- Historic Sites
First By Land
The river that disappointed him bears his name, but Alexander Mackenzie’s great achievement in slogging to the Pacific is now almost forgotten.
October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
After nearly two weeks they reached a river called the Bella Coola by the local Indians, and from this friendly people Mackenzie was able to borrow a canoe and several braves. From village to village they hurried down the swift stream. On July 19, Mackenzie came upon a village of six houses built on palisades 25 feet high; when he climbed up to chat with the inhabitants, he could see the river emptying in the distance into a narrow blue-green arm of the sea.
In the morning the Bella Coola Indians were fearful of going with them further, for they probably were afraid of the warlike tribes who lived along the coast. Finally, however, two young Bella Coola braves went along to guide them in a large canoe. By 8 A.M. that day Mackenzie must have tasted the heady saltiness of the water, though the mouth of the channel was still out of sight.
They spent the night uneventfully on the shore of the channel, although the two Bella Coolas were extremely nervous and one of them actually deserted. The next morning they paddled onward many miles down the inlet (today called Dean Channel) without getting clear of the maze of inlets and islands. Mackenzie, satisfied that he had reached the sea, and worried by the low state of his provisions, decided that he should settle upon a good place from which to take his final astral readings, and then return immediately.
Just then three canoes bearing fifteen Indians approached them fearlessly and pulled alongside to study the explorer. Their leader, in a hostile manner, repeatedly informed Mackenzie that a white man named “Macubah” had come in a “large canoe” and fired upon him and his friends not long before. (Captain George Vancouver had been along that coast in a British vessel several weeks earlier.)
His behavior was most threatening, and Mackenzie, outnumbered, dared not risk a fight in the open. He ordered his men to paddle on toward a ruined village on shore where he hoped to take up a good defensive position, but the hostile Indians followed him and were joined by still other canoes. When they landed, the Europeans were surrounded by some fifty sullen warriors who loafed about, insolently poking and prying into their possessions. Finally they left toward sundown, not having mustered up enough anger to start a fight.
After an uneasy night, the voyageurs were anxious to depart, but Mackenzie wanted to spend an entire day double checking his navigation. His men begged and pleaded with him to let them get out at once, and the young Bella Coola Indian was so frantic that he actually foamed at the mouth. “Though I was not altogether free from apprehensions on the occasion,” Mackenzie later noted in his driest possible British manner, “it was necessary for me to disguise them. My reply was … that I would not stir till I had accomplished my object.”
In between his observations of the sun, Mackenzie melted some animal grease and mixed vermilion pigment in it; then on the face of a commanding rock he inscribed the words: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.” (The grease paint rapidly disappeared, but in our own century the place and the very rock have been relocated and identified.) At ten o’clock that night, when he had timed the emersion of the first satellite of Jupiter, he told the men he had finished his job; despite the darkness and their fatigue, the canoe was launched within minutes and the paddlers were speeding the frail craft up the channel with greedy strokes.
All night they continued, and shortly after dawn they landed near the village of the young Bella Coola Indian, who jumped out and ran for home.
Mackenzie followed swiftly, to see what the Indian was up to, but as he burst into a clearing before the stilt-legged houses, the Scotsman was set upon by two formerly friendly Bella Coolas carrying daggers. He raised his gun and they stood fast, while others joined them. The mystery was soon clear: their leader was none other than the coastal chieftain who had spoken about “Macubah,” and who had evidently come here in the meantime to stir up trouble. Slowly the Indians encircled Mackenzie, and then one leaped upon him. The explorer jerked himself free, expecting to kill one or two before being slain, but at this moment one of his men emerged from the woods, and the Indians took flight, idiotically climbing up into their houses.
Assembling his men, Mackenzie, more angry than fearful, determined to frighten the Bella Coolas so that there would be no recurrence of the incident. With guns primed, he marched his men to the houses and ordered the young Bella Coola Indian down. When he descended, Mackenzie demanded the return of his hat and cloak and other articles which had been stolen in the scuffle plus a quantity of fish—yet true to his nature, he paid for the fish in goods. The Indians, thoroughly cowed, were vastly relieved to see him and his men pile into the canoe and paddle off eastward.
With this, the worst was over. On the return voyage, being lightly laden and familiar with the route, they sped along, passing from tribe to tribe in comparative peace. The several depots of buried food were in perfect order, the newly built canoe was waiting for them where they had left it, and the terrible portage at the Peace River Canyon, where they had cut their road over a mountain, was still in good condition.