goods, and a dog disembarked from a canoe only twenty-five feet long, twenty-six inches deep and four-foot nine-inch abeam. The campsite was also memorable as the site of the first recorded weather report from the BC Peace. It was a complaint. It rained so hard that they made a very late start, past six o’clock [in the morning] instead of four as usual!
On May 14 Mackenzie noted in his journal the mouth of the river now called the Pouce Coupe, a name it got nearly a hundred years later. When the famous surveyor and geologist, George Mercer Dawson made his map in 1879-1880, it was still the D’Echafaud or Scaffold River, and remained so until much later. That night they camped at Bear Flat. The day had been beautiful. Mackenzie wrote glowingly of the place, especially of the abundance of elk and buffalo. “The country is so crowded with animals as to have the appearance in some places, of a stall yard.” The origin of the name Bear Flats is found in the note “We this day saw two grisly and hideous bears”.
Mackenzie referred to the Peace River itself in his journal as ‘Unjegah’. This was doubtless his phonetic rendering of the Indian word that was later given as “Unjigah” from one dialect and “Unchagah” from another. Remember, if you ever drive the paved road from Fort St. John to Hudson’s Hope that there were men rowing against time, upstream, counter to the full force of the spring run-off. A far cry indeed from the recent “Mackenzie Days” when boats, propelled by outboard motors instead of sinewy arms, to the rhythm of noisy popping exhausts instead of swinging songs, ran downstream, not up.
From a camp on Farrell Creek, Mackenzie first glimpsed the far-off mountains, the same shining mountains that the coureurs de bois had sighted from the southern prairies many years earlier. On May 18 they reached the portal. Almost everyone knows that he missed the ancient Indian portage road, and spent two days trying to track the canoe up the rapids. On May 22 at daybreak they started to cut their own portage overland across the mountain. They reached the head of the canyon where they found the old war-trail that they should have taken.
In spite of the heartbreaking work, the unflappable Mackenzie noted everything, such as coal seams in riverbanks and geese nesting on the big island in the Glen, while his men threatened to mutiny. He gave them no time to think but imperturbably moved on. He wisely portaged around the Ne Parle Pas Rapids, so called because one comes upon them without hearing a roar. “They don’t speak”, the French Canadian voyageurs said.
Further upstream were the even more dangerous Finlay Rapids, not yet named at that time. These beautiful, dangerous stretches of water now lie far below the surface of Williston Lake above the W.A.C. Bennett dam. Near here, at Finlay Forks, the Peace was born from the union of the Parsnip and the Finlay rivers.
Everybody knows that he reached salt water at Bella Coola seventy-four days out of Fort Fork. Actually he never saw the ocean, but he heard of a mysterious white chief whom the Indians called “Macubah” — who came in mysterious white “canoes” on the “stinking lake” — the ocean. He had missed Captain Vancouver by only forty-nine days. What a meeting that would have been!
It took the exhausted crew ninety-three days to get back to Fort Chipewyan near Lake Athabasca. From there he paddled to Montreal in the spring. Did he get a welcome as a great explorer? No, as we shall see, although he had changed the course of history, by living out dreams he had dreamed in the quiet cold winters in our own Peace River Valley. Dreams sparked in the tales of Peter Pond, the old Nor’Wester at Ile a la Cross.
One part of the dream remained unrealized. He had not met the Russians with whom he hoped to make an alliance, and for which he had taken all his money except two guineas that he left behind in a letter he wrote to his cousin “Dear Rory” the night before he left Fort Fork.
Again one would expect Simon McTavish to be overjoyed to know that the Northwest empire had been extended west so many hundreds of miles. He must have been a man of incredibly narrow vision for Mackenzie had effectively blocked the Hudson’s Bay Company’s monopoly. Was McTavish jealous, or simply frustrated that a fellow-partner had defied him? Mackenzie got admiring recognition from the Hudson’s Bay Company’s historian, Douglas MacKay, who pays him high tribute in the book The Honorable Company. The Nor’westers had always despised the Hudson’s Bay men as being “sea-bound, unenterprising”. Now by not recognizing that a Western seaport might be an avenue to vast wealth, they let themselves be river bound. There were other Pacific ports like Ocean Falls, Kitimat or Prince Rupert that might have been reached easily enough, for the Indians of the interior had already found routes for trade with Coast tribes.
