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Travels with MacKenzie

From the September 8, 2011 edition of McKenzie River Reflections

Two hundred years ago this month Donald MacKenzie, age 28, was making his way from the Missouri River towards Fort Astoria, as assistant leader of the "Astorians Overland Party" made up of fifty-six men, a woman, and two children. Ten years later a map would be drawn by the Hudson Bay Company, naming a branch of the Willamette River as "Mackenzie's Branch" after Donald Mackenzie. Understanding why his name was given to this river requires us to explore the stories, maps and artifacts left behind. Throughout the coming year, as part of the McKenzie Bicentennial 2012, a small part of his remarkable life will be told each month in this newspaper.

The leader of the Astorian Overland expedition was W.P. Hunt. Excerpts from his journal describe where Donald Mackenzie was during July and August of 1811.

"By July 18, 1811, we had traveled up the Missouri River from St. Louis to the village of the Aricaras...We left there with eighty-two horses packing commodities, munitions, food, and animal traps, taking a southwesterly route. We camped near a small stream a short distance from its confluence with the Grand River, which we forded on July 21, and on the 24th. We had covered sixty-seven miles in three days, keeping on a route where the grass was knee-high and where the horses could graze contentedly."

"Several members of the company were ill, and we rested here until August 5th. During this interval, I bought thirty-six horses from some Cheyenne Indians. These Indians burn buffalo chips to keep themselves warm. Their teepees are made of buffalo skins carefully sewn together and supported by poles joined at the top. They often hold as many as fifty people. The Cheyennes are honest and clean. They hunt buffalo, and they raise horses that each year they trade to the Aricaras for corn, kidney beans, pumpkins, and some merchandise. They had a dozen beaver skins, but they did not seem to know how to trap these animals We killed several buffalo; in fact, they were everywhere around us, for they were breeding. They made a frightful noise that sounded like distant thunder. The males tore up the earth with their hooves and horns."

"We covered forty-two miles on the 6th and 7th.... The countryside became mountainous and water scarce. We saw some big horn [sheep] there, and we built fires on the summits to guide our hunters. (40 miles southwest)"

August 11 "we crossed a range of mountains like those of preceding days. The trail was tiring because of its precipitousness and the great number of rocks. On the 12th we forded two tributaries of the Grand River that flowed from the southwest, one of them appearing to be the main branch. (27 miles)"

August 14th: "we made camp beside a tributary of the Little Missouri. The evening was very cold. extremely rugged. It became even worse on the 17th, and we could find no passage through these mountains. We killed a big horn whose meat is good, not unlike mutton."

August 18th: We found it necessary to leave the mountains and turn back toward the broken countryside. When we had pitched camp to the left of the pine-covered mountains, Mr. McKenzie and I scaled the nearby slopes. Our view extended in all directions. In the west, we saw far off some mountains that appeared white in several spots, and we assumed that this was the snow-covered Big Horn [Range]. Below the peaks, herds of buffalo ran over the plains."

Next month: The Astorians follow the Snake River into the area now known as "Hell's Canyon."

From the October 6, 2011 edition of McKenzie River Reflections, September 1811

Two hundred years ago this month Donald MacKenzie was making his way from the Missouri River toward Fort Astoria and then to the Willamette River. He was the assistant leader of the "Astorian Overland Party," the fur-trading expedition financed by J.J. Astor, and led by W.P. Hunt. Ten years later a tributary of the Willamette River was named "MacKenzie's Branch."  The story of MacKenzie's travels is told here as part of the McKenzie Bicentennial 2012.

The following excerpts are from the book "Astoria," written by Washington Irving at J. Jacob Astor's request. It was published in 1836. (Read the full text at

 On the third of September, finding that the mountain still stretched onwards, presenting a continued barrier, they endeavored to force a passage to the westward but soon became entangled among rocks and precipices which set all their efforts at defiance. The mountain seemed, for the most part, rugged, bare, and sterile; yet here and there it was clothed with pines, and with shrubs and flowering plants, some of which were in bloom. In tolling among these weary places, their thirst became excessive, for no water was to be met with. Numbers of the men wandered off into rocky dells and ravines in hopes of finding some brook or fountain; some of whom lost their way and did not rejoin the main party.

After a day of painful and fruitless scrambling, Mr. Hunt gave up the attempt to penetrate in this direction, and, returning to the little stream on the skirts of the mountain, pitched his tents within six miles of his encampment of the preceding night. He now ordered that signals should be made for the stragglers in quest of water, but the night passed away without their return...

On the evening of the 14th of September, they encamped on the forks of the Wind or Bighorn River. The largest of these forks came from the range of Wind River Mountains. The hunters who served as guides to the party in this part of their route had assured Mr. Hunt that, by following up Wind River and crossing a single mountain ridge, he would come upon the headwaters of the Columbia. This scarcity of game, however, which already had been felt to a pinching degree, and which threatened them with famine among the sterile heights which lay before them, admonished them to change their course. It was determined, therefore, to make for a stream, which they were informed passed the neighboring mountains, to the south of west, on the grassy banks of which it was probable they would meet with buffalo. Accordingly, about three o'clock on the following day, meeting with a beaten Indian road that led in the proper direction, they struck into it, turning their backs upon Wind River.

