Sir Alexander Mackenzie
Bornc. 1764
Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Scotland
Died12 March 1820 (aged 55–56)
Dunkeld, Perthshire, Scotland
Occupation(s)Explorer, fur trader
Known for
Geddes Mackenzie
(m. 1812)

Sir Alexander Mackenzie (c. 1764 – 12 March 1820) was a Scottish explorer and fur trader known for accomplishing the first crossing of North America by a European in 1793. The Mackenzie River and Mount Sir Alexander are named after him.

Early life

Mackenzie was born in House in Stornoway in Lewis.[1][2] He was the third of the four children born to Kenneth 'Corc' Mackenzie (1731–1780) and his wife Isabella MacIver, from another prominent mercantile family in Stornoway.[3] When only 14 years old, Mackenzie's father served as an ensign to protect Stornoway during the Jacobite rising of 1745. He later became a merchant and held the tack of Melbost; his grandfather being a younger brother of Murdoch Mackenzie, 6th Laird of Fairburn.[4][5]

Educated at the same school as Colin Mackenzie, the army officer and first Surveyor General of India, he sailed to New York City with his father to join an uncle, John Mackenzie, in 1774, after his mother died in Scotland.[6] In 1776, during the American War of Independence, his father and uncle resumed their military duties and joined the King's Royal Regiment of New York as lieutenants. By 1778, for his safety as a son of loyalists, young Mackenzie was sent, or went accompanied by two aunts, to Montreal.[4] By 1779 (a year before his father's death at Carleton Island[3]), Mackenzie had a secured apprenticeship with Finlay, Gregory & Co., one of the most influential fur trading companies in Montreal, which was later administered by Archibald Norman McLeod. In 1787, the company merged with the North West Company.[7]


1789 Mackenzie River expedition to the Arctic Ocean

Silver coin: 1 dollar of Canada - Celebrating the 200th anniversary of Alexander Mackenzie sailing the Mackenzie River into the Arctic Ocean

On behalf of the North West Company, Mackenzie journeyed to Lake Athabasca where, in 1788, he was one of the founders of Fort Chipewyan. He had been sent to replace Peter Pond, a partner in the North West Company. From Pond, he learned that the First Nations people understood that the local rivers flowed to the north-west. Thinking that it would lead to Cook Inlet in Alaska, he set out by canoe on the river known to the local Dene First Nations people as the Dehcho (Mackenzie River), on 3 July 1789.[8][9] On 14 July he reached the Arctic Ocean, rather than the Pacific. Later, in a letter to his cousin Roderick, he called the waterway "the River Disappointment," since the river did not prove to be the Northwest Passage, as he had hoped.[10] In fact the story is probably apocryphal, as Mackenzie's own and contemporary records merely refer to it as the "Grand River."[11] The river came to be known[when?] as the Mackenzie River in his honour.[12]

1792–93 Peace River expedition to the Pacific Ocean

Map of the North Part of America on which is laid down Mackenzie's Track from Montreal to the North Sea
Inscription on a stone at the end of Alexander Mackenzie's 1792–1793 Canada crossing from the Peace River to the Pacific Ocean coast; located at 52°22′43″N 127°28′14″W / 52.37861°N 127.47056°W / 52.37861; -127.47056

In 1791, Mackenzie returned to Great Britain to study the new advance in the measurement of longitude. In the aftermath of the Nootka Crisis with Spain, he returned to Canada in 1792, and set out to find a route to the Pacific. Accompanied by two native guides (one named Cancre), his cousin, Alexander MacKay, six Canadian voyageurs (Joseph Landry, Charles Ducette, François Beaulieu, Baptiste Bisson, Francois Courtois, Jacques Beauchamp), and a dog simply referred to as "our dog", Mackenzie left Fort Chipewyan on 10 October 1792, and travelled via the Pine River to the Peace River.[13] From there he travelled to a fork on the Peace River arriving 1 November where he and his cohorts built a fortification that they resided in over the winter. This later became known as Fort Fork.[14][15]

