MacKenzie at the Pacific, 1793
Also titled: "Overland to the Pacific"
Tempera 35.5cm. x 45.7cm
Signed l.l.: C.W. JEFFERYS
One of a series of seven painted for Thomas Nelson and Sons.
- Exhibition title: Historical Painting. Curators: Fern Bayer, Ministry of Government Service, Ontario Government, Toronto, Ontario; 1979.04.01 - 1979.06.30.
C.W. Jefferys' notes about this picture in The Picture Gallery of Canadian History Vol. 2
Mackenzie in his Journey speaks of having a "hanger," a short sword, convenient for traveling in rough country, similar to that carried by Wolfe, as shown in the drawing in Vol. I, p. 242, depicting him at the Battle of the Plains.
C.W. Jefferys' notes about this picture in Canada's Past in Pictures
Overland to the Pacific
Mackenzie's first attempt at exploration had failed to achieve its purpose. He found, too, that most of his partners of the North-West Company were either hostile or indifferent to his desire for exploration. With their eyes fixed on the immediate profits of the fur trade, they regarded such expeditions as a waste of time and energy at the expense of the company's interests.
But even in business affairs, Mackenzie had a wider vision. He realized the importance of the Pacific Coast trade. Cook's voyages had drawn attention to the region, and had mapped its general features with some definition. In Alaska the Russians had long since established settlements engaged in the hunting of the seal and the sea-otter. Following Cook, English vessels coasted the shores trading with the natives. Enterprising Yankee sea captains from the young United States, eager for a share in the profits, gathered rich cargoes of furs. Spain, asserting her shadowy old claim to these shores, bestirred herself and seized or drove away the intruding vessels till Great Britain's demand for compensation and freedom of trade, backed by the threat of war, brought about the Nootka Convention of 1790, and broke down Spanish sovereignty in the Pacific. Doubtless, in his isolated outpost on Lake Athabasca, from belated British newspapers and slow-traveling letters, Mackenzie learned much of all this. It behooved his company to be in the field. If an overland way could be found to this new fur trading El Dorado, it would provide a shorter and quicker route to the markets of Europe than the long voyage round Cape Horn or the journey across the steppes of Siberia.
The disapproval of his partners failed to turn Mackenzie from his ambitions. He would make another attempt, this time better prepared. He realized that he lacked sufficient mathematical knowledge, that he must learn how to make astronomical observations and understand surveying, so that he might be able to mark the exact geographical positions, the accurate latitudes and longitudes of the points he reached along the new route he sought. He must go to England to get his training, to equip himself with the necessary instruments and to learn how to use them. He got leave of absence from the company, put his cousin Roderick in charge of his post, and made the long journey from Fort Chipewyan to Montreal, and thence, in the fall of 1791, to England.
To the young man who had grown up on the outskirts of civilization it must have been a new and bewildering experience to find himself in the centre of world affairs. He arrived in the midst of the French Revolution. Probably in the months after his return from his Arctic expedition, he had learned something of its beginnings. Perhaps, too, as he read over the journal of his voyage, it may have struck him that on the same July day in 1789, while he stood in the chill wind that blew over the summit of Whale Island, before turning back from the Northern Sea, the people in far-away Paris were battering at the walls of the Bastille. Now, in the fall of 1791, a newly-elected French Legislative Assembly was proclaiming with much fervid oratory, the gospel of the emancipation of man, while throughout Europe the supporters of the old order watched with growing uneasiness the spread of the revolutionary ideas which promised to remake the world.
These matters, though highly exciting, were of no concern to Mackenzie's interests or ambitions. More nearly related to his affairs was the news that the British Government had sent Captain George Vancouver, with two ships, to the north Pacific coast to carry out the terms of the Spanish treaty and to complete Cook's explorations.
Meanwhile, Mackenzie's own immediate task was to go to school. We have no details concerning his life in England; but apparently he spent the winter of 1791-1792 in London studying.
