Expeditions

During the nineteen century at least five major expeditions traversed either the length or major portions of the current Boundary Trail National Heritage Region. Few other regions in western Canada hosted such a variety of scientific, military, survey and police based expeditions, in some cases involving hundreds of men and wagons crossing many hundreds of miles of open prairie. Their eventful experiences while travelling through the region make up some of the most interesting of all the amazing true stories to be found in the BTNHR. These expeditions include: 

1. The British North American Exploring Expeditions, 1857-59.

2. The Dominion Land Survey, 1869-1879.

3. The Red River Expeditionary Force, 1870

4. Her Majesties North American Boundary Commission, 1872-74

5. North West Mounted Police ‘Trek West’, 1874.

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1. The British North American Exploring Expeditions, 1857-59.

Canadian – Hind Expedition June 23, 1858 campsite on the banks of the Assiniboine River .

The monopoly of the Hudson’s Bay Company to exclusive trade in the British Northwest Territories was due to expire in 1859. The company wished for an extension of its monopoly, but the Canadian government indicated to Britain that it was extremely interested in extending its administrative jurisdiction over the interior. “Settlement of the interior and a communication link over all the British possessions in North America seemed desirable imperial goals, but their feasibility was uncertain without more thorough investigation of the area.” (Huyda 1975:3)

There were several reasons behind the British and Canadian governments sponsoring of exploring expeditions into the Western Interior. There was growing imperial concern for more secure links with the far western colony in British Columbia, where gold had been discovered. Also the Pacific coast was of growing importance to British trades interests due to the growth of trade with the Orient. In the interior, the small settlements along the Red River had been growing slowly, and it was undesirable that they should remain isolated and exposed to the American westward expansion. Trade and transportation ties between the Red River and St. Paul, Minnesota had been growing since the 1840s when American steamboats, and then railways, reached north from Chicago into Minnesota. The growing closeness between Americans and the Red River Settlement, coupled with a lack of an all-Canadian route to the west, threatened the security of the entire British Northwest Territories.

In 1857, two exploratory expeditions were sent to the western territories for the purpose of providing their respective governments with “an accurate objective description of the geography…and the resources of the area, to assess the agricultural, and settlement potential, and to report the possibilities of a permanent communications route linking all the British North American colonies.” (Huyda 1975:3)

Captain John Palliser, a British Army Officer, was placed in charge of the British Expedition. He spent three years, from 1857 to 1859 exploring the western interior. His explorations took him along the Red River Valley to the international boundary at which point he turned west and travelled along the 49th parallel through the Turtle Mountains. It has been claimed that he followed a route which later became a section of the Commission Trail, and his journal seems to confirm this: We arrived at the brink of a wide valley through which the Pembina River flows. The descent to the river margin is very precipitous, but there is a tolerably good road winding through coarse wood, formed by the hunters, who resort annually to the plains beyond.“ (VoI 1, pg. 205.)

The Canadian Expedition was headed by Professor Henry Youle Hind, a professor of chemistry at the University of Toronto. During the summer of 1857 the expedition explored the district between Lake Superior and the Red River, determining the best path of an all-Canadian route to the Red River. Simon Dawson (1820-1902), a Scottish-born civil engineer was in charge and laid out the route of Dawson Trail, which early settlers from Ontario would soon speak of in derision.

During the three months of the 1858 survey, Hind’s team was divided into two parties. Simon James Dawson, a Scottish-born civil engineer, conducted his survey north from Portage la Prairie. Hind explored to the south, to the west up the Qu’Appelle River valley, and to the northwest as far as the South Saskatchewan and Saskatchewan Rivers. After leaving Red River on June 15, Hind’s division (including fourteen men, six Red River carts, and fifteen horses), travelled up the Little Souris River, below present-day Brandon, Man. He had James Austin Dickson as his surveyor and engineer, John Fleming as assistant surveyor and draughtsman, and Hime as photographer. The summer of 1858 was exceedingly dry and their impressions of the land south of the Assiniboine River was generally negative. Hind noted they had travelled through a country whose “general character is that of sterility” (Vol. I, pg:285). On June 27, 1858 they ascended “the last of the Blue Hills”, near modern Margaret, Man. There, they looked out onto, “one of the most sublime and grand spectacles of its kind . . . a boundless level prairie on the opposite side of the river, one hundred and fifty feet below us, of a rich, dark-green colour, without a tree or shrub to vary its uniform level.” (VoI 1, pg. 291).