For a short time Mackenzie stayed in Montreal, then sailed for England. Now a very wealthy man, he bought a large country estate in Scotland and married the beautiful Geddes Mackenzie who was of the same clan, but not a cousin as is sometimes assumed. He spent much time writing his famous book about his journeys. From his enthusiastic descriptions one would surmise that he loved the Peace Country well. The book was a best seller among the travel and adventure books so popular at the time.
Emperor Napoleon studied it thoroughly with a view to invading Canada from the West — a strange idea to realize that the eyes of Napoleon were upon our land. Mackenzie was knighted by the king and quickly became a celebrity in London.
Marjorie Wilkins Campbell, historian of the Northwest Company, stated in a magazine article that Mackenzie employed a ghostwriter name William Combe to write his memoirs. It might account for the almost poetic flights of description about the Saskatoons in bloom on the Peace River hills in early May, when it is usual for them to open about May 24. However, we have had phenomenally early spring seasons since then. Mackenzie had begun to write up his journal in the winter of 1793-4, evidently for his cousin Roderick to read. Good, patient cousin “Rory” carrying on the grubby business of fur trading, and getting his adventures second-hand! Alex complained in a letter that he found composition difficult, based on notes penciled in a canoe, at campfires, for meal stops or on the verge of exhaustion at bedtime. It took him eight years to put the journals into book form. It is true that Combe claimed to have written the book about Mackenzie’s journey to the Pacific, but he named the wrong destination. It is immaterial who actually penned the book. Wealthy persons always employed secretaries, who wrote in longhand of course — no typewriters or word processors in those days. Although, as T. H. McDonnell shows in his book “Exploring the Northwest Territory“, details often vary between the original Journal and the Voyages, the former is followed so closely as to make the assumption of employing a “ghost-writer”, in my opinion, unwarranted.
The Voyages are written in at least three handwritings — sometimes with indented paragraphs, sometimes not. I would guess that Combe was a secretary who sought some reflected glory — or perhaps another job. If, so, by representing Mackenzie as exploring South America he let the cat out of the bag for all time. Certainly Combe was not the only scribe of The Voyages. Some of the changes in detail may have come as a result of questions, answered from memory. In any case, where the wording is changed from that of the original journal, it is more stilted.
Business affairs in Canada called Mackenzie back. When he returned from his Pacific journey he already had a plan to run the “English” traders out or get the Nor’westers to buy a controlling interest in “The Bay”. Added to that company’s already mentioned slowness to put improvements into practice was their policy not to give the Indians rum and the luxuries they craved “because it wasn’t good for them.” Such practices, in contrast to the Nor’westers’, did not produce dividends for the stockholders. Probably they would have been willing to sell out cheap. Mackenzie envisaged a fur empire, keeping the better things of each of the two companies — especially the French Canadian voyageurs. He wanted a strong naval garrison on the Pacific Coast, a clear monopoly across from sea to sea and possible trade with China. Simon McTavish missed the boat — the last chance to be an emperor indeed. Mackenzie went to England to get financial backing; and when the union did come it was the Hudson’s Bay Company that devoured the Nor’westers.
On his return to Canada the younger partners of the Northwest Company had reached the explosion point. Mackenzie knew how they felt. Once, he had been expecting to become the partner in the Frobisher-McTavish Company when the Frobishers retired, instead McTavish put the name of his nephew on the door, a MacGillivray, who compared to Mackenzie was a so-so sort of business man. Again young men were being denied promotions which they deserved. They finally broke away and formed a company of their own called the New Northwest Company, which was soon known as the XY. Company. The crowning insult to the old company was to build a new depot only half a mile from Grand Portage. McTavish was furious! When the seven-year agreement for the Old Company had to be renewed in 1799, McTavish ruled that Mackenzie’s former friendliness with the young rebels made him ineligible for re-election. Then it was the turn of the wintering partners to be furious! Rather than wreck the company, Alexander resigned. Roderick, now brother-in-law to Simon McTavish’s wife, took his place.
