MacKENZIE, KENNETH, fur trader; b. in Scotland, son of Colin MacKenzie and his wife, Margaret; drowned 26 Aug. 1816 near Sault Ste Marie (Ont.).
Kenneth MacKenzie entered the service of the North West Company on 1 May 1800 as an apprentice clerk for a five-year period. On 2 June of that year Daniel Williams Harmon* reported his departure with five other clerks from Maple Point (near Sault Ste Marie) across Lake Superior for Grand Portage (near Grand Portage, Minn.). That winter he was apparently left in charge of the Grand Portage depot in the absence of Dr Henry Munro, the wintering clerk and overseer. From the available evidence it can be inferred that he was stationed there until 1803, and subsequently at Kaministiquia (Thunder Bay, Ont.), the company’s place of rendezvous on Lake Superior from that year.
After completing his apprenticeship in the fall of 1805, MacKenzie succeeded Munro, who had been transferred to the Pic (Ont.). He was presumably the McKenzie listed in 1806 as one of two clerks at Kaministiquia, for in 1807 “Mr. Kenneth McKenzie” was in charge at Fort William (the new name of the post). In 1807 also he was voted next in line for promotion to partnership, supported equally by wintering partners from the old NWC and by those from the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company), which had been absorbed into the NWC in November 1804 [see Sir Alexander Mackenzie]. Succeeding to the share of John Finlay in 1808, he served as proprietor of the Fort William department until late 1815, apart from his rotation to Lower Canada in 1812–13.
MacKenzie played a small part in the War of 1812. After news of hostilities reached Fort William he wrote to Duncan Mackintosh at Sandwich (Windsor), Upper Canada, affirming the early success of NWC plans to mobilize its own people and the Indians. The letter, intercepted by American forces, was later introduced at the court martial of defeated American general William Hull as evidence justifying his decision not to invade Canada. While at Montreal in 1812 MacKenzie became a captain in the Corps of Canadian Voyageurs when it was formed in October. After the unit was disbanded in March 1813 he was among the Nor’Westers commissioned to serve in “the Indian and conquered countries.” That year he was admitted to the Beaver Club.
He returned to Fort William in the summer. During the rendezvous of 1815 the impending crisis that would lead to the NWC’s eventual downfall loomed large. Shipments of supplies from the east had at times been disrupted during the war, and in the same period John Jacob Astor had cornered all available supplies of twist tobacco, which the Indians preferred. These factors combined with unexpectedly low commissions and the high costs on the Columbia River and in the China trade to foster resentment among the wintering partners toward the controlling companies in Montreal. MacKenzie assumed the role of intermediary between the openly hostile winterers and the two agents representing Montreal interests, Simon McGillivray* of McTavish, McGillivrays and Company, and Alexander McKenzie* of Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Company (as the New North West Company was sometimes known). Although McGillivray believed “our friend K. rather torments than allays” the winterers’ fears, he also recorded his refusal to join a wintering partners’ “committee of investigation.” In the fall of 1815 MacKenzie was back in Montreal where he succeeded Alexander McKenzie as NWC agent representing Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Company. His annual salary of £500 in addition to his share in the company’s profits indicates exceptional influence and status, for his predecessor had received only £200 in salary and his successor Pierre Rastel* de Rocheblave would receive £400.
As the proprietor at Fort William, MacKenzie was drawn inevitably into the controversy surrounding the Red River settlement. In 1811 Lord Selkirk [Douglas] had succeeded in obtaining an immense land grant for colonization of the area south of Lake Winnipeg (Man.). The NWC opposed the new colony, seeing it as a threat to their traditional source of winter provisions and as an instrument of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s newly aggressive trading policy. By 1814 the NWC had decided to take concerted action against their opponents, and sent Duncan Cameron* and Alexander Greenfield Macdonell* to deal with the problem. Writing to Cameron in 1815, MacKenzie, who seems to have adopted a moderate attitude, cautioned, “Do not for God sake commit yourself in either action or writing – prudence prevents misfortune.” Nevertheless, settlers were frightened away in large numbers, and on 19 June 1816 their governor, Robert Semple, and some 20 colonists were killed at Seven Oaks (Winnipeg) by a party of Métis in the NWC’s employ. MacKenzie was at Fort William in August when Selkirk seized the fort in retaliation for the Seven Oaks affair and sent all the partners, including William McGillivray* and Alexander McKenzie and excepting only Daniel McKenzie, to Upper Canada for trial. On 26 August MacKenzie and eight others bound for the east drowned in Lake Superior when their canoe capsized near Sault Ste Marie, where MacKenzie was subsequently buried. He was survived by his Indian wife, Louisa, and their daughter, Margaret.
Before leaving Fort William as a prisoner MacKenzie had had the presence of mind to make out his will. The names of his executors reveal close relations with the three main components of the NWC: Roderick McKenzie* of the old company, who may also have been a relative; John McLoughlin*, a spokesman for the wintering partners; and George Moffatt*, linked with both the New North West Company and the HBC. MacKenzie’s rapid promotion can be attributed almost certainly to family ties, as well as to his evident capability and to his popularity with the various factions within the company. Given his commanding position as agent and his connections with Moffatt and McLoughlin, promoters of the 1821 union with the HBC, it seems entirely likely that, had death not intervened, MacKenzie would have emerged out of the ruins of the NWC as one of the principal figures in the united concern.
ANQ-M, CM1, Kenneth McKenzie, proved 16 Sept. 1816; CN1-29, 11 April 1796, 24 April 1800. AUM, P 58, G1/122, 131, 142 (transcripts at PAC). PAC, MG 19, A35, 7, notebook IV, memoranda, Fort William, 1815; B1, 1; E1, ser.1, 22: 8565–67 (transcripts); E2, 2, J. S. Cameron to James McTavish and Jasper Vandersluys, 29 Aug. 1816 (transcript). Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). G.B., Colonial Office, Papers relating to the Red River settlement . . . (London, 1819). [John Halkett], Statement respecting the Earl of Selkirk’s settlement upon the Red River in North America . . . (London, 1817; repr. East Ardsley, Eng., and New York, 1968, and [Toronto, 1970]); Postscript to the statement respecting the Earl of Selkirk’s settlement upon the Red River ([Montreal, 1818]). [D. W. Harmon], Sixteen years in the Indian country: the journal of Daniel Williams Harman, 1800–1816, ed. W. K. Lamb (Toronto, 1957). Report of the trial of Brig. General William Hull . . . , comp. [J. G.] Forbes (New York, 1814). [James Tate], “James Tate’s journal, 1809–1812,” Hudson’s Bay miscellany, 1809–12, ed. Glyndwr Williams (Winnipeg, 1975), 95–150. [S. H. Wilcocke], A narrative of occurrences in the Indian countries of North America . . . (London, 1817; repr. East Ardsley and New York, 1968). C. P. Wilson, “The Beaver Club,” Beaver, outfit 266 (March 1936): 19–23.