Detail of a map showing Captain John Palliser’s Expedition during the summer of 1858.

As a result of the Canadian Exploring Expedition’s glowing reports about the Pembina Hills – Turtle Mountain region, and of the whole prairie parkland region in general, increased interest in the West developed in Colonial Canada. The reports of the Canadian and British Exploring Expeditions were to form the basis of the Canadian Government’s plans for the transcontinental railway and the subsequent settlement of the west.

 

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2. The Dominion Land Survey, 1869-1879. 

Dominion Survey crew. 1870s.

 

The Boundary Trail Heritage Region and adjacent areas played a pivotal role in the new Dominion government’s herculean task of surveying the entire British northwest territories as an important precursor to agricultural settlement. The entire current ‘Section-Township-Range’ system of rural land survey in western Canada is directly connected to a single point on the International Boundary about 22 kilometers west of Emerson – a point somewhat arbitrarily chosen by the the first Dominion Survey crew during the early summer of 1869. The Dominion Survey would progress east, west and north from that point to cover essentially all of western Canada.

 

The Parish River-lot Survey System
The first system used to demark and describe land parcels in what is now Manitoba was proposed by Lord Selkirk for use by the Selkirk Settlers, and was based on the Québec long-lot system. Two-mile long, (3.2 km) narrow lots, fronting on the Red River, came to be the standard type of land parcel in the Red River Colony. Divided into ‘parishes’ with a centrally located church, the system was retained when the Dominion ‘section’ Survey commenced in 1869, and was even expanded up the Assiniboine River as far as Portage la Prairie, and up the Red River as far south as the American border.

Section-Township-Range and River Lot survey systems in the eastern portion of the BTNHR.

The Principal Meridian and the Start of the Survey
The Dominion Survey in western Canada began in the spring of 1869, in preparation for the transfer of the territory from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Dominion of Canada. The first line to be staked out was the Prime or Principal Meridian, which runs in a straight line due north from a point selected somewhat arbitrarily by the survey team, on the international boundary some 23 kilometres (14 miles) west of the present community of Emerson The purpose was to ensure the Prime Meridian did not intersect the two-mile-wide river-lot survey along the Red River at its most westerly point near present day Morris.

Initial ’64-section’ Township survey begun in 1869.

The Prime Meridian, or Principal Meridian is the baseline from which all of western Canada was subsequently ‘sectioned-off’ into square ‘townships’; each comprised of 36 one-mile square ‘sections’. The townships were numbered according to their position north of the United States border and east or west of the Principal Meridian. Each section was divided further into ‘quarter sections’ of 160 acres each. The standard ‘homestead claim’ consisted of a quarter section – which could be obtained for a ten-dollar administration fee and meeting residency and land improvement requirements.

The Township Grid
The Dominion Survey system, with its ‘Section, Township and Range’ coordinates, was quite different from the ‘County’ and ‘Long Lot’ systems used in Ontario and Québec. The Dominion Government wanted a quick and effective system for partitioning and administering the land, thus facilitating the rapid settlement and development of the Canadian Prairies, and with the revenues created help to pay for the construction of the CPR. The Township system ultimately used was based on the system the Americans incorporated in the settlement of the US Mid West, with some minor adjustments, particularly the inclusion of a 99-foot road allowance around each section. At first, it was intended that each township would consist of 64 square-mile sections, so that they would be large enough to serve as local government units. This ‘large’ township survey was used during the first summer of surveying, in 1869.  Before long, however, the decision was made to use instead the smaller, American-style, 36-section-sized townships.

