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Over the course of 17 years, the Royal Northwest Mounted Police would make the long trip of over 600 miles from Dawson City in the Yukon to Fort McPherson in the North West Territories. The purpose of this trip was to delivery supplies and mail and generally, it was a boring affair.
That was until 1911, when things were changed slightly, and a patrol went from Fort McPherson to Dawson City instead of the other way around.
The journey, led by Inspector Francis Joseph Fitzgerald, would go down as one of the great tragedies of the RCMP.
Before moving forward, let’s look at Inspector Fitzgerald.
Born in Halifax on April 12, 1869, Francis Fitzgerald served in the Halifax militia until the age of 19 when he made the decision to enlist as a constable with the North-West Mounted Police on Nov. 19, 1888. For the next nine years, he served in the Maple Creek District of Saskatchewan. When he as 28, he would be the first person to chart an overland route from Edmonton to Fort Selkirk in the Yukon. The journey, which took 11 months and covered 1,600 kilometres, earned Fitzgerald a promotion to Corporal. In 1899, he joined up with the Second Canadian Mounted Rifles and served in the Second Boer War. His heroic service in the war brought him to the attention of Commissioner Perry in Regina, who promoted him to sergeant. In 1902, he travelled to England as part of the North West Mounted Police contingent attending the coronation of Edward VII. In 1903, he established a police post on Herschel Island in the Arctic, where he was stationed for six years with little contact with the outside world. In 1909, he would have a daughter with a local Inuit woman, and be promoted to Inspector. In 1910, he was selected as part of the contingent to attend the Coronation of George V. To get him out of the north, he was selected to head the patrol from Fort McPherson to Dawson City.
Which brings us back to the patrol.
Going on the patrol with Fitzgerald would be Constables Richard O’Hara Taylor, George Francis Kinney and their guide, Special Constable Sam Carter. The men also took 15 dogs, three sleds and enough food to last them for an entire month. They also carried 20 kilograms of parcels. This would be the first patrol for both Kinney and Taylor.
Setting out on Dec. 21, 1910, for the first four days of the patrol, the men travelled 105 kilometres, which was very good considering the days were getting colder and colder. On Christmas Day, the men travelled an excellent 26 kilometres. On Dec. 26, they covered 30 kilometres in only six hours but they found out they had missed a turn the previous day after stumbling upon a First Nations camp.
They completed the first leg of the journey, and for the second leg they hired First Nations guide Esau George for three dollars a day. When the second leg was completed, George was let go with Fitzgerald trusting that Carter could lead them to the next section. Unfortunately, Carter had only done the trip once, and in the other direction. This decision is an odd one considering that they had missed a turn in the trail on the first leg, which led them to hire George for the second leg. As it would turn out, George was the last person to see them alive.
By Jan. 12, 1911, the group was lost as Carter struggled to find Forrest Creek. The group travelled up and down various streams to find the right one, but supplies were dwindling fast.
With only a few days of rations left, Fitzgerald would make a note in his journal saying:
“My last hope is gone. I should not have taken Carter’s word that he knew the way from Little Wind River.”
The next day, the patrol changed direction, going in reverse, to find the right trail to get back to Fort McPherson rather than go on to Dawson Creek.
The trip back was not any better.
On Jan. 12, Fitzgerald wrote in his journal:
“37 below. Fine with slight head wind. Sent Carter to look for portage but he could not find it.”
On Jan. 17, Fitzgerald wrote:
“Carter is completely lost and does not know one river from another. We have now only ten bags of flour and eight pounds of bacon and some dried fish. My last hope is gone, and the only thing I can do is return and kill some dogs to feed the others and myself, unless we can meet some Indians.”
The men were so weak they could only walk a few miles per day, and sometimes not at all. From Jan. 18 to Feb. 5, 10 of the dogs were killed for food.
The following are Fitzgerald’s entries in his diary until Feb. 5:
Jan 18: “13 below. Killed the first dog tonight for dog feed. Hardly any of the dogs would eat him and we had to give them a little dried fish. Our food consisted of a small piece of bannock and dried fish.”
Jan 19: “28 below. Very misty with a slight southwest wind. We were at times ankle deep in water. Killed another dog tonight. 21 miles”
Jan. 20: “21 below. Very strong southwest gale all day. Ate the last of the flour and bacon. All we have now is some dried fish and tea.”
Jan. 21: “Zero. Strong gale. Killed another dog tonight. 20 miles.”
Jan. 22: “50 below in a.m. 64 below in p.m. Carters fingers are badly frozen.”
Jan. 23: “64 below. Misty with strong head winds.
Jan. 24: “56 below. Strong south wind with very heavy mist. Left camp at 7:30 and found the river open right across. Constable Taylor got up to his waist and Carter to his hips. We had to go into camp at 11 a.m. Killed another dog and all hands made a good meal on dog meat.”
Jan. 25: “53 below. Killed another dog. Our food is now dog meat and tea. 18 miles.”