How much self-control Mackenzie must have exercised to depart gracefully when one reads of the incident on the shores of the Arctic! An Indian guide made Alex angry. His tongue-lashing reduced the stoic Indian to tears. Mackenzie let him cry for two hours. Such a temper was softened by a compassion that led him on occasion, to pour out for downhearted but not mutinous voyageurs, a “consolatory cup”. “Cousin Roddy” stood by Alex and now Alex could repay him by stepping down in dignity. Surely nothing else could have made the fiery young Scot surrender.
How it must have infuriated McTavish that Alex, the humble clerk of a few years before, had now to be addressed as Sir Alexander! The XY Company invited Alex to join them, which he did. Several XY posts were built in the Peace River country. Ruins but no records of them have been found.
Now, with three companies all engaged in cutthroat tactics, violence was bound to occur. The Indians played one against the other — rum was the prize. Rum was expensive however, and supplying it cut into everybody’s profits. Lord Selkirk, assisted by the Bay, was planning to establish a farming colony on the Red River near Winnipeg. Nothing could be worse for the fur trade than fields and fences. The whole fur trade business was in chaos. Napoleon’s decree of 1806 had cut off the sale of furs in Europe, similar in effect to Nixon’s surcharge policy in 1971. There was bloodshed between the company employees.
Besides these problems, the hardworking wintering partners of the Northwest Company were at loggerheads with the “fat-cat” commission agents in their Montreal mansions. Then, when McTavish died, the XY Company joined the Nor’westers again, but things were not as well organized as before. Mackenzie saw how the wind was blowing. Divided, the Northwesters were bound to go under. By quietly buying Hudson’s Bay Company shares, he put himself in a position to attend an annual shareholder’s meeting of the Bay in London. Here he opposed the Company’s selling of 116,000 square miles of south central Canada and north central USA to Lord Selkirk for 10 shillings [about $2.50!] to establish his pet project, the Red River Colony. The colony would sit squarely athwart the pemmican-producing area which nourished the fur brigades. Mackenzie was overruled. The dispute eventually led to the darkest blot on Western Canada’s history, the massacre of the colonists at Seven Oaks by seventy Nor’westers.
It is hard to say whether Mackenzie now had enough influence with the Northwest Company to stop the dreadful rivalry that followed with its violence and bloodshed. Some writers blame him for his bitter enmity against Lord Selkirk. They had once been friends; Selkirk had actually lent him money. Mackenzie had tried his best to induce the Nor’westers to buy enough stock to control the Hudson’s Bay Co. and so block the colonization scheme. But they had not followed his advice, although Simon MacGillivray had warned them that Selkirk was a “designing and dangerous character”. In the end, events proved that Mackenzie had been right, for the Bay took over the Northwesters, greatly to the disadvantage of the younger company.
It is a strange coincidence that the Selkirk settlers left for Canada from Stornoway, Mackenzie’s birthplace and boyhood home. Is it possible that his efforts to block the colony were as much to save them from the dreadful hardships they were being lured into as to benefit the Northwest Company from which he had been estranged for several years?
Because the Northwesters had always divided each year’s profits as if there would never be an end, they had no reserves to hold out against the autocratic, and now injured and vengeful, Bay people. Not only the colonists were angry; the Metis, most of them half Indian, half Nor’Wester-white, were muttering about the loss of their ancestral hunting grounds to the white settlers.
Legal battles were eating up the resources of the Nor’westers. None could see more clearly than Mackenzie could the need for the union of the two great companies. The Northwest Company decided on one last gamble. They would go to England and try to buy out cheaply the interest of the Bay Company, now nearly bankrupt, for they owed the Bank of England over £100,000 — half a million dollars.