Standard Township plan.

Other variations on the township plan were also initially considered, including:

1. larger 800-acre sections, rather than 640 acres;

2. long-lot quarter sections, with quarter-sections 1/8 by 1 mile in size, rather than ½ by ½ mile square; and

3. various patterns and widths of road allowances within each township. Several railway and government officials also suggested several rather imaginative township plans, which were never implemented.

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3. The Red River Expeditionary Force, 1870

 The Canadian Government decided early in 1870 to send a military expedition to Red River because of the disturbed state of the Red River Settlement resulting from the transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada. This expedition of brigade strength was under the command of Col. Garnet Wolseley (later Viscount Wolseley) of the Imperial Army. The force was composed of three battalions, one from the British regular army garrisoned at Quebec, a few Royal artillerymen, and two Canadian militia battalions, consisting in all of approximately 1450 men.

The most direct route to the Red River Settlement from Canada was through American territory, but the US government refused to grant passage to armed British and Canadian troops. As a consequence, the expedition faced an arduous journey across the rugged wilderness of the Canadian Shield following the old fur-trade route west from Lake Superior to the Prairies via Rainy River, Lake of the Woods, Winnipeg River and Lake Winnipeg to the mouth of the Red River. The expedition is considered by military historians to have been among the most arduous in history. 

The route of the Red River Expeditionary Force between Lake Superior and Fort Garry. 1871.

Over 1,400 men transported all their provisions and weaponry, including cannons, over hundreds of miles of wilderness and traversed 42 portages. Expedition members cut trails through seemingly endless forests, laying many miles of corduroy roads and erecting dozens of timber bridges. In addition to quelling the Red River Resistance, this road building work was because of instructions to the Wolseley Expedition to construct an “all Canadian route” to the newly-acquired Northwest Territories along the route first surveyed by the Hind Expedition a decade earlier. As these jobs were being done, the troops had to endure life in the bush, the summer heat and plagues of blackflies and mosquitoes.

The expedition left Toronto May 10, 1870 and reached Fort Garry four months later on August 24. Their approach had been observed and, when they arrived, they found that Riel and his lieutenants had departed leaving the fort essentially deserted. So ended the Red River Expedition, rather anti-climatically and without a single shot being fired. Wolseley himself stayed for only a few days, returning to Eastern Canada with his regular forces undertaking another laborious journey over the route they had just come. Wolseley left a provisional force in Manitoba made up of the militia battalions, who went into garrison for the winter. This force was relieved by the Provisional Battalion of Rifles that came in 1872, followed by a third contingent to come to Red River. The continued presence of a militia force was meant to counter growing American annexationist interest in the Red River settlement, especially as the Dominion government was unsure of the loyalties of the local Métis, Country Born and Aboriginal residents. This proved to be counter-productive as militia harassment of Métis during this period exacerbated already intense feelings and assaults and at least one Métis death resulted. Nevertheless, with the active involvement of Bishop Taché in negotiations with the federal government, in 1870, Manitoba became the first western province to join Confederation. Despite this, the Red River Expeditionary Force was not formally disbanded until 1877. 

Members of the Red River Expeditionary Force crossing a portage. 1870.

The sudden departure of Riel and most members of his provisional government in the autumn of 1870 effectively ended the so-called Red River Rebellion. This left the men of the expedition free to return to their homes in Ontario and Quebec. Many did so; however, expedition members were rewarded for their service with free homesteads of any surveyed and available lands. A considerable number remained, or later returned, and became important elements in population of the new province and western Canada. One of the most prominent was Hugh John MacDonald, only son of Prime Minster Sir John A. MacDonald. He was a member of the 1st Ontario Rifles and later premier of Manitoba. Private William Alloway, 2nd Battalion Quebec Rifles, became one of the first and most successful banking firms in Winnipeg. Another veteran of the force, Judge John Walker, was elected to the provincial legislature and later became a provincial court judge and provincial attorney general. Other members of the force went on to distinguished careers in the NWMP including Captain Wm. Herchmer, (Ontario Battalion), and Captain MacDonald and Lieutenant Jack Allan, (2nd Quebec). Captain Herchmer was involved with the International Boundary Commission in 1872 and 1873; became Commissioner of the NWMP in 1886, and served in the South African War in 1900.