Jan. 26: “21 below. Going very heavy in deep snow. All hands and dogs getting weak. Eight miles.”
Jan. 27: “13 below. Heavy snowstorm with heavy mists. Camped at Waugh’s tent at 2 p.m. Searched tent and cache for food but found none. Going very heavy. Killed another dog. We have now only nine dogs. The rest have gone for food. 11 miles.”
Jan. 28: “45 below. Strong south wind with mist. Taylor sick last night and last and all day. Going very heavy.”
Jan. 29: “20 below. Killed another dog tonight. Men and dogs very weak. Cached one sled and wrapper with seven dog harnesses here.”
Jan. 30: “51 below. All hands feeling sick. Suppose it be from eating dog liver.”
Jan. 31: “45 below. 62 below in p.m. Skin peeling off our faces and parts of body and lips all swollen and split. I suppose this is caused by eating dog meat. Everybody feels the cold very much for want of proper food. 17 miles.”
Feb. 1: “51 below. Killed another dog tonight. This makes eight dogs we have killed, and we have eaten most of them. We fed what dried fish we had to the dogs. 16 miles.”
Feb. 2: “7 above. 23 below in p.m. Got astray in the mist.”
Feb. 3: “26 below. Killed another dog tonight. Men and dogs very thin and weak and cannot travel far. We have travelled about 200 miles on dog meat and still have about 100 miles to go, but I think we will make it out all right.”
Feb. 4: “52 below. Going very heavy and everybody suffered very much from the cold.
On Day 47 of the patrol, Feb. 5, 1911, the last entry would go into the diary of Fitzgerald.
Feb. 5: “48 below. Just after noon I broke through ice and had to make a fire. Found one foot slightly frozen. Killed another dog tonight. Have only five dogs now and can only go a few miles a day. Eight miles.”
It was around this date that Taylor and Kinney could go no further, and a camp was made, and Fitzgerald left what supplies he could with his companions. He and Carter pressed forward.
By this time, officers in Dawson City were getting worried as the patrol was approaching one month late. A relief patrol was sent out to find the men on Feb. 28, led by Corporal William John Dempster. As the rescue patrol moved towards Fort McPherson, they found clues to the original patrol’s location. This included cached toboggan, as well as dog bones, a dispatch bag, mail sack and seven sets of harnesses from Jan. 29.
Nearly one month later, and three months to the day that the patrol left Fort McPherson, the patrol was found. Kinney and Taylor were both dead, side-by-side in the open camp. Kinney had died from starvation while Taylor had shot himself in the head. The men were around a burned-out campfire. In a large kettle on the fire was a partially-cooked sled harness.
On March 22, the following day, Fitzgerald and Carter were both found. Both men had died of cold and hunger, only 40 kilometres away from Fort McPherson. Fitzgerald had laid Carter’s body in the snow and covered his face with a handkerchief. Fitzgerald laid down in the snow a few hundred yards away and soon died.
On the body of Fitzgerald was his will, scrawled with charcoal on paper. It read, “All money in dispatch bag and bank, clothes, etc. I leave to my dearly beloved mother, Mrs. John Fitzgerald, Halifax. God Bless All.”
There were many reasons for the patrol’s failure. The inexperience of Carter led to the men becoming lost, while the -45 to -62-degree temperatures led to the men becoming weak and frostbitten.
By the time a search party was organized, all the men were dead.
Upon the return of the search party, Reverend Whittaker somehow obtained Fitzgerald’s diary and wrote a deeply critical letter stating that Fitzgerald was ill-prepared, ill-guided and had poor dogs. The Mounted Police were very unhappy with this critical look at the patrol and issued deep denials of the allegations.
All four men were buried at Fort McPherson on March 28, 1911. Two decades later, all four were cemented into a large tomb, with four corners connected by a chain as a memorial.
Patrols continued for another ten years, but due to the tragedy, future patrols always had a First Nations guide, and cabins along with supply caches were established along the trail. In addition, the trail between the two communities was clearly marked to ensure no one ever got lost again.
Today, a bridge at the Halifax Public Gardens is named in honour of Fitzgerald, as is a community in Northern Alberta. The community, located 339 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, was originally called Smith Landing. In 1915, the name was changed to honour Fitzgerald.
In 1978, a TV Movie starring Leslie Nielsen was made about the patrol. George R. Robertson, who played Chief Hurst in the Police Academy movies, played Francis Fitzgerald, while also writing the movie.
Dempster, the man who led the relief patrol, would become an Inspector and serve in the Yukon for 37 years. He would retire in 1934 and pass away in Vancouver in 1965. The Dempster Highway, which runs from the Klondike Highway to Fort McPherson, is named for him.
Information for this piece came from Wikipedia, the RCMP Heritage Project, the History of Saskatchewan and the Old North West, Death Wins in The Arctic: The Lost Patrol of 1910, Land of the Midnight A Sun: A History of the Yukon and Place Names of Alberta: Volume IV.