You can listen to this podcast episode on Canadian History Ehx
The RCMP are such a part of Canada’s heritage that they have practically become the image of Canada across the world. From taking part in diplomatic functions, including the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth, to being our national police force, the RCMP had their beginnings 125 years ago not as the RCMP, but the NWMP, or the North West Mounted Police.
This podcast isn’t about the creation of the NWMP, or the history of the NWMP. No, this podcast is about the March West, the movement of the first group of NWMP officers from Ontario out to the Canadian west.
Needless to say, it was not an easy trip.
First, a bit of background. The NWMP was created through Parliament on May 23, 1873 following a debate in the House of Commons. With a vote, the Mounted Police Act was passed with the purpose of having a force of mounted police to watch the frontier from Manitoba to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, with headquarters in Winnipeg. Based heavily on the Royal Irish Constabulary, the force and its purpose would change heavily due to the Cypress Hills Massacre, in which American whiskey traders killed about 30 Assiniboine believing they had stolen their horses. With that tragedy, the new Liberal government under Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie made the new police force a priority.
The men were recruited and the force was given orders to proceed to Fort Edmonton in order to resolve the problems around the whiskey traders at Fort Whoop-Up, which was near present-day Lethbridge. At Fort Edmonton, the force would be dispersed through the west.
On June 19, the force was assembled together for the first time as a single unit. The following day, they would experience a vicious storm that may have been a sign of things to come.
The storm was described by Sam Steele as such:
“A thunderbolt fell in the midst of the horses. Terrified, they broke their fastening and made for the corral. The six men on guard were trampled underfoot as they tried to stop them. The maddened beasts overturned the huge wagons, dashed through a row of tents, scattered everything and made for the gate of the large field in which we were encamped.”
Over the subsequent weeks, final preparations were made to prepare for The March West.
On July 8, 1874, the force left Fort Dufferin, located near Emerson, Manitoba. The force at the time was 275 strong, divided into six divisions labelled as A to F. Each Division was identified based on the colour of their horses. Division A had dark bays, B had dark browns, C had chestnuts, D had greys and buckskins, E had blacks and F had light bays.
In addition, there were 310 horses, 143 oxen and 187 carts and wagons. In all, the force stretched for 2.4 kilometres as it marched. Beyond those items, there were also two field guns and two mortars, cattle and mowing machines to make hay. George French, the first Commissioner of the NWMP, had Henri Julien, a journalist with Canadian Illustrated News, come with the new force to write about it, in what he hoped would be a positive light.
One interesting recruit was Inspector Francis Dickens, the son of Charles Dickens, who was described by his superiors as “a very poor officer of no promise, physically weak in constitution, his habits not affording a good example.”
There were many applicants to be part of this first force moving west, but mostly men with previous military or police experience were hired. Applicants could be any male between the age of 18 and 40, with good character and sound constitution. They had to be able to read and write in either French or English, and they would be paid 75 cents a day for sub-Constable and one dollar a day for Constable.
The original advertisement, as it appeared in the Halifax Morning Chronicle on Oct. 2, 1872, stated the following:
“Active, Healthy Young Men, for service in the Mounted Police Force in the North West Territory. They must be of good character, single between the ages of 20 and 36, capable of riding. They will have to serve a term of three years. Their pay will be 75 cents per dime and everything, (uniform, rations, board, etc) found, and on completion of service will receive a free grant of 160 acres of land, with right of choice.”
Things did not begin well for the force. With so many moving pieces, and through arduous conditions, the force made only 15 miles a day, and that was on a good day.
On the fourth day of the March, the troop rested at a place called Grant’s Place, where they killed several ducks and feasted on them. This would have consequences soon after for those men, beyond the fact they killed several ducks without approval. You see, there is something called prairie cholera, which is a terribly unpleasant gastrointestinal condition that follows eating duck and drinking pond water. The men who enjoyed those ducks and pond water, soon found themselves literally soiling themselves on the march.
