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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Sir Alexander McKenzie


Chapter X - Fame Achieved and the Ebbing Tide

THE time of Alexander Mackenzie's retirement from the upper country became an era of trouble and excitement for the North-West Company. The old lion of Montreal, Simon McTavish, had always borne the reputation of a tyrannical and domineering leader. As years fell upon him he became more and more unpopular, and as he was the moving spirit at headquarters in Montreal, there was a wide-spread feeling that the interests of the wintering partners, as the leading traders throughout the north and west were called, were in jeopardy. The derisive nicknames Le Marquis, and Le Premier, applied to McTavish are indications of this feeling.

A corresponding spirit of confidence on the part of the winterers may be detected as gathering around Alexander Mackenzie. This no doubt partly arose from self-interest, and the feeling of animosity to Simon McTavish, but it was also a tribute to the ability and capacity of the explorer of the Mackenzie River and of the route to the Pacific Ocean. It was certainly remarkable that a young man of thirty-one, and one whose fur-trading experiences had been mostly in the frozen north should thus rise so soon into prominence and influence. Yet so it was.

It was his duty now, having left the upper country, to take a leading part in the great annual gathering at Grand Portage. To this gathering McTavish rarely came. No doubt the presence of Mackenzie would serve as a rallying-point for discontent, as the young trader had belonged to the minor company, which had united with the greater in 1787. The desire to separate from the old company and be free of the intolerable control from Montreal showed itself at Grand Portage in 1795. Several traders left the old company and cast in their lot with "Forsyth, Richardson & Co.," the rival of Le Premier, Though Alexander Mackenzie could not extricate himself from the affairs of the old company, yet his sympathies were plainly with the discontented. If Simon McTavish was the impetuous Ajax, Mackenzie was Achilles sulking in his tent.

The new North-West Company perfected its organization in 1795-6, and gave great evidences of vigour and pluck. To Lake Superior, to the Red River, to the Assiniboine and Swan Rivers, and to far distant Athabaska, it brought back the memories of the fierce days of 1783, when Mackenzie made his great dash for the English River. The new company was called the X. V. because the bales of the North--West Company being marked N. W., these were the next letters of the alphabet. Its work prospered, though it must be confessed that more heartburning and unfair competition resulted; and greater use of strong drink, as an agency in dealing with the Indians, was made than ever before or since in the fur trade. With the sympathy, possibly with the hidden assistance of Alexander Mackenzie, the "Little Coznpany" or X.Y.'s, undoubtedly made great headway, and, somewhat arrogantly, built their emporium at Grand Portage, in 1797, within half a mile of the chief establishment of the North-West Company.

At the annual gathering Alexander Mackenzie stated his intention of withdrawing from the old company. The utmost plainness of speech was indulged in by many present about Le Marquis, and much ill-feeling shown. Mackenzie proved firm in carrying out his intention, and, leaving the company, set sail for home. It was shortly before this time that he seems to have had an opportunity of coming within the shadow of the court of St. James having been chosen to be the travelling companion in Canada and the United States of Edward, Duke of Kent, the father of our late Queen Victoria. No doubt this gave him some claim to notice in England.

We have seen that in the year when Mackenzie returned from the Pacific coast expedition he sought to prepare the materials for giving to the world an account of his two great voyages. His cousin, Roderick McKenzie, had the pen of a ready writer, and it is generally believed that he gave him much help in preparing his journal. Others attach little importance to this suggestion, inasmuch as the journal, being very much of the nature of a log, shows little literary merit. Going to England, arrangements were at once made for its publication.

The book [Voyages from Montreal on the River St. Lawrence, through the Continent of North. America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans: in the years 1789 and 1793.] appeared in 1801, and obtained a very favourable reception. From the time of old John Hakluyt, the Puritan prebendary of St. Paul's Cathedral, who made a collection of English aria other voyages, the English people have dearly loved books of travel. From the Earl of Selkirk's own lips we learn that it was this book which first called his attention to Rupert's Land, and led him to lay the foundation of his colony on the Red River.

A great tribute to Sir Alexander Mackenzie's work comes from an unexpected quarter. William Mackenzie, of Gairloch, an old friend of Sir Alexander, wrote in 1856 a very interesting letter to Sir Alexander's son, the heir of Avoch. It is given to me by the family, though it once before appeared in the appendix of one of R. M. Ballantyne's smaller works. It is as follows:-

"Leamington, May 24th, 1856.

