A young Scotsman engaged in the fur trade out of Montreal, Mackenzie made his epic journey across the continent without any of the governmental financial backing and support given to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. In 1787, he was assigned to the British North West Company’s fur trading post in what is now northern Alberta. Two years later, he led a small expedition north to the Great Slave Lake where he discovered the westward flowing river that now bears his name. To Mackenzie’s disappointment, he discovered that the river soon turned north and led to the Arctic Ocean rather than the Pacific.
The following year, he tried to reach the Pacific again. This time, he followed the Peace River west accompanied by a party of nine men. In June 1793, the expedition crossed the Continental Divide over an easily portaged pass of 3,000 feet. From there, they moved south down the Fraser River, which Mackenzie hoped was a tributary of the Columbia River. The Fraser River eventually proved impassable, however, and the expedition struck out overland to the west.
On this day in 1793, Mackenzie reached the Pacific Ocean across from what is today called Vancouver Island. Using a paint he concocted from grease and vermilion, he wrote on a rock: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.” With this inscription, Great Britain staked its first tenuous claim on the northwest.
Aside from the Spanish explorers who had previously crossed the comparatively narrow Mexican land mass, Mackenzie was the first Euro-American to cross the North American continent to reach the Pacific Ocean. Yet, he considered his achievement to be “at least in part a failure” because he had failed to find a passable commercial route. Mackenzie later returned to Scotland and never returned to Canada. Twelve years later, the discoveries he made on his “failed” voyage played a key role in President Thomas Jefferson’s decision to send Lewis and Clark on their two-year journey to the Pacific.