Sir Alexander MacKenzie

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"Exploring" a relationship

The fur trade in North America in the late 18th, early 19th century period had as central characters five MacKenzies from Scotland; Alexander (later knighted) from Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, and four brothers from the Coigach district of Lochbroom; Roderick, James, Henry, and Donald. The brothers are in many records noted as cousins to Alexander, but nowhere are the details of the relationship made clear other than that Alexander and Roderick knew each other well in Scotland before emigrating. It is generally assumed that Catherine MacKenzie, mother of the brothers, was a sister to Kenneth MacKenzie, the father of Alexander.

Alexander MacKenzie painted by Thomas Lawrence 
(c.1800), courtesy National Gallery of Canada vspace=
Alexander MacKenzie painted by Thomas Lawrence (c.1800), courtesy National Gallery of Canada

Sir Alexander MacKenzie became a famous explorer, the first European to travel the river that now bears his name to the Arctic Ocean, and also the first European to cross North America north of Mexico. His mother's MacIver ancestry is well recorded several generations back on Lewis and does not include MacKenzies, so the relationship to the brothers is almost certainly through his father Kenneth.

This file is a short study of the various genealogys that show Sir Alex's ancestry, and of how he may have been related to the four brothers. Sources on the birth, childhood, and career of Alex generally agree and are well covered elsewhere. In short;

Alexander's father Kenneth was a prominant Merchant at Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, William Foulger of the Stornoway Historical Society from their research of records says Kenneth's father was Donald Mackenzie of Fairbairn by Dingwall and in turn his father (gt-grandfather of Sir Alex) was Allan Mackenzie of Stornoway. William further notes "Donald was not apparently one of the Mackenzie's of Fairbairn as far as I can ascertain". That descent agrees with the one given by the historian Barry M. Gough in his 1997 book "First Across the Continent: Sir Alexander Mackenzie";

"[Alexander's father Kenneth] known locally by the nickname of Cork, [...] was grandson of Allan Mackenzie of Stornoway and son of Donald Mackenzie of Fairburn, near Dingwall in Ross and Cromarty."

Sonia MacKenzie of New Zealand includes a few pages on Sir Alex in her book, "Children of Kildonan", that generally agrees with William and Barry, spelling the place his grandfather Donald was of as "Fairburn", rather than "Fairbairn", and notes the gt-grandfather Allan had gone to Stornoway "with Lord Kintail in 1609".

The 19th century genealogies, "History of the Mackenzies", and "the Findon Tables", do not clearly show how a Donald of the Fairburn family might have been father of Kenneth Mackenzie of Stornoway, However, the 20th century book, "Some Mackenzie Pedigrees", gives some clues as to how he may have been grandfather. Rory Mackenzie became heir to his father in 1665 as V of Fairburn, and died 1683.

By 1648 Rory had married his first wife, Margaret, daughter of Patrick Grant of Glenmoriston, they had three sons and two daughters. Rory married secondly 1663 to another Margaret, daughter of Donald Mackenzie of Logie. Rory and that Margaret had three sons, the youngest a Donald, possibly the Donald noted as father of Kenneth Mackenzie of Stornoway, but actually a grandfather.

That Donald is noted as having an only son, Murdoch, heir in 1724 to his father's two older full brothers. If Murdoch had a brother Kenneth at Stornoway it is likely he would have been noted then. Though the birth year of that Murdoch is not known, presumably he was an adult in 1724, far to old to be a brother to Kenneth "Corc" of Stornoway, who was said to have been born 1731.

In 2012 Andrew McKenzie with his brother Kevin as co-researcher wrote and published a history of the Mackenzies, titled "May we be Britons?", see In the book they examine ancestry of Sir Alexander, especially in a footnote on page 304, where referance is made to notes from a sister of Sir Alex quoted in the book "The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie", published 1970 at Cambridge. Emails from Kevin in 2013 elucitate, he notes findings by he and his brother tally extremely well with my own. Their work is sensible and clearly well researched, so my own early scratchings below are now edited accordingly. Kevin wrote [reformatted from email for more clear view on web];

The precise correct line seems to be as follows:

