Ah, the beautiful Mackenzie Country, home to skiing, Aoraki/Mount Cook, lakes, glaciers and starry skies.
Named after James Mackenzie, notorious New Zealand outlaw and infamous sheep rustler. Right?
Well, sort of.
It’s unclear if the man we know as James Mackenzie spelt his name that way, or if it was even his correct name.
He was often called Jock, John or James, and sometimes called himself John Douglass, was maybe born in Ross-shire, Scotland (some say Inverness-shire) around 1820 and since he spoke Gaelic fluently and indifferent English, his name might even have been anglicised.
Nevertheless, the story of the rogue grew until the truth was inseparable from fiction.
Mackenzie himself had once said his family had been well off with his father holding a Crown position but died in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) leaving his family desperate.
So he went to Australia about 1849 and with the help of a cousin bought a team of bullocks and earned money hauling goods to gold fields.
He moved on to New Zealand, arriving in Nelson then worked his way through Canterbury to Otago.
He is said to have applied for a land licence and while waiting worked as a drover.
But in March 1855 he was caught with 1000 sheep from the Levels station of Robert and George Rhodes. The sheep had been tracked through an inland pass to the basin of the upper Waitaki River.
Mackenzie denied everything saying he had been hired to drive the sheep to Otago. However he escaped from the hunters and walked the 100 miles to Lyttelton - apparently without shoes - where he was captured
He was mostly silent throughout the court case until his faithful Border collie sheepdog Friday was brought into the court. She whined and tried to go to him. He pleaded to be allowed to keep her even if he was imprisoned and warned them she would not work for anyone else.
It was refused, and true to Mackenzie’s word, Friday would not herd for anyone.
He was promptly found guilty and given five years hard labour on the roads but he escaped twice more.
After the last escape attempt he was kept in irons.
Then came Henry Tancred, a magistrate in Christchurch who investigated Mackenzie’s case, finding it seriously flawed. So Mackenzie got a pardon.
Now most stories end with him getting on a boat to go to Sydney, Australia and was never seen again.
But it’s also not quite true. Police Inspector Edward Seager wrote in 1900 that in fact Mackenzie had tried to return to New Zealand but was warned off by police so left again.
It was Mackenzie’s rebelliousness and then his pardon that won him folk hero status, including songs being written about him.
The legends, about his strength, prowess as a drover and Friday (immortalised by a bronze memorial to working collie dogs on the shores of Lake Tekapo) grew and grew - but it appears no one really knew Mackenzie - or where he might lie now.
Photo by Casey Horner
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