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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Sir Alexander McKenzie

Chapter XI - The Great Explorer's Impulse

SIR ALEXANDER MACKENZIE did two great things in reaching the Arctic Sea and the Pacific Ocean by new routes, but the greatest thing lie did was giving an impulse to other explorers. Vast portions of the northern half of North America were yet unknown, when he followed the two routes which were simply length without breadth. Other traders were encouraged by his successes to open up new regions. Seven years before the end of the eighteenth century Alexander Mackenzie reached the Pacific Ocean. Two years afterwards David Thompson, a youth educated at the Bluecoat School in London, and well versed in mathematics and astronomy, with three companions, found his way from Hudson Bay to Lake Athabaska. Returning to York Factory from the very lake which Alexander Mackenzie had passed on both his expeditions, Thompson reported in favour of prosecuting explorations further -vest for the Hudson's Bay Company. His request was refused, whereupon the enthusiastic explorer betook himself at once to Grand Portage, and offered himself to the North-West Company. He was immediately appointed astronomer and surveyor by the Montreal traders. That choice was one of the wisest the Nor'-Westers ever made.

Shortly after his appointment in 1796 'Thompson joined himself to one of the northern canoe brigades, and with his instruments began at once to establish the latitude and longitude of the several posts. Following the fur traders' route he arrived at Lake Winnipeg House at the mouth of the Winnipeg River, coasted around Lake Wrinnipeg, and, leaving it, ascended a small river and crossed to the Swan River district. Reaching at this point the traders' paradise, and the rich prairies of the west, Thompson turned southward, and gained the plains where the buffalo herds were rnet. Here among beaver-meadows Thompson wintered.

The summer having cone, with its good roads and blossoming prairies, the explorer followed the course of the Assiniboine River, and found comfortable quarters at Assiniboine House, near the entrance of the Souris River into the river he was descending.

From this point Thompson made his famous journey to the Mandans on the Missouri River, following the course, to a large extent, of the younger Verendrye as described by Parkman. The journey was made in the winter time over a treeless plain; the distance was two hundred and eighty miles—thirty-three days of travelling under low temperatures—and was performed with a few horses, and numerous dog teams. At all important places on his route the astronomer made his observations and gained the material for the important map which he afterwards constructed.

Going eastward down the Assiniboine early in 1798 Thompson reached the site of the present city of Winnipeg, and found no fort or dwelling. He then ascended the Red River, and came to Pembina House, where he took observations to establish the forty-ninth parallel of latitude—the boundary between Rupert's Land and the United States.

Now going southward the energetic explorer determined to settle the debatable question of the source of the Mississippi, near which were several forts belonging to the Nor'Westers. He decided Turtle Lake to be the source of the Father of Waters, but in this he was wrong, as the true source was declared a generation afterwards to be Lake Itasca, which is half a degree south of Turtle Lake. After fixing the position of the several posts, Thompson then went eastward to Lake Superior, and coasting along its north shore with difficulty reached Grand Portage, whence he had departed three years before, and where the account of his work was received with the highest praise by the Nor'-Westers. He was regarded as a born explorer, upon whom the mantle of Alexander Mackenzie had fallen.

Thompson threw himself into his work with vigour, but it was not until 1805 that the plans which Alexander Mackenzie and others had made were carried out with great energy. The particular event that led to determined action was the union of the smaller company, which, as already said, was often known as "Sir Alexander Mackenzie & Co.," with the North- West Company.

The united company, seeking new worlds to conquer for the fur trade, sent David Thompson up the Saskatchewan to explore the Columbia River, and examine the vast "sea of mountains" bordering on the Pacific Ocean. The other partner chosen was Simon Fraser, and his orders were to go up the Peace River, cross the Rockies, and explore the region from the northern side.

In 1806 Thompson crossed the Rocky Mountains, and built, in the following year, a trading-house for the North-West Company on the lower Columbia River. With strange determination he persisted in calling this river the Kootenay. For several years he passed to and fro from n the Kootenay region to the other side of the mountains, reaching, at times, Grand Portage.

The presence of the Astor Fur Company at the mouth of the Columbia River was regarded as a menace by the Nor'-Westers. Thompson received orders to checkmate the Astorians by descending the Columbia River, and occupying the point where this river empties into the Pacific Ocean. Accordingly in the summer of 1811 the explorer started to descend the Columbia River, which no white man had yet done. The American explorers, Lewis and Clark, had, in 1805, crossed the Rocky Mountains further south, and by way of the Lewis River had come upon the lower part of the Columbia River, and followed it to the sea. This, together with the proposed occupation of the mouth of the river by Astor, was what led to Thompson's present expedition. Proceeding down the Columbia, Thompson took formal possession of it, at the junction of the Spokane and Columbia, here, as well as at other points, erecting poles with notices upon them claiming the country for Britain.

