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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Sir Alexander McKenzie


Chapter II - The Young Trader

WHY so many Scottish men of education, spirit, and daring found their way, after the conquest, to Canada, and especially to Montreal, is somewhat difficult to ascertain. Scotland is a rugged country, with a climate fitted to make a hardy race; it is very far from being a fertile country in the main; a large portion of its peopleŚlarger than at the present timeŚwere mountaineers, loving adventure and accustomed to the hardships of the heath and wood. It is thus possible that young and adventurous Scotsmen found in Canada a home in a northland, suited to their thought and liking.

Highland soldiers had clambered up the heights of Quebec, and the land seemed theirs by right of conquest. Some of the soldiers remained in Canada along the great St. Lawrence, while those who returned to their native valleys, as they told the tale of daring on the Plains of Abraham, and made "Evan's, Donald's fame ring in each clansman's ears," inspired the young and ambitious to seek out the land of the hunt and fur trade, and make it theirs.

Among those of better parts and respectability there came to the New World Alexander Mackenzie. According to the statement of his own family, lie was a native of Stornoway, in the island of Lewis on the west coast of Scotland, and not, as stated in the Encyclopwdia Britannica, of Inverness. He is said to have been a scion of the old Mackenzies of Seaforth, from whom Stornoway, with the whole island, of which it is the capital, passed years ago to its present proprietors, the Mathesons, of Achany and Ardross. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, young Mackenzie was born in the year 1755, but his grandson writes to the author that his grandfather was born in 1763. The future explorer had received a fair education, and being familiar with she sea, and finding the boatman's life attractive, was well fitted for the work of the fur trade, towards which he was drawn on his arrival in Montreal at the age of sixteen.

In 1779, on his arrival in Canada, the leaders of the fur trade were Simon McTavish and the brothers Frobisher. The two companies under these leaders represented the greater part of the capital and influence of the fur trade. There were, however, restless spirits among the traders who did not acknowledge the prevailing domination. Two Americans, Peter Pond and Peter Panglnan, the latter known as Bastonnais (i.e., the American), though possessed of little capital, were plotters of the first water. They succeeded in inducing the Montreal merchants, John Gregory, an Englishman, and Alexander Norman McLeod, a proud and aggressive Highlander, to unite in company and fight the strong monopolists led by McTavish.

With this nest of oppositionists Alexander Mackenzie allied himself. His keenness and daring at once attracted the attention of his employers, and his selection, after a very short experience, to lead a trading expedition to Detroit, on the lower lakes, was a remarkable example of confidence. It was no easy thing to conduct a trading party from Montreal to Detroit in those early days. The rapids of the St. Lawrence had to be faced and overcome, while the watercourses were the highways for the bands of Indians from the far west, who were rendered the more treacherous by the success of the American revolutionists.

Upper Canada, through which Mackenzie wended his way to the west, was still an uninhabited forest, for the United Empire Loyalist was only finding his way to his asylum of rest north of the lakes. Crossing the Niagara peninsula along the Niagara River, or leaving Lake Ontario at Fond du Lac, where the city of Hamilton now stands, portaging to the Grand River, and descending it to Lake Erie, the adventurous voyageurs then coasted the shallow lake and found their way to Detroit, their destination.

Detroit had been a favourite resort of the traders under the old French regime. It is said that at the time of the conquest there were some two thousand French-Canadians or their descendants living on the banks of the Detroit River. Some have questioned this statement inasmuch as within twenty-five years from that date, when young Mackenzie betook himself to Detroit, there were only seventy of these old French families. Either the former statement was incorrect, or else the migration of these borderers farther west to Michilimackinac and the shores of. Lake Michigan had been very large. The latter is the more likely explanation.

The counting-house experience of five years in Montreal, and a year's responsibility at Detroit fitted the young Scottish trader for undertaking what was the joy of every Nor'-Wrester, the journey to the far North_Wrest. Mackenzie was visited at Detroit by McLeod, the junior member of his house, and induced to leave quieter scenes behind and adventure himself in a land yet largely unknown to him.