This journey in search of knowledge reveals his character with striking clearness. He had learned early in life to accept responsibilities: he had shown remarkable business ability; he might reasonably regard his future as secure, if he retained the good will and confidence of his associates and the leaders of the company. But he had the courage to imperil his immediate prospects for the sake of the larger objects he had in view. He was accustomed to leadership, he could manage men and affairs; yet he was able to control his habits of command and to bend himself to become a humble student. It required the same qualities of perseverance, self-denial, and self-confidence to seek the headwaters of knowledge that he displayed in his search for the Western Sea -- and as much, or perhaps more, courage.
Mackenzie returned to Canada in the spring of 1792. Before the end of the summer he was at Fort Chipewyan again, and at once began preparations for his Pacific expedition. On October l0th he left for the West. At a point a few miles above the junction of the Peace and Smoky Rivers he built a rough palisaded post in which to pass the winter, so that when he could start next spring, he would be that far on his way.
On Thursday, May 9th, 1793, he set out on his great search for the sea. He took with him as his lieutenant, Alexander Mackay, one of the most experienced and capable traders in the company's service, two Indians, six French Canadian voyageurs, two of ·whom had accompanied him on hi s Arctic expedition , and a dog. During the winter they had built a birch bark canoe, twenty-five feet long, with a capacity of three thousand pounds, designed with especial care to combine strength and lightness of carriage.
For the first few days their course up the Peace River lay through beautiful country, blossoming into spring, and crowded with vast herds of elk and buffalo, so that their hunters were able to secure plenty of fresh meat. Soon the river narrowed , the banks rose in sheer precipices, huge boulders and land-slides rolled to the swirling waters that sucked at the rock walls, endangering the men who crept along the narrow footholds or struggled waist deep in the stream hauling the canoe by ropes against the rushing current. More than once the canoe was injured and had to be patched and gummed; sometimes poles, paddles and towline could make no headway and the cargo had to be taken out and carried around places where the foaming current ran too swiftly; sometimes the canoe itself had to be portaged. The men became frightened; they complained of the incessant and perilous labour, of the icy water and of the cold that numbed their fingers. Again and again it required all Mackenzie's driving power, tact, and cheerfulness, reinforced by frequent "regales" of rum, to keep them to their work.
They beat their way up the rushing river, surely misnamed the Peace, till they reached a deep narrow canyon, where for miles further progress by water was impossible. Here they had to carry everything through thick woods over steep mountain slopes and deep ravines for twelve miles, across the Rocky Mountain Portage. For three days they toiled, cutting a trail through the trees, hauling the canoe up slippery inclines, bending under their ninety pound packs, until they reached the river again. More days of heavy work brought them at length to the Forks of the Finlay and Parsnip rivers.
An old Indian had advised them to follow the south fork to a carrying place, which would lead them to another large river, flowing West Westward. Up the Parsnip, therefore, they fought their way against its equally wild and perilous current. On the 9th of June, a month after they had started, they caught the smell of wood smoke, and heard the noise of people in the woods. They had disturbed a camp of Indians who fled at their approach. Soon two of them returned to the shore, menacing MacKenzie's party with their bows and spears. MacKenzie made signs of friendship to them, and finally induced them to allow him to land. Those who had fled returned and all gathered wonderingly around the explorers, for none of them had ever seen white men, before. Mackenzie gave them presents of beads and pemmican. and made camp near them. He managed to get some information from them as to the direction of the westward flowing river. One of them drew rough map on a piece of bark, and another consented to go with him as a guide.
Three days later they crossed the divide and reached the waters that ran westward toward the Pacific.
Much hard work and much peril still lay before them. On the Bad River (well named), their canoe was smashed almost to a wreck, and part of the cargo, including their store of bullets, was lost. The men were greatly discouraged by the mishap and broke out again into murmurs of discontent. Mackenzie cheered them with a hearty meal and "rum enough to raise their spirits," and made an encouraging speech to them. They managed to mend the canoe, though from repeated patching and gumming it was now so heavy that a couple of men were unable to carry it more than a hundred yards without being relieved. Their Indian guide deserted them at night, while they slept. For some days they proceeded, partly by land, partly by water, through swamps and thick forest until on the evening of the 17th of June they came out on a branch of the north fork of the Fraser River. Mackenzie writes: "At length we enjoyed, after all our toil and anxiety, the inexpressible satisfaction of finding ourselves on the bank of a navigable river on the west side of the . . . mountains."
