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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Sir Alexander McKenzie


Chapter IX - First to the Pacific and Return

ON June 23rd the famous party having decided to descend the Tacouche Tesse or Nechaco (Fraser) River no further, prepared to ascend the river until they reached the newly-decided course by which they would proceed by land to the Pacific Ocean. Just as the party was ready to depart the guide proposed to save time by crossing by land to his lodge, and then to meet the party farther up the river. Mackenzie did not relish the proposal, thinking it merely a plan of the guide to desert the party. The leader was helpless to prevent the course suggested, and so the guide and his people departed by land.

Rumours and suspicions now haunted the minds of Mackenzie and his followers. It was said hostile Indians were likely to beset their way, and they were thrown on their guard. The explorer deemed it best to stay for a time at their encampment, which they named Deserter's Creek.

While waiting here a peculiar incident happened. The explorer was awakened at midnight by a rustling noise in the forest and the barking of dogs. Later on the sentinel announced to the leader that he saw a human being creeping along on all fours about fifty paces above the camp. This was thought at first to be a bear, but proved to be an old man, blind and infirm, who had been left behind by the Indians, and had lain hidden and without food for two days. This strange prisoner was obstinate and somewhat knowing. He was, as the party moved slowly up the river, taken with them by force, and at last after efforts to escape was left by his own request on Canoe Island, being provided with a supply of food. As long as the old man was with Mackenzie he proved through his restlessness and cunning a veritable, "old man of the sea."

Mackenzie's canoe had now become so leaky that steps to repair it became necessary. On the twenty-eighth of the month the work of building another canoe was undertaken. Different parties were sent into the woods in search of bark, watape (the fine roots of the thorn used for serving the bark), and gum. After several failures at last the materials were provided. But now the foreman of the canoe-builders was very slow and half-hearted. Mackenzie berated him, telling him he knew he did not wish to go on with the journey. To his whole party, however, the brave explorer again declared that he would go at all hazards, even if he went alone, and he thus shamed his followers into action.

On .July 3rd the expedition reached the mouth of a small river, which he called the West Road River. This ran into the Nechaco from the west. The question now was whether to follow this river to the coast, or to ascend the great river further north before taking the westward direction. His followers on being called together in council decided to ascend the great river further. Their decision was wise, for during the day they saw two canoes approaching than from the north, and to their surprise and joy one of these contained the guide, who hid, as they supposed, deserted them, and six of his relatives. A painted beaver robe adorned the returning wanderer, and lie was made still more gorgeous by presents from Mackenzie, who was also liberal to the friends of the guide.

The Indians were of the 'Titre or Chipewvyan tribe, which is found from Lake Athabaska up the Peace River nearly to the Pacific coast. They were now bear the starting-place for the seaboard. Mackenzie and his Frenchmen allowed the Indians to go on ahead, and meanwhile took precaution to bury, under the ashes of their fire, supplies of pemmican, wild rice, a keg of gunpowder, and near by two bags of Indian corn, to await their return. Overtaking the advance guard, the party assembled and proceeded to build a stage on which to place their canoe, and a square enclosure of logs to contain all articles which might be left behind when they undertook their land journey.

All was now ready, and, heavily laden with food, arms, and ammunition, French-Canadians and Indians prepared for the long tramp, the leader taking as his share of the burden his astronomical instruments. The party started on short rations of two meals a day. Ascending a steep hill they trudged wearily westward, and halted at an Indian camp. This was twelve miles from the place of departure, and here they were joined by a number of Indians who were to accompany them.

Journeying steadily westward, meeting new Indians, and entering their houses; wearied by long and trying marches; seeing snow-capped mountains along the way; once or twice, though short of food, hiding pemmican along the trail for the return journey; and keeping up the spirits of his followers, now by fault-finding, now by persuasion, this born leader of men urged his way to the long-desired western sea.

As the travellers pushed on over their course, new scenes met them. The Indians increased in numbers, lived in better houses, and seemed to be in much better circumstances. At one point Mackenzie and Mackay were received by a chief in truly baronial style, every deference and consideration being shown them by this forest magnifico.