Now raised to the dignity of a bourgois, [A partner or shareholder in the company.] (1785) Mackenzie set out for the land that was to make him famous. Passing Mackinaw and Sault Ste. Marie, the new leader entered the great Lake Superior, and coasting its northern shore, reached Grand Portage, of which he speaks with some interest.

Grand Portage was the cynosure of every fur trader, whether he were coming from the interior to the stormy Lake Superior, or going westward through the tipper lakes. To the imagination of the young fur trader Grand Portage made a strong appeal, just as it does even now to those acquainted with the old days of the fur trade.

It lies on a most unfrequented part of the north shore of Lake Superior, some forty miles southwest of Fort William, of which it was the predecessor. A few years ago the writer paid the lonely spot a visit. After being roved in a small boat by the keeper of a neighbouring lighthouse, in a dismal and dangerous night voyage, he reached this famous rendezvous of the old traders. The name of the place was taken from a nine-mile portage to avoid the rapids of the Pigeon River. Over the portage a wagon road was constructed, which may still be seen. A few sunken timbers only are left in the water to represent the warehouses and wharves of this once thronged and important place. These formerly faced a pretty bay made by a rocky islet standing out into the lake as a protection and shelter to it. On this island is now the dwelling of a solitary French fisherman, looking like a robber's keep. Besides the fisherman there is not a white man to be found for twenty miles. An Indian village occupies the site of Grand Portage. The village has a multitude of dogs, but neither wagon nor horse is known to be within many miles. Grand Portage was found, after the Treaty of Paris, to be on the American side of the Pigeon River, but was not given up for nearly twenty years after Mackenzie's first visit.

When Alexander Mackenzie arrived at Grand Portage it was in its glory. Five hundred men in the employ of the fur traders assembled there, those from the east who met no Indians lived on cured rations, and were called viangeurs de lard, or pork-eaters ; while the independent westerners were known as coureurs de Bois or wood-runners. Into this stronghold of the old company Mackenzie and his associates had now come, representing the Gregory interests, and with the fixed determination of winning a foothold in the heart of the great fur country which extended far to the north and west.

The vigorous, if not violent, member of the company, A. N. McLeod, remained in Montreal to manage the headquarters. The members of the determined little band divided up the great territory among them. The Red River district was apportioned to Duncan Pollock, a veteran trader, the far-off Athabaska was given to John Ross, the rich Saskatchewan to Bustonnais .Pangman, and the Churchill or English River to the young bourgeois, Alexander Mackenzie, who already showed evidences of a domninancy and influence by and by to become supreme. With the younger company were also associated James Finlay, son of the pioneer trader to the fur country, and Alexander Mackenzie's cousin, Roderick McKenzie, who became a well-known trader, and was the historiographer of the fur traders.

The practical talent and influence of the Mackenzies showed itself in the new organization. They laid it down as a principle that the best results from the fur trade were not to be gained by the two companies, even though they were rivals, being in a state of friction and conflict. Accordingly Alexander Mackenzie and his neighbouring bourgeois of the other company, P. Small, completed their successful winter's work by carrying their furs in company to Ile a la Crosse, making the river banks resound with their joyous songs. Roderick McKenzie had as his rival in the English River district one of the greatest men of the old company, William McGillivray, and they, too, after a good winter's trade carried in company their superabundant catches to the place of rendezvous.

Unfortunately this harmony did not prevail everywhere. Trader Ross had found as his rival Peter Pond, who had basely deserted Pangman, and returned to his old masters. Pond was a man of enormous energy. He had been the pioneer of the Athabaska district, but while the successful upholder of his own company, he was the terror of his rivals and the scourge of the peace-loving Indians of the Athabaska district. Five years before this time the desperate trader had, it was believed, been the cause of the death in the Athabaska country of a popular Swiss trader, M. Wadin, the agent of a rival company, and now Ross found a constant irritation being kept up between Pond's subordinates and his own. During the whole winter matters went from bad to worse, until in one of the actual quarrels of the two parties, Ross was unfortunately killed.

