Kenneth McKenzie – King of the Upper Missouri


Kenneth McKenzie

Kenneth McKenzie

Kenneth McKenzie, nicknamed the “King of the Missouri”, was a fur trader for American Fur Company who controlled a territory larger than most European nations.

McKenzie was born at Bradlack, Scotland on April 15, 1797, and immigrated to America in 1816. He first worked as a clerk for the North West Company, but after a few years, he quit and moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1822. With Joseph Renville, he formed the Columbia Fur Company, of which, he was President at the time it merged with the American Fur Company in 1827. McKenzie was placed in control of the American Fur Company’s interests upon the upper Missouri River and with William Laidlaw and Daniel Lamont, formed the subdivision called the Upper Missouri Outfit.

To McKenzie, fell the responsible task of carrying the trade into those hostile regions from which the traders had always been driven. He was very ambitious and entered this new field with great enthusiasm and untiring energy. Within four years, he occupied the entire area of trade with posts at the mouth of the Yellowstone, Bighorn, and the Marias Rivers. He established the noted post of Fort Union in present-day North Dakota — the best built and equipped post west of the Mississippi River.

By 1833, the American Fur Company controlled the entire Missouri River area and McKenzie was widely considered the “King of the Missouri.” From his headquarters at Fort Union, McKenzie ruled over an extent of country greater than that of many a notable empire in history. His outposts were hundreds of miles away; his parties of trappers roamed far and wide through the vast mountains. From every direction, tribes of roving Indians came to his post to trade. Altogether, it was a remarkable business that he ran, and one which only a man of great ability could have handled so successfully. He was universally feared and respected, while his immediate subordinates in charge of the various posts considered him not merely their superior but, a friend. His correspondence with them shows superior diplomatic skills and he could, with equal facility, praise well-doing, administer mild censure in a way to rob it of all bitterness or bear down with merciless weight upon those who deserved it.

Fort Union, North Dakota

Fort Union, North Dakota

He was successful in his work, but stiffer competition allowed his zeal to lead him into a faux pas which ended his usefulness in the upper country. This was the erection of a distillery at Fort Union, which was in violation of U.S. laws. The detection of this subterfuge brought wide-spread contempt upon the company, seriously threatened its charter, and forced McKenzie to retire for a time from the country.

He visited Europe, and after his return, went again to Fort Union but, did not long remain there. He closed up his affairs with the American Fur Company with about fifty thousand dollars to his credit. He then established himself in the wholesale liquor trade but was not successful, and with his habits of lavish hospitality, he soon spent the greater part of his fortune. He died in St. Louis on April 26, 1861, and is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

McKenzie married late in life and left two children, daughters. He also had a son by an Indian wife, named Owen McKenzie. He was given a good education and became a man of considerable prominence in the upper Missouri River trade. Owen was killed by Malcolm Clarke in 1863.

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated February 2020.

Also See:

Adventures in the American West

Explorers, Trappers, Traders & Mountain Men List

The Great Fur Trade Companies

Old West Photo Gallery