SHADES OF THE PAST

The RCMP Quarterly January 1963

SHADES OF THE PAST

By George Shepherd

Less than one hundred years ago Western Canada, as we know it today, unpeopled and unpoliced, was given over to the buffalo and scattered bands of roving Indians. What little bit of English law was necessary was administered by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the vicinity of their log trading posts, established principally along the North Saskatchewan River. South of this great waterway of the North, and extending clear to the Missouri in northern Montana was a land of dark mystery from which came tales of Indian warfare between the Sioux to the south, the Blackfoot to the west and the Cree to the north and east. It was a country avoided by the early white traders, traversed only by venturesome Indian tribes seeking food from the buffalo and other game.

It was not until the middle 1860s that heavily armed white traders adventured out from Fort Benton, at the headwaters of the Missouri, crossing the Line into Canada intent on dealing with the Indians in the highly lucrative fur business. The principal article of trade was diluted alcohol known to the Indians as “fire-water.”

In 1867 two reckless characters from out of Benton, A. B. Hamilton and Johnny J. Healy established a strongly stockaded trading post on the Oldman River, near the present day site of Lethbridge, Alberta. It was built at an estimated cost of $20,000 and, incredible as it may seem, flew the Stars and Stripes – and was equipped with a small cannon. From the desperate character of the men operating the post and from the bloodshed, uproar and general demoralization that soon developed, the place and locality became known as the Whoop-Up country.

An Early Department Store

In Saskatchewan, at a site on Battle Creek, about 40 miles south and west of the present day cow town of Maple Creek, another Benton trader, Abel Farwell, built a log post in the fall of 1872. It was at the place that forty lodges of inoffensive Canadian Indians were shot up by a dozen armed whites from the Benton country. The report was that eighty Indians were shot down in cold blood in a surprise dawn attack.

When stories of the infiltration into Canada of unprincipled whiskey traders from south of the International Line began to reach Ottawa, the government at last realized something had to be done. For some years Ottawa had been considering the policing of our plains and the massacre in the Cypress Hills brought matters to a head. No sooner, however, had Sir John A. Macdonald signed the papers May 23, 1873 authorizing the formation of the North-West Mounted Rifles than a great outcry arose at Washington about a force of mounted riflemen patrolling the International Line. This was somewhat difficult to understand since the United States Cavalry had been occupied for years in what was, virtually, a war of extermination against their own Indians. As the outcry persisted Sir John reached for a pen, stroked out the word rifles and wrote in the word “Police” and, as the North-West Mounted Police, the Force had a long and honorable record.

The authorized strength of the Force was placed at 150, a fantastically small number to enforce law and order on an area half the size of Europe; but this was later increased to 300 officers and men. In the spring of 1874 two trainloads of all ranks with horses and equipment for an expeditionary force, such as this was, left Toronto for the far West. Travelling under special permission through U.S.A. territory the two trains finally reached Fargo, North Dakota on June 12, and there, on the bare wide prairie, were scattered men, horses and other equipment all to be assembled for the westward march.

The Taming of the West

On July 8, 1874 the cavalcade moved off from the camp grounds of Dufferin with bugles blowing and lance pennants fluttering in the wind. In marching order, the line extended for three miles. It was not long before any attempt at show and pomp was abandoned as horses and oxen became played out, and the march became almost a struggle for survival, on the sun-baked plains. As the travel-worn expedition toiled on day after day over the unmapped and unmarked prairie, the trail behind them was littered with broken down Red River Carts, dead oxen, and horses and abandoned equipment. But what had started out as a motley group of men, gathered from all walks of life, was now turning into a hard bitten force of plainsmen, forging traditions of faithfulness, discipline, and devotion to duty that are still the hallmark of the Mounted Police.

