The Mounties Journey West

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There are few things more entrenched in the view of Canada than the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. An image known the world over, and an instantly recognizable part of Canada, the Mounties are a major part of our collective history.

From their beginnings as the North West Mounted Police, they have helped to provide order to Canada, and enabled Canada to avoid the Wild West scenario that the United States suffered from in the late-1800s.

It all began with the March West.

The Beginnings

In 1870, after the Northwest Territories had been purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company, there was a need to deal with law and order in the vast area to the west of Ottawa. With whiskey runners coming into Canada in the area of Alberta and Saskatchewan, there was a dire need to ensure that there was justice in that area.
On May 23, 1873, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald created a proposal for the North West Mounted Rifles, this proposal was rejected as being far too militaristic. In response, the North West Mounted Police were created and modeled off of the Royal Irish Constabulary, which was a civilian paramilitary force in the United Kingdom. The British influence on the creation of the North West Mounted Police was exemplified by the fact that Col. George Arthur French was a British artillery officer who was born in Ireland and very familiar with the Royal Irish Constabulary.

In order to recruit the men needed for the force, it would take over one year to find 300 men who would join the Mounted Police.
MacDonald and his cabinet would take the choosing of officers into their own hands, choosing the men who would lead the force. Naturally, all of the men chosen were of very high social standing, and with a military background. These men were:

  • James Farquharson MacLeod: A lawyer and veteran of the Red River Expedition.
  • James Morrow Walsh: A graduate from a military academy, as well as a cavalry commander.
  • William Drummer Jarvis: Nephew to Hewitt Bernard, the deputy minister of justice, and a militiaman himself.
  • Charles F. Young: A British Army veteran. 
  • Ephrem A. Brisebois: A veteran of both the American Civil War and the Third Italian War of Independence.
  • William Winder: A former captain in the cavalry. 
  • Jacob Carvell: A veteran of the American Civil War on the Confederate side. 
  • John Breden: A young man with good connections politically. 
  • Edmund Dalrymple Clark: A relative of John A. MacDonald himself. 
The March Begins

With the creation of the North West Mounted Police, the majority of the force left Toronto on June 6, 1874 via Chicago, arriving at Fort Dufferin, Manitoba on June 6. Two days later, they would begin their legendary march west to what would one day be Alberta. 
In all, the entire group consisted of 22 officers, 287 constables and sub-constables, 310 horses, 67 wagons, 18 oxen, 50 cows, 40 calves and 114 ox-carts. These men were divided into six divisions (A, B, C, D, E and F), each of 50 men. 

The youngest member of the force was James Wilson Thom, who was born in 1859.
With the destination of Fort Whoop-up, near the future site of Lethbridge, the goal was to remove the American whiskey traders from the post and bring law and order to the west.

Things were quiet for the first few days of the march and apart from a few recruits being disciplined for trying to club some ducks at a local pond they found, there was very little of note that happened during the first four days of the march.

After a few days dealing with swarms of grasshoppers, the first week of the march ended with the Mounties crossing the Pembina River and meeting up with Pierre Leveille, who would be their chief guide and interpreter going west.

Reaching the Souris River on the 12th day of the march, the men took the day off of the march to hnour the Sabbath. With a generous meal of beef supplied by the cows that Col. French had insisted be on the march, the men were ready to begin the journey west once again.

Things began to sour on the 15th day of the march when the Mounties, on July 22, crossed the Souris River but found that due to the hot weather and the effort of crossing the river, two horses were too weak to keep going, and two more horses would die. One of the main reasons for the poor conditions of the horses was the small supply of food for them, in the form of oats.

On Day 22, which was July 29, the Mounties reached Wood End Depot, and it was at this point that the fort split up. Jarvis and Sub-Inspector Shurtliff would continue on with 12 troopers from A Troop, 55 horses, 12 Metis, 55 carts, 62 oxen, 24 wagons and 50 head of cattle, to Fort Ellice, a Hudson’s Bay Company fort near the Assiniboine and Qu-Appelle Rivers. They would then continue on towards Fort Edmonton.

On Aug. 1, the 25th day of the march, Henri Julien, the artist who was commissioned to document the journey, became lost after he left to hunt some ducks. Upon returning, he realized the force had left.
He would be found the next day by a search party. Hungry, exhausted and with literally hundreds of mosquito bites, he was thankful to be rescued.

