The Crossing of America by Mackenzie and Lewis and Clarke

Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia by Charles Marion Russell

The two great trans-continental journeys of Mackenzie and Lewis and Clark revealed the breadth of North America.

Sir Alexander Mackenzie 1764-1820

A fur trader in Canada, Mackenzie made two remarkable journeys into unknown territory. On the first, his expedition left his trading base at Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabaska and went northwards to the Arctic Ocean. The huge river he followed was named the Mackenzie River after him. His second journey took him westwards across the Canadian Rockies to the Pacific, the first crossing of North America by a white man since de Vaca.

Mackenzie travelled very largely on his own initiative, but Lewis and Clark led an official, government sponsored, expedition.

Meriwether Lewis 1774-1809 and William Clark 1770-1838

President Jefferson personally selected Lewis for the expedition, who then asked to take along as his companion his old friend Clark, a militia officer over six feet tall whose red hair would later make the Indians call him “Red-Head”. 43 men set out, including army volunteers, hunters, interpreters and Clark’s Negro servant, York. The first Americans to cross their continent, Lewis and Clark in 1804-6 led an expedition up the Missouri River and across the Rockies to the Pacific and back.

They were the first white men some Indian tribes had ever seen. Their interpreter-guide was a remarkable Shoshone Indian woman, Sacajawea. who walked nearly all the way with them. For food, the explorers shot deer and buffalo, though on the Pacific coast they ran out of food and were obliged to live off a dead whale washed up on the beach. After eighteen months the expedition party reappeared with notebooks bulging with details of botany and zoology (it took Lewis ten shots to kill a grizzly bear) and new maps of the country.

Their favourable reports soon attracted other travellers into the prairies and mountains of the West. At first they were mainly Indian traders, buffalo hunters, and trappers. The “Mountain Men” of the Rockies were particularly adventurous, living far in advance of the main tide of settlement. Jedediah Smith, one of the bravest of the Mountain Men, led a charmed life. While exploring Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, he escaped several Indian attacks. Once, in Mojave country, he was ambushed at a river crossing, but escaped to safety on a raft.

The trails and passes which men such as these discovered, became after 1840 the great route-ways for the wagon trains of immigrants moving west.


  1. Balchin, J (2005) To the Ends of the Earth : Journeys of the Great Explorers: From the Equator to the Poles. Arcturus Publishing.
  2. Duncan, D (2000) Out West: A Journey Through Lewis and Clark’s America. University of Nebraska Press