Alexander Mackenzie was born on Lewis, the largest of the Hebrides Islands that sit off Scotland’s west coast. Mackenzie came to the American colonies in the 1770s with his family. His brothers joined the King’s Royal Regiment of New York to fight against the American Revolutionary armies, but young Alexander was sent to live with aunts in the Mohawk Valley. Loyalists, the supporters of the British, were pushed further into Canada, and Mackenzie was sent to school in Montreal.
In 1779, Mackenzie, still a teenager, joined the fur trading company of Finlay and Gregory, which later became Gregory, McLeod and Company or “Little Company.” When the North West Company was formed in 1783-84, competition pushed company outposts further and further west. In 1785, Mackenzie was appointed to a distant trading outpost in Grand Portage, now in the state of Minnesota. Eventually, his “Little Company” became a partner of the North West Company, amalgamating in 1787.
Mackenzie became the leader of an expedition of exploration that would take him to the Arctic Ocean in 1789. He was awarded two of the North West Company’s twenty shares upon his return. He took a second expedition to the Pacific in 1793. Although he was the first European to travel overland in northern North America to the Pacific and his party did not suffer a single casualty on the expedition, he felt his accomplishments were overlooked. He continued his work in the fur trade as an agent in Montreal. In 1801, he published 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: with a Preliminary Account of the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Fur Trade of That Country. He decided to leave Canada, in spite of being elected to the House of Assembly of Lower Canada in 1804. He returned to Scotland in 1805, married in 1812, and lived with his wife Geddes in Inverness-shire until his death in 1820.