In rural Manitoba, members of the force were outstanding pioneers of several communities. The Pembina Mountain Country, for example, Thomas Cave Boulton was its first permanent settler, a member of the Expeditionary Force,. The wide open life of the prairies had gotten into his blood, so he in 1872 he returned west and established his homestead along Silver Creek in what later became the Nelsonville area. Other members of the Wolseley expedition who became neighbours of Boulton included John Cruise and Charles Viney Helliwell of the 2nd Battalion Quebec Rifles. Descendants of another member of the Wolseley Expedition are still living in the Manitou district. Samuel Forrest, from Renfrew, Ontario, came to Manitoba as a voyageur with the force. He returned to Renfrew; however, in 1879 came back west and took up a homestead in the New Haven district, northwest of Manitou.

The Red River Expeditionary Force campsite at Matawan Bridge. 1870.

F.J. Bradley, first inspector of customs at the HBC post at North Pembina, (later West Lynne), was himself not a member of the Wolseley Expedition, but his brother-in-law and partner in several business enterprises, Dr. Alfred Codd, was. After the return of the Red River Expeditionary Force, Surgeon Major Alfred Codd was appointed to take charge of the provisional battalion formed to garrison Fort Garry and continued his services for many years as senior medical officer for Military District No. 10. Several of the first residents of the Emerson community and neighbouring districts also came out with this force, William Nash being one of the most prominent. He served as Ensign of No. 1 Company of the 1st Ontario Rifles and having previously served in Ontario expelling the Fenian Raid of 1866. He later served in the Northwest Rebellion of 1885 as a Captain in the Winnipeg Light Infantry and was promoted during the campaign to the rank of Major. In civil life, Major Nash was a solicitor and barrister and the first member for Emerson in the Manitoba provincial legislature. He later became Registrar of Deeds in Emerson and later accepted a position in the Land Titles Office in Winnipeg.

Manitoba Fenian Raid of 1871

The members of the Red River Expeditionary force, while stationed at Fort Garry, played a part in other important events in the province’s early history, including the Manitoba Fenian Raid of 1871. The Fenians were a secret society of Irish patriots who had emigrated from Ireland to the US. Some North American members of this movement were intent on taking Canada by force and exchanging it with Britain for Irish independence. The society suffered a blow in 1865 when Britain crushed the Ireland-based independence movement, scattering its leaders. This situation left many Irish veterans of the American Civil War harbouring considerable ill will toward Britain, and membership in the American Fenian movement quickly grew to around 10,000 men and a sizable reserve of raised funds. From 1866 to 1871, the Fenians launched a series of small, armed incursions of Canada, each of which was put down by government forces — at the cost of dozens killed or wounded on both sides.

Members of the Red River Expeditionary Force drilling in front of Upper Fort Garry. 1870.

In the spring of 1871, William O’Donoghue, a fiery Irishman and one-time Riel ally and member of the Provisional Government, was in New York. He was pressing the Fenian Brotherhood to assist him in his plan calling for the annexation of Manitoba and union with the United States. Aided and encouraged by Enos Stutsman, a prominent Pembina lawyer and politician, O’Donoghue drew up a Constitution for the Republic of Rupert’s Land. Among other things, this constitution proclaimed O’Donoghue president of the new Republic. According to the plan, General John O’Neill, president of the Fenian Brotherhood, General J. J. Donnelly and Colonel Thomas Curly also prominent Fenians, would recruit up to 2,000 Irish nationals and invade Manitoba.

