The Early Years

The RCMP Quarterly July 1956

The Early Years p. 19-21

By Supt. J. S. Cruickhank

Much has been written of the early years of the Force and not unnaturally, stress has been placed on outstanding events involving individual acts of courage or special circumstances. Even today, there is no room in the Annual Report to outline the lives of the average members who, except for some special occasion must fill in their years in the Force performing their duties in a quiet unspectacular manner, unheralded and unsung. Despite this, it must be remembered that the great bulk of which has helped establish the fame of the Force has always been, and always will be, performed by average individuals who can be proud of a life of service to their country through a career in the Force.

This was true in the early years as it is today and perhaps it would be well to look at some of the conditions under which the men worked in those early years. If you think you have it rough on occasion here are some facts for comparison.

We were still an infant Force in the year 1879 with a strength of only 362 to maintain law and order in the entire western half of the country which was full of turbulent Indians and rapidly acquiring new settlers who were not a little afraid of the same Indians. This was not without reason for the previous year the great herds of buffalo had migrated southwards and had not returned in any large numbers, leaving many Indian tribes north of the border almost destitute. In fact, the buffalo never did return again in profusion for it was the beginning of the end – herds of millions of buffalo were decimated until they became no longer a food factor in Indian life. A cured buffalo skin in that year could be purchased for one dollar.

Almost the entire Force was engaged in patrols to keep the Indians on their newly established reserves. This was not an easy task for the younger natives were not inclined to settle down under their elder chiefs and were forever breaking away in small groups to hunt off the reserve, raid other tribes for horses and to steal both cattle and horses from the settlers.

This meant long, and often forced marches by patrols of the Force who spent many weary hours, as much as 50 miles a day in the saddle, both in summer and winter, and living under camp conditions for as long as three or four months at a time. Both men and horses lost plenty of blood to the ravenous hordes of mosquitoes with fevers not being uncommon. When not on patrol the men were kept fully occupied building barracks and stables for farming, so they might decrease operational costs by growing their own oats and curing hay for feed.

Many stockmen turned their cattle adrift on the prairies and later, not finding as many as they thought they should have, were quick to report the cattle stolen by the Indians. Wandering bands of Indians without any commissariat undoubtedly did kill numerous cattle for food, but an equally large number were lost due to weather conditions, particularly in the winter months. This meant that the Police had to literally act as herdsmen over hundreds of miles to establish the truth of the complaint or otherwise. It was during the course of such a patrol that Cst. M. Grayburn was murdered, believedly by two Indians.

To those of us who consider an hour in riding school rather gruelling, consider the personnel at Fort Saskatchewan who rode 1,080 miles on duty connected with Indian Treaty payments alone, with horses that were almost worn out by the continuous patrolling before they began their trek. With a total strength of 18 members they policed an area of many hundreds of miles in which lived about 5,000 inhabitants including both settlers and Indians.

It is extremely interesting to note that Commr. J. F. Macleod personally travelled in wagons and on horseback over 2,300 miles that year. At the same time Superintendent Walsh at Wood Mountain, spent the greater part of his time attempting to convince “Sitting Bull” and his followers of 240 lodges to return to the United States where they had been offered amnesty terms. Inspector Gagnon found time to track down and bring to justice the Indian “Ka-ki-si-kutchin,” who was convicted and later executed for the offence of murder involving cannibalism.

The average man at the various posts performed his usual police work by investigating and making arrests, herding Indians on their reserves and, in addition, farmed hundreds of acres to obtain oats and hay for feed, built log buildings, some with as many as six or seven rooms, fought prairie fires, collected customs duties and rode many miles to foil the whisky traders. What were the type of offences? They ranged from murder, horse stealing, cattle theft, general larceny, assaults, importing and selling liquor, with the greater number of the horse and cattle thefts being committed by Indians. Many hundreds of gallons of whisky were spilled onto the prairie sod when the “traders” were arrested.

At Fort Macleod where the strength was 39, all these duties were performed and in addition, the members completed drill training and fired their annual musketry course. They also found time to cut 28,000 rails for fences, built a large and comfortable house for themselves and one for the officer in charge. They sowed 100 acres of oats which gave them 2,300 bushels of feed and put up 325 tons of hay using scythes and home-made rakes, then proceeded to build a large corral and stables.

It is worth-while looking at food and quarters in this year. Almost all the quarters were built of logs cut by the men and chinked with clay plaster. Many had sod or earth roofs which were far from rain proof in the heavy prairie rains. It is certain that many of the horses had equally good accommodation for all buildings were of similar construction. The men slept on beds made of three boards resting on trestles at the head and feet. It is little wonder that Surgeon Kittson reported “that catarrh, influenza, rheumatism, etc., etc., prevailed extensively.” Typhoid fever was also a continuous threat.

Men were not apt to enter hospital if they could regain health otherwise for it was reported that the building was unfit for habitation when there was any wind. In the summer, dust was deposited half an inch thick over everything and in the winter, the building let in the wind like a colander. In the spring, it was untenable on account of being deluged with mud and water from the earth roof, with exceeding probability of the roof falling in on the patients.

Each post attempted to grow its own green stuff and potatoes – sometimes with indifferent success – local beef was plentiful, but the accounts show little in the way of luxury purchases, leaning heavily on beans, rice flour and bacon with casks of syrup and dried apples evidently for desserts. It is difficult to decide if the poor state of the hospital or the poor type of cook would account for the inclusion in the food accounts of a large number of bottles of castor oil which were purchased with regularity. Coffee, tea and tobacco were the only items purchased which might bear any semblance of luxury. During this year, due to the loss of buffalo meant, many Indians were in dire straits through lack of food and many of the personnel shared their rations with Indian bands who camped around the posts. It was necessary for the Government to supply large quantities of flour and beef to the Indians to prevent starvation.

Needless to say not all NWMP personnel were entirely happy in the life, which included no amusements whatsoever and continuous heavy duty at isolated points sometimes for a year at a time. Forty-six members were discharged as time expired, four were invalided and seven deserted. Desertions could be explained partially by the fact that only three members per month were allowed to obtain discharge by purchase and conditions generally were rugged. Many who deserted later returned voluntarily. Such was the lure of adventure in the newly opened West that 90 recruits were engaged as replacements.

One can do no better than to close with an extract from a report submitted at the year end by one of the Divisional Commanding Officers who said “during the last year the duties connected with this post have been carried on in as satisfactory manner as possible considering the small number of men and the wretched horses now in possession of the detachment. The conduct of the men has been exemplary though they have been doing severe work.”

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