June 17.99 awf
From the Glengarry News Alexandria, Ontario Wednesday April 14.99
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Williamstown museum artifact a source of mystery
by SUE HARRINGTON
Is it or isn't it?
How does one prove definitively that a compass box now on permanent loan to the Nor'Westers
and Loyalist Museum in Williamstown once belonged to the explorer Sir Alexander
David Anderson of the Glengarry Historical Society shows off the compass that is
believed to have once belonged to famed explorer Sir Alexander, Mackenzie. The artifact
is on. permanent loan to, the Nor'Westers and Loyalist Museum in Williamstown.
News photo - Sue Harrington
This little riddle has occupied the minds of local historians and Heritage Canada,
researchers since the box was returned to the area in 1995, after spending a chunk
of its life in New Zealand with members of the Clan Mackenzie.
Sir Alexander Mackenzie, a clerk of the North West Company and discoverer of the mighty
Mackenzie River, is perhaps best known as the first man to reach the Pacific Ocean
overland across Canada.
Students in Canadian schools remember photos bearing MacKenzie's famous inscription,
"Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand
seven hundred and ninety-three," which he painted on a rock.
Did the little brass box, which measures about 85 mm. in diameter, and features a
paper rosette in the guise of a cardboard compass glued to its lid, make the trip
to the west with Mackenzie?
David Anderson of Williamstown, thinks it's an entirely credible notion.
"There had to have been a compass on this trip," said Anderson, whose queries on the
Internet led to the recovery of the box from New Zealand.
Anderson said the initial clue into the box's whereabouts came from archivist Hugh
P. MacMillan. While travelling by plane some years back, MacMillan picked up an in-flight
magazine and read in it that Mackenzie's sextant box was supposedly in New Zealand.
When I first got on the Internet, Hugh P. urged me to try to find it," said Anderson,
describing how he went to the Australia/New Zealand Genealogical Society site and
then wrote a paragraph describing his quest.
"The very next morning I received a message saying I should contact a Pipe-Major
Roland Mackenzie. So I picked up the phone and called him."
After several chats and some correspondence, Roland Mackenzie offered to loan the
box "in perpetuity" to the Glengarry Historical Society (which operates the Nor'Westers
and Loyalist Museum).
The pipe-major's letter tells of his "very distant connection" to Sir Alexander Mackenzie,
and how stories passed down from generation to generation had maintained the compass
box had, indeed, belonged to the explorer.
"I had always been informed by father's cousin (now long deceased) that it had been
owned by Sir Alexander. I have no idea as to how cousin Belle Mackenzie ever came
by it but she had an amazing collection of letters, artifacts, memorabilia, etc.
dating back, to the 18th century. Apart from her assurance that this box was owned by Sir
Alexander, I have no verification as to 100 per cent authenticity" states a letter
from Roland written in 1995.
Part of the difficulty in linking the box to the famous Mackenzie, its lack of identifying
marks.There is no maker's stamp or other definitive identifier.
Researchers at Canadian Heritage, however, concede the construction of the box and
the engraving style on the paper lid liner are consistent with a mid-18th century
To Compound the puzzle, much of Sir Alexander's past - and many artifacts - was lost in a fire which destroyed his
house shortly after his death in 1820.
Anderson thinks the next step, ("now that we're out in the open"), is to get a top-notch
researcher to spend some time trying to find a link between the box and Mackenzie.
In the meantime it will join two other Mackenzie items at the Nor'Westers and Loyalist.
The local museum also has in its collection a bible that Sir Alexander presented to
niece and a very fine china cup featuring the Mackenzie coat-of-arms.
Anderson said the latter is not particularly rare as the 40 piece setting the cup,
belonged to was sold, off piece by piece.
Sir Alexander Mackenzie had several vital connections with Glengarry. His father,
Kenneth, was a lieutenant in the King's Royal Regiment of New York.
After Kenneth's death of scurvy in 1780, his brother, John, became Alexander's guardian.
John (Captain John MacKenzie is buried in Salem Church cemetery in Summerstown,
where he died, after his canoe was swamped in the St. Lawrence River.'
Several of his descendants, including Duncan A. A. Macdonell of Alexandria, remain
Sir Alexander also had a "named" pew in Andrew's church in Williamstown and donated the
bell to the church. He at one point owned more than 800 acres of land in the county
and is considered, along with David Thompson and Simon, Fraser, to be one of the
greatest explorers associated with the North West Company.