First By Land

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The most momentous event in the geographical history of the North American continent, aside from its discovery, was the first complete crossing of it from coast to coast—a feat that was three centuries in the doing. This epochal achievement first confirmed the guesses of civilized man about the breadth and structure of the continent and led directly to the opening up of the West. Yet millions of Americans—indeed, most of us—know neither the date it was done nor the name of the man who did it.

Contrary to popular belief, it was neither Lewis nor Clark. Eleven years before they set out on their famous expedition—when Clark was still a young lieutenant fighting Indians on the Ohio River frontier and Lewis was a teen-age youth in Virginia—the man who would first conquer the continent was already on the last lap of his trip, paddling up an unknown river in western Canada two thousand miles beyond the frontiers of civilization.

He was Alexander Mackenzie, a thirty-year-old Scotsman in the fur trade. Mackenzie was attempting to breach the fabled Rockies, thread his way through the unknown rivers, chasms, and forests of the West, and slip unharmed through more than six hundred miles of savage-infested wilderness. He expected to accomplish this with a total expeditionary force of nine canoemen and himself, equipped with several rifles, one birchbark canoe, and three thousand pounds of food, clothing, and trading gifts. Mackenzie was one of that long-vanished breed of explorers who need nothing of civilized man’s benefits except his spirit.

Civilized man himself was, in that year 1793, established firmly only along the Atlantic coast and up the river valleys of the East. He knew little of the vast central plains, and the soaring uplands of the West were a white blank on his maps. But one leathery, hardbitten type had explored many hundreds of miles beyond the comfortable houses and streets of Montreal and Detroit. This was the fur trader, who dared to live among the Indians and barter for the pelts that Europe was so eager to buy.

The men of the North-West Company (the major competitor of the Hudson’s Bay Company) had learned to travel in Indian fashion, and so had been able without roads, wagons, or horses to push deep into the continent. Via the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, and thence by canoe through a tangled network of rivers, lakes, and forest portages, they gradually probed into the primeval wilderness of central Canada. In this great unknown they built a slender chain of tiny forts, which, by 1793, lay strung three-quarters of the way across the continent.

Alexander Mackenzie was one of these men. Born in Scotland, he came to America as a youth to make his fortune and worked for five years at a fur trader’s accounting desk in Montreal. Then he broke away from the countinghouse and went into the back country; here he toughened his body and mastered the skills of the explorer and fur trader. Soon he began pushing beyond the boundaries of the known trading area, trying to find new tribes and new river routes to the untapped regions.

Such exploring meant sleeping on the ground in freezing weather, living in filthy buckskins for months at a time, suffering the torments of fleas and mosquitoes, and enduring an almost suffocating loneliness with only illiterate Indians and French-Canadian voyageurs for companionship. Mackenzie himself later referred, in his laconic Scottish manner, to “the many tedious and weary days, the gloomy and inclement nights, and the toilsome exertions” of his explorations.

Ostensibly, profit was his motive; a man could become rich in a decade of fur trading if he survived it and if he kept bringing in the pelts. But there was more to it than potential profit. For, once the idea had seized him of being the first man to complete the crossing of the continent, it would not let him go. He gradually and hopelessly fell in love with it, as men in all ages have fallen in love with the idea of discovering something still unknown to the rest of mankind.

In 1789 Mackenzie finally launched himself and a small party of canoemen on a broad river that flowed west from Great Slave Lake, hoping it would carry him to the Pacific. He knew little of navigation, and when the river veered northward, he was unable to reckon how far off course he was going. Fifteen hundred miles later, he and his men found themselves canoeing along the shores of the Arctic Ocean, with the huge bulk of Alaska still between them and the Pacific.

Bitterly disappointed, he returned to his trading post in central Canada, but the dream would not leave him in peace. In 1791 he made the long, hard trip back to Montreal and thence to London, where he privately studied astronomy and navigation until he felt ready; the next year he came back to Canada and journeyed again to the trading regions, moving on from fort to fort, and finally pushing hundreds of miles beyond the last of them to build himself a new outpost in which to pass the winter.