Mackenzie Reaches the Arctic Ocean

Alexander Mackenzie, searching for an inland water route to the Pacific Ocean, instead found a river that took him to the Arctic coast of North America. This journey, as well as a subsequent trek across the Rocky Mountains, convinced Mackenzie that there was no commercially viable overland route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

Summary of Event

At the close of the eighteenth century, three hundred years after European discovery of the North American North America;exploration continent, very little was known of the geography of its western reaches. Both commercial interests and empire builders wanted to find a water route across the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The British government had offered a prize of £20,000 to the first person to discover such a passage. [kw]Mackenzie Reaches the Arctic Ocean (July 22, 1793)
[kw]Ocean, Mackenzie Reaches the Arctic (July 22, 1793)
[kw]Arctic Ocean, Mackenzie Reaches the (July 22, 1793)
Arctic expeditions
[g]Canada;July 22, 1793: Mackenzie Reaches the Arctic Ocean[3110]
[g]United States;July 22, 1793: Mackenzie Reaches the Arctic Ocean[3110]
[c]Exploration and discovery;July 22, 1793: Mackenzie Reaches the Arctic Ocean[3110]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;July 22, 1793: Mackenzie Reaches the Arctic Ocean[3110]
Mackenzie, Sir Alexander
Pond, Peter
Hearne, Samuel

It was well known that on the eastern side of the continent, the rivers that flowed west from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River had sources close to those of the rivers emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Geographers theorized that a similar arrangement of river systems existed for the west; therefore, it should be possible to discover a transcontinental waterway. This theory was supported by information garnered by explorers. Samuel Hearne, the first European to travel north across the continent to the Arctic coast, reported that there were mountains in the West beyond which all rivers flowed to the Pacific.

In 1787, a twenty-three-year-old, Scottish-born fur trader, Alexander Mackenzie, traveled west from Montreal to a remote North West Company North West Company post in what is now northern Alberta. There, at Fort Chipewyan, he met a veteran of the wilderness, Peter Pond.

Pond had spent more than a decade as a fur trader in the northern prairies and had a better-than-average understanding of the geography of the region. He shared with Mackenzie his knowledge of a great river flowing west from Great Slave Lake. Pond had not traveled this river himself and most likely learned of it from the Native Americans with whom he traded. Pond speculated that the Rocky Mountains ended well south of the Arctic coast, and that this great river, therefore, emptied into the Pacific Ocean.

On June 3, 1789, Alexander Mackenzie set off from Fort Chipewyan to find and follow this river to its mouth. His party included a German, four voyagers and two of their wives, three Chipewyan Chipewyans Indian men, and two Indian women. Serving as guide and translator was the leader of the Chipewyans, Aw-gee-nah, whom the Europeans called English Chief.

From Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca, this small party descended the Slave River in four birchbark canoes. Nearly a week later, they reached Great Slave Lake and found it too icy for them to proceed by canoe. They portaged along the southwest shore of the lake for twenty days and found the entrance to the “Big River” on June 29, 1789.

At first the river flowed west, raising hopes that they would soon reach the Pacific, but then its course turned north and continued in that direction. Mackenzie realized that this was not the route he wanted and wrote in his journal that “it was evident that these waters emptied themselves into the Hyperborean Sea [Arctic Ocean].”

Rain, cold, and mosquitoes plagued the expedition. Native Americans whom they met along the way (first Slave and Dogrib, later Loucheaux and Hare) reported that it would take several years to reach the ocean. They told tales of dangerous waterfalls, monsters, murderous Inuit, and a shortage of game downstream. A Dogrib man was unwillingly employed to guide the party. He was extremely fearful and repeatedly tried to escape. By July 10, Mackenzie’s companions were so discouraged that they begged him to turn back, and he promised to do so if they did not reach the ocean within a week.

On July 12, 1789, the party came to what they thought was another large lake covered with ice. They camped on an island in the mouth of the river and were awakened the next day by the rising tide. Soon afterward, they noticed beluga whales in the water and knew then that they had reached the Arctic Ocean.

The return trip upstream was even more difficult than had been the one downstream, often requiring a great deal of walking while towing the canoes. Although members of the party saw many Inuit campsites throughout the river delta, they encountered no Inuit. Through English Chief, Mackenzie encouraged the natives he met to begin trading Trade;fur beaver, marten, and other furs. He continued to inquire about a great river flowing west beyond the Rocky Mountains. The reports he received were that such a river existed, but that it was protected by giants and other monsters.