On the fifth day of the March, the troops were able to camp at the base of the Pembina Mountains. During the evening, swarms of grasshoppers descended on the canvas tents of the men, forcing them to pack up their tents to save their only shelter from hungry grasshoppers.
On July 19, the 12th day of the March, the men rested in order to observe the Sabbath. Resting along the Souris River, the men had their first opportunity to bathe and wash their clothes. Remember the men who soiled themselves after the pond water and duck? This was their first chance to wash their stained pants. Blacksmiths with the force were also able to fix damaged equipment for the first time.
On July 22, the 15th day of the march, the first of the horses began to die. The force was crossing the Souris River but due to the heat of the day and the weak condition of the horses, two were abandoned and two others died. The weak condition of the horses was because of the small supply of oats the horses were provided. The grasshoppers that had hit the force on day 5 had stripped the land clean ahead of the men, which meant there was nothing for the horses to eat along the way.
Within three weeks, A Division was in serious despair and men were suffering from dysentery. As a result, on July 29, several members of the division were left behind as the main force turned off the southerly trail and began the march across the drier and rougher plains of the north west area. As for A Division members, a total of 12 troopers, 55 of the weakest horses, 24 wagons, 55 carts, 50 heads of cattle and 62 oxen were placed under the command of Inspector W.D. Jarvis and sub-inspector Albert Shurtliff, who would take them to Fort Edmonton to set up a police post.
On Aug. 1, the 25th day of the expedition, the bad luck of its members was in full force. Henri Julien, the aforementioned journalist, went off to hunt ducks. After dismounting to get a duck he shot, his horse rode off and Julien would spend hours chasing after it on foot. Finally catching the horse, he returned to camp to find the force had left. He was forced to tether his horse and sleep under the stars for the night. The following day, a search party found Julien, whose hands and feet were ragged and bloody and his face had nearly been disfigured by mosquito bites. Julien had no luck on that second day before he was found. His horse had bolted again and he spent hours once again chasing it until he caught it.
Over the next two weeks, things would be relatively okay. The troop would come across the Sioux, who were happy to trade and spend time with the force. Various groups had gone out and picked up some supplies, although not enough to keep the force from being on a razor’s edge of despair at points.
By Aug. 18, the force was in the middle of what would one day be Saskatchewan when they were hit by a colony of flying ants that tormented the troops.
On Aug. 21, the 45th day of the march, the force met a small party of men consisting of Pierre Leveille and his sons Paul and Gabriel, as well as a Roman Catholic priest named Pere Lestaing. In relating what he saw, Gabriel Leivelle would state, “They looked terrible. They wore little bits of hats no bigger than a plate. These gave no shade at all and their faces were burned almost black and they were all bitten by mosquitoes. The horses’ tails were bobbed right to the bone like they would be in England. The tail was thus no use to the horse to keep off the mosquitoes and the flies.”
On Aug. 24, the force reached the Cypress Hills, which is on the border of present day Alberta and Saskatchewan. The weather had turned colder but the Cypress Hills provided a welcome reprieve from the march for several days.
Poor planning would result in another terrible mixup for the group. Commissioner French thought that that Fort Whoop-up was at the junction of the Bow River and South Saskatchewan River, but when the group arrived on Sept. 10, they found nothing in the area except for three old shacks.
The hope was that there would be good land to graze but as French stated, “it was little better than a desert” and the men had no water to drink except for muddy water from the marshland.
Where was Fort Whoop-Up? It was 121 kilometres away, but the men didn’t realize it at the time.
Search parties were sent out but they met with no success and the expedition was in real danger of losing its horses and dealing with starvation.
Commissioner French then abandoned the plan to move towards Fort Whoop-Up and chose to travel 70 miles south to Sweet Grass Hills, which was close to the border with the United States.
While the force was there, French and a few officers would make their way to Fort Benton, Montana to buy supplies.
