Sunday, April 15, 2018

Fur Trade Leader Donald Mackenzie Navigates Hells Canyon [otd 04/15]

Donald MacKenzie, ca. 1840s.
Chautauqua County Historical Society,
Westfield, New York.
On April 15, 1819, fur trade leader Donald Mackenzie reported his "successful" ascent of the Snake River through what is today called Hells Canyon: "The passage by water is now proved to be safe and practicable for loaded boats, without one single carrying place or portage; therefore, the doubtful question is set at rest forever. Yet from the force of the current and the frequency of rapids, it may still be advisable, and perhaps preferable, to continue the land transport."

Born in 1783 near Inverness, Scotland, Mackenzie emigrated to Canada in 1800. Shortly after that, Donald hired on as a clerk for the North West Company (NWC), a British-Canadian fur dealer. He had thus amassed considerable experience in the fur trade when John Jacob Astor [blog, Jul 17] recruited him as a Pacific Fur Company (PFC) partner in 1810.

The following year, Mackenzie crossed into Idaho for the first time, as a member of the Wilson Price Hunt party [blog, Oct 5]. Then that group split up. Donald led a small band that trekked from south-central Idaho, through the Boise Valley, and then north into Nez Percé country on the lower Salmon River.

Unfortunately, the War of 1812 ruined Astor's venture. Mackenzie was one of three British-Canadian partners who engineered the bargain-price sale of the PFC base at Astoria to the NWC. By exaggerating the threat posed by a British warship (which did not arrive for months after the transfer), they squelched any thought of moving the base further inland.

After dissolution of the PFC, Mackenzie had to find a new position. Astor at first blamed his losses on one of the other British-Canadian partners, so Mackenzie stayed on with him briefly. However, the two had a falling out when Astor learned more about Mackenzie's role in the sell-out. Since two of his brothers worked for the NWC, the Scot accepted a position with that firm.

Starting in 1816, the Company placed him in charge of the "Snake Brigade," a band of trappers and support personnel that worked the Snake River watershed. Although managers doubted that the venture would make much money, if any, Mackenzie soon proved the potential of the region. Profits for his 1817-1818 campaign were particularly fine.

At the start, Brigade operations were based at Astoria. Mackenzie decided they needed a staging area closer to their trapping grounds. Thus, in the summer of 1918, he and fellow-trader Alexander Ross built Fort Nez PercĂ© on the Columbia River several miles south of the mouth of the Snake. (About 25 miles west of today’s Walla Walla, Washington.)
Hells Canyon. U.S. Forest Service photo.

His goal in trying Hells Canyon was to avoid the arduous climb over Oregon's Blue Mountains. Still, Mackenzie admitted, "There are two places with bold cut rocks on either side of the river, where the great body of water is compressed within a narrow compass, which may render those parts doubtful during the floods."

"Doubtful" indeed! Today, Hells Canyon is considered a world class whitewater destination for kayakers and rafters. It includes at least two Class V (just short of lethal) rapids during high water. The mind boggles at the thought of traversing the canyon in clunky dugout canoes. And, as a matter of record, the fur companies never tried to ship supplies or pelts through the canyon.
References: [B&W]
James P. Ronda, Astoria and Empire, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1990).
Alexander Ross, Kenneth A. Spaulding (ed.), The Fur Hunters of the Far West, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman (1956).
John English (ed.), "Donald McKenzie," Dictionary of Canadian Biography, University of Toronto (2000).

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