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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Sir Alexander McKenzie

Chapter VI - A Wider Horizon

ARRIVING in September at Fort Chipewyan Alexander Mackenzie entered upon a restful winter, the affairs of the fort being well administered by his cousin Roderick. During the absence of the great explorer in the far north, Roderick McKenzie had gone down the long route to Grand Portage to carry his furs and plan for further trade. By meeting the other traders there he came in touch with the views and projects of the company.

That winter brought the whole matter of exploration before the traders in their far northern post, Fort Chipewyan. Roderick McKenzie informed his cousin that the partners at Grand Portage had no friendly feeling for the spirit of exploration. They regarded the returned voyager from the "Great River" as ambitious, and as being more chimerical than practical. Alexander Mackenzie was, moreover, considered by them, both by disposition and previous connections, as being not thoroughly loyal to the united companies.

But the project of a greater effort and greater fame occupied the imagination of the explorer all that winter, and in spring as soon as the rivers were open he went eastward to Grand Portage with a great purpose throbbing in his bosom. As he journeyed eastward, and met other traders hieing away to the rendezvous, he obtained scraps of news, and was most faithful in sending them to lonely Fort Chipewyan. He informed his cousin that food was very scarce at the depot from which Athabaska was supplied, also that McTavish was greatly dissatisfied with the packs of furs from Athabaska for the past year; but that the various traders on their downward journey were carrying a very successful catch as the result of the past winter's work. From Grand Portage he writes expressing dissatisfaction, and says, "My expedition was hardly spoken of, but that is what I expected."

However, the disappointed trader returned from Grand Portage realizing that he had a growing number of friends among the wintering parties, and that Le marquis (McTavish) was losing influence on account of his haughty temper and domineering spirit. Sending his cousin Roderick to Great Slave Lake, Alexander Mackenzie occupied Fort Chipewyan for another winter. Some of his letters to his relative are extant, and these show an intimate interest in the affairs of the far north. He speaks of organizing the Yellow Knives more fully as a tribe, and appointing a chief over them. Reference is also made to the question of continuing the fort on Great Slave Lake. The explorer is willing to do this if trade demands it, but is of opinion that a fort will need to be established on the south side of the lake near the entrance of the Slave River, instead of the house built by Leroux on the far northern arm of Slave Lake. He shows his expansive spirit by referring to the other Indians, upon whom he had stumbled on his great voyage. He refers with strange self-depreciation to the great river, which he had discovered, under the unlikely name of "River Disappointment;" and asks his cousin to make diligent enquiry among the Indians "regarding a great river [Yukon] which is reported to run parallel with, and falls into the sea to the westward of the river on which I voyaged, and to commit such information to paper." He refers in the spring to his regret that it is not his cousin's turn to thread the watercourses to the great meeting in Grand Portage, and is sorry that he will not have his company.

If the adventurous journey of Alexander Mackenzie had not been appreciated by his own companions of the North-Wrest it was otherwise with their rivals of the Hudson's Bay Company. Four years before Mackenzie had gone north, the desperado of the company, Peter Pond, had made a map of the country for the purpose of presenting it to the Empress of Russia. Through knowing nothing of astronomy or geography, Pond made up his distances from the stories of the voyageurs, who made a league's journey in the time it took to smoke a pipe. The voyageurs' leagues were thus too hastily made. Counting in this fashion Pond made the distance from Hudson May to Athabaska much longer than it really was, and, knowing from Captain Cook's observations the number of miles from Hudson Bay to the Pacific coast, he made the unknown territory west of Athabaska much less than it really was.

Though not distinguished in exploration, the Hudson's Bay Company, no doubt impelled by the desire to meet their rivals, and also proud of Hearne's successful explorations twenty years before Mackenzie's Arctic journey, sent out from England a young lad named George Charles to assist in exploration. The lad was only fifteen years of age, had received one year's instruction in a mathematical school, and was consequently quite incompetent to do the work of taking astronomical observations and reckoning distances.