At the time a real fear existed in Manitoba that if Louis Riel and his Métis supporters joined the Fenians, the province would be lost to the Amerians. Riel was still at Red River and at large and had been in communication with Rev. Bishop Taché who informed the Dominion government during the summer of 1871 that, “The Métis were intensely agitated over the unfulfilled promises of the Government and the harsh and insulting conduct of the more recently-arrived Canadians from Ontario.” The Bishop added that he, “...apprehended troublous (sic) times and feared great trouble was about to ensue forthwith.” The Fenians were counting on Métis support to help insure success. Fenian ‘officers’ had been sent to American and Métis settlements south of the boundary to raise armed supporters. There were rumors of 1,500 Métis already encamped near the Boundary at St. Joseph. The various groups were to meet up at the International Boundary on Tuesday October 4. Marching north from Grand Forks with a troop of only 40 men, Major Watson encouraged his men that, “It would be all right at Fort Garry, that O’Donnahoe and the whole native population would be ready to greet their arrival and their ranks would be well filled up at Pembina”, and they ought not to forget that, “rich plunder to be obtained from the Hudson’s Bay Company’s stores at Pembina and Fort Garry would serve to enrich them all to an unbounded extent.“ (MHS, 1888:1-11.)

HBC North Fort Pembina in the background with the international boundary in the foreground. Circa 1872.

On Monday October 3, having been informed of the Fenian ‘army’ gathering at the border, Lieutenant-Governor George Archibald issued a proclamation in Fort Garry calling on all inhabitants to volunteer to help the small existing military force of 70 Red River Expedition Volunteers in repelling the invasion. Within two days, over 650 men had registered to serve at the command of the Lieutenant Governor, many more than could be armed. On the evening of the October the 3rd, the first group of 200 men under the command of Major Irvine departed for the border, reaching St. Norbert before seeking shelter for the night. On Wednesday, October 5th, while Irving was still en route, the invasion began. Led by O’Neill and O’Donoghue, the army, was not the 2,000 strong that had been envisioned. Instead a ragged band of 40 soldiers marched north. These raiders captured the Hudson Bay fort, the Customs House and took about 20 hostages. Placed under guard and herded into a large log building, the hostages waited. The raiders also waited for the anticipated arrival of the Métis that they expected to join them.

Among the hostages, however, was Mrs. Wheaton, spouse of Colonel Wheaton commandant of the U.S. Fort Pembina. An American soldier had escorted her to the HBC store. One of the prisoners, a young child, escaped and word reached Wheaton of the situation. Very quickly, two companies of American Infantry, complete with cannons, were marching northward. Surprised by this turn of events, the Fenians were quickly routed. Rounded up by the American military and returned to Fort Pembina, the Fenians were left to ponder why an American military force scattered them from a supposedly Canadian facility. Unbeknownst to them, the US Consul at Fort Garry, Mr. Taylor and Lieutenant Governor Archibald, had pre-arranged authorization for 20th US Infantry stationed at Fort Pembina to enter Canadian territory in the event of a Fenian attack. Shortly after their return into US territory on Wednesday evening, ColOnel Wheaton sent a telegram to the U.S. consul in Winnipeg, on the just-completed telegraph line, informing him that he had, “captured and now hold General, J. O’Neill, General, Thomas Curly, and Colonel J. J. Donnelly.” He added that “anxiety regarding a Fenian invasion of Manitoba is unnecessary.”

