First By Land


On August 24, one month after starting back, and three and a half months after beginning this incredible trip, Mackenzie and his men rounded a turn on the Peace River and saw ahead their tiny palisaded home—Fork Fort, the winter outpost from which they had started in May. They broke out a flag and let off a fusillade of shots which brought the two caretakers rushing out to welcome them.

Mackenzie’s great dream had now been realized and his fever was quenched. Detesting the boredom, suffering, and toil he had willingly endured, he soon returned to Montreal and busied himself in the management end of the fur trade, while he relished the pleasures of elegant clothing, a fine house, and a gay social life. In 1801 he published the journals of his two expeditions and with their appearance the civilized world came to regard him as a celebrity. Honors were heaped upon him, and King George III knighted him in 1802. From 1805 on, Sir Alexander lived chiefly in Scotland, where he married in 1812 and lived as the Laird of Avoch until his death in 1820.

Today his Fork Fort is marked by a simple monument with a bronze plaque, but the Indian villages he slept in have long since vanished without a trace. The trails he followed have been obliterated by time and the weather, or overlaid by modern roads, and few men ever see the rock on which he painted his name. For ironically enough, it is not at the scene of his great triumph that his name has been immortalized, but in the northern part of Canada where he first wrongly followed a river to the Arctic Ocean.

There, a vast chunk of remote, unpopulated land is called the District of Mackenzie, and the mighty Mackenzie Mountains and the Mackenzie River border it on the west.

And that is a paradox indeed, for he himself had named the river not the Mackenzie, but the Disappointment. His disappointment has made his name immortal; his achievement is almost forgotten.