On 22 July 1793 explorer Alexander Mackenzie reached the Pacific Ocean from Canada by land in the first crossing of the North American continent – a remarkable achievement. He was born in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in 1764 and, ten years later after the death of his mother, Mackenzie’s father took him to New York. In 1778, and as a result of the American War of Independence, he was sent to Montréal for schooling. It was there that, a year later, he commenced working for the fur-trading firm of Finlay and Gregory. He became a partner of the firm in 1784, and was put in charge of the fur-trading post at Ile-La-Crosse from 1785 to 1787.
When the firm joined the North West Company, which emerged as the Hudson’s Bay Company’s main rival in the fur trade, Mackenzie became a partner in the NWC and was sent to another post, on the Athabasca River, as second-in-command. It was at this post that Mackenzie’s interest in exploring the land was first awakened. He went on several excursions around the river, and founded, together with Peter Pond (another partner in the NWC), Fort Chipewyan.
Mackenzie launched a second expedition in 1792, departing on a 25 foot long birch bark canoe together with his lieutenant, several so-called Voyageurs, and two Indians whom he took to serve as interpreters. Winter temporarily put a stop to their journey, but the group continued west in the spring, crossing the continental divide. They eventually reached Bella Coola Valley on 17 July 1793, from where they went further west in search of the ocean. The group was prevented to reach it by some natives at what is now known as Mackenzie’s rock – a rock Mackenzie inscribed with ‘Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the 22nd of July 1793’.
Mackenzie’s expedition is the first documented crossing of North America – and one that was accomplished more than a decade before the much larger, government-supported, Lewis and Clarke expedition. Mackenzie was knighted in 1802 for his achievement.