Meanwhile, back on Monday evening in the then hamlet of Winnipeg and nearby HBC Fort Garry, the departure of Col. Irvine and his men left the settlement relatively defenceless. Rumors began to be circulated that the village was to be attacked by a large force of Métis from St. Boniface led by Louis Riel. Indeed, a few days earlier, at the church door in St. Norbert, Riel apparently addressed his followers. He told them O’Donnahoe’s invasion would fail and they should offer their services to the Lieutenant-Governor. On Tuesday, a large number of Métis turned out on horseback and came up to St. Boniface. Fathers Ritchot and Dugas had been meeting daily with Lieutenant-Governor Archibald to negotiate a general amnesty for Riel and his followers in return for their support in repelling the Fenians. With great interpretation, Senator Girard, then a member of the Provincial Government, and Lieutenant Governor Archibald crossed over the river into St. Boniface and formally accept the services of Riel and his followers. This was apparently done, ‘contrary to his personal convictions and better judgment’, but a desire to conciliate prompted the Governor into yielding. The memorable handshaking took place, helping to put an end both the Fenian and Métis threat of armed insurrection.

According to witnesses, ‘a great clamor was raised’ by the volunteers encamped at Crooked Rapids when it was learned that Riel and his Metis had appeared at St. Boniface and been received by Lieutenant – Governor Archibald. Many of the men demanded to be allowed to return to attack Riel ‘who was held to be accountable’ for the whole trouble the previous year, but spell out. Irvine, who was in command, smoothed matters over.

Thus ended the last incursion by armed foreign nationals into Canada. Still, fears of Fenian raids persisted for many years. As a result, two local militia units were formed, the West Lynne Artillery Battery and the Emerson Infantry Company. Fortunately the effectiveness of these militia units never required testing against a foreign invasion. Two of the structures captured by the Fenians, the former customs and gaol, both log structures, have been preserved by the Town of Emerson in commemoration of their role in the Fenian Raid of 1871 and the district’s early history.

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4. Her Majesties North American Boundary Commission, 1872-74

 If all of North America had remained British territory, there would have been no boundary between Canada and the U.S.A. and consequently never any discussion where such a boundary should be located. That, of course, became impossibility during the American Revolution. Unfortunately, the Treaty of Paris signed in 1783 bringing that conflict to an end addressed the matter in a rather off hand manner by attempting to divide central North America on the basis of the watersheds of the Hudson’s Bay and the Mississippi Rivers. Using a map drawn up in 1755 by John Mitchell, the authors of this treaty stipulated that the boundary was a line west from Isle Royal in Lake Superior to the most northerly point of the Lake of the Woods and then due west to the Mississippi River.

It was not long before the inaccuracy of Mitchell’s map became evident. More careful surveys soon showed that the source of the Mississippi was not on the same parallel as Isle Royal, but some one hundred and fifty miles south at Lake Itasca in what is now northern Minnesota. Therefore it was only natural that in 1792 Britain suggested that the boundary west of the Lake of the Woods be adjusted south to the Mississippi. Understandably, American interests did not warmly welcome this suggestion and so the matter was left in limbo for another quarter century. In 1815 the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 left the concerns of both countries regarding the boundary unaddressed but in 1818 the matter was settled at the London Convention. This fixed the boundary as a line from the northwest corner of the Lake of the Woods due south to the 49th parallel and from there westward to the Rocky Mountains.

In one section of British territory this decision was received with considerable misgivings. In the Red River settlement located in the vicinity of present day Winnipeg there was a good deal of grumbling since it gave to the USA thousands of square miles of land that had been Hudson’s Bay territory for almost one hundred and fifty years. In 1811 the Hudson’s Bay Company had granted the southern watershed of Lake Manitoba to one of its principal directors, Lord Selkirk, a territory given the name Assiniboia. Much of this was south of the new boundary line. Nevertheless, after a short period of initial concern, the boundary question again faded into obscurity. Then, in the last half of the 1860s, it looked like the Canadian prairies might be seized by the Americans.

