How One Quest for the Northwest Passage Ended at the Icy Mouth of Disappointment River

The Mackenzie River, as it’s know today, is North America’s second-largest river system–but it wasn’t what its namesake was looking for

The Mackenzie (Dehcho) River is the second-largest river system in North America. Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Mackenzie really got around.

On this day in 1798, the Scottish explorer reached the mouth of the Dehcho River (‘big river’ in the language of the Dehcho Dene indigenous people). He was searching for the Northwest Passage, but found the river led only to the Arctic Ocean. According to a longstanding and likely apocryphal story, he gave the river the colonial name of Disappointment River. Today, it’s known as the Mackenzie River after the explorer and colonizer.

Mackenzie “came down the river… in a small flotilla of birchbark canoes,” writes Roy MacGregor for The Globe and Mail. “Natives had warned the curly-haired young Scot about the dangers of the river and the monsters to be found farther north, but he pressed on, insisting that such a huge river could only lead to the fabled Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean.”

The Northwest Passage was an important (and imagined) water route connecting the North Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, writes the Berkeley Political Review. It didn’t exist in Mackenzie’s time. There was simply too much ice. Today, as the result of climate change as well as changes in ship technology, ships have navigated it–although it’s not (yet) the easy trade route that European explorers imagined.

The explorer knew none of that as he traveled to the end of the river. “Eventually, Mackenzie came into view of what he discerned as the Arctic Ocean,” writes David L. Nicandry in The Pacific Northwest Quarterly. “Seeing no land ahead and ice in the shallow water ‘at about 2 Leagues distance,’ Mackenzie determined that the party had ‘landed at the limit of our travels in this direction.’ Ice extended to the east ‘as far as we could see.’”

After he discovered that he was wrong, the story goes that Mackenzie began calling the Dehcho the ‘River of Disappointment’ or ‘Disappointment River.’ However, his published journals don’t mention the name. As the Dictionary of Canadian Biography writes, “this is doubtful. The original of the letter in which he is alleged to use the name has disappeared, and it occurs in only one of the four surviving transcripts of this letter; in the other three the river is referred to as the Grand River.”  

In the preface to his published journals, Mackenzie wrote that his voyage “settled the dubious point of a practicable North-West passage; and I trust it has set that long agitated question to rest.”

However, what Mackenzie had found was something extraordinary–although it wasn’t what he hoped for.

True to its original name, the river is big, the second-longest in North America after the Mississippi River system according to The Canadian Encyclopedia

This disappointment–whatever the river was named–led Mackenzie to a new voyage: charting a passage through the continent on lakes and rivers in hopes of finding an inland Northwest Passage. In pursuit of this, he became one of the first Europeans–possibly the first–to cross North America.

“The non-existence of a practicable passage by sea and the existence of one through the continent are clearly proved,” he wrote after his two missions. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark followed in his footsteps, crossing the continent a decade later, writes Nicandry. “By all accounts,” he writes, it was Mackenzie’s journals that “prompted Thomas Jefferson to launch what we know as the Lewis and Clark expedition.”

Sadly, others were less inclined to listen to Mackenzie. Colonial explorers continued their search for a navigable all-water Northwest Passage, with many, including the lost Franklin expedition of the mid-1840s, incurring gruesome fates.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.