It was not until October, three months after leaving the Fort Garry locality, that the Force arrived at Whoop-Up where they found their fame had preceded them and the post deserted. The long grind of one thousand miles was over but these first rough experiences disclosed a stamina and endurance that augured well for the future of the Force. Rough log buildings were hastily erected on an island in the Oldman River and the post named Fort Macleod, in honor of their commanding officer, Col. J. F. Macleod. Known by the Indians as Bulls Head from his large bushy beard he was one of the early giants of the Force.

The following spring, in May 1875 Major Walsh was sent east to the Cypress Hills and there, on Battle Creek, a log fort was built that was in later years to be described as the cradle of the Mounted Police. One year later the bitter fighting with the Indians in the western United States culminated in the ghastly massacre of Lt.-Col. George A. Custer and three hundred of his men in the valley of the Little Big Horn, a scant 300 miles south of Fort Walsh. This occurrence, which shocked the civilized world, was masterminded by the renowned medicine man and necromancer, Sitting Bull.

Sitting Bull versus the Mounted Police

Scattered to the winds the Sioux now turned northward to Canada seeking sanctuary under the Great White Mother. A supreme test now confronted the newly organized Mounted Police. As the Sioux crossed the Line they were met by the Mounted Police and tersely given the terms under which they were allowed refuge in Canada. When Sitting Bull himself crossed the Line in the spring of 1877, Major Walsh decided to go down personally and meet him.

By this time there were almost six thousand turbulent and warlike Sioux in camp at Wood Mountain, fresh from their victory over Custer and his command. With a half dozen of the Police and an interpreter, Walsh and his men arrived at the Sioux camp after a three-day journey from Fort Walsh. This was said to be the first time that white men, and soldiers at that, had ever been in the camp of Sitting Bull. Ordering his men to prepare their campfire dinner, Walsh, unarmed and with only an interpreter with him, walked over to the central lodge of the old warrior and invited him out for a parley, giving him presents of tobacco and the hand of peace. The story of the sojourn of the Sioux at Wood Mountain for three years is one of the lesser known, though epic, stories of the police. It was a keg of dynamite with the police sitting tightly on the lid.

The Coming of the Settlers

The transition period on the prairies, from ponies to plowshares was carried on almost entirely under the supervision of the Mounted Police. The Indians, always treated with the greatest fairness by the police, listened “to the words of the great White Mother” as interpreted by the Red Coats. In countless ways the riders of the plains carried out their various duties. There were prairie fires to be battled; smuggling – especially of whiskey, to forestall; custom duties to be collected; victims of winter blizzards to be succored; starvation and other forms of privation to be overcome; illnesses and accidents innumerable to be allayed; weddings and funerals to be arranged, mails to be carried; insane persons to be taken in; lost travellers to be found; stolen stock to be returned to rightful owners; cattle and horse thieves, gamblers, murderers and other law breakers to be run down; and, as settlement spread, mining, lumber and railroad construction camps to be kept under strict observation. With the railroad building period and the coming of thousands of labourers, many of rough character, law and order had to be – and was, impressed on them. The police ruled fearlessly, justly and impartially.

As settlement pressed ever westward, the children of the plains – the Metis, under Louis Riel, rose in rebellion in 1885 and here again the police were called on to protect the settlers and to supervise a more orderly period of settlement when land-hungry people from all over the world swarmed into the limitless prairies. Small police detachments, often manned by one lone constable, dotted the countryside and never, in the history of any country, was such a wave of settlement accompanied with so little violence and crime.

In 1898 the gold strike in the Yukon drew thousands of adventurers, and police personnel in that area was increased to one hundred men, including dog drivers. Skagway, on the United States side of the Alaska-Yukon Line, earned the title of “the roughest place on earth,” the hang-out of the notorious “Soapy Smith” and his following of 150 ruffians. Under the almost incredible conditions of the Arctic, the police carried out their duties often conducting their operations across the border line with the tacit approval of the United States authorities.

Policing a Nation

After service in the South African War of 1899-1902, the Force two years later received the honor of becoming known as the Royal North-West Mounted Police. In 1920 when the Force extended its field to cover the whole of Canada, the title was again changed to the present Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

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