In July, 1811, after various delays from mutinies and other obstacles, Thompson reached the mouth of the Columbia River, but was chagrined to find that the Astor expedition had arrived by way of Cape Horn, and taken possession of the coveted territory. Thompson philosophically accepted the situation, but, reascendiiig the river, established two posts at what lie considered good objective points. In the following year David Thompson definitely left the service of the North-h est Company, and spent the remainder of his life, which was a long one, chiefly in government employment. In the year after his return from western exploration Thompson prepared a great map of the country, which, for a number of years, adorned the banqueting hall of the bourgeois at Fort William, and is now in the Government Buildings at Toronto.

Returning now to Simon Fraser, who had been appointed by the fur traders to explore the district of New Caledonia, we find that in 1806 he crossed the Rocky Mountains, and came upon a river which he called Stuart River, in honour of his able lieutenant, John Stuart. On this river Fraser built a fort, which, with Scottish fervour, he called New Caledonia, and this seems to have led to the whole of the northern region west of the Rocky Mountains receiving the name of New Caledonia. Fraser had been asked by the Nor'-Westers to descend the Tacouche Tesse River, down which it will be remembered Alexander Mackenzie had gone for some distance, till he left it to take a western road to the Pacific Ocean. The general opinion was that the Tacouche Tesse was simply the upper Columbia, and that, descending it, Fraser would reach Thompson, who had gone across the mountains to the Columbia farther south. Fraser's orders to advance had been brought to him by two traders, Jules Maurice Quesnel and Hugh Faries.

Leaving Faries in charge at the new fort, Fraser, with two able assistants, Stuart and Quesnel, nineteen voyageurs and two Indian guides in four canoes, left the mouth of Stuart River, and proceeded down the Tacouche Tesse River on one of the most notable and dangerous voyages ever attempted. We cannot undertake to give even a summary of the account of the journey down the river, where a succession of rapids, overhung by enormous heights of perpendicular rocks, made it almost as difficult to portage as it would have been to risk the passage of the canoes and their loads down the boiling caldron of the river.

Let it suffice to quote a few words from Fraser's journal: "I have been for a long period among the Rocky Mountains, but have never seen anything like this country. It is so wild that I cannot find words to describe our situation at times. We had to pass where no human being should venture; yet in those places there is a regular footpath impressed, or rather indented upon the very rocks by frequent travelling. Besides this, steps which are formed like a ladder by poles hanging to one another, crossed at certain distances with twigs, the whole suspended from the top, furnish a safe and convenient passage to the natives down these precipices; but we, who had not had the advantage of their education and experience, were often in imminent danger, when obliged to follow their example."

As the party proceeded down the river they saw a great river flowing in from the left, making notable forks. Thinking that probably Thompson's expedition by way of the Saskatchewan might at that very time be on the upper waters of this tributary they called it Thompson River. In this they were mistaken, but it has ever since borne the name Thompson as one of the rivers of British Columbia. Another river, flowing into the Taeouche Tesse from the east, was called, in honour of the second bourgeois of the expedition, the Quesnel, and this name has ever since been retained.

On July 2nd the party reached an aria of the sea, and saw the tide ebbing and flowing. They knew their journey had now practically ended, but they were not allowed to visit the desired destination. The Indians were so hostile that Fraser could not pass down to the mouth. He, however, was near enough to take the latitude, and found that it was some degrees north of the Columbia, whose latitude was known to hint. He had discovered a new river. How hard is it to determine the relative value of human achievement! This river was to be called for all time the Fraser River, and yet the explorer did not grasp the magnitude of the discovery lie had made and of the fame which was his. His ascent of the river proved a less difficult task than his journey down had been, taking nine days less.

These great discoveries were the last made for some time by the fur companies. One reason of this was that the pioneer discoverer, Alexander Mackenzie, retired from the active service of the company, and took up, as we have seen, his residence in Britain. Another, perhaps stronger reason for the abrupt cessation of exploration is found in the troubles that beset the companies, and the dangerous conflicts that took place in different parts of the fur country after the project of Lord Selkirk to found his colony on the banks of the Red River in 1811, under the auspices of the Hudson's Bay Company.

It was not for more than a decade after this, when peace had been restored, that Finlay proceeded up the branches of the Peace River, and even later still that Robert Campbell ascended the Liard River, and, crossing the height of land, discovered the upper Yukon.

Enough has been said, however, to show how the example and influence of Alexander Mackenzie resulted in the wider exploration of even the most dangerous and inaccessible parts of the Rocky Mountains, and to call attention to the honour to which he is entitled as the pioneer in the line of discovery.

Alexander Mackenzie: The Lord of the North by David Bairstow, National Film Board of Canada

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