If Mackenzie had lived they might have pulled off a deal that would have changed, perhaps for the worse, the whole history of North America. It was the old friction between the hard-working wintering partners and the shrewd Montreal commission agents that wrecked the plan. Both sides sent agents to London. Mackenzie had known and understood each faction of the Northwesters. The McGillivrays were “big shots” in Montreal but they were “small fry” in London. They would have welcomed Mackenzie’s advice, for they did not carry on the hatred of their uncle, Simon McTavish, and Mackenzie had connections with business interests and aristocratic people in Britain. The future Queen Victoria’s father, Edward, Duke of Kent, was a close personal friend. Edward even discussed in personal letters, the weaning of the infant princess, and asked about Sir Alexander’s wife’s health since she was expecting their third child, George. Since he held shares in both companies, he would have had a foot in each camp. He could have warned his old friends that they had fallen into the clutches of a clever and ruthless politician who stalled off both factions of Nor’westers until the Eastern entrepreneurs sold out to the Hudson’s Bay. Politics were the same then as they are now.
In the summer of 1821 at Fort William, the great new Northwest Company post on the Canadian side of the International boundary, the Canadian representatives heard the details of the deal. The Bay had won. The new company would take the name of the Hudson’s Bay Company. It would be run, as always, from London. There would be, three directors from the Bay, two from the Nor’westers. Faces grew longer. Worse to come! Of the hundred shares in the new company, some had been allotted to the McGillivrays but none to the old wintering partners. This was outrage! They had endured the cold, the danger and the loneliness that had built the wealth which the Bay was now absorbing. They had the experience and the vital trust of the Indians and Metis. Now, they were to be reduced to employees, chief factors or chief traders, taking orders from greenhorns in the business! No wonder they said, “We are drowned men!” and stalked out of the meeting. Many of them by necessity finally took the offered employment. Many left the trade and went into banking and other business. MacGillivray without them was a ruined man.
Many families, which had made Montreal great and prosperous on the profits of the Northwestern trade, pulled out and went into business in the United States and elsewhere. The Hudson’s Bay no longer commanded the services of the proud French Canadian voyageur, “les hommes du Nord“. Knowing no other trade these proud men were reduced to being poor farmers or trappers.
Perhaps it was as well that Mackenzie did not live to see it. On the other hand, although their deeds lay buried for years in the records which the Bay kept locked in the vaults of London, the Nor’westers had made a notable contribution.
Their individualism, initiative and free spirit had become a part of the Canadian character, especially in the Western provinces. For a while, The Bay were practically the rulers of western Canada, until the demand for railroads bred a new generation of entrepreneurs, out of which grew Confederation. In time, The Bay’s monopoly was displaced by Canadian control of Canadian destiny, a process that is still going on.
There is a difference in Western people, a legacy from people like Alexander Mackenzie — a legacy from the old Nor’westers. It is a legacy of overcoming all obstacles, of endurance and courage, of independence and individualism. Westerners are enterprising and non-conformist. We too, are Northwesters in many ways.
What would have been our history if Mackenzie had realized his dream of establishing a large British fort on the Pacific at the mouth of the Columbia River? It is impossible to say with any certainty, of course. He also saw the advantage of two other strategic positions for posts. He was personally disappointed in the results of his explorations. He did not live to see that his having reached the Pacific effectively shut off the French who eventually surrendered their holdings in Louisiana and Texas, as did the Spaniards who founded California. Canada was able to retain access to the sea from Prince Rupert to Vancouver thanks in part to the explorations by Mackenzie, Fraser and George Vancouver.
Mackenzie at another time had almost concluded a peaceful settlement between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company giving each access to the Hudson’s Bay ports, but the visionary scheme of Lord Selkirk and his Red River Colony thwarted that plan. No wonder Mackenzie was furious! The noble Lord had never seen the West, and had not the foggiest idea of the issues involved or the dangers to the settlers at that time. Canada could have been saved many years of bloody, disgraceful, and wasteful rivalry. In the light of history, Mackenzie was so often right, and so capriciously thwarted by others less able than him. In his thinking, he was of statesmanlike stature but not of a social class to give him an audience where it mattered.
So far in our story we have spoken mostly of Mackenzie as an explorer and a businessman. What was he like as a man?
In the history books of not so long ago he was a name, not a person. In recent years researchers have begun to study the records that were taken over by the Bay, and which lay in their archives, unread. Some students see him still as a writer of “stilted prose” and semi-literate spelling. Mackenzie himself was modest about his writing saying, “he was not a candidate for literary fame.” He wanted neither “exaggeration nor display; neither embellished narrative nor animated description”. He aimed at “simplicity and truth”. Let us put his picture into the frame of his day.
