In 1795 James McKenzie began a seven-year apprenticeship with the North West Company under his brother Roderick in the Athabasca department. The journals he kept at Fort Chipewyan (Alta) in 1799–1800 illuminate the harshness of life in the fur trade; they also reveal his contempt for Canadians, Indians, and the NWC alike. “Bound to forward his company’s interest,” he physically abused the “Potties” (members) of the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company), sold Indian women to engagés, provided Indians with bad tobacco and watered-down rum, gave credits to hunters indebted to the XY Company, and, once, rewarded rather than punished a hunter responsible for an engagé’s death – all, he cynically confessed, for more beaver and thus more “hard cash” for the NWC’s shareholders.
Promoted partner in 1802, he was reassigned to the Athabasca country, then being infiltrated by the Hudson’s Bay Company. According to Peter Fidler*, who headed its campaign, McKenzie constructed a “watch house” near the HBC’s post and ordered the destruction of the company’s property; he debauched Indians, plundered furs, and “ill-used” Indians and HBC servants for trading with each other. Such “harsh and Barbarous usages,” Fidler reported, ultimately provoked some Chipewyans into killing six NWC “bullies.” After the amalgamation of the two North West companies in 1804, which brought Samuel Black into the fray for the NWC in the Athabasca, McKenzie’s harassment intensified and in 1806 the HBC withdrew from the area.
That year the NWC appointed McKenzie to the king’s posts and Mingan, starting in 1807 after his rotation at Montreal. In January 1807, while in Montreal, he joined the Beaver Club. Illness delayed him at Quebec until 1808, when he toured his new domain by canoe. Journeying up the Rivière Saguenay, across Lac Saint-Jean, and along the Rivière Chamouchouane to Fort Ashuapmouchouan (on Lac Chigoubiche), he then traversed the Labrador coast to Musquaro, where he met Naskapi Indians, whom he found to be “naturally timid,” “treacherous,” “indolent,” and “thieves.” Normally wintering at Tadoussac, he also assumed the duties of the NWC’s agency at Quebec, which took him occasionally to Montreal. This arrangement facilitated visits to his brothers Roderick and Henry*, and to his two mixed-blood sons (he had had a country wife) at nearby Terrebonne, where he bought a house in 1811. He was there in 1815 aiding John McDonald* of Garth to “dispossess” some 400 HBC voyageurs of a local tavern. In a list of NWC partners prepared at about this time for Lord Selkirk [Douglas*], McKenzie was described as an “Indolent and Easy” trader.
About 1818 he apparently left the NWC to become an independent merchant at Tadoussac and Quebec. He was first commissioned as a justice of the peace in 1821, when he may have settled permanently at Quebec. His new situation and the depressing effect of the HBC–NWC merger on his finances did little to alter some of the cynical opinions he had formed as a Nor’Wester; he testified in 1823 to a legislative committee on crown lands that the king’s posts Indians were “stupid” and “suspicious,” whereas to another witness, François Verrault, they were “mild, charitable and hospitable.”
On 10 Feb. 1825 McKenzie married Ellen Fitzsimons, the under-aged daughter of the late Captain Thomas Fitzsimons. The obligations imposed on James by their contract – mainly the setting up of a life annuity for Ellen – undoubtedly contributed to his eager acceptance of the HBC agency at Quebec in 1827. By 1840 the company’s lease of the king’s posts and its timber operations on the Saguenay, initiated in the 1830s by William Connolly, were being opposed by Quebec merchants. Despite McKenzie’s defence of the company, a firm headed by William Price* acquired a three-year timber licence, following which the area was opened up to unlicensed lumbermen. Chastised by Governor Sir George Simpson* in 1843 for accepting shares in James Gibb*’s sawmill company at Portneuf, McKenzie justified his action by citing his growing family’s financial needs.
Straitened circumstances plagued him to the end. Though he had granted mortgages to his wife to establish her annuity, she found it necessary to petition Simpson, in vain, for a pension following his death in July 1849. McKenzie, Simpson claimed two months later, had been a “mercantile agent,” not a “commissioned officer”; moreover, he had left a “considerable deficit in the Cash.” Ellen McKenzie died the following year, survived by four of their seven children.
[The author wishes to acknowledge the kind assistance of Henri McKenzie Masson of Outremont, Que. j.m.]
James McKenzie’s Athabasca journal and his account of the king’s posts are in McGill Univ. Libraries, Dept. of Rare Books and Special Coll., ms coll., CH173.S155 and CH177.S159 respectively. They have been published with certain deletions and revisions as James McKenzie, “Extracts from his journal, 1799–1800, Athabasca District” and “The king’s posts and journal of a canoe jaunt through the king’s domain, 1808; the Saguenay and the Labrador coast” in Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson), 2: 369–99 and 401–54. Masson’s edition of the 1808 journal was reproduced under the title “Yesterday: a canoe jaunt through the king’s domain in 1808,” alongside J. A. Burgesse’s description of the region in 1948, “Today: from Quebec to the Saguenay and Lake St. John in 1948,” under the collective heading “The king’s domain, today and yesterday” in the Beaver, outfit 279 (June 1948), 32–38.
ANQ-M, CN1-29, 6 juin 1795. ANQ-Q, CN1-197, 18 mars 1848, 20 févr. 1849; CN1-253, 5 févr. 1825; Z300076 (microfiche), James Mackenzie et famille. PAC, MG 19, B1, 1: 22; B3: 7, 9 (transcript); E1, ser.1: 187, 8430–31 (transcripts). PAM, HBCA, A.44/8: f.101; A.44/9: f.53; B.170/c/l: ff.23–39; D.4/40: f.9; D.5/2: ff.115–19, 183–85, 339, 345, 363, 378–79; D.5/22: ff.166–67. Presbyterian Church in Canada Arch. (Toronto), St Gabriel Street Church (Montreal), reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials (mfm. at AO). Les bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest (Masson), 1: 56. Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). Hargrave, Hargrave corr. (Glazebrook). L.C., House of Assembly, Journals, 1824, app.R. Morning Chronicle (Quebec), 20 July 1849. Quebec Gazette, 3 Dec. 1818, 5 July 1821. J G. MacGregor, Peter Fidler: Canada’s forgotten surveyor, 1769–1822 (Toronto and Montreal, 1966). C. W. Mackenzie, Donald Mackenzie: “king of the northwest” . . . (Los Angeles, 1937). R. S. Allen, “Peter Fidler and Nottingham House, Lake Athabasca, 1802–1806,” Hist. and Archaeology (Ottawa), 69 (1983): 283–347. Karlis Karklins, “Nottingham House: the Hudson’s Bay Company in Athabasca, 1802–1806,” Hist. and Archaeology, 69: 3–281.