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Travels with MacKenzie


August 11, 2012

Travels with MacKenzie, Part 4

From the December 8, 2011 edition of McKenzie River Reflections

November 1811

Two hundred years ago this month Donald MacKenzie was in the eighth of his nine month travels from the Missouri River to Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River. At 27 years old, he was the assistant leader of the “Astorian Overland Party”, the fur-trading expedition financed by J.J. Astor, and lead by W.P. Hunt. The McKenzie River was later named after Donald Mackenzie.

In early November 2011, the 60 person expedition split into several overland groups after they realized the futility of using canoes to descend the Snake River. The party led by McKenzie followed the north bank of the Snake River, near the lava fields which now comprise the Craters of the Moon National Park. The following excerpt is from the book “Astoria”, written by Washington Irving at J. Jacob Astor’s request and published in 1836. (Read the full text at

A small exploring detachment had proceeded down the [Snake] river, under the conduct of Mr. John Reed, a clerk of the company; that another had set off under M’Lellan, and a third in a different direction, under M’Kenzie. After wandering for several days without meeting with Indians, or obtaining any supplies, they came together fortuitously among the Snake River mountains, some distance below that disastrous pass or strait which had received the appellation of the Devil’s Scuttle Hole.

When thus united, their party consisted of M’Kenzie, M’Lellan, Reed, and eight men, chiefly Canadians. Being all in the same predicament, without horses, provisions, or information of any kind, they all agreed that it would be worse than useless to return to Mr. Hunt and encumber him with so many starving men, and that their only course was to extricate themselves as soon as possible from this land of famine and misery and make the best of their way for the Columbia. They accordingly continued to follow the downward course of Snake River; clambering rocks and mountains, and defying all the difficulties and dangers of that rugged defile, which subsequently, when the snows had fallen, was found impassable by Messrs. Hunt and Crooks.

Though constantly near to the borders of the river, and for a great part of the time within sight of its current, one of their greatest sufferings was thirst. The river had worn its way in a deep channel through rocky mountains, destitute of brooks or springs. Its banks were so high and precipitous, that there was rarely any place where the travellers could get down to drink of its waters. Frequently they suffered for miles the torments of Tantalus; water continually within sight, yet fevered with the most parching thirst. Here and there they met with rainwater collected in the hollows of the rocks, but more than once they were reduced to the utmost extremity; and some of the men had recourse to the last expedient to avoid perishing.

Their sufferings from hunger were equally severe. They could meet with no game, and subsisted for a time on strips of beaver skin, broiled on the coals. These were doled out in scanty allowances, barely sufficient to keep up existence, and at length failed them altogether. Still they crept feebly on, scarce dragging one limb after another, until a severe snow-storm brought them to a pause. To struggle against it, in their exhausted condition, was impossible, so cowering under an impending rock at the foot of a steep mountain, they prepared themselves for that wretched fate which seemed inevitable.

At this critical juncture, when famine stared them in the face, M’Lellan casting up his eyes, beheld an ahsahta, or bighorn, sheltering itself under a shelving rock on the side of the hill above them. Being in a more active plight than any of his comrades, and an excellent marksman, he set off to get within shot of the animal. His companions watched his movements with breathless anxiety, for their lives depended upon his success. He made a cautious circuit; scrambled up the hill with the utmost silence, and at length arrived, unperceived, within a proper distance. Here leveling his rifle he took so sure an aim, that the bighorn fell dead on the spot; a fortunate circumstance, for, to pursue it, if merely wounded, would have been impossible in his emaciated state. The declivity of the hill enabled him to roll the carcass down to his companions, who were too feeble to climb the rocks. They fell to work to cut it up; yet exerted a remarkable self-denial for men in their starving condition, for they contented themselves for the present with a soup made from the bones, reserving the flesh for future repasts. This providential relief gave them strength to pursue their journey, but they were frequently reduced to almost equal straits, and it was only the smallness of their party, requiring a small supply of provisions, that enabled them to get through this desolate region with their lives.

At length, after twenty-one days of toil and suffering, they got through these mountains, and arrived at a tributary stream of that branch of the Columbia called Lewis River, of which Snake River forms the southern fork. In this neighborhood they met with wild horses, the first they had seen west of the Rocky Mountains. From hence they made their way to Lewis River, where they fell in with a friendly tribe of Indians, who freely administered to their necessities.

This monthly installment of Mackenzie’s Travels is told here as part of the McKenzie Bicentennial 2012. Do you or your group have ideas for Bicentennial activities? The Bicentennial Committee will be applying for grants and sponsorship to fund activities. Email the Bicentennial Committee at [email protected], or phone 541-822-8454.


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