Column

WE GOT THERE FIRST!

Explorer Alexander Mackenzie’s exploits in reaching the Pacific are little known

Peter C. Newman June 23 2003
Column

WE GOT THERE FIRST!

Explorer Alexander Mackenzie’s exploits in reaching the Pacific are little known

Peter C. Newman June 23 2003

WE GOT THERE FIRST!

Column

PETER C. NEWMAN

Explorer Alexander Mackenzie’s exploits in reaching the Pacific are little known

GEORGE W. BUSH seems determined to define the 21st century by American heroism. No outsiders need apply. As one of those ornery Canadians convinced that heroes are forged by the grace of character meeting the force of circumstance, and not the colour of your passport, I wish to enter a small protest against this summer’s celebration of U.S. army captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s cross-country trek. There is no end of galas, singalongs, memorials and flag-waving. “It was our first really American adventure, one that also produced our only really American epic,” novelist Larry McMurtry recently boasted, referring to the 13-volume journals of the pair’s historic 1804-1805 expedition to reach the Pacific Ocean.

It was an extravaganza, all right. Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, anxious to nail down America’s jurisdiction over the territory on the other side of the mountains, the well-stocked foray numbered 45 superbly trained soldiers and a Newfoundland pup. Its initial supplies, weighing 1,600 kg, were regularly replenished by government riverboats and wagon trains. The two leaders also enjoyed the overwhelming advantage of being aware of their destination. The mouth of the Columbia River (situated on the coast of what is now Oregon) had already been charted by Capt. George Vancouver, the British mariner, on his way to the eventual discovery of the site of the city that bears his name.

Their march deserves a mild pat on the back, but as any casual student of Canadian history ought to know, the first to cross North America (north of Mexico) were not Lewis and Clark but Alexander Mackenzie, that doughty, Scottish-Canadian explorer who accomplished much more with much less, a dozen years earlier. Typically, he receives no mention by American historians, and the details of his truly remarkable exploits remain little known and less discussed on this side of the border as well. (The best reprise of Mackenzie’s remarkable life and

harrowing journeys is the recently published First Crossing: Alexander Mackenzie, His Expedition Across North America and the Opening of the Continent, by the Vancouver geographer Derek Hayes. “Mackenzie paddled and trekked 6,400 km to find tidewater on the Pacific, the culmination of years of planning and puzzling over inaccurate maps. He succeeded in his quest, and in doing so, established the relationship of the inland river and lake system to the coast, revealing much of the geography of western North America for those, including Lewis and Clark, who would follow.” Hayes has discovered new facts and benefited from exquisite, original illustrations commissioned and dug up by publishers Douglas & McIntyre.

The official portrait of Mackenzie that now hangs in the National Gallery in Ottawa

THE FIRST to cross North America were not Lewis and Clark, but a ScottishCanadian who accomplished much more with much less

reveals a sensitive, almost pious face, its rigidly set jaw contradicting the dreamy eyes. His explorations down the wild streams running into the Arctic and Pacific included paddling a heavy freight canoe 116 km in one stretch of daylight, against frigid headwinds. On another occasion he snowshoed 1,100 km to attend a wilderness Christmas dinner. A robust man’s man, Mackenzie enjoyed many open-air romances, fathered two mixed-blood children, but didn’t marry officially until he was 48, when he settled down with a 14-year-old Scottish lassie from his own clan. Unlike most fur traders of his time, he was a man of vision instead of merely commerce, being obsessed with opening up the Pacific in order to square the circle of Britain’s trade routes.

Mackenzie set off on his odyssey across the

Rockies, accompanied by seven voyageurs and two Natives brought along as interpreters. Their more northerly route was far more ferocious than the tamer path followed by Lewis and Clark. It led through the treacherous canyons of the Peace and Parsnip rivers, where the men had no choice but to make their way by hacking precarious footholds in the vertical river banks. At the same time, they pulled their canoe on a 54-m rope through the rapids and deadly eddies below. Mackenzie led the way, with his followers sometimes stepping from his shoulders to the shaft of his axe embedded in whatever tree part he could find, hanging on for dear life with every step. Finally, 72 days after setting out, they arrived at King Island, at the top of Fitz Hugh Sound, only to be confronted by decidedly menacing Bella Bellas. The explorers stayed long enough only to taste the salt water, confirming their discovery, and then beat a hurried retreat. But not before Mackenzie performed his most famous gesture: using a mixture of vermilion and bear grease he wrote upon a rock face, “Alex Mackenzie from Canada by land 22d July 1793.” (Curiously, Clark, who carried Mackenzie’s maps and journals with him on his later expedition, followed his predecessor’s example, carving into a tree the message: “Capt William Clark December 3rd 1805 by land. U. States in 1804-1805”)

Mackenzie’s triumph was little noted at the time, but he had achieved the impossible: he was, in a way, the first man to traverse the Northwest Passage, which had been the quest of European navigators for three centuries. Mackenzie did it over land and rivers, using a birchbark canoe, instead of the magnificent galleons that years later got stuck in or sunk by the ice of the Arctic Ocean. He retired to London soon afterwards, where he became a colonial darling of the bluebloods, published his journal, and eventually was knighted. “In a longer vista of time than we at present command,” concluded Roy Daniells, Mackenzie’s best-known biographer, “Canadians will probably see his voyages to the Arctic and Pacific as the Greeks saw the fabulous voyages of the Argonauts to fetch the fleece.”

A fitting epitaph for a genuine Canadian hero, who first touched our Pacific shore on a cool morning 210 years ago, next month. IS1

Peter C. Newman’s column appears monthly. pnewman@macleans.ca