Alexander was the second son of Kenneth Mackenzie, (or MacKenzie) and brother to two younger sisters. His birthplace has been authenticated as Stornoway in the Northern Hebrides Islands. The Mackenzie clan had been relatively wealthy and powerful Highlanders.
He was descended from a chief, Kenneth, hence the name Mackenzie. Alexander’s father was an army officer, in the Stornoway Company loyalists who had not supported James II, the Scottish-English king who abdicated. The chief of the clan had been created Earl of Seaforth. Alex played around the ruins of the old Seaforth Castle. The Seaforth Highlanders had a long and honorable life in military history. Like most Highlanders, the family were not wealthy, but the Mackenzies were certainly not impoverished. Since Murdoch, his elder brother, studied medicine and became a ship’s surgeon, we can assume that adventure was a family characteristic. On the mother’s side the MacIvers were one of Stornoway’s leading families. Neither side was by any means peasants or crofters. He was of good birth, and gentlemanly background.
Alex began life in a business atmosphere for Stornoway was a commercial centre from which fish were exported, and all the goods that they could not produce were brought in. The villagers were fishermen, the country people crofters, or farmers — proud, thrifty and athletic. Education was considered essential and the local schoolmaster was a respected figure.
Some writers criticized Mackenzie’s writing for its “bad spelling” and “stilted style”. We should remember that his mother died when he was ten, and that his father decided to emigrate to the English colonies, now the United States, where the boy had an uncle. Hence he was not old enough to have had the usual classical British education in Latin and Greek. Besides, spelling had not yet been standardized, and style consisted of long, rambling sentences, as anyone knows who has looked at very old books. Let us remember that Mackenzie died a year or so after Queen Victoria was born. Since his formal schooling was almost over when he left Scotland and there was no fond but stern Scottish mother to oversee him, his writing compared very favorably with the average ten-year old of today.
Perhaps if his home in Avoch, Scotland, had not burned in 1832, his books and manuscripts which were destroyed would have given a warmer, more personal picture of the man and a glimpse into his private personality.
His Voyages had already been published. His Journal, written day by day on his voyage to the Arctic, and recopied for his cousin Roderick, is preserved. The Journal is an objective report of a business trip intended to be given to his partners, and not in any sense a diary, revealing his thoughts or emotions. He admits quite matter-of-factly to being afraid at times, and on only one or two occasions as thoroughly angry as a Highland Scot can be. In telling, also matter-of-factly, how he dealt with disobedient, despondent, frightened, or surly Indians he shows himself to be humane and understanding of their weaknesses but not himself weak.
When they were most unruly he first fed them and gave them extra rum, or little favors, let them rest and relax, and then quietly but firmly reassured and revitalized them.
He could be kindly. During the winter at Fort Fork before the dash to the Pacific, he attended every day the mutilated hand of a young Indian and saved the hand.
Even when fighting the rapids of the terrible canyon at Hudson’s Hope, his keen eyes saw geese nesting on the big Island in the Glen. He was a naturalist. He recorded the habits of the animals and customs of the Indians whom he encountered. He was a humanist.
With very crude instruments he recorded the position of every turn and twist of his journey for those who would follow. He was a geographer and cartographer.
He was not the lordly bourgeois or boss, for he carried heavy packs as his men did besides the long, heavy, awkward telescope for recording his latitude.
At some time in Canada he took an Indian wife. The writer Phillip Godsell met a man near Peace River who claimed descent by an Indian mother or grandmother. A son, Andrew, is known to have been baptized in Montreal and to have entered the service of the Northwest Company. It would appear that Alex took his family east to Montreal when he left the North, and assumed responsibility, which not all white fathers did. What became of this first wife nobody seems to have recorded.
The well-known portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence show him to be of medium height, handsome, impeccably dressed, a fine figure of a man.