The "navigable river" had perils and difficulties of its own. Thick mists and the smoke of forest fires obscured the view ahead. The banks rose in precipitous rock walls that piled the pouring waters into a succession of foaming cataracts. Again the heavy canoe had to be carried. The portage was only half a mile long, but it led over a rocky hill so steep and rugged that it took the men four hours to cross it. On the way, the canoe cracked with its own weight. It was patched again, but by now it was in such a bad state that it could not be used much longer with safety.
Soon, to Mackenzie's disappointment, the river swung to the south. Signs of human life appeared, native houses were seen, but they were empty of inhabitants; at several places Indians showed themselves, but all were suspicious and menacing, and strict watch had to be kept, night and day, against attack. Mackenzie tried to approach them, hoping to get the guides and information he needed; but it was not till the river had swept them three days southward that he was able to overcome their hostility and learn anything definite. He succeeded in landing at an Indian camp, where by signs and scanty interpretations the natives told him that the river by which he came was so long and dangerous, and ran through the countries of such fierce and treacherous tribes that no guides would venture among them, and that he would never be able to reach its mouth. It was the old story that every explorer met. But they also told him that if he would return upstream, he would find the mouth of a smaller river flowing in from the west, by which he would find a shorter and easier way across country to the sea.
Mackenzie decided to retrace his course and find this smaller river. Doubtless his newly acquired astronomical knowledge helped him to decide, for the latitudes which his observations gave him showed that he was farther south than the part of the coast at which he aimed. A short and speedy route was necessary for he had only one month's provisions left.
Backward, therefore, on the 23rd of June, up the river they turned the bow of their canoe, now almost a wreck. A new one must be made. As they journeyed they searched the woods along the river banks for bark and gum and root fibres, and with much difficulty a sufficient quantity was gathered. Four days later they reached a suitable place for building the canoe: a small island with spaces of open meadow close to the mainland where plenty of spruce could be cut to make the frame. On their way up the river the men again became alarmed at the suspicious and threatening conduct of the Indians, on the island they were tormented by swarms of sand flies and mosquitoes, while their rations had to be reduced, and some of their meals consisted of dried fish roes, which they had found in a deserted Indian lodge, boiled in water thickened with flour. On July 1st the new canoe was ready and they set forth again.
The mouth of the smaller river, the Blackwater, was reached in three days. From here their journey was to be overland. All unnecessary goods, ammunition and provisions were stored in a small hut, or cached in a hole in the ground. The canoe was taken ashore, and placed on a sheltered staging to protect it from damp and sun, to await their return.
Each voyageur was laden with a ninety-pound pack, and his gun and ammunition, the Indian hunters each carried forty-five pounds of pemmican besides their weapons, while Mackenzie and Mackay had a seventy-pound pack apiece, Mackenzie in addition, carrying his astronomical instruments and a small sword, or hanger. Thus burdened, the explorers plunged into the forest on their dash to the sea-coast.
Steady rains soaked the woods and they were soon wet through, while the sultry heat and their heavy loads bathed them in perspiration. As elsewhere on the journey, Mackenzie had difficulty in retaining his Indian guides. To prevent one of them from running off during the night, Mackenzie made him sleep with him. The Indian's beaver robe was infested with vermin, his hair greased with rancid fish oil, and his body smeared with red earth, but Mackenzie spread his own camlet cloak over himself and the guide, and says that he "passed a night of sound repose." From time to time they came upon the lodges of Carrier Indians, and procured from them dried fish; occasionally they made meals of groundhogs and the roots of a plant that tasted like potatoes. At several places, Mackenzie deposited caches of their own provisions, generally under the ashes of the camp fire, in order to lighten their loads and to ensure food for their return journey. For thirteen days they toiled amidst woods and swamps and along rocky hillsides through the mountain passes. Ragged, almost barefooted, sunburned, unshaven, Mackenzie tells us that their faces no longer indicated that they were white.