Mackenzie soon realized that English Chief, in his desire to conclude the journey, was withholding information. This led to an argument between Mackenzie and English Chief, in which the latter threatened to leave the expedition. Realizing he could not continue without his guide and interpreter, Mackenzie was forced to back down. They reached Fort Chipewyan on September 12, 1789. They had traveled more than 3,000 miles by canoe and on foot in 102 days.

The discovery of the Mackenzie River, Mackenzie River, Northwest Territories, Canada
Northwest Territories, Canada as it is now called, received scant notice at the annual meeting of the North West Company traders the following year at Grand Portage. Mackenzie prepared to undertake another exploration. After a sojourn in England to study surveying and navigation, Mackenzie mounted an expedition across the Rocky Mountains Rocky Mountains and down the Fraser River, which he mistakenly thought was the Columbia River. The group then proceeded on foot to the Bella Coola River and the Pacific Ocean, arriving there on July 22, 1793.

The route traversed steep ridges and dangerous cataracts. Food was difficult to obtain, and the single large canoe with which the expedition started the journey was smashed on rocks in the white water of the Fraser River. Mackenzie had made it to the Pacific Ocean, but his journey did not present obvious opportunities to expand the fur trade. Mackenzie left Fort Chipewyan and retired from the North West Company the following year.


Mackenzie’s voyages greatly increased knowledge of the geography of the West, and for this he was knighted by King George III. His journals, which were published in 1801, may have provided the United States Congress and President Thomas Jefferson with the impetus to fund the Lewis and Clark expedition Lewis and Clark expedition, lest the territory of the West be lost to Great Britain.

Although Alexander Mackenzie was the first European known to travel from east to west across the North American continent, his experience helped prove that no commercially viable overland route existed. A dozen years later, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark confirmed this finding. Mackenzie referred to the river that bears his name as the River of Disappointment and considered it to have little commercial potential. It was not until years later that the Mackenzie River became a primary route of travel and commerce between the Subarctic and the Arctic. The search for a Northwest Passage Northwest Passage to Asia shifted back to the Arctic waters abandoned two centuries earlier.

Further Reading

  • Allen, John L. “To Unite the Discoveries: The American Response to the Early Exploration of Rupert’s Land.” In Rupert’s Land: A Cultural Tapestry, edited by Richard C. Davis. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1988. Analysis of the relationship between Mackenzie’s explorations and the funding of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
  • Francis, Daniel. Discovery of the North: The Exploration of Canada’s Arctic. Edmonton, Alta.: Hurtig, 1986. Chapter 3 discusses the explorations of Hearne and Mackenzie.
  • Gough, Barry M. First Across the Continent: Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997. Comprehensive biography, portraying Mackenzie as an intrepid explorer and practical businessman, with a large ego and a talent for self-promotion.
  • Hayes, Derek. First Crossing: Alexander Mackenzie, His Expedition Across North America, and the Opening of the Continent. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2001. Uses journals by Mackenzie and other eighteenth century explorers to chronicle Mackenzie’s voyage across North America. Includes drawings, photographs, and maps.
  • McGoogan, Ken. Ancient Mariner: The Arctic Adventures of Samuel Hearne, the Sailor Who Inspired Coleridge’s Masterpiece. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004. Accessible, comprehensive biography, recounting Hearne’s exploration of northern Canada, his relations with the Inuits, and his participation in the fur trade.
  • Mackenzie, Alexander. Voyages from Montreal on the River St. Laurence Through the Continent of North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in the Years 1789 and 1793. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1966. Facsimile edition of the explorer’s 1801 description of the fur trade and his travels.
  • Newman, Peter C. Caesars of the Wilderness. Vol. 2 in Company of Adventurers. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. Rich description of the history of the fur trade in Canada. Chapter 3 is devoted to Mackenzie.
  • Nuffield, Edward W. Samuel Hearne: Journey to the Coopermine River, 1769-1772. Vancouver, B.C.: Haro Books, 2001. Uses Hearne’s journal of his voyage as the basis for a re-creation of his trip across northern Canada.
  • Sloan, W. A. “Aw-gee-nah (English Chief).” In Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 6. Edited by Francess G. Halpenny. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987. Brief but comprehensive discussion of the available information on Mackenzie’s guide.

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