McKENZIE, RODERICK (generally known as Roderick McKenzie Sr), fur trader and politician; b. 1771 or 1772 probably in the parish of Assynt, Scotland; d. 2 Jan. 1859 at the Red River settlement (Man.).
It is likely that Roderick McKenzie, one of several fur traders bearing this name, was in the Timiskaming department as a clerk for the North West Company in the 1790s, but it was in the Lake Nipigon (Ont.) area that his reputation with the NWC was made, and after the union of the NWC and the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821 he was assigned to that district as a chief trader. In 1825 he assumed command of Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ont.). At this post his major preoccupations were competition from American traders and the difficulty of maintaining morale in a work-force sharply diminished by the HBC. McKenzie’s promotion to chief factor in 1830 carried with it a transfer to the west, where, for the rest of his active life, he was in charge of the English (upper Churchill) River district, with headquarters at Île-à-la-Crosse (Sask.). Almost every year he made the trip to York Factory (Man.) with his furs and attended the HBC Council of the Northern Department. In 1839 he was also appointed to the Council of Assiniboia, formed by the HBC, to govern the Red River colony, but he had little interest in such activities. Writing to James Hargrave* in 1839 he said, “I will not be at the Council in Red River – I can be of more use at my Post, in Trading a Skin; than at the Council, as Legislator I have no great ambition, to shine as an Orator, that I leave to young Gentlemen, better qualified.”
The good returns McKenzie was able to maintain during his early years at Île-à-la-Crosse began to fall off in the early 1840s as the Chipewyan Indians who traded in this district moved into the plains region. McKenzie placed part of the blame for the desertion of his post by the Indians on the machinations of his neighbour in the Saskatchewan district, Chief Factor John Rowand, and worried about the growing influence of the Roman Catholic missionaries at Fort Pitt (Sask.). Governor George Simpson commented upon the injurious rivalry existing between the two districts and, although his high opinion of Rowand was well known, he did not appear to play favourites. McKenzie’s invitation to the Catholic missionary Father Jean-Baptiste Thibault* and the arrival of the latter at Île-à-la-Crosse prompted a rebuke from Simpson in 1845. McKenzie explained that his acceptance of missionaries was motivated by the desire of the Chipewyan Indians, who could be induced to trade where priests were to be found, and by the religious needs of the HBC employees, most of whom were Catholic. With the governor’s consent priests were established at Île-à-la-Crosse in subsequent years, and during McKenzie’s time two future bishops, Alexandre-Antonin Taché* and Louis-François Laflèche*, served in the area.
As early as 1832 Simpson had suggested that McKenzie, whose health was “broken and worn out so that his useful Days are over,” ought to retire. In 1837 Thomas Simpson described him as a “well-meaning, warm-hearted but passionate and crabbed old Highlander,” and by the early 1840s the opinion was widespread that he should take his retirement, especially after he broke his leg in 1843; but, limping and nearly blind, he stayed on, worrying about his finances and about finding a place where he could settle with his wife and family. He had married Angélique, an Ojibwa Indian of the Lake Nipigon area, by the custom of the country in about 1803, and they had raised a large family. In 1841 this marriage was apparently formalized by Christian rite. For his retirement McKenzie’s preference was a remote location – Norway House (Man.), Sault Ste Marie (Ont.), or Cumberland House (Sask.). Ironically, by 1846 Governor Simpson seems to have changed his mind about McKenzie, urging him to stay at Île-à-la-Crosse: “While you continue healthy & that the business is not irksome and harassing to you, I see no reason for your retirement.” This reassessment may, however, have been due more to the relative unimportance of the Île-à-la-Crosse district than to a genuine appreciation of McKenzie’s usefulness. Finally, in 1850 McKenzie took a leave of two years at Fort Alexander (Man.) before retiring in 1852 and settling reluctantly in what he called “the civilized world of Red River.” Like other HBC employees, McKenzie placed his savings, which in 1851 totalled £4,724, in Canadian investments such as the Bank of Montreal, the Montreal and Lachine Rail-road, the Bank of British North America, the Commercial Bank of the Midland District, and private loans. These investments, which provided his only link with the united Canadas, generally paid good returns of from six to eight per cent.
Among the old Nor’Westers he was known as “Captain of the Nipigon” and, unlike almost all the Scots of the fur trade, he never returned to his native land, even on furlough. Leaving a sizeable estate, he died at Caberleigh Cottage, Red River, surrounded by symbols of a distant Highland past, but committed to the Indian country he had adopted as his home. All seven of his sons served the HBC, one of them, Samuel, rising to the rank of chief trader; of his five daughters, one died unmarried and the other four married men in the company service.
Æneas and Angus Cameron papers, in the possession of E. A. Mitchell (Toronto), McTavish, Frobisher & Co. to Æneas Cameron, 3 Sept. 1799 (mfm. at AO). PAC, MG 19, A21, ser.1, 31. PAM, HBCA, A.31/9; A.34/2: f.8; A.36/10: ff.3–4; A.44/4: 67; B.89/a/14–27; B.129/b/1–11; B.129/e/1–13; B.149/a/11; B.162/a/1; B.231/a/7–9; B.231/e/5–6; D.4/18: ff.10d–11; D.4/31: ff.46d–47; D.4/32: ff.112, 217; D.4/42: ff.83, 159; D.4/84b: f.71; D.5/4: ff.152, 228, 229; D.5/7: f.199d; D.5/10: f.370; D.5/14: f.112; D.5/19: ff.15, 75; D.5/21: f.110; D.5/22: f.231; D.5/41: f.313; D.5/43: ff.169, 508. Canadian North-West (Oliver). Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). HBRS, 1 (Rich); 3 (Fleming); 19 (Rich and Johnson). Hargrave, Hargrave corr. (Glazebrook). Mactavish, Letters of Letitia Hargrave (MacLeod). Simpson, “Character book,” HBRS, 30 (Williams), 151–236. Van Kirk, “Many tender ties.” Barbara Benoit, “The mission at Île-à-la-Crosse,” Beaver, outfit 311 (winter 1980): 40–50.