Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
M. B. Synge

Mackenzie and His River

E VEN while Vancouver was making discoveries on the western coast of North America, Alexander Mackenzie, an enthusiastic young Scotsman, was making discoveries on behalf of the North-Western Company, which was rivaling the old Hudson Bay Company in its work of expansion. His journey right across America from sea to sea is worthy of note, and it has well been said that "by opening intercourse between Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and forming regular establishments through the interior and at both extremes, as well as along the coasts and islands, the entire command of the fur trade of North America might be obtained. To this may be added the fishing in both seas and the markets of the four quarters of the globe."

Mackenzie had already explored the great river flowing through North America to the Arctic seas in 1789. He had brought back news of its great size, its width, its volume of water, only to be mistrusted, till many years later it was found that every word was true, and tributes were paid not only to his general accuracy, but to his general intelligence as an explorer.

In 1792 he started off again, and this time he discovered the immense country that lay hidden behind the Rocky Mountains, known to-day as British Columbia. He ascended the Peace River, which flows from the Rocky Mountains, and in the spring of 1793, having made his way with much difficulty across this rugged chain, he embarked on a river running to the south-west. Through wild mountainous country on either side he paddled on; the cold was still intense and the strong mountain currents nearly dashed the canoes to pieces. His Indian guides were obstinate, ignorant, and timid. Mackenzie relates some of his difficulties in graphic language: "Throughout the whole of this day the men had been in a state of extreme ill-humour, and as they did not choose to vent it openly upon me, they disputed and quarrelled among themselves. About sunset the canoe struck upon the stump of a tree, which broke a large hole in her bottom, a circumstance that gave them an opportunity to let loose their discontents without reserve. I left them as soon as we had landed and ascended an elevated bank. It now remained for us to fix on a proper place for building another canoe, as the old one was become a complete wreck. At a very early hour of the morning every man was employed in making preparations for building another canoe, and different parties went in search of wood and gum." While the boat was building, Mackenzie gave his crew a good lecture on their conduct. "I assured them it was my fixed unalterable determination to proceed in spite of every difficulty and danger."

The result was highly satisfactory. "The conversation dropped and the work went on."

In five days the canoe was ready and they were soon paddling happily onwards towards the sea, where the Indians told him he would find white men building houses. They reached the coast some three weeks later. The Salmon River, as it is called, flows through British Columbia and reaches the sea just north of Vancouver Island, which had been discovered by Vancouver the year before.

Alexander Mackenzie had been successful. Let us hear the end of his tale: "I now mixed up some vermilion in melted grease, and inscribed in large characters, on the south-east face of the rock on which we had slept last night, this brief memorial—'Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety three.'"