By the time the group arrived in that area on Sept. 21, many of the men were only wearing rags and were walking barefoot, while more horses had died from the cold and hunger.
After getting new supplies, Divisions D and E went back to the east, and Divisions B, C and F began to travel to Fort Whoop-Up.
This next section of the journey was a tough one. Buffalo had cleared the prairie of grass and many of the water holes were full of foul water. Horses began to get weaker and many of the men were wrapping sacks on their feet because their boots had worn out.
On Sept. 19, several horses with the force died, enough that the troop would name the coulee there Dead Horse Valley.
On Sept. 23, French and his small group of men arrived at Fort Benton and after a rest, would purchase supplies and take on the scout Jerry Potts.
At this point, French rode east to join Troops D and E, while Macleod would be in charge of the majority of the force currently waiting at the Sweet Grass Hills. They would reach the party on Oct. 4.
On Oct. 6, the force left Sweet Grass Hills and were guided to Fort Whoop-Up by Jerry Potts.
The force finally arrived at Fort Whoop-Up on Oct. 9 and were ready to battle the whiskey traders in the area. Unfortunately, the whiskey traders were very aware that the force was coming, and had long since left. Any trace of whiskey had long since left the fort, and the Mounties were forced to leave the fort with no evidence ever found of whiskey trading.
The NWMP then received orders from Ottawa to garrison in the area and settle on an island in Old Man’s River to build Fort Macleod, planned to be the new headquarters of the force. A total of 10 officers, 140 non-commissioned officers, 105 horses and 38 cattle would stay at the new fort.
Commissioner French would travel to Fort Livingstone and arrive on Oct. 21, where his diary stated the barracks were being built. The fort would briefly serve as the headquarters of the NWMP until Fort Macleod was ready.
At the time, with news of exactly what the men went through not reaching the public, early historians described the expedition as epic in nature. One contemporary historian of the time stated that the march was “truly one of the most extraordinary on record”, and he felt that it was one that Canadians could feel proud.
By the mid-part of the 20th century, times were changing and so were the views of the march. Paul Sharp at the time stated that the March West, “failed due to misinformation, inexperience and ignorance.” As time went on, the criticism of the March and its planning only increased, putting emphasis on the bad planning, lack of organization and inexperience of those on the march.
Nonetheless, no matter our view of the march, it is an important part of Canada’s heritage, and for those who made it through the march, it was something they would never forget.
So, what about those men who took part in the march? Where did many of the more prominent members end up?
George French, who had been born in Ireland and educated at the Royal Military College, had come to Canada at the request of the Canadian government in 1871 to become the head of the School of Gunnery. Serving as the commissioner of the NWMP from 1873 to 1876, he would eventually return to the British Army and reach the rank of major general.He would help to establish local defence forces in India and Australia and would retire from the army in 1902, the same year he was knighted. He would spend the last 19 years of his life guarding the Crown Jewels in London before his death in 1921.
Inspector William Jarvis, who went north with A Division, would found Fort Saskatchewan. That fort would grow into a village and become a city by 1985, and an important community outside of Edmonton. Jarvis had previously served in the South African War before joining the NWMP, becoming the first officer appointed in the force on Sept. 25, 1873. In 1881, he attempted to resign but was refused. His services were then dispensed with an order from Force Comptroller White and he was charged with gross insubordination and dismissed from the force. He would die at the age of 79 in Nelson, B.C.
Jerry Potts was the child of an Indigenous woman named Crooked Back and a Scottish fur trader named Andrew Potts. As a baby, he was given to the American Fur Company trader Alexander Harvey, who mistreated and abandoned Potts as a child. Potts was then adopted by Andrew Dawson, a much nicer and gentle man who taught him to read and write and learn the customs and languages of his mother’s people. As an adult, Potts became a wealthy man through horse trading and learned to speak several languages. His contract as a guide for the NWMP would last 22 years, in which he was paid a staggering $90 per month. He would select the site of the first NWMP post, Fort McLeod as well. He stopped being a guide at the age of 58 due to throat cancer, and died on July 14, 1896 in Fort Macleod. He was buried with full honours by the NWMP and given the rank special Constable.