The brigades of the year, led by Alexander Mackenzie and others, had just left Ile h la Crosse to carry their cargoes to Grand Portage, when the sad news of the death of John Ross reached Roderick McKenzie, who had been left in charge of Ile a la Crosse, in the absence of the party en route for Lake Superior. McKenzie considered that the matter of Pond's violence, since it was the second occasion on which he had been charged with murder, was so serious that it was absolutely necessary that the partners at Grand Portage should know of it. Accordingly, in a light canoe manned by five voyageurs, he hastened unguided to the rendezvous` and made the painful journey in a month's time.

The news of the bloodshed in Athabaska filled the minds of the members of both companies In Grand Portage with dismay. All felt the words of the wise man to be true, that the " beginning of strife is as when one letteth out water," and this being Pond's second offence no one knew to what it alight grow, especially in the remote Indian territories. The matter was fully debated and canvassed among the traders, and it was decided that the union of the two companies was imperative. Accordingly the North-Wrest Company was established (1787) with a larger membership, and the three firms, headed by McTavish, Frobisher, and Gregory respectively, became the agents for the joint administration of affairs at Grand Portage and Montreal.

All eyes were turned upon the rising young trader, Alexander Mackenzie, as the man to meet the emergency in Athabaska. He alone was fitted "to bell the cat." While he was, under the united company, to act ostensibly in concert with the bloodthirsty Pond, yet the understanding was that he should take the supervision, as Pond's extravagant ideas had lost for him the confidence of the traders. Masson states that Mackenzie on going to the Athabaska district, had determined to follow the course of the Hudson's Bay Company, viz., to withdraw all posts from beyond Lake Athabaska, and compel the northern Indians to trade within the precincts of a well-organized fort built upon the lake. His fear of the influence of the Hudson's Bay Company, however, led him, on fuller consideration, to change his plans, and to push out agents even farther to the north than had yet been done.

In his administration of this northern district Alexander Mackenzie at once showed his surpassing ability. His surrender of preconceived opinion, and his adoption of the policy of expansion, showed him to be a man of observation and decision. The fact that he was a very young man was all in his favour in his new work. At twenty-four he had the energy of maturity and the adventurous instincts of youth. In a service such as that of the fur companies in a new country, overcaution, prejudice, and slavery to routine are deadly sins. When Simpson, a young man who had only spent a winter in the country, was chosen as governor of Rupert's Land, he succeeded because he had ability and had nothing to unlearn; so young Alexander Mackenzie proved his adaptability and his fitness for leadership.

Another mark of his foresight and good judgment was revealed in his selection of the localities which should serve as centres for future expansion. Thus early the thought of the explorer was directed to the two oceans, one to the north and the other to the west, as opening up a field for the largest speculation and enterprise.

Having decided to adopt the new policy of "advance," he selected Leroux and his party, who had been brought from Great Slave Lake, to return thither and to push the trade with vigour. Leroux not only did this, taking up a post on Great Slave Lake, but, finding the Indians indolent and careless about trade, he despatched a well-known Chipewyan leader known as the "English chief," to induce the northern Indians to come to his fort with their furs. Leroux also sent a sturdy Highland trader named Sutherland to visit distant tribes of Indians and win their good-will by a liberal distribution of presents. The good news spread far among the solitudes of the remote region beyond, so that in the following spring a large number of Indians from a lake far to the west, hitherto unknown to the traders, came to search out the lavish monarch of the northŚLeroux. The policy, open spirit, and attractive manner of Mackenzie were all found reflected in the whole body of his subordinates.

Another stroke of genius, also looking to the future, was his choice of a commanding position on Peace River, the great waterway flowing to Lake Athabaska from the west, a position which dominated even the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. To this point he despatched Boyer to found a fort and open trade on the route to the western sea. This he did at a spot where the Little Red River, a tributary from the south, flows into the Peace River.

It was the custom of the trading companies to give positions of trust only to men of ripe years and experience. Seldom was a man known to be promoted to a commissioned office while under forty years of age. That Alexander Mackenzie should be placed in charge of so difficult and important a district as Athabaska was an unheard-of thing, but it simply showed that this man, so Honoured at an early age, was destined to be one of the master blinds of the fur trade, though it is well to state that his sudden elevation did not free him from the jealousy afterwards manifested by some of the traders.


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