At age 17, after receiving a good education, Donald McKenzie immigrated to the Canadas to follow his brothers Roderick*, Henry*, and James* into the fur trade. In March 1801 he became a clerk in the North West Company. Little is known of his experience with this company, but by 1809 he was disgruntled enough to contemplate switching to the rival Hudson’s Bay Company, and he apparently collaborated with the ex-Nor’Wester Colin Robertson* in the latter’s scheme to lead an HBC expedition into the Athabasca country. When this plan failed, McKenzie was attracted to the new enterprise of John Jacob Astor, and in 1810, together with Ramsay Crooks, Duncan McDougall*, Alexander MacKay*, Wilson Price Hunt, and others, he became one of the original partners in the Pacific Fur Company. McKenzie’s considerable strength, courage, and experience were severely tested when he assisted Hunt with the command of the overland expedition that set out for the mouth of the Columbia River that summer. The party had to split up in order to survive and, according to Gabriel Franchère*, it was not until January 1812 that McKenzie and his men struggled into the newly constructed Fort Astoria (Astoria, Oreg.) “with their clothes in rags.” During the next season, McKenzie began his extensive trading and exploring journeys into the interior. One of the major tributaries of the Willamette River was named after him; as he himself declared, “The west of the mountains have everywhere been chequered by my steps.”
In 1813, upon learning of the outbreak of war between Great Britain and the United States, McKenzie played a significant role in persuading the other PFC partners that, because of the tenuous nature of their position on the Columbia, they would be better off selling out to the NWC rather than risk capture. Upon the completion of the transactions and the formal transfer of Astoria to British hands, McKenzie returned east with the NWC brigade in the spring of 1814, conveying the papers connected with the Columbia negotiations to Astor in New York. Astor, feeling that he had been betrayed, had no further use for McKenzie, but the NWC and the HBC both tried to lure him into their service. Apparently McKenzie had some sympathy for the HBC and the beleaguered Red River settlement (Man.) under the governorship of Miles Macdonell*, but he cast his lot with the Nor’Westers and became a partner that year.
In the fall of 1816 McKenzie returned to the Columbia and for the next five years successfully managed the inland trade of the region, being primarily responsible for developing the arduous Snake River country expeditions. He gained a considerable reputation for being fearless and astute in his dealings with the turbulent tribes of the upper Columbia, and in 1818 he established Fort Nez Percés (Walla Walla, Wash.). With the union of the HBC and the NWC in 1821, he was made a chief factor in the HBC. On coming out to the annual meeting of the Council of the Northern Department at York Factory (Man.) the next year, the seasoned veteran had some thoughts of retirement. Instead, in the fall of 1822, with John Rowand as his assistant, he was given charge of a large expedition to investigate the prospects of extending the HBC’s trade south into the regions of the Bow and the South Saskatchewan rivers to check American competition.
Although the Bow River expedition demonstrated that trade in the region would not be profitable, McKenzie so impressed HBC governor George Simpson that he was sent in the fall of 1823 to restore order to the company’s affairs in the Red River settlement after the removal of John Clarke. The following year Simpson described him as “the fittest man in the Country for the Situation,” being “a cool determined man, Conciliatory in his manners, economical & regular and privately attached to the Colony.” McKenzie’s heavy financial losses, resulting from the bankruptcy of McGillivrays, Thain and Company [see Thomas Thain*], contributed to his decision to continue in the service. He was given additional responsibility in 1825 when he became the governor of Assiniboia. Throughout the 1820s McKenzie was praised for his management of the Red River colony. His “firmness, sound judgment and energy” were credited with mitigating the devastating effects of the flood of 1826, and in 1829 Simpson enthused: “His government is the most easy under the sun; he settles the most knotty points with a joke and a laugh, seated on a mortar opposite the gate of his fort, and is more beloved and respected by his subjects than words can tell; he is not so stout as he was, but much more healthy and looks as if he would live forever.”
After spending the winter of 1830–31 in the settlement, Simpson radically revised his opinion of McKenzie. In his “Character book” he wrote a lengthy and damning sketch of McKenzie, denouncing his whole life as “one uniform system of art, deceit, falsehood, intrigue, suspicion, selfishness and revenge.” Although McKenzie may have outlived his usefulness as governor by the 1830s, Simpson’s assessment, written in a fit of spleen partially occasioned by domestic entanglements, should not be taken as a valid evaluation of his fur-trade career. McKenzie strongly opposed the callous action of Chief Factor John George McTavish* in casting off his country wife, McKenzie’s niece Nancy McKenzie, in 1830 to marry a Scottish woman. He and John Stuart* obstructed Simpson’s efforts to help settle his friend’s affairs quietly. Simpson, in turn, had been critical of McKenzie’s marital arrangements. Upon settling in Red River, McKenzie had divested himself of his own country wife, probably Mary MacKay, daughter of Alexander, but Simpson did not approve of his marrying, on 18 Aug. 1825, the governess he had hired to look after his three mixed-blood children. His new wife was Adelgonde Humbert Droz, the 18-year-old daughter of impoverished Swiss settlers. The children of the second marriage eventually numbered 13.
In the fall of 1832 McKenzie took an extended trip to the eastern United States, where he chose Mayville, N.Y., as his place of retirement. He returned to Red River in the summer of 1833 to collect his family, having been given leave of absence because of ill health until his official retirement in 1835. In Mayville he built a substantial brick house on his estate overlooking Chautauqua Lake. McKenzie invested heavily in land in the surrounding region. He died early in 1851, several months after being thrown from his horse while on a business trip.
During his wide-ranging career in the service of three different companies, Donald McKenzie earned a reputation as an intrepid explorer and bold trader. Although he had his faults, it is significant that in later years McKenzie regained Simpson’s good opinion and a cordial correspondence existed between the two families.
PAC, MG 19, A21, ser.1; E2, 3. Gabriel Franchère, Journal of a voyage on the north west coast of North America during the years 1811, 1812, 1813, and 1814, trans. W. T. Lamb, ed. and intro. W. K. Lamb (Toronto, 1969). HBRS, 2 (Rich and Fleming). Alexander Ross, The fur hunters of the far west; a narrative of adventures in the Oregon and Rocky mountains (2v., London, 1855). Simpson, “Character book,” HBRS, 30 (Williams), 151–236. J. G. MacGregor, John Rowand, czar of the Prairies (Saskatoon, Sask., 1978). C. W. Mackenzie, Donald Mackenzie: “king of the northwest” . . . (Los Angeles, 1937). Ernest Cawcroft, “Donald Mackenzie: king of the northwest,” Canadian Magazine, 50 (November 1917–April 1918): 342–49.