“Scarlet-clad warriors” head west

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

Of more consequence than the liquor ban, resulting from the Cypress Hills Massacre, was the call by Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald to create a special force to bring order to the North-West and protect aboriginal people.

Macdonald had toyed with the idea of a western police force as a deterrent to any American attempts to annex the former territory of Rupert’s Land which was eventually sold to Canada by the HBC in 1870. “It seems to me the best Force would be Mounted Riflemen, trained partly as Calvary...,” suggested Macdonald in late 1869. “This body should not be expressly military but should be styled Police.”

The Red River Rebellion of 1869-70 interrupted his plans and Macdonald then forgot about sending a police force westward.

Following the Cypress Hills Massacre, Lord Dufferin, Canada’s governor general, convinced Macdonald a police force was needed as soon as possible to keep peace in the West and protect aboriginals. Because of his own growing concerns, Macdonald announced the formation of the North-West Mounted Police on September 24, 1873.

The pride of Eastern Canada was recruited and most were former members of the Canadian militia or British military.

An advance guard of the NWMP went by rail on October 1 to Collingwood from Ottawa and was then took the steamer Cumberland to Prince Arthur's landing (Thunder Bay) and then along the infamous Dawson Route to Manitoba. A second contingent (two officers and 62 men) was booked on the steamer Chiroca and a third (three officers and 53 men) was to take passage on the Frances Smith. The commanding officer of the first group of 40 men was Major James M. Walsh.

All three contingents made it to the Hudson Bay Company’s Lower Fort Garry, near present-day Selkirk, in late October. The Free Press reported on December 13, 1873, that the force stationed at Lower Fort Garry had a total of 10 officers and 145 constables and sub-constables.

The first official patrol of the NWMP was north to the shores of Lake Winnipeg on December 10. Six American whiskey traders gained the dubious distinction of being the first people arrested by the NWMP.

George Arthur French, an Irish born artillery officer, became the first permanent commissioner of the NWMP and took command of the force at Lower Fort Garry on December 16, 1873.

In his book, Trooper in the Far North-West 1884-1888, John G. Donkin, described his first encounter with a uniformed NWMP member on Rosser Avenue in Brandon. He saw “the lithe figure of a scarlet-clad warrior ...” Donkin was enthralled and made the journey from Brandon to Winnipeg to join the NWMP: “... I signed a paper, in duplicate, vowing allegiance to the powers that be, and engaged myself to serve for five years in the North-West Mounted Police.”

By the spring of 1874, the Mounties had reinforcements, horses, guns and the new scarlet uniforms and rode south to Fort Dufferin (Emerson) to set up  camp before heading west.

On July 8, 1874, the “Great March West” of 275 Mounties under French started out. 

The Free Press reported that the Mounties had left for the Saskatchewan (district) “with four troops, the fifth having nearly all deserted ...,” because the adverse conditions they encountered at Fort Dufferin.

The six-kilometre long column of 22 officers, 275 men, 315 horses 147 oxen, 114 Red River carts, 93 wagons, two nine-pound cannons, 21 Metis drivers, various farm implements such as mowers and rakes, and a herd of cattle to feed the men undoubtedly was quite a spectacle, though it was an image that was destined to deteriorate as the journey progressed.

Officers and men were ill-prepared for what awaited them ahead. The Ontario horses they brought with them weren’t suited to the prairie heat and poor forage and began to die. The exposed skin of the Mounties was burnt red by the blazing sun and their lips were blistered.

“If the people of Canada could see us now,” wrote Sub-Constable James Finlayson, “with bare feet, not one half-clothed, half-starved, picking up fragments left by American troops, I wonder what they would say of Colonel French.”

Unfortunately, French had thought like the British officer he was and expected to forage for food to feed the troops. It was a big mistake. Because the neophyte troops weren’t trained in prairie lore, food soon began to run out during the 1,200-kilometre trek to Fort Whoop-Up (present-day Lethbridge).

Metis guide Jerry Potts Iead the NWMP to Fort Whoop-Up, 60 kilometres west of present-day Medicine Hat. It was a peaceful entry into the fort as the American whiskey traders had fled.

French led D and E troops back east  and established the first headquarters of the NWMP at Swan River, Manitoba, leaving McLeod in command of the frontier force.

On April 12, 1877, the Montana-based Fort Benton Recorder printed an article praising the Mounties for prosecuting the whiskey trade: “The MPs are worse than bloodhounds when they scent the track of a smuggler, and they fetch their man every time.” 

Perhaps this is the origin of the saying that “the Mounties always get their man.”

The interaction between aboriginals and Mounties hasn’t always been a smooth one and conflicts did arise, such as in 1885, but there was a general understanding in the early years of its existence that the NWMP was in the North-West Territory to serve and protect aboriginal interests.

The Free Press editorial following the Cypress Hills Massacre trial in Winnipeg, said such violent acts against the “Indians of our North-West” are a thing “of the past, and that, beyond a doubt, the North-West Mounted Police have wrought a happy change.”