Mackenzie left Fort Fork on 9 May 1793, following the route of the Peace River.[15] He crossed the Great Divide and found the upper reaches of the Fraser River, but was warned by the local natives that the Fraser Canyon to the south was unnavigable and populated by belligerent tribes.[16] He was instead directed to follow a grease trail by ascending the West Road River, crossing over the Coast Mountains and descending the Bella Coola River to the sea. He followed this advice and reached the Pacific coast on 20 July 1793, at Bella Coola, British Columbia, on North Bentinck Arm, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean.[17] Having done this, he had completed the first recorded transcontinental crossing of North America north of Mexico, 12 years before Lewis and Clark. He had unknowingly missed meeting George Vancouver at Bella Coola by 48 days.[citation needed]

He had wanted to continue westward out of a desire to reach the open ocean, but was stopped by the hostility of the Heiltsuk people.[18] Hemmed in by Heiltsuk war canoes, he wrote a message on a rock near the water's edge of Dean Channel, using a reddish paint made of vermilion and bear grease, and turned back east. The inscription read: "Alex MacKenzie / from Canada / by land / 22d July 1793" (at the time the name Canada was an informal term for the former French territory in what is now southern Quebec and Ontario).[19]: 418  The words were later inscribed permanently by surveyors. The site is now Sir Alexander Mackenzie Provincial Park and is designated First Crossing of North America National Historic Site.[20] In 2016, Mackenzie was named a National Historic Person.[21]

In his journal Mackenzie recorded the Carrier language for the first time.[22]

Later life and family

In 1801, the journals of Mackenzie's exploratory journeys were published.[13][23] He was knighted in the following year.[24] He served in the Legislature of Lower Canada for Huntingdon County,[25] from 1804 to 1808.[3]

Burial site of Alexander Mackenzie at Avoch Parish Church in the village of Avoch, Scotland; including a replica of the stone he painted at Bella Coola, British Columbia
Portrait of Mackenzie at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium

In 1812 Mackenzie, then aged 48, returned to Scotland, where he married 14-year-old Geddes Mackenzie, twin heiress of Avoch. They had two sons and a daughter.[18] Her grandfather, Captain John Mackenzie of Castle Leod (great-grandson of George Mackenzie, 2nd Earl of Seaforth), purchased the estate of Avoch with money left to him by his first cousin and brother-in-law, Admiral George Geddes Mackenzie. Lady Mackenzie's father was a first cousin of the father of George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company. The Mackenzies lived between Avoch and London. He died in 1820 of Bright's disease, at an age of 56 (his exact date of birth unknown). He is buried at Avoch on the Black Isle.[3]


The Mackenzie River and Mount Sir Alexander are named for him, as is Mackenzie Bay, and the municipality of Mackenzie, British Columbia.[citation needed]

There are a number of schools in Canada named after him, such as Sir Alexander Mackenzie Senior Public School in Toronto,[26] Sir Alexander Mackenzie Elementary School in Vancouver,[27] and Sir Alexander Mackenzie Elementary School in St. Albert.[28] Also Sir Alexander Mackenzie School in the Bella Coola Valley, BC.

He is referenced in the 1981 folk song "Northwest Passage" by Stan Rogers.[29]

The Alexander Mackenzie rose (Explorer Series), developed in 1985 by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, was named in his honour.[30]

Between 1989 and 1993, the Mackenzie Bicentennial Sea-to-Sea Expeditions of Lakehead University attempted a segmented re-enactment of the journey between Montreal and Bella Coola, British Columbia, but was unable to complete the final overland 350 kilometres (220 mi) Grease Trail when its First Nation owners refused permission.[31][32]


