History of American Exploration from 1792 to 1800

About the history of American exploration from 1792 to 1800 including explorations of von Homboldt and Mackenzie.

A CHRONOLOGY OF THE EXPLORATION OF THE AMERICAS

1792-1793 After going back to England to study astronomy and navigation and to buy instruments to calculate position, Alexander Mackenzie returned to Canada in another attempt to find a river route to the Pacific. In a 25-ft.-long canoe Mackenzie and his 10-man party set off on May 9, 1793, down the Peace River from their winter headquarters, Fort Fork, an outpost 200 mi. from Fort Chippewyan. The canoe was "so light that two men could carry her on a good road 3 or 4 mi. without resting," yet it was able to transport the contingent of men plus 3,000 lb. of supplies. The going was easy until, a few days after sighting the Rockies, they came upon 25 mi. of cascading rapids in the Peace River canyon and were forced to portage and pole their canoe, bailing it out with sponges. On May 31 they reached the fork of the turbulent Parsnip River and the broad Finlay River. In spite of the Finlay's appeal, Mackenzie, remembering the advice given him by a Beaver Indian, chose the Parsnip--correctly. After portaging to the Continental Divide, they continued their travels, once wrecking their canoe in the rapids and patching it up, then moving on at Mackenzie's urging. When hostile Indians threatened to attack, Mackenzie, needing their knowledge of the land, risked his life to walk along the opposite bank of the stream, flashing mirrors and trinkets. His stratagem worked. The group reached the Pacific, where Mackenzie made astronomical observations and wrote on a rock with vermilion dye and grease, "Alex Mackenzie from Canada by land 22 July, 1793." In four weeks they were back in Fort Fork. Mackenzie's plan for a continental, Canadian-based fur-trading company, outlined in his book Voyages from Montreal (1801), spurred Thomas Jefferson to thwart Canadian expansion by sending the Lewis and Clark expedition west in 1803.

1797-1811 In 14 years of exploration, Welshman David Thompson, trader-surveyor for the North West Company, covered more than 50,000 mi. of territory in Canada and the U.S. in a canoe, on horseback, or on foot.

1799-1804 German scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) had given up on finding other scientists to accompany him on his South American expedition when, on a Paris hotel stairs, he spotted a man carrying what appeared to be a specimen box and introduced himself. It was a serendipitous meeting. The man was Aime Bonpland (1773-1858), a young French botanist, who accompanied Von Humboldt on his epic 37,000 mi. of exploration, "travelling for the acquisition of knowledge," as Von Humboldt's passport read. On their two trips--the first to the Amazon (1799-1800) and the second to the Andes (1801-1803)--they discovered and surveyed the Casiquiare River, proving that it links the Amazon and Orinoco; made a geological survey of the Andes; set a 30-year men's altitude record by climbing 20,561 ft. up Mt. Chimborazo; collected more than 60,000 plants, 6,300 of them previously unknown to European botanists; took more than 1,500 measurements; found evidence to prove Von Humboldt's theory that volcanoes mark faults in the earth's crust; studied tropical storms; discovered the Humboldt Current in the Pacific; discovered the value of guano (bird droppings), later imported to Europe for fertilizer at Von Humboldt's instigation. Their adventures and near escapes were many. They unknowingly bathed in a mudhole inhabited by electric eels, one of which later zapped Von Humboldt when he stepped on its tail preparatory to dissecting it; Von Humboldt narrowly escaped death when a demented guide tried to poison him with curare; and Bonpland fell in love with Samba, a part-Indian girl who broke his heart by jilting him. Von Humboldt later wrote of the trip: "Every object declares the grandeur of the power, the tenderness of Nature, from the boa constrictor, which can swallow a horse, down to the hummingbird, balancing itself on the chalice of a flower." His 29 books about South America, containing 1,426 maps and illustrations, cost 180,000 francs to publish--a sum he himself paid.

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