    Roderick Mackenzie, V of Fairburn, had second wife Margaret Mackenzie (daughter of Donald Mackenzie of Loggie who himself had west coast and Lewis connections, as, successively servitor to the second and third Earls of Seaforth. Margaret's paternal grandfather was Allan Mackenzie of Loggie, who also had Lewis connections, because we have found that contrary to widespread belief it was the Loggie line, not the Hilton line, who were the senior cadet line and thus effectively hereditary servitors to the Mackenzie chiefs. Grandfather Allan was a contemporary of Lord Kintail and is thus likely to have undertaken business for him in Lewis)

      Donald Mackenzie (younger son, by Margaret, thus named after his maternal grandfather)


          [ Sons ] Kenneth "Corc" [ and Captain John ]

            Sons Murdoch (named after his paternal grandfather) and Sir Alexander the explorer.

Murdoch at the third generation above appears in Alexander Mackenzie's 19th history "History of the Mackenzies", as father of Kenneth "Corc", and has simply been missed out of the tree as constructed by William Foulger, Barry Gough and Sonia Mackenzie, and the descent from Allan Mackenzie whom the latter notes as having gone to Stornoway "with Lord Kintail in 1609" was simply through the female line [wife of Roderick Mackenzie, V of Fairburn] and a little more distant than grandfather of Kenneth (as is of course independently confirmed by the generational gap).

My earlier notes in this file included;

It was not unusual in that time and society for Mackenzies to marry other Mackenzies, and given Donald noted as from the Fairburn family of Easter Ross, but Allan from Stornoway, my assumption is Allan was Donald's father in law, rather than his father. Regardless, Allan may have been descended from a Mackenzie that went to Stornoway in 1609, but would not likely be that person himself, having grandson Kenneth noted as born 1731.

Kevin suggests Allan was a further generation back, maternal gt-grandfather of Donald.

One of Rory's sons through his first wife was an Alexander, noted in a 1702 sasine as then living in Lochbroom Parish, though by 1717 in Easter Ross. It is possible he was father of Donald the grandfather of Sir Alex. Only the eldest son of that Alexander is noted, a Roderick, who looks to have been born in the late 1600s and later lived in Easter Ross near Brahan, but in those days of large familys it is not unlikely Alexander had children the records of whom have not survived. More likely as Kevin notes above is Alexander had a younger half brother Donald, and the chart below is now edited to show this.

As noted above, the wife of Alexander Mackenzie of Achnaclerach, Catherine, was likely a sister of Kenneth Mackenzie of Stornoway. Kenneth's son, Sir Alexander the explorer, was frequently noted as first cousin of Catherine's four fur trade sons.

So, a speculative tree is;

                                                                    Allan Mackenzie of Loggie,
                                                                      Servitor to Earl of Seaforth
                                                                      likely to Lewis in 1609

                                                                     Donald MK of Loggie, had west
                                                                       coast and Lewis interests

  Roderick Mackenzie, married first to Margaret Grant      Roderick married second to Margaret MK
    V of Fairburn, died 1683
                               |                                               |
       ________________________|________                                       |
      |                 |               |                                      |
      |                 |               |                                      |

 Murdoch MK,          Colin MK    Alexander MK,                             Donald MK
  VI of Fairburn                   at Lochbroom 1702,
                                   noted as living 1738                        |
                                        |                                      |
                                        |                                      |

                                  Roderick MK                              Murdoch MK
               |                        |                            |   
               |                        |                            |

      Kenneth MK, born 1731,         Capt.John MK,              Catherine MK, married
       merchant at Stornoway,          1745-1795                  Alexander MK of Achnaclerach
       married Isabella Maciver,       to N.Y. with Kenneth          |
       died 1780 at Carleton Island    in 1774                       |
            |                                                        |
    ________|_______________________                                 |
   |                                |                                |
   |                                |                                |

Murdoch MK,               Sir Alexander MK, the explorer    9 or 10 children born at Achiltibuie,
  named after paternal      born 1762 at Stornoway,           Dalpolly, and Achnaclerach, including
           grandfather      died 1820 in Scotland             four furtraders, born in the period
                                                              1760 - 1787

Stornoway Mackenzies

Alexander's father Kenneth of Stornoway had a brother, John, who with him went to New York in 1774 shortly before the outbreak of the American Revolution.

Kenneth born about 1731 as a young man served as Ensign in the force raised to protect Stornoway from the Jacobites in the 1745 Rebellion.

