Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Kenneth McKenzie was, as fur trade historian Hiram Martin Chittenden put it, "the ablest trader the American Fur Company ever possessed." From his headquarters at Fort Union (which he was instrumental in establishing in 1829) he ruled the fur trade of the upper Missouri in its halcyon days. He pioneered the company's expansion into Blackfeet country with the establishment of Fort McKenzie in 1834; he was, with Pierre Chouteau Jr., the innovator of steamboat navigation on the upper Missouri, which revolutionized the transportation system; and he can even be credited with building what was perhaps the first whiskey still in the Great Plains, an imaginative but illegal and short-lived effort to evade the government's laws against importation of alcohol into Indian Country. McKenzie was like a king at Fort Union: dressed in a fine uniform, he lived in a residence with the rare luxury of glass windows and earned a reputation both as a martinet who brooked no insubordination and as a gracious host who presided over the best table of food and wine in the West.

McKenzie was born in Rosshire, Scotland, on April 15, 1797. He settled in St. Louis in 1822 after serving his apprenticeship in the fur trade with the North West Company. Within a year he was running the Columbia Fur Company, which controlled the trade on the upper Missouri until it was bought out by the American Fur Company in 1827. In the course of the following six years, as head of the Upper Missouri Outfit of the American Fur Company, McKenzie secured the company's virtual monopoly over the fur trade on the Northern Great Plains. By 1834 almost 2,000 packs of bison robes a year were being collected at Fort Union as well as large quantities of beaver, fox, and muskrat skins.

McKenzie retired from the fur trade in 1834, in part because of the furor over his whiskey scheme. In St. Louis he subsequently operated wholesale grocery and liquor businesses and invested in land and railroads. Kenneth Mc- Kenzie, "King of the Missouri," died on April 26, 1861. He was survived by his wife, Mary Marshall (whom he married in 1842), and four children in St. Louis as well as by his family from a previous marriage to an Indian woman at Fort Union.

David J. Wishart University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Chittenden, Hiram Martin. The American Fur Trade of the Far West. New York: F. R. Harper, 1903.

Mattison, Ray H. "Kenneth McKenzie." In The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, edited by LeRoy R. Hafen, 2: 217–24. Glendale CA: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1965.

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