The title of this post may make you think of the famous explorers Meriweather Lewis and William Clark. While that cross-continental trip is indeed famous, their expedition was inspired by another storied journey made just over a decade earlier by a young Scottish fur trader and explorer who became the first known leader to cross the North American continent north of Mexico. After a failed attempt to reach the Pacific Ocean in 1789, on July 20, 1793, Alexander Mackenzie completed a trek across what is now Canada, reaching the Pacific coast at Bella Coola, British Columbia. The Geography and Map Division has several maps made by Mackenzie depicting his explorations, including the map below showing the path of both his 1789 and 1793 journeys.
Born on an island off the coast of Scotland around 1763, Mackenzie came to New York City as a child in 1774 with his father after the death of his mother. His father, after joining a loyalist regiment with the outbreak of the American Revolution, sent Mackenzie to Montreal with two aunts for safety in 1778. Mackenzie began his career with an influential fur-trading company when he was about 16 years old, which later merged with a rival fur trading business, the North West Company in 1787. He became a partner in the business after agreeing to pursue westward exploration for the company.
Mackenzie was sent to Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca, in what is now northeast Alberta, where he met explorer Peter Pond. Pond believed that the nearby Slave River, which ran to the northwest, led to Cook Inlet in Alaska and so was a passage to the Pacific Ocean. In June of 1789, Mackenzie set out with his wife, several other trappers, and Native American guides to test Pond’s theory and search for the elusive Northwest Passage to the western ocean. After following the river for over 1,000 miles, the party realized that instead of finding a new route to the Pacific Ocean, they had instead reached the Arctic Ocean. Turning around, the group made it back to the fort in September of the same year. The map below depicts the route of the journey from Lake Athabasca to the Arctic Ocean made by Mackenzie in 1801.
Disappointed by his failure to reach the Pacific Ocean, Mackenzie was determined to try again. In October 1792 Mackenzie, two Native guides, seven Canadian explorers, and an unnamed dog set out to once again find a way to the western sea, this time voyaging along the Peace River. Winter weather stopped their progress at Fort Fork where they stayed the remainder of the season. In May 1793, they continued down the Peace River. When the explorers reached the Upper Fraser River, they were advised by members of Indigenous communities that the river grew treacherous and that they should continue their journey on an overland trail.
Following this advice, they continued on foot until they reached the Bella Coola River which they then followed to the long awaited finish at the Pacific Ocean on July 22, completing the first known trans-continental journey in North America. To commemorate the accomplishment, Mackenzie painted on a rock, “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada by land, 22d July 1793.” The words were later permanently inscribed on the rock by surveyors and can still be seen today. Mackenzie just missed meeting another explorer in the very same place as only 6 weeks earlier, the explorer George Vancouver was sailing along this very same coast. Not long after their arrival at the ocean, the exploratory party returned to Fort Fork in triumph.
In the following years, Mackenzie stayed invested in the fur trade and exploration of Canada with the North West Company until a falling out with the company in 1799. In 1801, Mackenzie published his journals about his 1789 and 1793 journeys to the ocean to much acclaim. Titled Voyages from Montreal on the river St. Laurence, through the continent of North America to the frozen and Pacific Oceans, in the years 1789 and 1793 : with a preliminary account of the rise, progress, and present state of the fur trade of that country : illustrated with maps, all the maps above were included in his publication. Mackenzie returned to Scotland in 1812 and died of kidney disease in 1820.
Alexander Mackenzie’s explorations and legacy continued to inspire other explorers to chart paths in the North American west. In the summer of 1802, President Thomas Jefferson read Mackenzie’s account, which contributed to his decision to commission Lewis and Clark to explore a route to the Pacific through the United States’ newly acquired Louisiana Territory. The explorers even carried a copy of the book on their famed expedition. What was surely a harrowing journey for Mackenzie and those that followed him left a historical imprint that is still remembered today.
- Dive in to more maps depicting the European Age of Discovery in the Discovery and Exploration Digital Collection.
- Read First crossing : Alexander Mackenzie, his expedition across North America, and the opening of the continent by Derek Hayes.