On July 18th a river was reached, and with canoes obtained from the thrifty natives the voyageurs returned to their native element, and were at home on the rushing river, with their faces towards the sea.

At one point the superstition of the Indians led them to bring their sick to Mackenzie. Some cases were beyond the explorer's skill, and he describes the orgies by which the medicine men sought to cure those patients afflicted by the most aggravated ulcerous wounds. When Mackenzie deigned to heal, his chief recourse was to Turlington's balsam, which he declared to be a safe remedy, especially when only a few drops in warm water were applied.

The explorer thus describes his visit to a great chief of the region, and we see readily that the Indians had far more intercourse with white traders on the Pacific seaboard than was generally supposed:

July 19th, 1793. "I paid a visit to the chief, who presented me with a roasted salmon ; he then opened up his chests, and took out of one of them a garment of blue cloth, decorated with brass buttons, and another of flowered cotton. These I supposed were Spanish. They had been trimmed with leather fringe after the fashion of their own cloaks. Copper and brass are in great estimation among them, and of the former they have great plenty. They point their arrows and spears with it, and work it up into personal ornaments, such as collars, ear-rings, and bracelets, which they wear on their wrists, arms, and legs. . . . They also have plenty of iron. I saw some of their twisted collars of that metal which weighed upwards of twelve pounds. . . They have various trinkets, but their manufactured articles consist only of poniards and daggers. Some of the former have very neat Handles, with a silver coin or a quarter or eighth of a dollar fixed on the end of them."

Mackenzie was about to take an observation to learn his whereabouts, but he was suddenly stopped by the chief, probably on some superstitious ground. His ready acquiescence in the chief's wishes was probably a benefit to the expedition, as it led to his being supplied with a canoe, fully equipped, in which he was able to pursue his voyage, accompanied by the young chief as a special mark of his favour.

Before leaving Mackenzie discovered that the chief had no fear of the instruments, except that he was apprehensive that they might drive the salmon from the river. He also pointed out the large cedar canoe, forty-five feet long, in which, ten years before, he had gone to the south with forty of his Indians, and had seen two large vessels filled with white men, who received him kindly. 'These were, no doubt, the ships under command of Captain Cook.

Under the guidance of the young chief the expedition went on its way down the river, the Bella Coolla, soon to find it difficult to navigate on account of the many channels into which the river divides. It now began to show the influence of the tides, and the Indian guides evinced a great disposition to desert the party, no doubt dreading the fierce natives they would soon encounter on the coast. Their stock of food was also well-nigh exhausted. Small mussels or anything eatable were regarded as valuable. Seeking shelter from the wind in the channels of the river, the party kept near the land, and here met three canoes with fifteen men in them. These Indians were rather aggressive. They examined with some forwardness the belongings of the white men, and assumed an air of indifference and disdain. One of them, indeed, was insolent, and declared that a large canoe had lately been in the bay, and that one of the men whole he called "Macubah" (Vancouver) had fired on him and his friends, and that "Bensins" (Johnstorie—Vancouver's lieutenant) had struck him on the back with the flat part of his sword. The insolent Indian then persuaded Mackenzie's Indians to leave him. A troublesome savage actually pushed his way into Mackenzie's canoe, and insisted on examining the explorer's hat and handkerchief.

Mackenzie now determined to land, but the attitude of the Indians led hire to think it well to take precautions for defence. Accordingly, in landing, the white men and servants took possession of a high rock. The people who had come in the first three canoes were the most troublesome, but in time they went away. The natives having left the party unmolested, the hungry voyageurs took such a meal as they could spare from their scanty viands. Lying don on the rock, which was little larger than was needed for their accommodation, the members of the expedition remained strictly on the defensive.

Mackenzie, now wishing to mark his visit, determined to make an inscription on the side of the good rock that had served him for defence. So he mixed a quantity of vermilion with melted grease, and wrote on the inland face of the rock: "Alexander Mackenzie from Canada by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three. Lat. 52° 20' 48" N"

It is rather a curious fact that one of Vancouver's ships was, on the very day of Mackenzie's arrival, anchored off Point Maskelyne on the coast, some two and a half degrees north of Mackenzie, at the point where one of Vancouver's lieutenants had fired upon a group of Indians, as referred to by the insolent native.