When in Stockholm in 1824, Lord I3lootnfield, our minister there, did me the honour of presenting me to the king - Bernadotte, father of the present king of Sweden. At the king's special request the audience was a private one, and I was further especially requested to oblige by coming in my full Highland dress. The audience lasted fully an hour. Such an interest did Napoleon's first and most fortunate marshal take in everything which was Highland, not even the skean dhu escaped him, etc., etc. I now come to your family portion of the audience.

"As we chatted on, (old Bernadotte, leaning upon my o'keachan, claymore) he was pleased to say, in that suaviter in modo, for which his eagle eye so fitted him, 'Yes, I repeat it—you Highlanders are deservedly proud of your country and your forefathers, and your people are a race apart, distinct from all the rest of Britain in high moral as well as martial bearing, and long, I hope, may you feel and show it outwardly by this noble distinction in dress. But allow me to observe, sir, that in your family name and in the name Mackenzie there is a very predominant lustre, which shall never be obliterated from my mind. Pray are you connected in any way with Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the celebrated North American traveller, whose name and researches are immortalized by his discoveries in the Arctic Ocean and of the river which since then does honour to his name?'

"I informed His Majesty that as a boy I had known him well, and that our families and his were nearly connected. This seemed to give tale still greater favour with him, for familiarly putting his hand on my shoulder brooch, he replied that, on that account alone, his making my acquaintance gave him greater satisfaction. He then proceeded to tell Lord Bloomfield and me how your father's name had become familiar to him and so much valued in his eyes.

"He said that at one time Napoleon had arranged to distract the affairs of Britain by attacking her in her Canadian possessions ; not by a direct descent upon them, but by a route which would take England quite by surprise and prove infallible. That route was to be of the Mississippi, Ohio, etc., up to our Canadian border lakes. For this arrangements were to be made with America—New Orleans occupied as a pied-a-terre by France, etc.

"'The organization and command of this gigantic enterprise,' as Bernadotte said, `was given to me by the Emperor with instructions to make myself master of any work which could bear upon it, and the facilities the nature of the country afforded. Foremost among these the work of your namesake (Sir Alexander Mackenzie) was recommended, but how to get at it, with all communication with England interdicted, all knowledge of English unknown to us, seemed a difficulty not easily to be got over. However, as every one knows, my then master, L'Empereur, was not the man to be overcome by such small difficulties. The book, a huge quarto, was procured through smugglers, and in an inconceivably short space of time most admirably translated into French for my especial use. I need hardly add with what interest I perused and reperused that admirable work till I had made myself so thoroughly master of it that I could almost fancy myself (this he said laughing heartily) taking your Canada en revers from the tipper waters, and ever since I have never ceased to look upon the home and think of the author with more than ordinary respect and esteem.'

"After a short pause and a long-drawn breath, almost amounting to a sigh, accompanied by a look at Bloomfield and a most expressive `Ah, mi lord, que des chanzgements depuis ccs, jours-la!' Bernadotte concluded by saying that the Russian campaign had knocked that of Canada on the head until Russia was crushed, but it had pleased God to ordain it otherwise—'et viaintenant vie voila Roi de Suede' (his exact words as he concluded these compliments to your father). So much for old recollections of my sunny days of youth.

"Yours faithfully,

"Wm. Mackenzie " (Gairloch)

"To George Mackenzie, Esqre.,
" Avoch. "

Miss Mackenzie, of Fortrose, the granddaughter of Sir Alexander, sends word to the writer:--"We have the French edition of Sir Alexander Mackenzie's travels, on which the following is written in an old hand, 'Napoleon's copy from St. Helena.' It is also stamped with the French eagle. This book contains an engraving of Lawrence's portrait of Sir Alexander, and also a map, showing his travels in 1789." This copy was sent to the Mackenzie family by an old friend from the continent.

Another notable circumstance in the life of the successful explorer was his acquaintance in Canada with the Duke of Kent, the father of our late Queen Victoria. The duke had, in 1792, and for a few years afterwards, been stationed in Canada and Nova Scotia, and becoming acquainted with Alexander Mackenzie had Honoured him with his favour, and had afterwards kept up a correspondence with the fur trader. After coming to Britain Sir Alexander was further honoured in being at times a travelling companion of the duke.

Nov that Alexander Mackenzie had become famous as the writer of so valuable and interesting an account of his voyages, and had the favour of one so high in the affairs of state as the Duke of Kent it was not surprising that the honour of knighthood should be conferred by the king on the modest and courageous explorer.

Honoured by royalty, appreciated by the English public, and, as we have seen, known upon the continent as a successful explorer who had written a history of the fur trade, we can readily imagine that on his visit to Montreal in the year after the publication of his work he was received with open arms by the citizens. The opponents of Simon McTavish, and all discontented souls were ready to welcome him as a rival to the heady old Marquis.