On the 17th they continued down the course of the river, making fifteen miles to the southwest... They encamped for the night opposite the end of a mountain in the west, which was probably the last chain of the Rocky Mountains. On the following morning they abandoned the main course of the Spanish River, and taking a northwest direction for eight miles, came upon one of its little tributaries, issuing out of the bosom of the mountains, and running through green meadows, yielding pasturage to herds of buffalo. As these were probably the last of that animal they would meet with, they encamped on the grassy banks of the river, determined to spend several days in hunting, so as to be able to jerk sufficient meat to supply them until they should reach the waters of the Columbia, where they trusted to find fish enough for their support. A little repose, too, was necessary for both men and horses, after their rugged and incessant marching; having in the course of the last seventeen days traversed two hundred and sixty miles of rough, and in many parts sterile, mountain country.

Mr. Hunt broke up his encampment on the 24th of September and continued on to the west. A march of fifteen miles, over a mountain ridge, brought them to a stream about fifty feet in width, which Hoback, one of their guides recognized as one of the headwaters of the Columbia... They kept it for two days...At length, they emerged from these stupendous defiles and continued for several miles ... through one of the stern mountain valleys. Here it was joined by a river of greater magnitude and swifter current, and their united waters swept off through the valley in one impetuous stream, which, from its rapidity and turbulence, had received the name of the Mad River*... An important point in their arduous journey had been attained; a few miles from their camp rose the three vast snowy peaks called the Tetons, or the Pilot Knobs, the great landmarks of the Columbia, by which they had shaped their course through this mountain wilderness. By their feet flowed the rapid current of Mad River, a stream ample enough to admit of the navigation of canoes, and down which they might possibly be able to steer their course to the main body of the Columbia. The Canadian voyageurs rejoiced at the idea of once more launching themselves upon their favorite element; of exchanging their horses for canoes, and of gliding down the bosoms of rivers, instead of scrambling over the backs of mountains. Others of the party, also, inexperienced in this kind of traveling, considered their toils and troubles as drawing to a close. They had conquered the chief difficulties of this great rocky barrier and now flattered themselves with the hope of an easy downward course for the rest of their journey. Little did they dream of the hardships and perils by land and water, which were yet to be encountered in the frightful wilderness that intervened between them and the shores of the Pacific! (*now known as the Snake River)

Travels with MacKenzie, Part 3

From the November 10, 2011 edition of McKenzie River Reflections

October 1811

Two hundred years ago Donald MacKenzie was in the sixth month of a nine-month journey between the Missouri River and Fort Astoria. MacKenzie was the assistant leader of the 63-person "Astorian Overland Expedition," part of the Pacific Fur Company financed by J.J. Astor. The following account of the Overlanders' travels during October 1811 is taken from Adventures of the First Settlers on Oregon by Alexander Ross. At the beginning of October 1811, the Overlanders were following the Snake River downriver at the upper end of the canyon later named Hells Canyon. This route was well south of the route followed by Lewis and Clark five years earlier. In October 1811 cold rain and snow were falling.

 On the 18th of October, to abandon their hitherto serviceable and trusty horses, and they were, therefore, turned loose, to the number of one hundred and eighty, and the party embarking in fifteen crazy and frail canoes undertook to descend the rugged and boiling channels of the headwaters of the great south branch of the Columbia. Having proceeded about 350 miles, they were at last compelled to abandon the project of navigating these bold and dangerous waters; but not before one of their best steersmen was drowned, and they were convinced as to the impracticability of proceeding by water.

The canoes being now abandoned altogether, various plans were thought of; two or three parties were sent out as scouts, to try and fall in with Indians, provisions being now so scarce that the most gloomy apprehensions were entertained. These parties, however, saw but few Indians and those few were destitute themselves. At this time a starving dog that could hardly crawl along was a feast to our people, and even the putrid and rotten skins of animals were resorted to in order to sustain life. Whilst these parties were exhausting themselves to little or no purpose, another party attempted to recover the horses, which had been so thoughtlessly and imprudently left behind; but they returned unsuccessful, after a week's trial and hunger. A fifth party was dispatched ahead to explore the river, and they also returned with the most gloomy presage - all failed, and all fell back again on the cheerless camp, to augment the general despondency; the party now, as a last resource, set about depositing and securing the goods and baggage, by putting them in caches; this done, the party finally separated into four bands, each headed by a partner, and the object of one and all was, to reach the mouth of the Columbia by the best and shortest way. That part of the country where they were was destitute of game, and the provisions of the whole party taken together were scarcely enough for two days' journey. At that season of the year, the Indians retire to the distant mountains and leave the river till the return of spring, which accounts for their absence at this time.

We have already stated that one man, named Clappine, had been drowned - another by the name of Prevost had become deranged through starvation and drowned himself - and a third, named Carrier, lingered behind and perished; these fatal disasters happened in the parties conducted by Messrs. Hunt and Crooks. MacKenzie and his party were more fortunate: as soon as the division of the men and property took place, that bold North-Wester called his little band together, - "Now, my friends," said he, 'there is still hope before us; to linger on our way, to return back, or to be discouraged and stand still, is death - a death of all others the most miserable; therefore, take courage; let us persevere and push on ahead, and all will end well; the foremost will find something to eat, the last may fare worse." On hearing these cheering words, the poor fellows took off their caps, gave three cheers, and at once shot ahead.

Travels with MacKenzie

Continued Next Week


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