A Beginning in Scotland
Aye, Donald MacKenzie (1783-1851) was just a wee lad in Inverness, Scotland when the call of the new world reached him. He was being educated for the ministry, but his brothers had already emigrated from Scotland, and Donald was determined to do the same. When he turned 17, he lit out for Canada. After that, the world was his oyster, and he never looked back at the old country. Donald became a famous fur trader, explorer of the Pacific Northwest Territories and governor of a colony in Western Canada. Despite his extensive travels back and forth across the North American continent, Donald MacKenzie had never visited the little village of Mayville, New York on the shores of Chautauqua Lake. Yet, when he retired, that is where he chose to settle. The story of how this adventure seeker ended up in Chautauqua County is a tale worth telling.
Donald arrived in Montreal, Canada in 1800 and joined his brothers as a trapper working for the North West Company. Furs were a valuable commodity at this time, and the furs from North America made their way to Europe where they became beaver hats for wealthy, fashionable men. In addition to Beaver, pelts from muskrats, deer and raccoons were sought for shoes and ladies fashions. MacKenzie trapped and traded throughout the interior of Canada, where he grew tough and developed a reputation as a well-rounded woodsman and an excellent shot. He was well known for his ability to deal with, and fight, Indians. He was a man of enormous size; he was 6? 8? tall, weighed 337 pounds, and the armhole of his vest had a girth of 45 inches. Needless to say, no one could best this massive man in hand to hand combat.
After eight years with the North West Company, MacKenzie joined the Pacific Fur Company of Montreal, which was financed by the German immigrant John Jacob Astor. Astor?s company did much more than trap fur bearing animals; it sent out an expedition to explore the Pacific Northwest and set up out posts for the company. Donald Mackenzie signed out for the challenging work.
Astor?s Overland Expedition departed from St. Louis Missouri, then a center for the fur trading industry. Donald accompanied a group through Idaho, where the group split. A group led by Donald traveled along the Snake River through what is now Idaho and Oregon. Although Lewis and Clark had already been to the northwest, no one except Native Americans had ever seen many of the areas MacKenzie visited.
MacKenzie traveled down the Columbia River and into the Willamette Valley (now Oregon and a part of southern Washington state), where he established the post named ?Astoria.? The MacKenzie Pass and the MacKenzie River in Oregon are named for him. He remained at Astoria for several years although his time there was not easy. There were conflicts with competing fur companies and natives, and supplies were slow to reach them.
In 1814, Astor sold the outpost in the Willamette Valley to MacKenzie?s former employer, the North West Company. Astor had no desire to hand control of the fur industry in the Pacific Northwest to his British competitors, but MacKenzie convinced him that he had no choice due to the political situation. The start of the War of 1812 between Britain and America had raised the threat a British warship could seize Astoria, and Astor?s Canadian partners were not willing to risk losing their investment in the case of a British take over. The fears of the British take over were justified, and a few weeks after the sale, a man-of-war ship arrived and claimed Astoria for Great Britain and renamed it Fort George. Donald's advice has been correct.
Having done everything he could to convert Astoria and its assets to cash, MacKenzie crossed the Rocky Mountains, and headed east. He used his contacts with his Canadian relatives to secure safe passage through the hostile territory of Canada, and safely delivered Astor?s money to him in New York. Instead of being grateful however, Astor was bitter about the sale, and blamed MacKenzie. The bitterness about their business dealings lasted several decades until, late in life, the men reconciled.
In 1816 Donald returned west, this time for his first employer, the North West Company. He constructed a fort at the confluence of the Columbia River and the Walla Walla River and from here MacKenzie and his men made annual trapping expeditions through southern Idaho and parts of eastern Oregon, northern Utah, and western Wyoming from 1818 to 1821.
Red River Valley
Anyone who ever took music lessons was undoubtedly required to play a slow, sentimental song called ?Red River Valley.? The real Red River Valley is in what is now Manitoba, Canada.
The Red River Valley was a settlement established by the Hudson Bay Company and settled by Swiss and Scottish immigrants. In 1821, Donald MacKenzie was appointed Governor of the Red River Colony. He left the Pacific Northwest and moved to Fort Garry (now Winnipeg, Canada) where he spent a decade governing an area including most of present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, Canada. He dealt with many challenges, including a flood in 1826 and an uprising of Swiss immigrants.
It is hard to imagine that a man who spent much of his life traveling in in the wilderness would marry, but Donald did so, twice. The first was a Native American woman with whom he had four children. We do not know her name, what became of her, or what happened to their children but we do know that it was not unusual for fur traders to marry Native American women.