At length the trail reached the brink of a height from which it fell rapidly into a valley, where, at the junction of two rivers, the explorers could see a large native village. The party halted to make themselves a little more presentable. Mackenzie tells us that he shaved the beard which he had allowed to grow, and changed his linen, and says that his men followed his "humanizing example." Late in the afternoon they descended into the valley, and by sunset had reached the banks of the Bella Coola River. On the lower levels they felt the tang of the sea in the heavy air. They were received so hospitably by the Indians that Mackenzie calls their abode the Friendly Village. Next day he persuaded them to provide him with two of their coast canoes, hewn out of large tree trunks. Guided by the natives they proceeded down the river to a much larger village, where, after a somewhat hostile reception, they were welcomed, feasted and sheltered for the night. The explorers' stay here was pleasant, until as they were about to embark. Mackenzie discovered that an axe had been stolen. He at once sat down, with gun and pistols at hand and refused to leave until the axe was returned. After much dispute it was given back, and they set off down the river. It was at this point also that their dog, which had accompanied them through all their perils and difficulties, was missed, whether strayed stolen they knew not. Mackenzie remarks that "it was a circumstance of no small regret to me."
Some hours later they reached another village at the mouth of the river, and from here they could see down a narrow arm of the sea into which it discharged. Six weeks earlier other white men had arrived at this point. Vancouver's ships were off the coast, and during the summer exploring parties were sent in boats to survey the numerous inlets and channels along the shore. On June 3rd one of these parties had landed here, and thus the two expeditions, one by sea, and the other by land, converged at the obscure native village.
The open sea was not yet in sight, but the tide, the seaweed and the salt ·water told Mackenzie that he was now practically at the end of his journey. His waning stock of provisions warned him not to delay his return; but he could not turn back without ascertaining the exact geographical point which he had reached. He therefore proceeded down the tortuous channels in search of a favourable place for taking an astronomical observation.
And here, at the very goal of his ambitions, Mackenzie's anxieties and perils threatened to culminate in disaster, and he had need of all his courage and self-possession. The Indians, who gathered around him in their canoes, became more menacing, several articles were pilfered, and armed conflict and possible massacre seemed imminent. One "troublesome fellow" was particularly insolent, forcing his way into Mackenzie's canoe, and loudly complaining that one of the white people who had lately been there in "the large canoe," whom he called "Macubah" (his pronunciation of "Vancouver"), had fired on him, and that another had struck him with his sword. Mackenzie warned his men to be prepared to defend themselves to the last in case of attack.
Amid such distractions he kept on until on the 21st he reached a spot that seemed to be not only suitable for taking his observations, but also capable of being defended. It was an isolated rock, backed by an overhanging cliff. Here the party landed and made a scanty supper. Mackenzie arranged that strict watch should be kept all night, and the weary and anxious explorers lay down to get such rest as their precarious situation permitted.
Next morning Mackenzie proceeded to take his observations. Some Indians soon arrived and warned them that the natives were preparing to attack them, and urged him to leave at once. But Mackenzie refused to stir until he had finished his work. He had not travelled so many leagues through such difficulties and dangers to turn back without learning the exact position of his farthest point. Undisturbed by the prying curiosity of the Indians, who gathered around his instruments, and the clamour of his excited men, who begged him to depart, he coolly went on with his observations, and completed his calculations. Then, he tells us, in his oft-quoted words, " I 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 22ND OF JULY, 1793.
For one hundred and thirty years the exact position of this famous rock remained unknown. In 1923, Captain R. P. Bishop, connected with the Survey Branch of the British Columbia Department of Lands, made a careful examination of Mackenzie's route, checking his own observations by Mackenzie's account, and succeeding in discovering the identical point which the great explorer had reached. All trace of his inscription, of course, had long since disappeared; but to-day a memorial cairn, erected by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. and a copy of Mackenzie's inscription carved on the face of the rock, mark the spot.
