Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabaska
("Lake of the Hills" on Mackenzie's map), in 1820

by George Back (1796-1828)

historic etching of a fort on a high bank

Acquired by the National Archives of Canada with the assistance of Hoechst and Celanese Canada and with a grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage under the Cultural Property Export and Import Act/C-145926.

Mackenzie's 1801 book, Voyages from Montreal (written with the help of an English ghostwriter named William Combe) recited these adventures in exciting detail. It had a major political purpose as well. The businessman-adventurer closed his story by urging British ministers to establish government-protected ports in the Pacific Northwest for shipment of furs to China.

King George III in 1802 knighted Mackenzie for his exploring feats. The king's ministers, however, stonewalled any notion of costly subsidies for Canada's fur business. In America, President Thomas Jefferson had no way of foretelling the British government's indifference when he read Mackenzie's book in the summer of 1802. The President saw Mackenzie's plan as a challenge that could be met by establishing a more southerly trade route along the Columbia and Missouri Rivers, which he thought nearly interconnected at a single ridge of the Rockies. In January, 1803, he asked Congress to finance a small expedition to explore that route.3

If Mackenzie's book triggered the Lewis and Clark expedition, it also appeared to guide some of the American logistical planning. Mackenzie's party numbered 10 men, so Jefferson told Congress an intelligent officer with 10 or 12 chosen men should be enough. Only later did Lewis and Clark decide to triple their party's size. Noting that Mackenzie smashed his single thermometer early in his trip, Jefferson's men took three as insurance, but all were likewise broken on their outbound journey; thereafter the Americans, like Mackenzie, had to guess at the temperatures of the West. The Scot said coastal natives prized beads as currency; Lewis and Clark took a big supply, but not enough blue ones as it turned out. Mackenzie took a dog; so did Lewis.

Several historians have suggested that Lewis and Clark carried Mackenzie's book with them to the Pacific for en-route reading. Bernard DeVoto said so flatly in a 1955 essay, without offering evidence.4 Donald Jackson was more cautious in his 1959 inventory of books in the baggage of the American explorers.5 Mackenzie's book might go on the list "by inference," he said, because the captains' journals "reveal a familiarity with the ideas of Mackenzie and a knowledge of his cartography." Jackson noted that another of the names Lewis and Clark applied to the Columbia River was "Tacoutche Tesse," which was also Mackenzie's name for it. (Mackenzie was wrong: what he thought was the Columbia was really the Fraser River.)

3. Jefferson's message to Congress, Jan. 18, 1803, in Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Related Documents, 2 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1:10-13.

4. Bernard DeVoto, "An Inference Regarding the Expedition of Lewis and Clark," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 99, No. 4 (August 30, 1955), 189.

5. Donald Jackson, "Some Books Carried by Lewis and Clark," Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society, Vol. 16, No. 1 (October, 1959), 4, 10-11.