In 1825, when he was 42 years of age and serving as governor or the Red River Colony, Donald married Adelgonda Droze or Druz (1806-1882). Adelgonda was from the Canton of Berne, Switzerland, and her parents brought her to North America to avoid the political unrest caused by the French Revolution. They arrived at Hudson?s Bay and traveled to Fort Garry where the couple married. Adelgonda served as the wife to the Governor of the Red River Colony, and her European manners and education are said to have a civilizing effect on the former fur trader. They had four children in Manitoba, and those children accompanied them to Mayville New York, where the remainder of their seven children were born. His children with Adelgonda were Roderick MacKenzie (1830-1908), Fennella Mackenzie Pupikofer (1834-1896), Alexander MacKenzie (1836-1889), Alice MacKenzie Ellsworth (1837- 1917), William Peacock MacKenzie (1841-1917), Donalda MacKenzie Paine (1843-1900) and Humbertson MacKenzie (1849-1886).
A Move East for Retirement
In 1834, Donald retired from his post as Governor of the Red River Colony and moved to Mayville, New York. For a Scotts-Canadian whose life had been spent in the Pacific Northwest, this seems like an unlikely choice. Some years before when MacKenzie was at Fort William, he met a young geologist named Douglas Houghton. Houghton told him of a lovely little lake near the eastern end of Lake Erie, and MacKenzie decided he would one day retire to this idyllic spot. He told his superiors at that his health required a trip east to treat with a physician and moved his growing white family and at least one of his Indian children east.
A self-made man, MacKenzie had amassed a large fortune and was able to build a brick mansion where he and his wife and children lived. The house was built on a prominent ridge where the old school now stands at route 430 and Academy Street. It commanded an expansive view of Chautauqua Lake. Sadly, this home was torn down in 1969 and all that remains in a historic marker.
In his retirement, MacKenzie started to write his memoirs, but being a man who was in ?perpetual motion?, he was too restive to enjoy writing. The disagreeable task made him difficult to get along with and eventually his wife burned the draft. He may not have had the patience for writing, but MacKenzie nevertheless was an influential man, and many important people sought him out in Mayville. Among the distinguished visitors Mackenzie entertained and advised while in retirement were Daniel Webster and William H. Seward, who later served as Secretary of State under President Lincoln. MacKenzie gave valuable advice on where the international boundary should be established for Oregon, and also may have given Seward suggestions that led to the purchase of Alaska from Russia.
Although the first school in Mayville was built on North Erie Street in 1824, the next brick school building was built on top of the hill on land donated by Donald MacKenzie in 1834. Later, in 1924 yet another school would be built on this land, which would be the school location until the construction of a new complex in 2000 on the outskirts of the village.
A Loyal Friend
While living in Mayville, Donald became friends with William Peacock (1780-1877), agent for the Holland Land Company. They were such close friends that Donald named a son after Peacock. Peacock was in charge of managing the local interests of the company, which was not an easy or popular job. In fact, in 1836 MacKenzie was credited with saving Peacock?s life when the farmers who had purchased their land from the Holland Land Company rioted.
The riot occurred on February 11, 1836 when a group of 250 to 500 men gathered at Barnhart's Inn, in nearby Hartfield, to organize a raid on the unpopular Holland Land Company offices in Mayville. The mob thundered into Mayville to the Holland Land Company?s wooden building. They broke down the door, smashed the windows and furniture, broke into the stone vault where the legal documents were kept, and destroyed William Peacock's house. Many of the papers, including the mortgages that were proof of their indebtedness to the company, were carried back to Hartfield and burned.
MacKenzie was with Peacock in his office on the day when armed men marched on the land office. Donald was still a strong, vigorous man who was always in ?perpetual motion.? Peacock resolved to defend the land office with his life but MacKenzie realized this was foolish. MacKenzie bodily picked up Peacock with many of the valuable papers and carried him up the hill to his own house for safety. The raid by the mob destroyed everything except for the old stone vault, which still stands today near county office buildings. After this the Land Company office was moved to Westfield and a new brick mansion was built for Peacock in Mayville. This mansion became the Peacock Inn and it survived until 1971 when it was torn down by the county to build a parking lot
The End of the Road
The end of Donald?s remarkable life came on January 20, 1851. Donald, who traveled often to Buffalo to manage his investments, was returning when he was thrown from his horse at a point known as eighteen-mile creek in Silver Creek. He was badly injured. He lingered for six months, but never recovered. When he died, he was initially, he was buried on the high ground of his property from which one could look down and see the lake and the Chautauqua Assembly. Later, MacKenzie?s body was relocated to the Mayville Cemetery.
Donald MacKenzie traveled a long road from his birth in Scotland, through the Pacific Northwest, and finally to a peaceful retirement in Mayville, New York. Along the way he fought the wilderness, wild animals, Native Americans, competitors in the fur trading business, business partners and rioting farmers. He was a big man, not just in his enormous size, but also in his personality, and physical fearlessness. Over the length of his impressive career, he achieved fame, admiration and financial success. Given his start as an immigrant, and his rise to international stature, it is amazing that he ended up in our little corner of the world. In fact, it is an honor to have counted him among our county?s residents.