The Great March West of the North-West Mounted Police
On 23 May 1873, a Federal Act of Parliament established a paramilitary police force for the lands newly-acquired by the young Dominion of Canada from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Modelled after the Royal Irish Constabulary, the force was to maintain law and order in the North-West Territories (present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan), and to assert Canadian sovereignty on the prairies in anticipation of their imminent settlement. Gradually becoming known as the North-West Mounted Police, the force was given “Royal” designation by King Edward VII in 1904, and then in 1919 was merged with the Dominion Police to create today’s internationally reknowned Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The red tunics now donned only on ceremonial occasions by modern “Mounties”, were originally adopted for the NWMP to easily distinguish them from the US Cavalry, who wore the more traditional police blue.
It was in the fall of 1873 that a hastily-assembled body of some 150 men made their way to the Stone Fort, thirty-two kilometers north of the village of Winnipeg, where they settled in for the winter. Reinforced by a similar number of recruits who arrived the following spring via the United States, the two contingents rendezvoused at Fort Dufferin, on the Red River near the American border (west of the present-day town of Emerson), in preparation for their trailblazing march. Organized into six divisions, or troops, the combined force of 275 men, along with twenty Métis drivers, finally set out for the western prairies on 8 July 1874.
On 1 August, at La Roche Percee, in southeastern Saskwatchewan, 440 kilometers into their journey, ‘A’ Division broke off from the main contingent (which was destined for Fort Whoop-Up and the future Fort Macleod, near Lethbridge), and headed northeast to Fort Ellice to catch the well-established fur traders’ trail to Fort Edmonton. At the time of the divergence, the Division consisted of five commissioned and non-commissioned officers, twenty-two constables and sub-constables, and fourteen Métis hired as assistants — including one who served as the guide. The column also comprised 60 horses, 74 oxen and cattle, 57 ox-carts, 26 wagons, 52 cows, and 45 calves. However, some of the sick men, several of the weaker horses, and the majority of the cows and calves, were later left behind at Fort Ellice along with a substantial quantity of supplies.
By the time ‘A’ Troop headed out on the main cart trail on 18 August, it had been reduced to twenty force members and thirteen Métis. There were 30 horses, 69 oxen, 53 ox-carts, 12 wagons, 15 cows, 14 calves, one bull, and four dogs. The Division subsequently lost other vehicles and animals enroute, so that it slowly shrank in size due to attrition as it moved further west. Reaching Fort Carlton (north of Saskatoon) on 11 September, where everyone rested before being ferried to the north shore of the North Saskatchewan River, the Division then passed south of Fort Pitt before crossing into Alberta.
The following account is based on several diaries that were kept by members of ‘A’ Troop. It vividly describes their often arduous journey through the territory of the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum from the vicinity of Heinsburg in the east, to the mouth of Sturgeon Creek, opposite the City of Fort Saskatchewan.
October 9 – Twelve miles over a fair trail. Crossed Middle Creek and negotiated Moose Hill Creek on an improvised bridge. Several hills encountered and passed. Some Cree Indians were entrusted to take a sick ox to Fort Pitt.
October 10 – Weather fine and warm; road bad again. Thirteen miles covered. The cattle showed signs of playing out; a sick calf was abandoned.
October 11 – The trail became worse as travel proceeded. After about seven miles, a camp was made at Dog Rump Creek. The weather was fine, but the nights were uncomfortably cold.
October 12 – A long hill consumed much time, only four miles being covered in the morning. A sick ox died. Six miles travelled in the afternoon, and camp made beside the lake. The road was very soft. Cattle tiring. Four wagons far behind. Sand flies added to the discomfort.
October 13 – Another ox died. Accomplished a fair day’s travel. Camped at a small creek near Snake Hill.
October 14 – Eight miles put behind in the morning, went past Snake Hill and Creek. Weather turned extremely hot. Five miles in the afternoon, the column lengthening out as the cattle lagged far behind.