It is unclear whether Kenneth was himself Tacksman (principal tenant) of Melbost, a few miles from Stornoway, or "a member of the family", presumably a younger son. Regardless, he was primarly known not as a Tacksman, but as a Merchant at Stornoway.

At Stornoway Kenneth was known by the nickname of "Kenneth Corc", his son Alex was later noted as "Sliochd Mhurcha' Riabhaich" a decendant of "Murchadh Riabhach nan Corc" [Nasty Murdo of the Sheath-Knives], and it looks likely Kenneth's nickname comes from that descent. One of the four furtrade brothers noted in a letter "The late Sir Alexander MacKenzie was like us lineally descended from [Murdoch Reavach]"

Alexander the explorer was previously noted in sources as born 1764 or 1763, William Foulger says the birth year is now thought to be 1762, Gough in his book says there is an emigrant record in 1774 giving his age as twelve, which confirms 1762. Regardless, sources agree he was born at Luskentyre House in Stornoway, as second of four children of the Merchant Kenneth MacKenzie and Isabella MacIver, his elder brother was Murdoch, his younger sisters Margaret and Sybilla.

Alexander attended the "good parish school in Stornoway", with some forty other pupils. Presumably that was from about 1767 till he left to the American colonies in November 1774. As well as the basics taught at the school it can be expected he studied with his father the economics of Merchant life; balances, inventories, purchases, sales, and most importantly the psychology of business relationships which stood him in good stead later in the furtrade.

Lochbroom Mackenzies

And so, to Lochbroom, and the known immediate history of the four fur trade brothers (and their five other identified siblings);

The mainland of Ross and Cromarty opposite the Isle of Lewis is the Coigach District of Lochbroom. Like neighbouring Assynt it belonged to the MacLeods of Lewis through the middle ages until the early 17th century, when it fell to the MacKenzies by marriage of Roderick, "Tutor of Kintail", to Margaret MacLeod, whose father Torquil was involved in a fratricidal war. Roderick killed those of his in-laws who had not earlier murdered each other, securing Coigach for the Cromartie MacKenzies till they sold it in the 1950s.

The descendants of Roderick and Margaret, the Cromartie MacKenzies, sublet Coigach to "Tacksmen", principal tenants who would themselves sublet their Tacks to as many as a few dozen subtenants. Until the establishment in 1788 of the fishing village at Ullapool, Achiltibuie was the most populous Tack in Coigach, with up to 20 families.

A later Roderick MacKenzie, (namesake of his gt-gt-grandfather, the Tutor of Kintail), was a member of the Ardloch MacKenzie family, and so a second cousin of the Third Earl of Cromarty. He became Tacksman of Achiltibuie in 1740, replacing the family of Alexander MacLeod. In the 1745 Rebellion Roderick served as a Lieutenant in the Earl's Jacobite Regiment. Arrested and convicted of treason he was pardoned after pleading duress (the Parish Minister testified Roderick's cousin "Ardloch" and his brother Alexander seized his black cattle and threatened to hang him if he did not participate)

Eldest son of Roderick of Achiltibuie and his wife Katherine (a daughter of the third Laird of Ballone) was an Alexander, born about 1737. He spent some time in the south of Scotland apprenticed to a farmer to learn modern farming methods, but returned to Achiltibuie where he began his own family, which included the four future fur traders, a grandson in 1901 noted Alexander's wife as "Catherine". In later life Alexander was styled as "of Achnaclerach", the farm in neighbouring Contin Parish he later became Tacksman of.

Sir Roderick MacKenzie, 
Tutor of Kintail
Sir Roderick MacKenzie, Tutor of Kintail
uncredited painting from "The Mackenzies of Ballone"

In 1767 the Widow Katherine with her children, including her son Alexander who had already started his own family, lost the Tack of Achiltibuie, and were removed spring of the next year to the more remote and less hospitable Coigach farm of Dalpolly. The 1785 Coigach Rental notes the tenants at Dalpolly as "Widow Mackenzie and son". The son is not named, and may have been Alexander, or one of his brothers if Alexander had already moved to Achnaclerach in Contin by then (the second son, James, was in Canada from sometime before his 1780 marriage, where he became a prominant Merchant at Trois Rivieres, the third son, another Roderick, settled in Contin Parish near Achnaclerach at Glaschoil, nothing so far is known of Katherine's other children).

