McKENZIE, ALEXANDER, fur trader and militia officer; b. c. 1767, likely in Stornoway, Scotland; m., probably according to the custom of the country, Isabella Latour, and they had one son and one daughter; d. 23 July 1830 in Montreal.
Alexander McKenzie was the nephew of fur trader and explorer Alexander Mackenzie*, who referred to him as “my namesake,” but so little information survives on the ramifications of the Mackenzie clan in the later 18th century that it is uncertain whose son he was. He may have come to North America with his family during the mass exodus of the Mackenzies from the Isle of Lewis in the hard economic times of the 1770s. Perhaps, like his uncle, he first settled in New York and after the War of American Independence went, like him, to Montreal. When he started trading in the environs of Detroit in 1790 he became associated with the Montreal firm of Forsyth, Richardson and Company [see John Forsyth*; John Richardson], which operated in the area until 1796. After that date the British surrender of the western posts on the Great Lakes made fur trading in the region south and west of the lakes difficult for Canadian enterprises.
In 1793 Forsyth, Richardson and Company began trading north of Lake Superior in competition with the North West Company and in 1796, when McKenzie left the Detroit region, he gravitated to this area. He was one of the first six wintering partners in the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company), formed in November 1798 around the firms Forsyth, Richardson and Leith, Jameson and Company. NWC explorer David Thompson* encountered him with a brigade of New North West Company canoes on the North Saskatchewan River at Fort George (near Lindbergh, Alta) in September 1799, and a report from James Bird* noted that by mid October McKenzie and his men were building a post near Edmonton House (near Fort Saskatchewan). Though their relationship does not appear to have been close, McKenzie’s presence may have helped induce his relative, now Sir Alexander, to acquire shares in the New North West Company by 1800; from 1802 it was sometimes known as Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Company. The company united in 1804 with the NWC, in which McKenzie continued his partnership.
From 1804 to 1808 McKenzie was in charge of the vital Athabasca department, where his high-handed manner earned him the title of “the Emperor,” or sometimes “the Baron.” In 1809 he commanded the NWC post at Pic (Ont.) on Lake Superior, and in 1811 became the company’s agent at Fort William (Thunder Bay). At some point before 1814, McKenzie may have “cast off” his country wife; in that year she became the wife of NWC trader John McBean.
Up to now McKenzie had played no great part in the violence that had erupted between the NWC and the Hudson’s Bay Company. But in 1815, during the crisis developing around the colony established by Lord Selkirk [Douglas*], he was sent as agent of the NWC to the Red River settlement (Man.) to hasten its destruction. It was he who persuaded Miles Macdonell, governor of Assiniboia, to surrender that year and he helped to escort him to Fort William. For his complicity in this action, McKenzie was one of the NWC partners arrested by Selkirk at Fort William on 12 Aug. 1816. He and the others, among them John McDonald, Simon Fraser*, John Siveright*, and John McLoughlin*, were tried at York (Toronto) in October 1818 on a variety of charges emerging out of the violence committed on the Red River, including the accusation of being accessories to the murder of Robert Semple*, governor of the HBC territories. They were acquitted after one of the most controversial series of trials in Canadian legal history.
From this time, McKenzie was no longer an active wintering partner of the NWC; when it merged with the HBC in 1821 he did not enter the new organization, though in the same year he was at Fort William as agent for McTavish, McGillivrays and Company. It is likely that during his remaining years in Montreal he retained an interest in the fur trade. He had been admitted a member of the Beaver Club in 1808. His standing in the community was shown by the fact that he became a major in the militia. He died in Montreal on 23 July 1830, having passed his life as a minor actor in historic events.
Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson). Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). HBRS, 26 (Johnson). Mackenzie, Journals and letters (Lamb). New light on the early history of the greater northwest: the manuscript journals of Alexander Henry . . . and of David Thompson . . . , ed. Elliott Coues (3v., New York, 1897; repr. 3v. in 2, Minneapolis, Minn., ), 2. Canadian Courant (Montreal), 28 July 1830. Arthur Kittson, “Berthier,” yesterday & to-day (Berthier, Que., 1953). Morton, Hist. of Canadian west (Thomas; 1973).