October 15 – Extremely bad roads through low meadows and sloughs. Oxen had to be sent back to help the laggards.
October 16 – Only six or seven miles achieved; road still bad. Some wagons did not arrive in camp until dark.
October 17 – Crossed several streams, two of which had to be bridged. Two long hills encountered. Water everywhere, end wagons trailing far behind. About eight miles travelled.
October 18 – Two miles in the morning. Crossed Mud Creek. One wagon mired so deep it all but disappeared. Eight miles in the afternoon. Three more oxen abandoned, and three wagons far behind. Camped half a mile from Victoria (Hudson’s Bay Company Post).
October 19 – Crossed a hill and camped in front of Victoria. Several wagons did not trail in until 10 p.m. The column was well received by the trader in charge of the post, which consisted of a small palisaded enclosure on the north bank of the Saskatchewan. Here also was a Methodist Mission founded by the Rev. George McDougall, who had moved westward to the Upper Bow River some time before. A small village of log houses occupied by Scotch and English half-breeds [sic] — buffalo hunters and freighters — lay nearby. A welcome halt was made. A number of Cree Indians had come in to trade, one of whom bore a name worthy of historical record: “Sky-Blue-Horn-Sitting-Down-Turning-Round-On-A-Chair”. Inspector Jarvis arranged with a trader to have a settler care for all the cows and calves and eleven oxen for the winter, at $15 each for the oxen and cows and $10 each for calves. Several wagons and a quantity of flour were also left behind. Though the remainder of the animals were virtually living skeletons, there was no alternative but to press foward with them. Harmony and good spirits prevailed among the men.
October 20 – Loads were redistributed. Word came in that two of the oxen abandoned on the 18th had died. Weather warm and fine.
October 21 – Sub-Inspector Gagnon was sent forward with six men to make the road passable. Bridges were needed over some streams and it was said that there were many mud holes that need repairs. Progress from here was painfully slow and difficult. Horses were always falling, and had to be lifted to their feet. Others could be kept going only by men walking beside them, holding them to the task with both hands — one at the head, the other at the shoulders. By incessant urging of the animals, twelve miles were made.
October 22 – Crossed several bridged creeks and camped at Sucker Creek, making ten miles all told. Trail better.
October 23 – Bridge repairing and laying of corduroy occupied much of the day. Eight miles travelled. Four wagons were unable to reach camp, owing to tired animals.
October 24 – More road making. Travelled four miles, negotiating several bad hills. Camped west of Vermilion Creek. Two oxen succumbed. Weather turning very cold, with threat of snow. Two wagons and three men left far behind. The weaker horses placed in tents.
October 25 – Trail bad. Covered ten miles and camped near Deep Creek.
October 26 – Reached Sturgeon Creek by noon. All horses close to exhaustion. Crossed the Creek at “The Rapids.” Great difficulty getting the wagons across. One horse, unable to make it, died in the stream. Weather cold. Inspector Jarvis, who had pressed forward to Edmonton, sent back a messenger with instructions to bring the division into Fort Edmonton with such haste as was humanly possible. Gagnon pressed forward with the oxen, while Steele managed the horse teams, a desperate effort being made to reach Edmonton by nightfall. Some of the horses, unable to proceed, were sheltered in tents, with special men in charge. The trail grew worse, sloughs across it every few hundred yards; men and animals struggled knee-deep in black mud. Time and again the wagons had to be unloaded and dragged out by hand. On every side were small ponds covered with thin ice, which proved to be a menace. The horses and oxen, feverish and thirsty, would rush to the ponds, crash through and wait to be hauled out by ropes. Some were so exhausted they had to be held up the head while the ropes were being attached.
Fort Edmonton was now less than a dozen miles away. Darkness fell. In the gloom it was hard to hold the trail; one driver wandered into an ice-covered marsh with his team, and escaped just in time when the increasing depth warned him he had made a mistake. Still, they pressed on. At five in the morning, Steele called a halt, and they camped at Rat Creek, about four miles from Edmonton. Gagnon had also arrived at this point with two ox teams. All had been on the move for more than twenty hours. Worn and fagged out, men and beasts sagged down to a desperately-needed rest.