Mackenzie's ambition was achieved. Now before him lay the task of bringing his men safely back. His work completed, he embarked at once, and two days later he was again at the village at the mouth of the Bella Coola. Here he had a last dangerous encounter with the Indians. He had landed and gone ahead with his guide toward the village, when a number of natives rushed upon him, flourishing their daggers. A scuffle followed; he lost his hat and coat; but managed to wrench himself free from his assailants without being wounded. His men arrived, and the Indians took shelter in one of their houses. Mackenzie drew up his party with their muskets ready, and ordered the Indians to deliver up the articles they had stolen, and demanded, in reparation for their attack and robbery, that they should provide him with a supply of fish. His determined attitude brought the Indians to terms, the stolen articles were returned , and the provisions supplied, for which Mackenzie paid from his small stock of trading goods; and with this termination of the incident, they left the place, which he names Rascal's Village. Shortly afterwards, on their way through the forest, their missing dog appeared, gaunt with famine and too terrified to approach them; but they coaxed him by dropping scraps of food, and before long he was with them again.
They climbed out of the sea-level valley and retraced their course over the mountain passes till on August 4th they reached their canoe and the cache of provisions which they had left a month before. All was found in good condition. and in celebration of their safe return the men were given a "regale" of rum, of which they had not tasted for many days. The weather was cold and wet, their provisions were very low, and Mackenzie became afflicted with pain and swelling of the ankles so that he was unable to walk and had to be carried over difficult portages; but they were soon afloat on the Peace River, with plenty of game for food. On the afternoon of the 24th they came in sight of the fort from which they had started in May. "We threw out a flag," says Mackenzie, "and accompanied it with a general discharge of our firearms; while the men were in such spirits, and made such an active use of their paddles, that we arrived before the two men we had left here could recover their senses to answer us.''
In September he was back once more at Fort Chipewyan. Here he spent the winter, resuming again his duties as fur trader, while he tried in his leisure time to arrange the journal of his travels. His cousin Roderick was sent to another post, and Alexander, left alone, felt more than ever the humdrum routine of life at a fur-trading post. He resolved to leave the western country as soon as possible. Though he was still a young man, and though he had spent only seven years in north-western Canada, into those few years he had packed an immense accomplishment; he had gained a wide knowledge of the country, and had made considerable financial profit.
In the spring of 1794 he went down to Grand Portage to attend the annual meeting of the company and turned his back for ever on the scene of his adventures. The next winter he spent in England. Returning to Montreal the following year, he thenceforth fixed himself in that city during the remainder of his stay in Canada. He had never been in harmony with his partners, and in 1799 he withdrew from the North-West Company. In November of that year he was again in England, arranging for the publication of his book of travels. It appeared in 1801, and at once brought its author into widespread public notice. In recognition of his achievement he was knighted by King George III. Mackenzie returned to Montreal in 1802, where he was a conspicuous figure in the fur trade and took an active part in social and political life. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, and sat as member for the County of Huntingdon from 1804 to 1808.
In that year he left Canada to reside in Scotland. He had a comfortable fortune, and he had long wished to spend his later years as a laird in his native land. In 1812 he married Miss Geddes Mackenzie, a gifted and beautiful woman, of his own clan, but not a blood relation. Three children, a girl and two boys, were born to him. At his estate of Avioch, in Invernesshire, or in his house in London, he resided until his death. He died, as he had lived, travelling. In March, 1820, he was returning in his coach from a consultation with his physicians in Edinburgh, when he was suddenly taken ill, and died in a nearby roadside inn. His death at the comparatively early age of fifty-six was due largely to the arduous labours and privations of his explorations.
His famous inscription is his most fitting monument. It recorded his own achievement as the first overland journey across the continent. But it also established British sovereignty, not only over the coast, which Vancouver was then surveying, but, by right of his discoveries, over all the inland country between the fur-trading posts and the Pacific. His journey gave Canada its western outlet, a foothold on the shores of the long-sought sea. Its significance is condensed in to his own few short words: "from Canada, by land."
Jefferys, Charles W. 1934 Canada's Past in Pictures, p.98
Jefferys, Charles W. 1945 The Picture Gallery of Canadian History Vol.
Arnold, Phyllis A. The Fur Trade in the West. Edmonton, Edmonton and District Historical Society, 2016. 88 p. Illus., p.42
- Historical Painting. Curators: Fern Bayer, Ministry of Government Service, Ontario Government, Toronto, Ontario; 1979.04.01 - 1979.06.30.