During the American Civil War Great Britain, although officially neutral, favoured the interests of the south because the Confederacy. The south supplied England with the thousands of tons of the raw cotton it needed to maintain its massive textile industry. Although direct intervention in favour of the south was out of the question, the English public and in particular the nation’s moneyed interests provided assistance in two ways. One was by the purchase of Confederate bonds, securities purchased with great enthusiasm by British millionaires, particularly those with interests in the cotton industry. The other was by the building or outfitting of ships in British ports for use by the Confederacy. The most famous of these was the Alabama, built in Birkenhead, England and equipped in the Azores with guns from two British vessels. In twenty-two months it sailed 72,000 nautical miles and captured or ransomed more than sixty Northern vessels.

During the war this vessel, and nine others, inflicted millions of dollars of losses to the Union. British assistance to the South had been a very sore point among Northern army officers and politician, so much so that upon the conclusion of the conflict, President Grant demanded restitution from Great Britain for these losses. Voices were raised in Washington demanding that if England refused to harken to these demands, the US would be justified in seizing British territory in the central plains as compensation. Railroads were being pushed into the western states with great vigour and the neighbouring British territories, almost without any inhabitants and certainly no military forces to defend them, could be annexed without too much difficulty.

Fortunately cool heads prevailed and on 8 May 1867 the two countries signed the Treaty of Washington settling the points of difference between them. Among its stipulations was a provision for the surveying of the Canada-US Boundary from the Lake of the Woods to the height of the Rocky Mountains (from this point west the 49th parallel already had been surveyed and marked in the early 1860s) and the marking of its location with iron posts. This monumental task was assigned to the International Boundary Commission. Since there had been several Indian uprisings in the northern states, it was judged prudent to carry on most of the work of the commission on the Canadian side of the line. A location on the west side of the Red River three miles north of the boundary was chosen as the site for the British headquarters of the commission. It received the name Dufferin after the current Governor-General, the son-in-law of Queen Victoria. Later generations gave it a name unknown to the Boundary Commission, “Fort Dufferin.”

The British portion of this expedition, Her Majesties North American Boundary Commission, was much more than just a survey party. To a considerable extent it was also a scientific fact finding-mission designed to secure precise information about western Canada, especially its suitability for pioneer settlement. Therefore, in addition to the astronomers and surveyors needed to plot the 49th parallel with absolute accuracy and to map a belt from the border six miles north, it also included specialists instructed to prepare lists of all the animals, plants and minerals found and to collect representative specimens of each. The skins of larger animals were to be salted; smaller creatures preserved in alcohol. A special report was to examine all aspects of the Indian question, for “No subject is of more penetrating interest, or of more pressing importance…than the future of the Indians.”

Fort Dufferin as it was during the spring on 1872.

The British Boundary Commission arrived at Dufferin during the summer of 1872 and after freeze-up completed the survey of the 49th parallel from the Red River to the Lake of the Woods. At any other time of the year this would have been an impossible task because of the impenetrable expanses of swamps and muskeg and the clouds of murderous mosquitoes. The following year the Commission surveyed and staked out the boundary between the Red River and Roche Percee, in what is now southeastern Saskatchewan. In 1874, work was completed to the Rocky Mountains. Along the trail laid out as a supply route, storage depots were established at convenient points. Two main depots were located in the Southern Manitoba; the first at the foot of the Pembina Mountains and the second at the foot of the Turtle Mountains. The Turtle Mountain Depot, later known as Wakopa, soon became the centre of the surrounding pioneer settlement. Because traffic between the Commission’s headquarters at Fort Dufferin and the various depots was continuous for two years, the trail became a well-defined road that could boast of having the first bridges in southern Manitoba.

Although official reports document all aspects of this expedition, some of the most fascinating insights are to be found in a little book published in March 1894 by Mr. L.P. Hewgill, a former member of the commission then residing in Regina. He called his account In the Days of Pioneering: Crossing the Plains in the Early 70’s. the Prairie black with Buffalo and writes:

The Boundary Commission was formed in 1872, and our commissioner, Major Cameron, built at Dufferin those substantial buildings, which are standing there today and largely used as quarantine quarters. They consist of a large house facing the Red River, used as headquarter offices, quarters for the men and their mess room. A large number of one-storey buildings were also built for the staff, having accommodations for about twelve, with mess room and kitchen, barracks for the company of Royal Engineers and quarters for the teamsters, axemen, etc., etc. A large quartermaster’s store was also built, under the charge of the present Lieut.-Col. Herchmer, Commissioner N.W.M.P., and to these were added blacksmiths, carpenters, photographers, harness makers, wagon makers, and many other shops for the use of the commission.

