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Alexander Mackenzie

Alexander Mackenzie
Courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archive

Sir Alexander Mackenzie was a Scot who grew to become a Canadian hero. A fur trader and explorer, Mackenzie became convinced that Cook's River, in present-day Alaska, could provide a water route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Such a route — the mythical Northwest Passage — would provide a gateway to the vast trading markets of the Orient.

In 1789, Mackenzie's crew — which included French-Canadian voyagers, his wife and several others — paddled off in a birchbark canoe from Fort Chipewyan in central Canada. Other canoes, navigated by Indian hunters and interpreters, followed behind.

Over 100 days later, however, Mackenzie's entourage arrived back at the fort with details of another route to the Arctic Ocean, not the elusive Pacific. Though this first trip aided in mapping the northern regions of the continent, Mackenzie remained determined to find the "Western Sea."

Therefore, on May 9, 1793, Mackenzie, with nine others, packed into a 25-foot canoe at Fort Fork along the Peace River for a second voyage. This time, he succeeded, and announced his arrival on a rock near Bella Coola near the Pacific by painting the following words with a vermillion and grease mixture:

"Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three."

Mackenzie became the first European north of Mexico to reach the Pacific ocean on an overland route, beating, as well, the American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark who arrived at the coast in 1805.

Without the guidance of Indians, Mackenzie would have been unlikely to reach the Western Sea. While crossing the Peace River watershed to the Fraser, they suggested to proceed overland, instead of continuing on the hazardous Fraser River. Mackenzie returned with the westward route mapped 117 days later.

In 1802, Mackenzie was knighted by King George III, and recognized as leader of the first expedition to cross the North American continent from the Atlantic to Pacific north of Mexico.

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