The mouth is sensitive yet firm. The eyes seem to be taking the measure of something or somebody and “small” men would quail before that appraisal. There is no hint of a sense of humour either in the portrait, or in writing that has survived, but Mackenzie was no plaster saint. In fact, to be elected as president of the wealthy traders of Montreal, he had to be a notable “good fellow”. The Duke of Kent, the father of Queen Victoria, came to Quebec in 1791 in command of an army regiment. The two became fast friends and traveling companions whenever Alex was in England, an indication that Alex could be pleasant, congenial, even entertaining.
A guest at a dinner given at the Beaver Club by Mackenzie and Duncan McGillivray wrote of the occasion. “The dinner started at four in the afternoon, with wine of course. The married men went off to the drawing room. At four in the morning the single men were still singing, practicing the war whoop and dancing on the table. They were all rather the worse for wear!” On another occasion, after lunch, the letter writer tells how to save himself from being trampled upon in the dancing he crawled into the cold fireplace “and sat very passive contemplating the proceedings” until Sir Alexander and McGillivray, president and vice president respectively, were the last remaining in their seats.” Finally, in attempting to pass a bottle both fell off their chairs, last to go under.
After his book was published, to have become the darling of the court circles, and intimate friend of the Duke of Kent, he must have mastered or have inherited and kept, the arts and graces of polite society. The fact hat in 1812 he married the young and renowned beauty, Geddes Mackenzie, indicates that he had a “charisma” at what was then the advanced age of thirty-six that put the gay young blades in the shade. The fact that when he visited his sisters in Ayr a “grand ball” was given in his honour indicates that the ladies Mackenzie, were also wealthy and socially “upper crust”.
Alexander and Geddes must have been a handsome couple. Although she is said by some historians to have been his cousin, later books slate that she was of the Clan Mackenzie but not of the same family. After all, the Mackenzies were lairds of much of northern Scotland. The marriage was a very happy one, although it lasted only eight years. Mackenzie ceased his constant journeys across the Atlantic and bought an estate called Avoch on Moray Firth, an estate which Mackenzie paid for to the trustees of Geddes dead father, evidently not being content to acquire wealth by marriage to an heiress. He also had a London house on Jermyn Street, a very fashionable district of London.
In his farewell letter to Roderick, still in Montreal, he describes himself as a family man, with Lady Mackenzie sitting beside him, and the children playing on the floor. Margaret Geddes would have been three, Alexander two, and George, eleven months old to the day.
Alexander spoke fondly of his brother’s children and invited one of Roderick’s younger sons to get his college education in Scotland. His own three children were well educated, Margaret becoming a noted watercolour artist who lived unmarried until 1888. Alexander, heir to the estate, lived to 1894.
How close we are to Mackenzie’s day is brought home to this writer when she recognized that one of his children was alive when her own mother was fourteen years old!
In 1819 when he wrote, Alexander was a sick man, unable to walk. That leather-tough young athlete could now take exercise only by riding in a carriage “if not violent”. He attributed his condition to being “overtaken by the consequences of (his) sufferings in the Northwest”. In his journals he had never admitted that hardships were “sufferings”. He was no neurotic! Quite as likely, as a source of his condition, he could have blamed equally his younger-day bouts with the bottle for he seems to have had Bright’s disease, a degenerative and very painful condition of the kidneys. “The great doctor Hamilton of Edinburgh” was giving him pills, which from reading of a doctor’s pharmacopoeia of the day were more likely to bring an earlier end to the misery than to cure the disease. On his way back from Edinburgh, probably to see his doctor, he suddenly was taken fatally ill, and died the next morning, March 11, 1829, aged only fifty-two.
Whether or not the stone they erected at his head at Avoch still stands or is decipherable, Mackenzie had three other monuments in more appropriate places. One cairn stands on the North bank of the Peace near Peace River Town; across from old Fort Fork where he began his history making his journey to the Pacific.
One is a cairn at Alexandria on the Cariboo highway near Quesnel where he made one of his many well-reasoned decisions, a hunch to leave the river, and turn west overland. The other is the monument at Fort St. John. A Peace River crew under Adolph Ikert of Pouce Coupe revived the old feat by paddling to Montreal as a Centenary of Confederation project. Probably the highest tribute is on the book-jacket of the book Alexander Mackenzie and the NorthWest by Roy Daniells “He never lost a man, or forfeited a loyalty, or harmed an Indian”.