The Officers of Her Majesties North American Boundary Commission. 1872-84.

A large farm was also established with Mr. Almond in charge, and here all that was necessary for our party was grown, both for horses and men. A canteen was also established with the very best of liquors brought directly from England, free of duty, for the use of staff and men, and where everything could be bought at the moderate rate of five cents a glass. Many luxuries were to be had, such as Crosse & Blackwell’s potted meats and pickles, anchovies, etc., etc. Everything was sold at a price to pay running expenses, and what small profit was made went to improve our library, etc. Our food was of the very best, and the amount more than could be used, even when we were many hundreds of miles away from semi-civilization.

Boundary Commission supply train pauses for an official photograph.

Such was the good management of our commissariat that a complaint in regards to the provisions was seldom, if ever, heard, and this may in great measure account for the very successful termination of the work, as it is a well known fact that a hard day’s work is soon forgotten over a good dinner, and none are so apt to forget it as an Anglo Saxon. Everything in the way of clothing suitable for the work we were going into was provided and sold very cheaply. Every man was given a plug of T. & B. [pipe] tobacco weekly, and also three plugs of chewing [tobacco] if he required it. In winter a leather suit of clothing, with all the moccasins and mitts required, were served out to those going on a journey. In the matter of bedding we were most liberally provided, a large oil skin sheet, buffalo robe, two pair of four point Hudson’s Bay blankets being served out to all. By this it will be easy to see that we might have hard times in store, yet those in authority had done all in their power to look after the comforts of one and all on the commission.

The Commission, as already intimated, was formed in 1872; our Commissioner was Major Cameron, R.A., (now Major General Cameron, in command of the College at Kingston), four officers of the Royal Engineers, Major Anderson, Capt. Featherstonehaugh, Capt. Ward and Lieut. Galway, with these officers was a company of the same corps, but they wore no uniforms, and to all intents and purposes were civilians, as amongst them we had photographers, carpenters, astronomers, surveyors and many other trades. We had two Canadian surveyors, Col. Forrest and Mr. Alexander Russel, a brother of the late Surveyor-General Lindsay Russel, a large number of young Canadians and Old Countrymen were on the staff of the respective parties and added to these were axemen, picketmen, teamsters, cooks, etc., the total being something under 300 men.

In 1873 the Commission, completing the work east, started from Fort Dufferin on the Red River, west and at the close of the summer they had established the boundary to a post in the Grand Couteaus of the Missouri, some few miles west of La Roche Perce. From here the Commission returned to Dufferin, their headquarters.

In 1873 we established depots at convenient points, if possible from forty to sixty miles apart and our transport wagons were continually on the road between these depots and headquarters so that our trail became a well-defined one. We drove our own herd of cattle till we arrived in buffalo country. It must also be remembered that the United States Commission consisted of some 250 civilians under Mr. Campbell, Commissioner, Major Twining and Lieut. Green, U. S. Engineers, two troops and five companies U. S. Infantry were on the same line, though doing every alternate tangent. The consequence was, though we were in close proximity, we did not see very much of them, except when travelling, when we generally used the same trail. The Commission was, I think, without doubt the best-organized and conducted expedition that ever went out in this country.

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  • The Historic Forth-Ninth – by J.P. Turner in The RCMP Quarterly. Oct. 1941.

5. North West Mounted Police ‘Trek West’, 1874.

A NWMP Lancer.

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.

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.

North-West Mounted Police.

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.

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.

The NWMP Expedition approaches the Rocky Mountain foothills.

 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.

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