The proximity of Vancouver's force was unknown to Mackenzie, and so of no help to him. Not liking the situation on the top of the memorial rock, the explorer moved his camp three miles further away from the Indian village, to a retired cave on the coast. The conduct of the Indians and their thievish disposition annoyed him.

After having had some trouble with the young chief who accompanied him, the explorer deterI-rained to start on his return journey. Before doing so he took five astronomical observations, and worked out the longitude to be 128.2° W. He makes a remark as to Captain Meares, an explorer who had visited the Pacific coast in 1787-9, claiming that there was a practicable north-west passage south of 69.5° N. Mackenzie's first voyage showed the impossibility of this, and Vancouver's survey of the coast proved the absurdity of the contention.

Leaving the encampment -Mackenzie now moved with his followers towards the river, and came into the part of it since known as Mackenzie's Outlet. He soon had further evidence of the hostility of the Indians and found that it arose from the incitement of the Indian who constantly spoke of "Macubah" and "Bensins." One day one of the rascals seized Mackenzie from behind, but the stalwart leader shook him off. The approach of some of Mackenzie's followers caused a hasty retreat on the part of the assailants. Irritated by the forwardness of the Indians the explorer went to the village, and courageously demanded articles which they had stolen and a supply of fish. These demands were met, and the supplies were paid for. The exploring party designated the hamlet of these miserable beings, "the rascals' village."

On July 23rd the ascent of the river was begun on the return voyage. Much discontent, however, prevailed among the members of the party. They were irritated and tired by the hardships through which they had passed. But there was no help now for their condition. Having embarked they began their tedious journey by having to pull themselves up the rapid river by the branches of the overhanging trees.

After two days of fatiguing travel the party arrived at a village where the medical skill of the leader had been exerted upon the sick son of the chief. The youth had died and now the blame was being put upon Mackenzie. Signs of hostility were shown as the explorers approached the village. The chief sought to avoid the leader. Brought face to face with limn the old man threw a purse, which had been stolen from the whites, fiercely at Mackenzie. A gift of cloth and of knives, however, restored the peace Which had been broken. On the next day the party arrived at what they had called the "friendly village," and their treatment here was most kindly. Mackenzie gives a somewhat detailed account of the life and language of the friendly villagers.

Thus with stirring incidents the journey was continued, until, on August 13th, they reached the lofty mountains which all travellers see in coining from the coast to the Rockies, "perpendicular as a wall, and giving the idea of a succession of enormous Gothic churches." The mountains closely hemmed in the party. On the sixteenth the height of land was gained which separates the Columbia from the Peace River, and "on the following day," the narrator says, "we began to glide along with the current of time Peace River." While monotonous sameness the journey continued, the chief interruption being, as before, the portage de le Montagnne de Roche, though the killing of a buffalo there supplied time hungry travellers with a very acceptable change of food. For seven days they continued their descent of the eastern slope of the mountains until they reached the neighbourhood of the fort at the forks of the Peace River. In the words of the leader himself: "At length, as we rounded a point 'Enid came in view of time fort, we threw out a flag, and accompanied it with a general discharge of our firearms, while the men were in such spirits, and made such an active use of their paddles, that we arrived before the two men, whom we left here in the spring, could recover their sense to answer us. Thus we landed at four in the afternoon at the place which we left on May 9th. Here my voyages of discovery terminate. . . . I received, however, the reward of my labours, for they were crowned with success."

Mackenzie did not linger long at time Peace River fort, but hastened back to Fort Chipewyan, and the companionship of his cousin. He had been absent some eleven months in all, and passed the winter of 1793-4 in the solitudes of the north. Mackenzie's nervous system had been somewhat affected by the demands of the hard year of travel and anxiety. He made fitful attempts during the winter to write his journal, but the task was then too great for completion.

In the spring (1794) Alexander Mackenzie, now the successful leader of two great voyages, and the explorer of a vast region of new country, iii fact, the first to make the north-west passage by land, journeyed down to Grand Portage, and turned his back upon the upper country (pays d'en haut), never to see it again.


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