The West's untamed Indians had never seen
anything like the first Mounties: almost five miles of warriors in
scarlet coats and spiked white helmets, riding in column formation,
bearing rifles and lances, pennants snapping in the prairie breeze. When
the tribal scouts crept closer, however, they saw gaunt horses and
riders who looked tattered, skeletal and often lost. Repeatedly, the
utterly ill-planned "March West" of the North West Mounted
Police in 1874 brushed with complete catastrophe. Yet from that trek
emerged one of the world's finest police forces and, in one sense,
Canada itself-the suffering men and beasts forged the young country's
first government link to the West.
The original cops, recruited in a rush,
were not a promising lot. In 1873, prime minister Sir John Macdonald
decided a police force was necessary to protect the Indians from
American whisky traders, to enforce law and order, to encourage
settlement, and to prevent the U.S. cavalry from moving in. Among the
first Mounties, two signed up blind in one eye, five had acute heart
disease, and others suffered from tuberculosis, syphilis, varicose veins
and a broken leg, according to historian E.C. Morgan. Varicose veins
were seen as particularly serious, says University of Lethbridge
historian William Baker, since they could lead to problems after days in
The greenhorns, many British-born,
enlisted in central Canada. Only two had previous experience as lawmen.
Among the other would-be builders of the British Empire were office
clerks, printers, farmers, teachers, a couple of medical students, as
well as wheelwrights, coopers, blacksmiths and ferriers. The force's
first commissioner, British Lieutenant-Colonel George A. French, advised
recruits that any who might be of "faint heart" should apply
for discharge since he expected "hot work" once they found the
whisky traders. Cecil Denny, one of the original enlisted men, noted
concern about the "warlike Blackfoot nation" which had earned
a bloody reputation for scalping whites who entered their country.
Against their reported 2,000 warriors, the Toronto Mail rhymed about the
only mercy that any policeman falling into their clutches could expect:
"Sharp be the blade and sure the blow/ And short the pang to
The policemen went to riding school where
"things did not go so well." Most were unused to horses and
many accidents occurred. They were outfitted in the uniform of the Irish
Constabulary; its high collar and woolen tunic proved highly impractical
for the Canadian climate: too hot for summer and too cold for winter.
The men then traveled by train to Fargo, North Dakota, and marched
north. Montreal artist and journalist Henri Julien, who accompanied the
march, wrote in his diary, "Behind us lay the works of man with
their noises. Before us stretched out the handiwork of God with its
eternal solitudes." His articles and sketches, widely-published,
were the start of the "tremendous public relations" the
Mounties have always employed, according to Prof. Baker. "They
always presented well in print and pictures the heroes the country
needed. They could do no wrong." Today the Mounties are sometimes
deemed the second most-recognized symbol anywhere in the world, behind
At Fort Dufferin, on the Manitoba-U.S.
border where Emerson now stands, the force met up with additional troops
as well as Assistant Commissioner Lt. Col. James F. Macleod, whose
family had moved to Ontario from Scotland when he was nine. In Dufferin,
on the night of the summer solstice, a thunderstorm hit camp.
"Nearly all the tents went down," reported Sir Denny.
"Over 200 horses broke loose and stampeded through the camp,
overturning wagons, flattening the tents, and severely injuring several
of the men. Confusion reigned. Darkness split by vivid lightning,
stinging hail and the charge of maddened horses created a pandemonium
not easily forgotten...After some days the majority [of horses] were
recovered, much the worse for their wild race, but 25 were never seen
Departing Fort Dufferin on July 8, the
"astonishing cavalcade" 2-1/2 miles long headed for Fort
Whoop-Up on the farthest fringe of the prairie sea: 300 men and 310
horses followed by a motley string of two mortars, two one-ton cannons
capable of firing nine-pound cannonballs, 114 oxcarts, 73 wagons, 33
head of beef cattle, 142 work oxen, forges, cast iron mowers, harrows
and plows. Col. French recorded, "By the time the force left
Dufferin, the comparatively large number of 31 men were absent without
leave, the Sioux murders of St. Joe, 30 miles west, having the effect of
quickening the movements of several in this respect."
