On Feb. 5, 1911, the weather was a bitter -45 degrees Celsius. The wind was howling and four men had endured 47 days in the frigid Arctic wilderness of Canada.
These were not men who had wandered into the wilderness, but seasoned North West Mounted Police officers with years of experience.
Yet, a series of wrong turns had led them to the point where they could go no further.
They had consumed several sled dogs to keep from starving. They could only venture a few kilometres per day due to exhaustion.
Now, as the last diary entry was made by the leader of the expedition.
They could go no further. One man had broke through the ice and was freezing to death. The others were starving and hungry.
As he made camp and left what supplies that he could with two of his companions, the leader of the group set out with the other man.
Within days, all four men were dead and the legend of the Lost Patrol was born.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx![PAUSE]
For 17 years, the Royal North West Mounted Police made the journey from Dawson City, Yukon Territory, to Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories. This was no easy trip through the wilderness as it stretched for 965 kilometres through some of the harshest land in Canada.
The trip was vital though, as it allowed for the delivery of supplies and mail. For the most part, it was a boring affair and one that attracted little notice through the rest of Canada.
That all changed in the winter of 1910-11, when one of the worst tragedies in the history of the North West Mounted Police occurred.
Leading that journey was a man widely respected for his career with the force, dating back decades, and his experience in the Arctic, Francis Joseph 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. At that point, the force was only 14 years old, and still making its mark in the Canadian West, and was a decade away from gaining more notice for its work in the Klondike Gold Rush.
For the next nine years, Fitzgerald served in the Maple Creek District of what is now Saskatchewan. When he as 28, he became 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, due to his growing stature in the force, he travelled to England as part of the North West Mounted Police contingent attending the coronation of Edward VII. One year later, 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.
If you are wondering where Herschel Island is, it is located five kilometres off the coast of the Yukon and is the only offshore island of the territory. It is roughly 2,400 kilometres north of Vancouver.
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 another royal coronation, that of King George V.
Due to the danger of serving in a remote outpost, the decision was made to remove Fitzgerald from the post and get him somewhere safer due to his high stature. The decision was made to make him the head of the patrol from Fort McPherson to Dawson City.
No one can say that history is not filled with irony.
Going on the patrol with Fitzgerald would be Constables Richard O’Hara Taylor, George Francis Kinney and their guide, Special Constable Sam Carter.
Carter was one year younger than Fitzgerald and had recently retired on pension but since he knew the country, was brought in as a guide.
Taylor was an Australian who joined the force in 1905, while Kinney was an American who served in the American Army before joining the force in 1907.
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.
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.
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, resulting in a need to go back and retrace their course.
They completed the first leg of the journey with little difficulty beyond the missed turn, 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 in what turned out to be a fateful mistake.
Fitzgerald trusted 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 the group alive.
Over the next week and a half, the group became more lost in the wilderness. By Jan. 12, 1911, they were struggling to find Forrest Creek and had traveled up various streams to find the right one. At this point, supplies were beginning to dwindle quickly.
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 City.
This decision did not improve things, and they continued to struggle to find their bearings in the Yukon wilderness.
On Jan. 12, Fitzgerald wrote in his journal, and these temperatures are in Fahrenheit rather than Celsius:
“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.”
By the middle of January, the men were so weak they could only walk a few kilometres per day, if they went anywhere at all.
As supplies ran out, the dogs became a food source. From Jan. 18 to Feb. 5, 10 dogs were killed for food.
What follows are the journal entries of Fitzgerald during that period of time.
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.
Feb. 5 turned out to be the last journal entry, and the one I related at the beginning of the episode. By this point, only five dogs remained.
By the middle of February, officers in Dawson City were getting worried as the patrol was approaching one month late. The trip usually took 40 days, or in good years, 20 days, and they were long overdue now. Indigenous that arrived at the community stated the patrol had left on schedule from Fort MacPherson.
A relief patrol was sent out to find the men on Feb. 28, led by Corporal William John Dempster, who had received a telegram the day before advising him to find the patrol.
What no one knew, but likely most suspected, was that the men on the patrol were dead already.
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.
By the middle of March and three months to the day that the patrol left Fort McPherson, the patrol was found by searchers.
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 the men had been cooking for food. They also found Fitzgerald’s diary which told the grim story.
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 metres away and died soon after with two half blankets around him.
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.”
When found, all four men weighed only 100 pounds each.
As news spread of the tragic patrol’s fate, many felt grief for the lost lives of the men. The Vancouver Daily World wrote,
“There have been few, if any, tragedies in the history of the Northwest Mounted Police, worse than the loss of the Fort McPherson patrol.”
The men were also widely praised, the Ottawa Journal wrote,
“The mute remaining record shows that each man did his utmost in quiet heroism and only when that utmost failed to achieve safety, only when the last possible effort was made in vain, did he fall in his tracks and perish.”
There were many reasons for the patrol’s failure. The inexperience of Carter led to the men losing their way, while the bitter cold temperatures led to the men becoming weak and frostbitten.
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.
Due to the extensive experience of Fitzgerald, the blame can not be put completely on him. His belief in the abilities of Carter were misguided, but he had proven himself to be a man who could survive in the Arctic.
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 an Indigenous 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 called The Dawson Patrol 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, became an Inspector and serve in the Yukon for 37 years. He retired in 1934 and passed 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 the RCMP Heritage Project, the History of Saskatchewan and the Old North West, Death Wins in The Arctic: The Lost Patrol of 1910, Wikipedia, Land of the Midnight A Sun: A History of the Yukon and Place Names of Alberta: Volume IV, Whitehorse Daily Star
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