  1. ^ Thompson, Frank G. "Alexander Mackenzie from Stornoway to the Pacific". Stornoway Historical Society. Archived from the original on 5 January 2016. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  2. ^ "Sir Alexander Mackenzie". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d Lamb, W. Kaye (1983). "Mackenzie, Sir Alexander". In Halpenny, Francess G (ed.). Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. V (1801–1820) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  4. ^ a b Gough, Barry M. (1997). First Across the Continent: Sir Alexander MacKenzie. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-3002-6. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  5. ^ ""Exploring" a relationship". Archived from the original on 22 July 2015. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  6. ^ "Mackenzie". Avoch Heritage Association. Archived from the original on 2 July 2015. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  7. ^ The Oxford Companion to Canadian History and Literature, Volume 1 (1967) p. 491
  8. ^ "Timeline". Crowsnest Highway. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  9. ^ "Alexander Mackenzie Becomes the First European to Cross the Continent of North America at Its Widest Part". Science and its Times. Gale. 2000. ISBN 978-0-78763-932-7. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  10. ^ Castner, Brian (2018). Disappointment River : finding and losing the Northwest Passage (First ed.). New York. ISBN 978-0-385-54162-6. OCLC 990841376.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  11. ^ Eschner, Kat (14 July 2014). "How One Quest for the Northwest Passage Ended at the Icy Mouth of Disappointment River". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 18 July 2020.
  12. ^ Eschner, Kat (14 July 2014). "How One Quest for the Northwest Passage Ended at the Icy Mouth of Disappointment River". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 18 July 2020.
  13. ^ a b Mackenzie, Alexander (1902). Voyages from Montreal Through the Continent of North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in 1789 and 1793. Vol. I. New York: A. S. Barnes & Company. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  14. ^ Fort Fork National Historic Site of Canada. Directory of Federal Heritage Designations. Parks Canada.
  15. ^ a b Mackenzie, Alexander (2001). The Journals of Alexander Mackenzie: Exploring Across Canada in 1789 & 1793. Santa Barbara, California: Narrative Press. p. 198ff. ISBN 1-58976-036-0. Archived from the original on 17 October 2015. Retrieved 18 September 2015.
  16. ^ "Sir Alexander Mackenzie". Bella Coola Grizzly Tours. Mackenzie Heritage Trail, British Columbia. Archived from the original on 5 January 2016. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  17. ^ Hayes, Derek (2009). First Crossing: Alexander Mackenzie, His Expedition Across North America, and the Opening of the Continent. D&M Publishers. pp. 211–224. ISBN 978-1-926706-59-7. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  18. ^ a b Marshall, Tabitha; Mercer, Keith (4 March 2015) [7 January 2008]. "Sir Alexander Mackenzie (Explorer)". The Canadian Encyclopedia (online ed.). Historica Canada.
  19. ^ Morton, Arthur Silver; (Lewis G Thomas) (1973) [1939]. A History of the Canadian West to 1870–71 (2nd ed.). Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-4033-0.
  20. ^ First Crossing of North America. Canadian Register of Historic Places. Retrieved 23 November 2011.
  21. ^ Mackenzie, Sir Alexander National Historic Person. Directory of Federal Heritage Designations. Parks Canada.
  22. ^ Poser, William J. (2004). "The first record of the Carrier language". In Holt, Gary; Tuttle, Siri (eds.). Working Papers in Athabaskan Languages. Working Papers #4. Fairbanks, Alaska: Alaska Native Language Center.
  23. ^ Mackenzie, Alexander (1903). Voyages from Montreal Through the Continent of North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in 1789 and 1793. Vol. II. New York: A. S. Barnes & Company. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  24. ^ "No. 15454". The London Gazette. 16 February 1802. p. 165.
  25. ^ Chichester (1893)
  26. ^ "Sir Alexander Mackenzie Senior Public School (GR. 07-08)". Toronto District School Board. Retrieved 24 September 2017. Sir Alexander Mackenzie Sr. P.S. (SAM) officially opened on January 20, 1972. Our school name honours a man who demonstrated integrity and perseverance while exploring his way across Canada. Sir Alexander Mackenzie was born in Scotland. He was a fur trader and the first white man to cross North America north of Mexico, charting and exploring huge expanses of Canada....
  27. ^ "Sir Alexander Mackenzie". Archives and Heritage Committee, Vancouver School Board. Retrieved 24 September 2017. Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Address: 960 East 39th Avenue 1909 – present Named after Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1764–1820), Scottish explorer and fur trader....
  28. ^ Borgstede, Arlene (1 January 1985). The Black Robe's Vision : A History of St. Albert & District. Vol. 2. St. Albert Historical Society. p. 726. Sir Alexander Mackenzie School, named for the explorer and fur trader who traveled the northern part of Alberta and on to the Arctic Ocean in the late 1700s...
  29. ^ "Northwest Passage lyrics". Retrieved 19 September 2023.
  30. ^ "Alexander Mackenzie rose". Archived from the original on 15 June 2010.
  31. ^ Erickson, Bruce (2013). Canoe Nation: Nature, Race, and the Making of a Canadian Icon. University of British Columbia Press. ISBN 9780774822503.
  32. ^ Fonds – Canada Sea-to-Sea: Alexander Mackenzie Bicentennial Expeditions fonds.