How did the first European explorers cross North America and reach the Pacific Ocean?

In 1803 Thomas Jefferson secretly appropriated funds for exploration of the upper portions of the Missouri River and from there westward to the Pacific, a region not yet under the sovereignty of the United States.

He asked his private secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and frontiersman William Clark to evaluate the territory for potential annexation, taking careful note of natural resources and trading opportunities.

Lewis and Clark did span the continent in 1805 and, because of their significant role in America’s westward expansion, many of us believe them to have been the first. Actually, Vasco Niniez de Balboa was the first European to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but he did so by crossing the narrow isthmus of Central America in 1513.

A yet lesser known figure who also preceded Lewis anClark was Alexander Mackenzie, who crossed Canada and reached the shores of the Pacific in 1793. This rugged Scotsman, one of a long line of fur traders, did it for wealth.

Sixteen-year-old Alexander Mackenzie came to Montreal in 1779. Ten years later he was in charge of Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca in what is now Alberta, and he was intent on finding the Pacific. A first voyage took him north to the Great Slave Lake and along the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean, but this cold, dangerous journey did not quell his spirit.

In October 1792 he headed west from Fort Chipewyan to the farthest outpost of the fur settlers on the Peace River. The following May he set out from there with seven English and French settlers, and two Indians to hunt and interpret for them. All squeezed into a single canoe, just 25 feet long on the inside (i.e., excluding the curved bow and stern,) and 4 feet, 9 inches across at the broadest part. In addition, they loaded up some 3,000 pounds of arms and ammunition, baggage and provisions. One can only speculate how accurate an idea they had then of what was to come.

Mackenzie’s ambition did not blind him to the wild beauty in which he found himself a lonely spectator. “This magnificent theatre of nature,” he wrote like a true romantic, “has all the decorations which the trees and animals of the country can afford it: groves of poplars in every shape vary the scene; and their intervals are enlivened with vast herds of elks and buffaloes.” Mackenzie not only noted the natural life around him, but areas alongside the Peace River where settlements might be made near the natural resources that would enable them to survive.

The canoe traveled virtually unharmed along the river to the foot of the Rockies, with some recaulking and occasional portages to get around rapids and falls. In swift currents where poling and paddling proved futile, the travelers unloaded provisions and towed the canoe.

Eventually the river became a torrent of white water coursing the steep slopes from the mountains ahead. Again they were forced to haul out the canoe and continue on foot. To drag the boat they felled two rows of trees, but did not sever them completely from the stumps, so that, thus bent over, the trunks formed a railing on either side. Several men belayed ropes attached to the canoe around successively higher stumps, while others went ahead blazing a rough path through the wilderness. They continued like this for three days, exhausting their energies, fortifying themselves each night with rice and sugar and rum.

After five weeks of journeying, in which they covered over 500 miles, they reached the Finlay River at the headwaters of many small streams. This was the great divide. Here they found small lakes and, along the shores, canoes, baskets, and fishnets belonging to Indians. Mackenzie helped himself to some of these, leaving a knife and beads as payment.

The stalwart group was now at the headwaters of the Fraser, a river that flows to the west. Mackenzie sent ahead some scouts to survey the waters, and they returned with ominous reports of boulders and frightful rapids.

The explorers portaged the first part of the stream, but when they finally launched the boat again, they were swept rapidly downstream, then thrown against a gigantic boulder that smashed the stern. Men and provisions were flung into the seething white water. Gulping for air, flailing about for a solid handhold, they swam and scrambled ashore while precious cargoes of food and ammunition drifted out of sight. Exhausted, but at least alive, they rescued the boat and set about repairing it.

Thereafter they continued on land, but huge fallen pines and dense undergrowth slowed their progress. At times they covered only a mile in five hours. When local Indians told Mackenzie of a path to the sea, now about 300 miles away (250 as the crow flies), he decided to hide the canoe and trek the remaining distance.

Thus they proceeded, with packs weighing up to 90 pounds, Mackenzie further burdened by his large telescope. In mid-July they encountered Indians who said white men had been there many years ago. Mackenzie decided these must have been Captain Cook and his men coming upstream from the Pacific in 1776. Mackenzie followed the Bella Coola River until at last on July 19 he sighted an inlet of the sea: Queen Charlotte Sound, north of Vancouver Island.

At Elcho Cove, on one of the channels leading into the sound, Mackenzie left an inscription written in vermilion and grease: ALEXANDER MACKENZIE, FROM CANADA, BY LAND, 22ND JULY 1793. Thereupon they turned around and went home, arriving safely at Fort Chipewyan a mere four months after they had left.