1789 Sir Alexander Mackenzie

Sir Alexander Mackenzie is today recognized as one of Canada’s greatest fur trade era explorers yet back in 1789 – when he led an expedition down the great northern river that was eventually to carry his name – he was a minor figure in command of the isolated northern trading post of Fort Chipewyan in what is now northern Alberta.

In 1776, when Alexander Mackenzie was 12, his family immigrated to the British colony of New York. The American Revolution caused problems for this Loyalist family and Mackenzie was then sent north to Montreal to attend school. He was only 15 when he quit to join the fur trade partnership of Finlay and Gregory. After five years working in their Montreal office he was sent west and became part of the rapid expansion of the fur trade into what today is northern Saskatchewan, northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

Competition for the furs of the northwest was fierce and the Montreal fur trade partnerships were continually grouping and regrouping. In 1779 nine partnerships amalgamated to form the North West Company and in 1787 the partnership Mackenzie then worked for – Gregory, MacLeod and Company – amalgamated with the Northwest Company. The still very young Alexander Mackenzie owned one of the twenty shares in the North West Company. In 1787 he became second in commander at Peter Pond’s Athabasca River trading post – sixty-five kilometres south of Lake Athabasca (northeast Alberta) – and in the spring of 1788, when Pond left the north, Mackenzie took over this post.

Peter Pond had prepared a map – based for the most part on the knowledge of the Aboriginal people who traded at the Athabasca River post – that showed the Athabasca and Peace rivers joining to form a river that flowed north into a large lake (Great Slave Lake) then west and eventually north to the Arctic Ocean. Just before leaving the north Pond changed his mind and contrary to the traditional geographical knowledge of the people of the area revised this map to show the river that discharged from Great Slave Lake flowing west to the Pacific Ocean.

In 1788 a new trading post, named Fort Chipewyan, was established on Lake Athabasca and it was from this post, on the 3 June 1789, that Alexander Mackenzie led a group to explore the river he called “Grand River”. Confirmation that it flowed west to the Pacific could mean that the North West Company would have a quicker and less costly route to the rich fur territory of the northwest.

Mackenzie’s exploration party was made up of French Canadian voyageurs, a German, a Chipewyan guide Mackenzie called “English Chief” along with various wives and helpers. From Fort Chipewyan they travelled down the Slave River, crossed the still ice-choked Great Slave Lake and down the “Grand River”(map).

The downstream journey of 1730 kilometres took only 14 days and it didn’t take long for Mackenzie to realize that Peter Pond’s map was wrong, the river led to the Arctic Ocean, not the Pacific. The round trip of nearly 5000 kilometres took a total of 102 days. Very few Dene were encountered on this expedition. It‘s likely, given the time of year, most were at inland lakes fishing.

Many have claimed that Mackenzie called his discovery River Disappointment yet there is little or no evidence to support this claim. Surviving original documents show only the name “Grand River”.

Sir John Franklin first used the name Mackenzie River in his journal "Journey to the Shore of the Polar Sea" (London, 1823). In the narrative of the 2nd expedition in 1828, Franklin states "In justice to the memory of Mackenzie, I hope the custom of calling this the Great River, which is in general use among the traders and voyagers will be discontinued, and that the name of its eminent discoverer may be universally adopted.”