THE BOUNDARY TRAIL HERITAGE REGION
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THE LEGEND OF THE MARCH WEST
The March West is a significant phrase in the lore of the Mounted Police. It symbolizes the Force’s reputation for perseverance in the face of adversity. Later generations of Mounted Police officers would take pride in this achievement of the original members. Many authors who have traced the development of the Force emphasize the importance of the March west in forging the unity of the NWMP.
After a most difficult journey, a relatively small band of policemen was established on the western frontier. And from this modest beginning, its influence on the future of the west in particular and Canada in general would grow enormously. A police force was in place which asserted the sovereignty of Canada over this vast territory and which would be a powerful influence for peace in the difficult days of transition ahead for the frontier.
On September 12th, the force reached its destination – the Belly River near its junction with the Bow River in southern Alberta. To Commissioner French’s great distress he found neither the notorious whiskey traders nor their forts. Whoop-Up country lay further west. By now the force’s condition was desperate. horses and oxen were dying at an alarming rate and the men’s uniforms were wearing to tatters. Moreover, the weather was growing colder and an early winter was feared. French turned his force south and near the border found good camping and grazing grounds in the Sweet Grass Hills.
Then French and Assistant Commissioner J. F. Macleod proceeded to Fort Benton, Montana to purchase supplies. At Fort Benton, French received instruction from Ottawa to leave a a large part of his force in southern Alberta and to return east with some of his men to set up headquarters near a planned seat of government for the North West Territories. In compliance, Commissioner French led “D” and “E” troops back east setting out on September 29th and eventually establishing the first headquarters of the Force at Swan River, Manitoba.
Assistant Commissioner Macleod now commanded the NWMP on the frontier. While in Fort Benton, he hired Jerry Potts as his guide and interpreter. Potts was the son of a Scottish trader and a Blood Indian woman. His exceptional knowledge of the west and his unfailingly sage advice was to be a godsend to the Mounted Police over the next twenty years. Immediately, Potts led Macleod, “B”, “C” and “F” troops north to Fort Whoop-Up at the junction of the Belly and St. Mary rivers. There they found that the whiskey traders had learned of Mounted police’s approach and had gone out of business. The NWMP then built Fort Macleod in southern Alberta – becoming the first fortified presence of the Force on the frontier.
The idea for a mounted police force to bring order to the frontier west was originally proposed during Sir John A. Macdonald’s term as Canada’s first prime minister. Mindful of the violence which had accompanied westward expansion in the United States, concerned parties conceived of a force of mounted police whose primary responsibility was to establish friendly relations with the Aboriginal Peoples and to maintain the peace as the settlers arrived. Organized in 1873, the North West Mounted Police was despatched west to Manitoba. Here, a force of 275 men set forth across the prairies. The trek across the unsettled territory proved long and arduous, testing the capability of the fledgling corps even to survive. It was this baptism by fire which forged the identity of the North West Mounted Police and continues to inspire RCMP employees today.
On July 8, 1874, two contingents of the fledgling NWMP assembled at Fort Dufferin, Manitoba, poised to embark on the first great mission. The destination was Whoop-Up country, 800 miles away across empty prairie. At the outset, the route would be along the newly defined Canada – U.S. border – following a trail recently covered by the commission laying the boundary. The officers anticipated that there would be difficulties along the way, but never imagined the hardships this party would be forced to endure.
The mounted party of 275 officers and men that left Fort Dufferin were divided into six troops or divisions, identified by letters “A” through “F”. Included in the march were an odd collection of ox-carts, wagons, field artillery pieces, agricultural implements and 93 cattle – items needed to support the police presence on the frontier. The first part of the journey was considered easy because of an adequate supply of forage and water, but still the horses unused to feeding on prairie grass began to fail. By July 24, the force had reached Roche Percee, 275 miles from its point of departure.
Here, Commissioner George Arthur French rested his contingent for five days and revised his plans. On July 29th, French divided his party; sending Inspector Jarvis and most of “A” Troop along with the weaker horsed and oxen north to Fort Edmonton where shelter and sustenance was available at the Hudson’s Bay Company post. The rest of the force pressed on westward.
The journey became more difficult throughout August and early September. Some areas of the prairies resembled desert where grass and water were very scarce. The animals suffered, many sickened and some died. The men too flagged under heat and the hardships of the journey. Occasionally new experiences alleviated the tedium. On August 13th, Commissioner French and his officers in full dress uniform sat in pow-wow with a band of Sioux Indians. Mutual assurances of good will were exchanged and the peace pipe passed. The mounted policeman also had their first encounters with buffalo during this time. The hunt which ensued provided a much needed and welcome supplement to the food supply. Unknowingly, they had passed by one of the largest Buffalo Drops in Canada very early on in the trek, just 4 miles north of where Cartwright Manitoba now stands.