The period from 1767 on was unsettled for the family of Alexander, father of the fur traders, though he later became more comfortable at Achnaclerach, and died while resident there 1789. If as widely surmized his wife was a sister of the Merchant Kenneth "Corc" MacKenzie of Stornoway than it is not unlikely a child or two might have been sent to Stornoway for a few years during that unsettled period, and were educated there along with their cousins, including the future explorer.

Here are some notes regarding the four fur trade brothers;

Roderick MacKenzie of Terrebonne
The Honourable Roderick MacKenzie of Terrebonne, c.1811 by William Berczy, from catalogue of a National Gallery of Canada exhibition in 1991 with provenance to "M. François Rimaud, Paris".
Roderick MacKenzie, born about 1761 at Achiltibuie, within a year or two of his cousin and lifelong freind, Alexander at Stornoway. He was a young boy of about five years of age when his father and grandmother lost Tack of Achiltibuie in 1767. It was not unusual at that time for older children to be sent off to more settled relatives at times of economic troubles, or a mother's pregnancy and occupation with new born children. It is not unlikely at least the second son of the family, Roderick, was sent off to Stornoway to board with the family of Alexander (later the explorer), and a freindship developed between the cousins that continued through their later lifes.

Alexander and Roderick's later careers were intertwined, and they continued as close friends, with a break of a few years due to business differences.

Roderick died 15 August, 1844 at Terrebonne in what is now the province of Quebec. He was in the fur trade from his arrival 1785 in Canada, gaining employment first from Alexander said to be his first cousin, and the person who entreated him to emigrate. Roderick is said to have written the introduction to Sir Alexander's book on his travels.

He settled about 1800 near Montreal, purchasing the Seigneurie of Terrebonne, and was often referred to with title "Seigneur", shortened as "Sr.", leading some family historians to mistakedly note him as knighted, "Sir". He served in the National Assembly, hence the title "Honourable".

James Mackenzie was born about 1777, likely at Dalpolly in Coigach, and died 18 July, 1849 at Quebec. Like three of his brothers he entered the fur trade in Canada. Although in one way or another he continued in the fur trade from 1795 till his death, he also was involved in business ventures in Quebec. He purchased a home at Terrebonne (the seigneurie owned by his brother Roderick) in 1811, and moved the two sons he had with his "Country Wife", though in the fashion of the day, not the lady herself. In 1815 at Terrebonne he was noted as acting with another North-West Company trader, John McDonald of Garth to dispossess some four hundred voyageurs from the rival Hudson's Bay Company from a local tavern, a heroic bar brawl!

His personal relations with the natives in the fur trade were sometimes described as "brutal", and somewhat disreputable, though it should be noted that he raised children from his first "country wife", and his son Keith looks likely to have been ancestor with an Inuit wife of the McKenzies of Rigolet in Labrador.

Henry MacKenzie of Montreal
Picture of Henry MacKenzie, likely also circa 1811 by William Berczy.
In a private collection.
Henry Mackenzie, born about 1781, likely either at Dalpolly in Coigach, or at Achnaclerach in Contin Parish if the family had moved there by then. He died 28 June, 1832 at Montreal, said to have died from cholera, caught while tending a victim who had collapsed at his gate.

Henry married 23 May, 1815 at Williamstown, Glengarry, in what is now Ontario to Anne Bethune (born 22 May, 1786 at Charlottenburg, Upper Canada, died 3 May, 1835 at Cobourg, Upper Canada), Anne's father the Rev. John Bethune was the Minister at their wedding. Anne's brother Angus Bethune, a fur trader, was married to Louisa MacKenzie, a daughter of Henry's older brother, Roderick Mackenzie of Terrebonne. Henry and Anne had thirteen children, only two surviving to adulthood.

He was described as "seigneurial agent, fur trader, merchant, jp, militia officer, and office holder", and noted as taking care of the business interests of other fur traders, including his cousin Sir Alexander MacKenzie, when they were in the wilderness or Europe.

