By Arlen J. Large1
Editor's note: As the first two paragraphs clearly indicate, this essay was written in 1993, the bicentennial of the first successful crossing of North America. The author made such cogent comparisons between the expeditions of Alexander Mackenzie and the Corps of Discovery that it is well worth reading again. It is reproduced here with the permission of the editor of We Proceeded On, the quarterly journal of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. The illustrations have been added by the editor of Discovering Lewis & Clark®.
National Library of Congress
It's been 200 years since a bold young Scotsman wrote the headline for his own triumph of exploration: "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three." Mackenzie stroked his graffiti "in large characters," he recalled, on the rocky bank of a Pacific Ocean fjord he had reached the day before. He was the first literate traveler to cross the North American continent north of Mexico, beating Meriwether Lewis and William Clark by nearly 12 years.
Those observing the 1993 bicentennial of Mackenzie's journey from the Canadian interior can cite important differences from the later, more elaborate Lewis and Clark traverse. Mackenzie at heart was a businessman, an important partner in a private fur-trading company based in Montreal. He led a party of just nine other men on a 2,800-mile round-trip dash lasting less than a year. Lewis and Clark were Army officers executing a U.S. government mission planned by the President and paid for by Congress. They led 31 soldiers and civilians on a trip covering more than twice as much ground and lasting two and a half years.
Yet there were striking similarities. Both exploring parties traveled most of the way on rivers. Both came to river junctions requiring an agonizing decision: which way to go? Most of the men pointed one way, but the leaders chose the opposite. Both parties relied on help from native people met en route. Both pioneered paths across the Rocky Mountains that never became useful highways for later travelers, so it's been said that both expeditions failed to meet their own objectives. In compensation, though, both trips generated priceless journals of wilderness travel that thrilled stay-at-home readers with an early inkling of the wonders of the far West.
Mackenzie's journal was published in London eight years after his Pacific trip.2 The Scottish-born explorer told first of a 1789 canoe voyage from Fort Chipewyan, a North West Company trading post on Lake Athabaska high up in modern Alberta. He was looking for a western route to the Pacific, but the big river he followed (it now bears Mackenzie's name) carried him north to the Arctic Ocean instead. Mackenzie then went to London to learn navigation, and returned through Montreal to Fort Chipewyan in 1792. Still looking for a way to transport furs to the Pacific, he took a canoe 500 miles southwest-ward up the Peace River to a spot where his party holed up for a winter so cold that ax blades "became almost as brittle as glass." He resumed the journey up the Peace in May, 1793. Upon reaching the Pacific coast in July of that year, he returned to Fort Chipewyan the same way after an absence of 11 months.
1. Arlen J. Large (1932-1997) was a reporter first for the Chicago bureau, and later the Washington bureau, of the Wall Street Journal, covering agriculture, government agencies, Congress, politics, and science, and was honored by the American Political Science Association for distinguished reporting of public affairs. His broad scope of personal interests focused especially on archaeology, astronomy, and onomastics—the study of names—as well as Lewis and Clark. A longtime member of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Inc., Jim was a frequent and distinguished contributor to the Foundation's quarterly journal, We Proceeded On.
2. Alexander Mackenzie, Voyages from Montreal (T. Cadell, London, 1801; reprint, Charles E. Tuttle Co., Rutland, 1971). A conveniently annotated edition of the complete text of Mackenzie's Pacific journal alone, with maps, is Walter Sheppe, ed., First Man West: Alexander Mackenzie's Account of His Expedition Across North America to the Pacific in 1793 (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1962). Citations in this article are from Sheppe.