He was immediately put at the head of the X.Y. Company, which he had formerly secretly aided, and which sometimes bore the name of the new North-West Company. His prestige and influence at this time may be seen in the fact that this company was very often spoken of as "Sir Alexander Mackenzie & Co." The vigour of the little company under the new leader stirred up the old "Emperor" at Montreal, and in 1802 he reorganized the North-West Company after a most marvellous fashion. He not only extended the agencies of the fur company to the South Saskatchewan and the Missouri, but also rented the "posts of the king," as the trading-stations on the lower St. Lawrence were called, and actually carried the war into Africa against the Hudson's Bay Company by establishing Nor'-West posts on Hudson Bray—a thing utterly unheard of in North-West Company annals.

The zeal inspired in the old company by its master mind was amazing, and no doubt the bold policy of Le Marquis would have come out victorious, but in 1804 Simon McTavish died, all his projects fell to the ground, the obstacles to union of the two Canadian companies were removed, and the breach, which had extended from 1796 to 1804, was healed. The intense rivalry now ended, the degrading methods of plying the Indians with strong drink were repressed, and an impulse to trade was given, as seen in the building of new forts, notably Fort Gibraltar, on the site of the present city of Winnipeg in the year after the union. The new fort at the mouth of the Kanimistiquitt, built a year or two before this happy union, but never christened, was now Fort William, named after the Hon. William McGillivray, a noted man in the old company.

Sir Alexander Mackenzie was not only a leader in the fir trade, but his abilities called for his recognition in the public affairs of Lower Canada. He was chosen representative in the legislative assembly by the English-speaking county of Huntingdon; but parliamentary affairs were not to his taste, and he soon resigned his new honours and position, and in 1808 returned to Scotland to take up his abode there, and spend his remaining years, though he had only reached the age of forty-five.

The old trader, although retired from the atmosphere of beaver and pelts, still took an interest in the fur trade. In the year 1811 Lord Selkirk, a British nobleman, undertook his scheme of emigration to the banks of the Red River, and in order to do so purchased a large quantity of stock in the Mid-son's Bay Company. This scheme was strenuously opposed by Sir Alexander Mackenzie, who had purchased a sufficient quantity of the stock to take part in the company's affairs. When the first ship with Lord Selkirk's emigrants was leaving Stornoway for America, it is stated by Niles Macdonell, the commander, that strong and unfair opposition was offered to the departure of the colonists. Mr. Reid, collector of customs at Stornoway, did all in his power to thwart the emigration movement by sowing discontent in the minds of the settlers. Inasmuch as the collector's wife was an aunt of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, it was natural that it should be said that this opposition was inspired by the retired explorer himself.

In the year after this affair (1812) Sir Alexander's marriage took place. Geddes Mackenzie, who became his wife, was one of the most beautiful and gifted of Scottish women. She was of the blood of the clan whose name she bore:

"McKenneth, great Earl of the North,
The Lord of Loch Carron, Glensheil and Seaforth,"

and was a true scion of the clan whose leader fought for James IV at Flodden, Queen Mary at Langside, and James II, who created Mackenzie Marquis of Seaforth and Earl of Mar in 1715. This clan raised the 72nd and 78th Highland regiments. "Geddes Mackenzie's grandfather was Captain John Mackenzie of Castle Leod, who married his cousin, and purchased the property of Avoch in Inverness-shire; her father was George, a prosperous merchant of London, and he was the last Mackenzie of Gruinard. She was also a close relative of the Mackenzies of Gairloch.

Miss Geddes Mackenzie brought with her the property of Avoch in her own right, and this was after their marriage transferred to Sir Alexander. To them there were born two sons and one daughter. The eldest was Alexander George, born February 14th, 1818, and the daughter bore her mother's name, Geddes. Alexander George was the father of the present George Mackenzie, of London, of Alexander Isabel and Geddes Margaret, unmarried sisters, who live at the Deanery, Fortrose, and two other sons.
After his marriage Sir Alexander took much interest in agriculture in the neighbourhood of his property, and his grandson says: "On his return to Avoch lie carried out many real improvements in the neighbourhood, building the wall which now protects the road between Avoch and Fortrose from the sea, and laying down an oyster bed in the Bay of Munlochy, which was worked successfully for many years.

Very unexpectedly, on March 12th, 1820, Sir Alexander Mackenzie died. Returning home from a journey to London he was taken ill in the coach at Mulnain in Perthshire, and died there. The body was taken on to Avoch, and buried in the family enclosure in the churchyard.

Thus suddenly his career was closed at the age of fifty-seven. His wife survived him forty years.


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