Page 4 of 8

Mackenzie's Routes

To see labels, point to the image.

interactive map showing the route of Mackenzies's 1789 and 1793 explorations

Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia

But in his patient dealings with western Indians, as with underlings in his own party, Mackenzie was making an effort. The Scotsman may have been a brilliant wilderness leader, judged Bernard DeVoto, "but he is a hard man to like."9 Biographer James Smith, in a book provocatively titled Alexander Mackenzie, Explorer: The Hero Who Failed, saw "more than a touch of pride and arrogance" in his subject.10 Maybe that attitude explains Mackenzie's sparing use of names in his journal, both of the faceless individuals he traveled with and the natives he met.11 The more forthcoming Americans made their journals as rich as Russian novels with the names—in careful phonetic renderings—of nearly every Indian in sight, including some who gave them a hard time.

Mackenzie never gave names to people who guided him, and he bothered to put down the name of just one coastal village chief—Soocomlick—who particularly befriended the party. At his graffiti rock on the Dean Channel, Mackenzie felt himself harassed by a never-named "troublesome fellow" who kept complaining that Europeans had recently fired guns at members of his Bella Bella tribe. The troublesome fellow identified his white persecutors as "Macubah" and "Bensins," as Mackenzie recalled. Not until the trader returned to Britain did he learn he had nearly been involved in a chance exploratory traffic jam. Just seven weeks before Mackenzie's arrival in the Dean Channel, Captain George Vancouver had sailed into that same spot on his 1792-1794 survey of the Northern Pacific coastline. Some historians have suggested Vancouver himself was the trigger-happy "Macubah" of Mackenzie's story, while "Bensins" may have been the survey's naturalist, Archibald Menzies.12

White travelers—Lewis and Clark among them—commonly referred to the natives they met as "savages." Even for his time, however, Mackenzie went out of his way to assert an explicit doctrine of white racial dominance. In a revealing incident on the Fraser River, a tribesman broke into Mackenzie's interrogation about the land ahead. If white men already know everything, said the uppity Indian, why do you have to ask the way? The explorer replied that he knew about the whole world, including the location of the ocean he was trying to reach, but only needed information from you backwoods rubes about petty local obstacles. Mackenzie wanted his readers to understand that he had scored a heavy point on the Indians in this exchange: "Thus I fortunately preserved the impression in their minds, of the superiority of white people over themselves."13

Lewis and Clark never expressed that attitude so bluntly, though they may have shared it. Nevertheless, Mackenzie got most of what he wanted from the natives without any fighting or killing. On his trip not one man died, either in his own party or among the people he met.

9. Bernard DeVoto, The Course of Empire (1952, Norwalk: Easton Press, 1988), p. 309.

10. James K. Smith, Alexander Mackenzie, Explorer: The Hero Who Failed (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Ltd., 1973), p. 1.

11. Only once in his journal did Mackenzie give a roster of his party, naming 8 of the 9 men. Sheppe, First Man West, p. 79. Mackenzie never again referred to most of his voyageurs by name, and one of the two Indian hunters went entirely nameless through the whole trip. However, the leader frequently mentioned his second-in-command, Alexander Mackay, who later in his career joined John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company. Mackay was killed in the 1811 Indian attack on Astor's ship Tonquin at Nootka Sound.

12. Sheppe, in a note on p. 235 of First Man West, ventured that Vancouver and Menzies "apparently" were the seamen that the Bella Bellas complained about. In his Vol. 1 introduction to Vancouver's A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World (1798; London: The Hakluyt Society, 1984), editor W. Kaye Lamb on p. 137 said "Macubah would seem to be unmistakably a reference to Vancouver." However, Lamb observed that naturalist Menzies couldn't have been "Bensins" because he wasn't with Vancouver's party on June 4, 1793. Vancouver himself reported no trouble with Indians on that stop.

13. Sheppe, First Man West, p. 166.