Alexander Mackenzie: Overland to the Pacific

Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1764 – 1820) was a Scottish explorer. He is known for his overland crossing of what is now Canada, to reach the Pacific Ocean in 1793. This was the first recorded east to west crossing of North America north of Mexico.

1789 Mackenzie River expedition to the Arctic Ocean

On behalf of the North West Company Mackenzie traveled to Lake Athabasca on the present-day Saskatchewan / Alberta provincial border where, in 1788, he was one of the founders of Fort Chipewyan. In the hope of finding the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean, he set out by canoe on July 10 1789 down the river known to local Dene First Nations as the Dehcho. He followed the river to its mouth and ended up reaching the Arctic Ocean on July 14, not Cook Inlet in Alaska as he had expected. The Dehcho river was later renamed the Mackenzie River in his honour.

1792–93 Peace River expedition to the Pacific Ocean

In 1792, Mackenzie set out once again to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. Accompanied by two native guides, his cousin Alexander MacKay, six Canadian voyageurs, and a dog simply called “Our Dog”.

They left from Fort Chipewyan on October 10 1792 and traveled via the Pine River to the Peace River. From there they traveled up the Peace River, arriving November 1st at the fork of the Smoky River where they built six houses and spent the winter. This later became known as Fort Fork, a North West Company trading post, southwest of the present-day town of Peace River, Alberta.

The group left Fort Fork on May 9, 1793 following the Peace River. They crossed the present-day British Columbia border on May 14, traveled through the Rocky Mountain Canyon on May 22, and reached the junction of the Finlay and Parsnip Rivers on May 31.

Traveling up the Parsnip River and over the Great Divide to the Fraser River, they then reached the Pacific Ocean on July 23, 1793 via the Nuxalk-Carrier grease trail, a 420 km long overland route between present-day Quesnel and Bella Coola. The trail was originally used by the Nuxálk and Carrier First Nations for communication, transport and trade, in particular, trade in Eulachon fish grease from the Pacific coast.

In 1801 the journals of his exploratory journeys were published. He was knighted for his efforts in 1802.

Local Commemorative Sites

  • The town of Mackenzie was named after Sir Alexander Mackenzie.
  • On June 11, 1993, BC Hydro and the residents of Mackenzie dedicated a recreation site on the shore of Williston Reservoir’s Parsnip River Reach (previously the Parsnip River) “Alexander Mackenzie’s Landing,” in recognition of the two hundredth anniversary of Alexander Mackenzie’s historic journey through this area.
Further reading:

Alexander Mackenzie’s journals are published by A.S. Barnes & Company: Voyages from Montreal Through the Continent of North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in 1789 and 1793. Vol. I. and Vol. II.

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