Donald Mackenzie, born 16 June, 1783 at Achnaclerach in Contin Parish, died 20 January, 1851 at Mayville, Chautauqua County, New York. He followed his brothers to Canada in 1801 and into the fur trade. He married first in 1812 at Fort William in what is now Ontario, as his "country wife", Mary Wadin McKay, daughter of another fur trader. They had three or possibly four children, at least two of whom went with Donald and his second wife to Mayville on his retirement.

Donald married second 18 August, 1825 to Adelgonde Humbert Droz, one of a group of Swiss emigrants to the Red River Colony. Hired as Governess to Donald's earlier children, they had a happy lifelong marriage with thirteen children of their own.

Donald MacKenzie of Mayville
Donald MacKenzie of Mayville

And a few later ties between the families;

After the death of his mother, young Alexander from Stornoway as a 10 or 12 year old with his father and uncle emigrated to New York in 1774, where the family became involved in the Revolution. His father Kenneth enlisted in a loyalist Regiment, and young Alexander was moved first to the loyalist area of Johnstown, and then later to Montreal, continuing his education.

Alexander's father Kenneth died 1780 at Carleton Island on the St.Lawrence River, probably ministered to by the Rev John Bethune, a man important in Canadian church history as first Presbyterian Minister of Montreal and of Upper Canada (modern Ontario). Alexander was later to donate a bell to Bethune's church at Williamstown, Ontario, still there today. Bethune had numerous ties to the fur trade brothers; in 1780 at Williamstown he performed the marriage of their uncle James, one of his daughters married one of the brothers, Henry, and one of his sons married a daughter of Roderick (that couple were ancestors of the famous Dr. Norman Bethune, hero of the Chinese war against Japan).

The Reverand John Bethune
The Reverand John Bethune
Rev. John Bethune, born 1751 on the Isle of Skye, died 23 September, 1815 at Williamstown, Upper Canada. He was the first Presbyterian Minister of Montreal, and of Upper Canada (modern Ontario).

The Bethune and MacKenzie trees intertwine at several places;

Excerpt from an email (index numbers are to place in the chart altimack.htm);

the Bethune descent overlaps the MacKenzie of Achiltibuie descent, in the MacKenzie descent chart you can see Angus Norman Bethune, son of Rev. John Bethune, married to Anne "Louisa" Mackenzie at 2-1-4-3-2-1-2-2, that is the line that leads to the Doctor Norman of China fame.

Also in that line is the architect Robert Armour Bethune, whose wife was the first professional female architect in the U.S.A. I think their descendats can put "U.E." after their names to denote descent from the United Empire Loyalists who fled the American Revolution, and also "D.A.R." for "Daughter of the American Revolution" as descended from Revolutionarys! (The actress Zina Bethune descends from them, see her bio at )

Henry Mackenzie, 2-1-4-3-2-1-7 in the chart, married Anne Bethune, a daughter of Rev. John, who officiated at the wedding.

Henry and Anne's daughter Catherine Veronica Mackenzie, 2-1-4-3-2-1-7-2 in the chart, had as Minister of her own wedding her uncle (a son of Rev. John), John Bethune, D.D., Dean of Montreal.

James Mackenzie, 2-1-4-3-2-2 in the chart, had Rev. John as Minister of his own wedding.

Some notes on descent from Sir Alex

Sir Alexander Mackenzie had descent from his native wifes in Canada through children Julie and Andrew (see article and correspondance between Judy Parry and Pia Goddard in the September 2006 edition of the Clan Mackenzie Canada Newsletter, ), and later from his Scottish wife at Avoch. That descent has been much studied by others, so what follows are only a few random notes.

Metis website at notes;

"Julie Mackenzie, mixed blood, b-1805 daughter (I)-Alexander MacKenzie, b-1763, Scotland and Marie Eskimo (Inuit); married about 1819, Pierre Leveille. b-1783 son Joseph Leveille, b-1783 son Joseph Leveille and Isabelle Boivin."

Memorial stone in Avoch Parish Churchyard is transcribed by Roddie Macpherson (see his photo and transcription of the stone at ) as;

"In memory of
of Avoch,
born 14th February 1818,
died 28th March 1894.
youngest son of the above
born 2nd May 1872,
died at Salisbury, Rhodesia, 5th Sept 1900."

This file, and others dealing with history and genealogy of Coigach, links from my homepage at:

Any suggestions for additions or edits please feel free to email me,

Donald MacDonald-Ross, at:

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