Within 10 days, some weakening horses had
to be left behind. "Feed was very scarce, the grasshoppers being
numerous," Sir Denny recalled. "The eastern horses,
unaccustomed to grazing or looking out for themselves, could not stand
The problem actually lay with the men's
lack of horse sense, according to 79-year-old Boyd Anderson of
Glentworth, Sask., 125 miles southeast of Swift Current. Mr. Anderson is
a rancher and author. His great-grandfather, a scout, shot the horses
from beneath two pursuing Indians while riding to report the slaughter
of General Custer and his men at Little Bighorn. "For several years
in the '30s we had grasshoppers so thick they obscured the sun,"
states Mr. Anderson, "but I never knew them to eat all the grass.
Prairie wool is the best grass in the world; it's nutritious, even when
it's dried up and a couple of years old." More to the point, he
believes, is the 72 miles covered by the load-bearing animals during the
first two days out of Fargo. "The worst possible thing they could
have done is take soft, green horses and go 36 miles a day. They should
have made eight to 10 miles the first week. A horse will go right along
fine, but all at once because he's been overdone, he'll start shivering
and shaking and lie down and die right there." Later, when the
troops set out from Fort Dufferin, they again averaged a brutal 20 miles
a day over rough trails for at least the first week.
Water was scarce, and by July 28,
"the prospects for a successful termination to the journey began to
look none too rosy. Rations for the men were again cut, and they fared
none too well." The rank-and-file were living mainly on hardtack, a
dehydrated flour and salt biscuit with the taste and texture of granite.
At night, the camp kitchen often arrived long after the troops had
fallen asleep. Meanwhile, according to historian and troop buglar George
Kush, who hails from Monarch, Alta., the officers dined on tinned
oysters and brandied peaches. "This fact has been ignored by the
historians," Mr. Kush says. "They even had orderlies who
became known as 'dog-robbers' because they robbed the officers' dogs'
When the hardtack box was broken into,
Mr. Kush says, Col. French instigated "Field Punishment #1":
those night guards found to have crumbs in their pockets were tied,
spread-eagled, to stationary wagon wheels all day for several days.
"But he maintained discipline," contends Mr. Kush.
"Meanwhile Macleod curried favour with the men by turning a blind
eye to their drinking because he liked to tipple himself. It was
politics. He wanted the command."
Not so, replies June McKenzie of
Victoria, granddaughter of the Mounties' longest-serving (1900-1923)
commissioner, A. Bowen Perry. "French was a British-trained officer
who couldn't stand the look of spotted Pintos, so he insisted on the
best British horses, who couldn't do the job. French was simply not the
right man for the job. Macleod, with his Canadian background, was."
[Note: June McKenzie's son Paul has since been in touch to say
his mother didn't say this so we register his and her protest here for
At Roche Percee, in what is now the
southwest corner of Saskatchewan near Estevan, the expedition split into
two. A Troop, including Sergeant Major Sam Steele and 55 of the weakest
horses, proceeded north toward Edmonton via Fort Carlton and the
Battlefords. B Troop, except for another seven men and 28 horses
invalided out at Cripple Camp near Gravelbourg, Sask., continued west.
Soon the guides, who had never been past the Manitoba border, became
disoriented (some claim because they were in the pay of the
Montana-based Whoop-Up whisky traders). One of the Mounties composed a
song, to the tune of "God Save the Queen," aimed at those who
had planned the march: "Confound their politics/Frustrate their
knavish tricks/And get us out of this damn fix/God save all here."
At what is still known as Dead Horse
Coulee, near Bow Island, Alta., calamity struck again: seven horses died
in one night. The current owner, rancher George Thacker, 79, dammed the
coulee for irrigation purposes, and then felt so guilty about destroying
history that he erected a steel replica of a Mountie in his yard.
Beneath it is a time capsule containing memorabilia of 184 area
children. It will be opened in 2074, the march's bicentennial. According
to the veterinarian's report which Mr. Thacker studied, the horses,
already skeletal, first suffered paralyzed necks and then died after
eating a particular yellow flower. "I've made a special trip onto
the prairies where it's never been plowed, but I didn't find it,"
Mr. Thacker reports.