The trek resumed just three hours later, the first men and animals finally reaching Fort Edmonton on 27 October. Others arrived in the following days, the last stragglers coming in on 2 November. Only four of the ten ox-drawn wagons that had left Fort Carlton, were successful in reaching Fort Edmonton. In all, ‘A’ Division had travelled almost 1440 kilometers from La Roche Percee over a span of 88 days, sixty of which were spent on the trail. The troop had averaged twenty-four kilometers a day.
Later, back in Ottawa, Inspector Jarvis would observe: “I may state that on looking back over our journey I wonder how we ever accomplished it with weak horses, little or no pasture, and for the last 500 miles with no grain, and the latter part over roads impassable until we remade them…. I kept a party of men in advance with axes, and when practicable felled trees and made corduroy over mud holes, sometimes 100 yards long, and also made a number of bridges and repaired all the old ones.”
The deployment of the NWMP opened an important new chapter in the history of the Canadian West, and marked a turning-point in the transition of the Kalyna Country region from a wilderness sparsely populated by Cree Indians and a handful of Europeans, to a flourishing agricultural settlement.
© Researched and written by Jars Balan.
#1 The reconstructed diary entries are excerpted from Turner, Peter John. The North-West Mounted Police, 1873-1893. Ottawa: Edmond Cloutier, King’s Printer and Controller of Stationary, 1950, pp. 176-178.
#2 Moosehill Creek empties into the North Saskatchewan River southeast of Lindbergh.
#3 This creek is now more commonly referred to by its Cree name, Atimoswe Creek. The mouth of Dog Rump Creek, which joins the North Saskatchewan River west of the Highway 41 bridge south of Elk Point, had been the site of trading posts that operated circa 1817-1822.
#4 The reference is to White Earth Creek, some eleven kilometers downriver from the Victoria Settlement. A trading post — Fort White Earth, also known as Lower Terre Blanche and Fort White Earth — operated near the mouth of White Earth Creek from 1810-1813.
#5 Inspector William Drummond Jarvis, who commanded ‘A’ Division, was a former soldier and surveyor who enlisted in the force in 1873.
#6 Sub-Inspector Severe Gagnon was recruited to the force in the spring of 1874, having previously served as a soldier.
#7 Sucker or Namepi Creek, as it is known in Cree, flows into the North Saskatchewan River southwest of Radway.
#8 Vermilion Creek is an early name for the Redwater River, which joins the North Saskatchewan at Vinca Bridge, on Highway 38, southeast of Redwater. This stream was given its name because of its ochre-tinged waters.
#9 Deep Creek appears to be the name of a small stream that runs midway between the Redwater and Sturgeon Rivers.
#10 The rapids were near the mouth of the Sturgeon River. Hudson’s Bay (Fort Edmonton I) and North West Company (Fort Augusta I) posts operated a short distance downstream from where the Sturgeon emptied into the North Saskatchewan River from 1795-1801.
#11 The reference here is most likely to the legendary Samuel Benfield Steele (1849-1919), who in 1878 became a commissioned officer, and in 1885 was promoted superintendant of the NWMP. Appointed to lead the Lord Strathcona’s Horse Regiment in the South African War, and the commander of the second Canadian contingent to be sent overseas in the First World War, his years of illustrious service eventually earned him a knighthood. A native of Purbrook, Ontario, Sam Steele had joined the militia at the time of the Fenian troubles in 1866, and served as a private in the Red River expedition. Blessed with great strength and endurance, he was made a Sergeant Major upon joining the force in 1873, and assigned to ‘A’ Division as one of its four non-commissioned officers. Another non-commissioned member of the troop was Sergeant Richard E. Steele, a native of Simcoe, Ontario, who joined the force on 3 November 1873 in Brockville, Ontario.