One of Canada’s most historically significant explorers, the Scottish born Sir Alexander Mackenzie, reached the Pacific Ocean (and the end of his groundbreaking trip across the country) on July 20, 1793 although he himself commemorated it two days later, on the 22nd.
His travels across the country were actually divided into two separate expeditions; the first one, in 1789, was a river expedition to the Arctic Ocean although this wasn’t the direction he had actually meant to travel (sounds a bit like my sense of direction…). From a colleague in Montreal, he had learned that the First Nations people understood how the local rivers flowed to the northwest and, acting on this information, he set out on what was then known as the Dehcho (now the Mackenzie) River by canoe in the hope of finding the northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean. Instead, he ended up traveling in the opposite direction and ended up at the Atlantic Ocean on July 14, 1789.
In Mackenzie’s mind this was a massive disappointment (he even initially named the river that would become the Mackenzie, ‘Disappointment River’) and, as a result of this set back, he returned to Great Britain in 1791 to study up on the new advances in longitude before returning to Canada in 1792.
1792-1793 marked the years of his second, more successful, expedition and the one which played a significant role in the history of British Columbia. Accompanied by two native guides, his cousin, six Canadian voyagers, and a dog, Mackenzie set out from Fort Chipewyan on the 10th of October 1792 and set out along the Pine River the flow of which eventually lead to the Peace River. After building and wintering at what is now known as Fort Fork, the company set out to continue along the length of the Peace River on March 9, 1793 before finally reaching the upper region of the Fraser River.
The Route of Alexander Mackenzie and company.
Having been told by the first nations people in the area, that the Fraser Canyon was un-navigational and populated by tribes who had a history of being unfriendly to outsiders, Mackenzie and his companions elected instead to ascend the West Road River, cross over the Coast Mountains, and descend the Bella Coola River towards the sea. On July 20, 1793; he reached Bella Coola and became the first recorded person to complete a transcontinental crossing of North America north of Mexico and, by only a matter of 48 days, missed meeting George Vancouver there. His initial plan had been to continue westward with the intent to reach the open ocean of the Pacific but was stopped from obtaining this goal by the Heiltsuk peoples and, so, had to be content with writing a message on a rock near the water’s edge of the Dean Channel instead.
Alexander Mackenzie’s Message
At a later point in time, these words were permanently inscribed by surveyors and the rock itself, as well as the area around it, are now part of the Sir Alexander Mackenzie Provincial Park. Even though Mackenzie did not achieve his goal of reaching the open waters of the ocean, he still became the first individual to traverse the span of the country over land as well as the first to navigate so many of the inland waterways which cover the face of Canada. Possibly, the part of his journey that had the most long-term impact though, was that it showed the European explorers who had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed on the eastern coast of the new world that it was possible to cross the expanse of this country and played a huge role in opening up the western regions of Canada to these colonizing forces.
The Legacy of Sir Alexander Mackenzie.