The British government was at this time engaged in delimiting this territory and that of their rebel- lions colonies, which had separated as the United States, and were anxious to secure as large a territory as possible. In order that full information might be at its disposal the government asked the Hudson's Bay Company to carry on explorations and secure all possible knowledge of the country even to the Pacific Ocean. Induced to do so by the Colonial Office, the company in 1791 sent out as astronomer Philip Turner, a most competent man, to obtain the information sought for. Coming with imperial authority the expedition was entitled to the recognition of. the North-West Company as well as of its rivals.

Alexander Mackenzie, on his way eastward, heard of the coining of the expedition, and wrote to his cousin at Fort Chipewyan to make preparations for assisting it, and instructed him to lodge "the English," as he calls them, if there should be room in the fort. Fourteen days later Alexander Mackenzie writes from a point farther to the east, stating that he had met Mr. Turner, and says, "I find the intention of the expedition is discoveries only. I also find the party ill-prepared for the undertaking."

This remark shows that the Nor'-Westers had entertained some suspicion as to the Turner expedition, but the meeting had satisfied Mackenzie that they should not only not assume hostility towards this undertaking, but should even help to forward its aims. Ile states that Mr. Ross, the leader of the expedition, wished to pass the winter at Fort Chipewyan, and to secure storage at the fort for some of his baggage when he proceeded further on his journey. It was found, however, by astronomer Turner, as he wintered at Fort Chipewyan and enjoyed the hospitality of the North-West Company's officers, that the purpose of his expedition could be accomplished without proceeding further. He took correct observations, and, on finding that the fort was in 115 west longitude, shoved that instead of Lake Athabaska being only a short distance from the coast, as Pond had maintained, it was more than three hundred leagues from it.

Alexander Mackenzie had already taken so strong a grasp of North-Wrest affairs that he was a necessary figure at the great annual meeting at Grand Portage. Writing in August to his cousin Rodderick at Fort Chipewyan as to the results of the council, he informs him that the public announcement could now be made of a re-arrangement of the North-West Company's affairs for the next seven years, 1791-8. The well-known names still appear as partners: McTavish, Frobisher and Company hold six-twentieths of the stock; Montour, Grant, Small, Gregory, Pangman, and Alexander Mackenzie each one-tenth; while McGillvray, who had bought out Pond for eight hundred pounds, and a Mr. Sutherland own one-twentieth each.

lie gives information of the continued employ-merit of Lesieur and Fraser in the far west, of his deputy, Leroux, in the far north, of Cuthbert Grant in the centre country, of trader Thorburn, and of the astronomer Thompson, to whom further reference will be made. A reference to his proposed continuation of his visit to Montreal, and of the possibility of his taking a journey across the ocean, closes the letter to his faithful kinsman in far-off Athabaska.

Alexander Mackenzie carried out the journey of which he had hinted to his cousin. The reason for this trip was found in the great project of further exploration that Mackenzie had harboured in his bosom. On his former journey to the Arctic the explorer had found his lack of astronomical knowledge and the want of proper instruments a serious drawback in marking the steps of his journey from day to day, and in fixing with any degree of accuracy the points necessary either for proper description or for affording the material for making correct maps.

Accordingly, Mackenzie determined to spend his winter in Britain, perfecting his knowledge and obtaining the necessary instruments for use in his proposed exploration. How this winter was spent we have no information, but we may be sure it was used to some purpose. It was no easy thing for a man who had become already so prominent in the fur trade to gather himself together in a remote Hyperborean fort, make arrangements in the face of jealous and unsympathetic partners, absent himself from his work and responsibilities for a year, and cherish the purpose of gaining some higher niche in the temple of fame by his sacrifice.

Probably another aspect of the matter would cause Mackenzie's greatest self-denial, that is, stooping again to become a learner. If we do not mistake Mackenzie's character, he was a stalwart, self-possessed, and somewhat proud man. He had distinguished ability, and had with it that perfervidum ingeniuinn Scotoriim that gives, not precisely self-confidence, but a dignified self-respect that we call manliness. It was not easy for such a elan to sit at the feet of however distinguished a teacher and imbibe the elements of mathematical science. It was only pressing ambition and thirst for useful service for his company and country that nerved Alexander Mackenzie thus to humble himself.

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