Rancher Anderson in Saskatchewan believes
he has the answer. "We have a plant here with yellow flowers that
only grows in certain years. It's called Death Camus and I've lost sheep
from it. A man I had herding my sheep said that it's bad enough around
Manyberries [40 miles southeast of Bow Island] that he has to keep the
animals away from it." Whatever the cause, the loss so alarmed Col.
French that the next night he ordered each of his men to donate a
blanket to his horse. "It caused dissension in the troops because
it was pretty damn cold at the time," Mr. Thacker reports,
"but they'd have been dead in the water if they'd lost many more
horses." Soon after that, Cols. French and Macleod
traveled to Fort Benton, Montana, where
they shook hands, never to see one another again. Col. French went on to
serve in India and Australia where he was cited for bravery, and
concluded his career guarding the crown jewels in the Tower of London.
While in Fort Benton, the leaders hired a
legendary Metis frontiersman, Jerry Potts. The Indians had been trading
furs and hides in exchange for Yankee "firewater," a mixture
of thrice-distilled rum mixed with tea, chewing tobacco and red peppers.
"[Mr. Potts] saw the havoc that the whisky trade brought to Indian
society, and he experienced the ravages of alcoholism at first
hand," writes University of Manitoba historian Bruce Sealey in his
book Jerry Potts. "So, in his unobtrusive way, he was ready to help
the Mounted Police when he felt that their intention was, in good faith,
to end whisky smuggling and bring peace to the West." First Mr.
Potts killed a buffalo for the starving men, and then led them 50 miles
to a hill overlooking their fearsome destination, Fort Whoop-Up, near
present-day Lethbridge. The Stars and Stripes were flying above its
gate. "Col. Macleod [now commissioner] was ready to deploy his
cannon, but Potts suggested they should 'just ride in,'" Prof.
Sealey comments. "Macleod and Potts did so, and found only one man
inside. The famous Fort Whoop-Up that the force had travelled so many
kilometres to capture was theirs without firing a shot."
The Metis scout, often accounted the
outright savior of the hapless Mounties, led them to an island in the
Oldman River where they built Fort Macleod (virtually all of the
remaining horses died there within months). Mr. Potts visited the
Blackfoot chiefs, using "his great influence to ensure that the
Mounties would not be attacked...[his] good words on their behalf
convinced the Indians to remain neutral for a trial period, during which
they closely watched the activities of the police," maintains Prof.
The red-coated officers quickly acquired
a name for practical justice. Col. Macleod would set up court in his
buckboard wagon in the middle of the prairie and rule without the aid of
legal texts or precedents. "Fortunately, there was a gap of a
decade before the settlers arrived. The Mounties had time to learn how
to survive western conditions," states Prof. Baker. "They got
their relations with the natives sorted out and became the white experts
of the land." In the process, he says, their heroic image came to
epitomize the West. RCMP ideals of masculinity-gallant stoics,
rough-and-ready yet unfailingly courteous, relentless in pursuit but
disinclined to use weapons whenever possible-are now being improbably
portrayed in Due South, a television drama set in present-day Chicago.
"The Mounties' reputation assumed mythical proportions, triumphing
by virtue of personal charisma and strength of character," Prof.
Baker says. "But you can't make something out of nothing. They were
human, but there is something worthy of commendation, pride and
commemoration, even though most were not massive-shouldered, narrow-waisted
individuals at all, but closer to Mr. Five-by-Five."
In the end, Prof. Baker says, the new
land conquered the policemen. "They came to love the West. Their
mission was to civilize and control it, but when they got the job
accomplished, many of them wondered if it had been such a good
idea." Jerry Potts, however, recorded no regrets. The laconic Metis,
who frequently acted as interpreter, was characteristically quiet while
three chiefs in turn declaimed eloquent, lengthy speeches to the Mountie
leader. "At one point, Macleod interrupted and, rather irritated,
demanded that Potts translate what had been said," Prof. Sealey
recounts. "Jerry thought for a long moment, then shrugged his
shoulders and said, 'Dey damn glad you're here.'"