On Aug. 8, the Mounties came upon Old Wives Lake, which is a large saltwater lake near Moose Jaw, and they would remain in the area of the lake for four days before leaving to reach Cypress Hills. On Aug. 12, they met with the First indigenous man along the march. The Sioux chieftan spoke with Col. French and rode away promising to return with some more of his tribe.
The next day, he returned with 30 men, and was escorted to an open pavilion that had been made from two tents. Col. French wore his finest uniform for the occasion. Upon speaking with the chief and his men, the Sioux were delighted to find out that the Mounties were in the area to keep the Americans out of the land, and to drive the illegal whiskey traders away.
Two days later, the Sioux returned to sing and dance with the troops and put on a performance for the men.

On Day 49, Aug. 25, 1874, the Mounties reached the Cypress Hills, a wooded and hilly area in southwest Saskatchewan. The men were put on high alert due to the worry of the violence from indigenous tribes in the area.
In the end, there was no violence and the men spent their time exploring the beautiful area, looking for First Nations artifacts and bathing in Battle Creek, so named because it ran through the area where the Cypress Hills Massacre had taken place the previous year.

The group would spend several days marching through the Cypress Hills before finally leaving around Day 57. It was also on that day that two buffaloes were shot by Col. French, which would yield 1,000 pounds of meat for the men.

On Day 67, the force reached the confluence of the Bow and Belly Rivers, which is also the head of the South Saskatchewan River. This is where Fort Whoop-up was supposed to be found, but instead there were only three old wolfer shacks and no fort. French decided that the force would travel to the southwest and winter at the present day Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. He would also travel to Fort Benton, Montana with a few of his men to acquire proper directions.

On Day 76, the Mounties arrived at Sweet Grass Hills and camped there. At this point, the force was split up again with Inspector Carvell leading Troops D and E south to the Boundary Commission Road, and then east to Fort Ellice, Manitoba.

On Sept. 23, French would go east to join Carvell and his troops, while Assistant Commissioner Macleod would be in charge of the force.

On Day 91, the troops once again began moving up to Fort Whoop-up, this time guided by Jerry Potts.

Finally, on Day 94, Oct. 9, 1874, the North West Mounted Police reached Fort Whoop-up and did an immediate search for whiskey. The owner, Dave Akers, had been warned and had hidden the whiskey in various hills around the area. The Mounties left but assured that they would be staying in the area. They marched slightly north and established Fort Macleod, in honour of their Assistant Commissioner James MacLeod.

The march was over and the era of the Mounted Police had begun.

The Two Leaders

Col. George Arthur French

Born in Roscommon, Ireland and educated at the Royal Military College, French was sent to Canada in 1871 at the request of the government to serve as a military inspector. He would also become the head of the School of Gunnery in Kingston.
Two years later, he was appointed to organize the North West Mounted Police, and he would remain as the commissioner of the force until 1876 so he could return to duty with the British Army.
Thanks to the work he did in Canada to organize the Mounties, he was appointed to organize defense forces in both India and Australia. As part of the British Army, he would eventually reach the rank of Major General/
In 1883, he was appointed as the Commandant of the Queensland Local Forces, arriving in Australia in 1884, and would remain so until 1891. In 1896, he became commandant in New South Wales, a role he kept until 1896.
In 1902, he would become Sir George French, and for the next 19 years he guarded the crown jewels in the Tower of London.
He would pass away at the age of 80 in 1921.
He married Janet Clarke, the daughter of a military man, in 1862.

James MacLeod

Born in 1836 in Scotland, MacLeod would travel to Canad from Scotland in 1845 when his father purchased land in Ontario. Educated at Upper Canada College, and then on to Queen’s University, he would graduate with a degree in the classics and philosophy.
In 1856, two years after completing his degree, he would join the Volunteer Militia Field Battery of Kingson. His enthusiasm was so high that he was given a commission in the British Army by the Governor General of the time, Sir Edmund Walker Head.
In 1860, he would graduate from law school and began working for Alexander Campbell.
From 1860 to 1870, he practiced law in Bowmanville, Ontario, and during this time he would still remain in the militia and participate in several military actions including the Fenian Raids and the Trent Affair.
In 1876, he was appointed the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories and was only one of three members to serve on the Northwest Territories Council.
That same year, he was chosen as the second commissioner of the North-West Mounted Police, a role he would remain in until 1880. Seven years later, he would serve on the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories.
He would pass away in 1894.
The town of Fort MacLeod, and MacLeod Trail in Calgary, are both named for him.


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