James Macleod was born in Scotland in 1836 and would come to Canada as a young man with his family. After graduating from Queen’s University, he would join the Volunteer Militia Field Battery and then practiced law for the 1860s in Bowmanville, Ontario. Following The March West and the establishment of Fort Macleod, which is named for him, he would be elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories in 1876, the same year he took over as the second Commissioner of the North-West Mounted Police. He served in the legislature for 15 years until 1891 and would pass away three years later.
James Walsh was born in 1840 and following the March West was assigned with establishing a post in the Cypress Hills. He would establish Fort Walsh, and he would develop a strong relationship with Sitting Bull, who had come into the region to escape the Americans after the Battle of Little Big Horn. The Canadian government eventually decided that the friendship between Sitting Bull and Walsh was an obstacle to the Sioux returning to the United States and they would transfer Walsh away. Walsh would resign out of protest.
In 1897, he would become the first Commissioner of the Yukon Territory and would resign one year later. He died in Ontario in 1905 and Mount Walsh in the Yukon is named for him. There is an excellent Canada History Minute about Walsh and Sitting Bull.
Ephemeral Brisebois was born in 1850 and would become one of the first nine officers appointed to the NWMP. He had fought in the Union Army at the age of 15 during the end of the American Civil War. As an NWMP officer, he would be the one to hire legendary guide Jerry Potts to guide the force. In 1875, he was put in charge of building Fort Brisebois, but his methods were often against what his superiors wanted. Never getting along with James Macleod, he rarely punished his men who did not follow orders during the cold winter of 1875-76. He also took a Métis girl as his common-law wife, and took the fort’s only cook stove to heat his room. Eventually, discipline and morale fell to a low level at the fort and Brisebois was reprimanded. Fort Brisebois was renamed Fort Calgary. He would also warn the government that if there were not strict hunting regulations on the buffalo, they would be gone in ten years and it would mean starvation for the First Nations people. He would resign from the NWMP in 1876 and go back to Quebec. In the North-West Rebellion of 1885, he organized two companies of white and Métis home guards to prevent blood shed. He died of a heart attack at only 39 in 1889.
Henri Julien, the journalist along for the march, was born in 1852 and would illustrate for a wide assortment of publications throughout his life, as well as publish three books of illustrations. Upon his death in 1908, he was called the most original talent in the country and his paintings and work can be found across Canada including in the Canadian War Museum.
Sam Steele, more than anyone else, exemplifies the image of an early Mountie. He was born in
1849 to a military family and he would participate in several notable military engagements in Canada’s history, including being part of the Red River Expedition in 1870 to fight the Red River Rebellion. He would join the Permanent Force artillery, Canada’s first regular army unit and would become the third officer sworn in to the new NWMP. Over the coming years, he would command several forts, and serve in the North-West Rebellion. He would establish an NWMP station in B.C. that would become Fort Steele after he solved a murder in the community. In 1898, he was sent to serve as commissioner in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush and would establish custom posts at the White and Chilkoot Passes. He took a hard line and insisted that no one enter the Yukon without one ton of goods to support themselves. Not only did this save the lives of many prospectors coming to the Yukon, it also helped the Klondike Gold Rush become the most orderly gold rush in history. Steele then served in the Boer War, and became the commander of the Strathcona’s Horse as a Lt. Col. He would also serve as the commander of the Second Canadian Division during the First World War. He would be knighted on Jan. 1, 1918 and would sadly die of the Spanish Flu that same year. Mount Steele, the fifth highest mountain in Canada, is named for him.
Information for this article comes from Wikipedia, Canadian Encylopedia, Hammerson Peters, History Comes Alive, Cypress Hills Country, Alberta A New History, the Hills of Home,