As the resident historical writer for the Cardston and District Museum, I am tasked with writing pieces on the various items in the museum’s collection. This historical piece will be displayed with the painting of the March West by Sven Oscar Cederburg on display at the museum.
In terms of moments in Canadian history, few events are as mythical or as important as the legendary March West by the North-West Mounted Police.
While today it is seen as the beginning of the taming of the Canadian West, at the time it was a viewed as an ill-prepared and fool-hardy exercise.
Following the massacre of 30 members of the Assiniboine First Nation at the Cypress Hills Massacre by apparent whiskey traders at Fort Whoop-Up, legislation was enacted to create the NWMP by Prime Minister John A. MacDonald. It was decided that a contingent of men would travel out west before the winter to remove the whiskey traders and tame the west.
Beginning on July 8, 1874, six divisions of 275 men marched out of Fort Dufferin in present-day southern Manitoba, along with the men were 310 horses, 143 oxen and 187 Red River carts and wagons. In all, the entire deployment of men and supplies stretched for 2.4 kilometres.
In the beginning, the contingent of men could only make 20 kilometres a day and by July 29, the men of Division A were suffering from dysentery and had to be left behind as the main force continued towards their destination. Poor planning didn’t help matters as food began to run out and without any water bottles, something the expedition didn’t bring, the men had to drink contaminated local water. Due to this, a detachment of sick men and livestock were left at Old Wives Lake.
On August 24, the expedition was able to reach the Cypress Hills and what would one day be Fort Walsh. Things didn’t improve at this point with the weather becoming cold and wet, and the expedition’s horses beginning to die off.
On Sept. 10, the men arrived at what they hoped would be Fort Whoop-Up, near present-day Lethbridge. George French had thought that the fort was at the junction of the Bow and South Saskatchewan Rivers but it was in fact, 121 kilometres away. French described the area as no better than a desert and men were forced to drink muddy water from a marshland.
Due to the difficulties of the March West, French chose to abandon the plan to move towards Fort Whoop Up and instead went 100 kilometres south to the Sweet Grass Hills near the US Border to get supplies. More horses died from cold and hunger and by the time the men arrived at the Sweet Grass Hills, they were in rags and barefoot. At this point, they had travelled 1,400 kilometres.
Once resupplied, Divisions D and E went back east, while Divisions B, C and F went on to Fort Whoop-Up.
On Oct. 9, the divisions arrived at Fort Whoop-Up. Unfortunately, the whiskey traders they had come to confront were long gone, knowing that the troops were on their way. New orders then came in to garrison the area and settle on an island in the Old Man River at a fort that would be called Fort MacLeod.
The age of the NWMP, and eventually the RCMP, had begun in the Canadian West.