McKENZIE, CHARLES, fur trader; b. c. 1778 in Ferintosh, Scotland; m. some time before 1805, according to the custom of the country, and formally 6 March 1824 in Montreal, Mary McKay, a Métis, and they had one son and three daughters; d. 6 March 1855 in the Red River settlement (Man.).
Charles McKenzie was engaged as an apprentice clerk by McTavish, Frobisher and Company, one of the firms in the North West Company, for service in the fur trade by the terms of a contract signed in Montreal on 30 Dec. 1802. He proceeded in 1803 to the area around the Red and Assiniboine rivers where, in October 1804, NWC clerk Daniel Williams Harmon* met him at Fort Montagne à la Bosse (near Routledge, Man.). McKenzie was serving as clerk under Charles Chaboillez*, NWC partner in charge of the Fort Dauphin department, when on 11 November he was sent, with NWC clerk François-Antoine Larocque* and others, to trade with the Mandan Indians on the upper Missouri River. The party reached the Gros Ventre (Hidatsa) Indians, close neighbours of the Mandans on the Missouri, by the end of November and, discovering four Hudson’s Bay Company men among these Indians, Larocque left McKenzie and another man with them to compete with the English company’s traders. McKenzie passed the winter with the Gros Ventres, and both he and Larocque, who stayed in a nearby village, were in close contact with the American exploration party under Meriwether Lewis and William Clark which was wintering among the Mandans. McKenzie returned to the Assiniboine River in the spring of 1805, arriving at Fort Assiniboine (Man.) with Larocque on 22 May.
He made three other trading expeditions to the Missouri in 1805–6 and he was with the Gros Ventres when Chaboillez and Alexander Henry* visited the Mandans in the summer of 1806. McKenzie, who was at ease with the Indian way of life, was reproached by the two NWC proprietors for having adopted Indian dress. In his journal he wrote: “Let any man living with the Indians take the idea of ‘Savage’ from his mind and he will find their dress much more convenient. He can pass through the crowd, day and night, without exciting curiosity or draw a throng of children and barking dogs”; furthermore, he noted, their dress was “very light and cool in the warm season.”
The Missouri trade had been found unprofitable, and was discontinued by the NWC in 1807. McKenzie was posted to the Monontagué department, near Lake Nipigon, Upper Canada, under John Haldane, where he took charge of the relatively unproductive post on Lac Seul. He remained at this post after the union of the NWC and the HBC in 1821, and, except for a brief period from 1823 to 1827, was there until his retirement in 1854. In 1823 he resigned from the HBC, discontented with his salary and other arrangements. He accepted a position with the king’s posts but when it proved to be unsatisfactory he returned to the HBC.
The journals of his ventures to the Missouri River were forwarded to Roderick McKenzie* of Terrebonne, Lower Canada, in 1842, and were eventually published in 1889–90. Those he kept at Lac Seul are more voluminous and more informative about his character. He was a strong advocate of Indian concerns, which often involved fur-trade policies he considered detrimental to their welfare; for example, he called the ready-barter system of trade “a most cold cold calculating system,” because it prevented the Indians from obtaining in advance, on credit, the supplies upon which they had become dependent for hunting, trapping, and survival. He demonstrated a certain relativism towards Indian culture and he described, sometimes in detail, their hunting practices and other patterns of behaviour. He was very proud of his wife who had been raised as an Indian, and in his journal for 1831 he noted that “she hunts for her own pleasure, & tho’ I pay her, as I would an Indian out of the Company’s shop – wastes more in wear & tear than she gets & the only profit I see by it is she keeps herself in employment & her body in health.” He also wrote extensively about events at the post, the habits of animals, and other natural phenomena. In the mid 1840s a series of epidemics killed many Lac Seul Indians and in August 1845, when the post was turned into a hospital, McKenzie himself became quite ill; his wife acted as nurse and comforter to the sick.
McKenzie remained a clerk until his retirement from the HBC, a fact that caused him much resentment. As early as 1827 Governor George Simpson had decided not to promote him, observing that “his best days are gone.” McKenzie was convinced that promotions were based on favour and in November 1853 wrote to his son, Hector Æneas, who had himself been in the service of the HBC from 1839 to 1851, that “if there was any merit I would be ahead of most of their present Chief Factors.” In his later years he suffered poor health, complaining of sore eyes and “decayed Bowels.” Upon retirement he and his wife joined their son on his farm in the Red River settlement. McKenzie died there in 1855.
The record of McKenzie’s long tenure at Lac Seul would indicate that he had managed the post well and had been generally liked by the Indians. The detailed and perceptive journals he kept during these years are his greatest contribution to history and science.
The PAC has in MG 19, A44, a collection of letters exchanged between Charles McKenzie and his son as well as other members of the family for the years 1828–87. McKenzie’s reports on the four expeditions to the Missouri River are published in “The Mississouri Indians: a narrative of four trading expeditions to the Mississouri, 1804–1805–1806” in Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson), 1: 315–93.
ANQ-M, CN1-29, 17 janv. 1800. PAM, HBCA, A.34/1: f.73; A.34/2: ff.38–38d; A.36/9: ff.186–87; A.44/3: 107; B.107/a/2, 6–31; B.107/b/1; B.107/d/1; B.107/e/3–5; B.107/z/1; Red River burial reg. Harmon, Sixteen years in the Indian country (Lamb). New light on early hist. of greater northwest (Coues). F.-A. Larocque, “The Missouri journal, 1804–1805,” Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest, 1: 297–313. C. A. Bishop, The Northern Ojibwa and the fur trade: an historical and ecological study (Toronto and Montreal, 1974). [M.] E. Arthur, “Charles McKenzie, l’homme seul,” OH, 70 (1978): 39–62.