Sunday, May 18, 2014

North West Mounted Police livestock

I mentioned already that the North West Mounted Police brought both horses and cattle into the North West Territories. A few of those animals even survived the trip.

If is apparent that those implementing the idea of a mounted police force to administer national and personal security in the territory had no idea of the area, the terrain, the numbers of people in residence, the weather or any other aspect of the country. The money spent on the venture was completely inadequate as was the equipment and animals chosen.

Of course, as is the case with ventures today, many of the choices were made due to the training and previous experience of those responsible for the decisions. The new commissioner of the force appointed by Prime Minister MacDonald was a man of military training and experience. He had attended Sandhurst military academy, been commissioned in the Royal Artillery and seconded to the Canadian militia where he eventually became head of the Gunnery School at Kingston.

Colonel French had very specific ideas about how a military command or a quasi-military police force should be directed and how such a group of troopers should conduct themselves. Those ideas where from the British Isles, from his military training, from his artillery experience and had nothing to do with the specifics to be found on the Canadian prairies.

This is probably a good time to mention the peculiar circumstances of rank to be found in the early NW Mounted Police since it might become confusing as we continue. Commissioner French had been a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Royal Artillery and retained the designation “Colonel” in the police force but this was not exactly a continuation of his army rank since the Act which created the force also designated that the rank of ‘Commissioner’ was equal to a military rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. Similarly, superintendent/inspector was equal to captain, superintendent/sub-inspector a lieutenant, paymaster a captain and a veterinary surgeon a lieutenant. Within the ranks those seven non-commissioned officers leading the six Divisions and Headquarters Troops (A through F and H) officially designated ‘chief constables’ were addressed by the men as ‘Sergeant Major.’ The full constables, close to sixty in number were called ‘Sergeant’ and to make it all more confusing the rest of the men (about 260 after the ‘weeding out’ process), officially designated ‘sub-constables’ and equal to a private were addressed as ‘sub-constable.”

However, back to the livestock and why it was chosen.

The original nine officers were chosen and appointed in 1873. That same summer the first hundred and fifty farmers, teachers and store clerks were chosen, quickly assembled at “New Fort” (in Toronto) then loaded on Great Lake freighters and sent to the lake-head. From Fort William (Thunder Bay) they walked the “Dawson Route” to Lower Fort Garry where they spent the winter.

The so-called Dawson Route, named after George Dawson the same civil engineer whose name is on Dawson Creek and Dawson City proved to be as much a warehouse as a route. More than half the equipment and supplies the fledgling policemen stepped off the ships with was stored along the trail. On two occasions camps made on low ground where subject to heavy rain followed by freezing temperatures. On each of those mornings something or several somethings could not be retrieved as they were frozen into the swampy ground. Some of it was recovered the following spring.

Following appointment of French as Commissioner in’73 he spent a great deal of his time ensuring that Canada’s Federal Government who had passed the Act creating the force would actually support it once it was more than a few words on paper. Having been assured of such support he began the recruitment of another 150 men and made arrangements for their initial training. That accomplished he went south to the US, caught a train for Fargo, Dakota Territory, a dogsled to Fort Dufferin, Manitoba, rented a horse and wound up in Fort Gary, Manitoba fifteen days later.

Colonel French was not particularly thrilled with what he found in Fort Gary. In his diary he remarked that “the officers generally are a good lot of fellows but … 15 or 20 of the men should never have been sent here being altogether too weak.” With the aid of a local civilian doctor (David Young) French had already discharged 19 men for a variety of maladies but rectified the shortfall in manpower by increasing the second recruitment to 200 men upon his return to Toronto in February.

He was also less than pleased with the horses. Thirty eight had been purchased locally and another thirty four where eventually purchased in Dakota Territory all of them “westernized” and mustangs. French’s comment in his notes is that “the animals are scarcely fit for our work.” He goes on to say that he believes they will need “200 or 300 horses which will have to come from Canada or the States as they are not to be had here.”

A constant micro-manager French insisted on interfering with aspects of the venture in which he had not experience whatever. For example travel in the west by large bodies of men had always been done with pemmican as the main staple. However French decided that instead of using the tried and true the Mounted Police would take a “walking larder” of cattle.

On July 8, 1874 the North West Mounted Police led by Commissioner George A. French left Fort Dufferin, Manitoba. In attendance was the Assistant Commissioner, James Macleod, 26 officers and non-commissioned officers, 247 constables and sub-constables and 7 Métis guides and scouts. Another 20 Métis assisted by troopers were driving and caring for 114 Red River carts and 73 wagons. Some of the wagons were pulled by horses but most and all the carts were pulled by the 142 oxen in the train. Of the 311 horses 240 of them had been brought by train from the east and those that where not thoroughbred did have a great many thoroughbreds in their ancestry. To round out their livestock was a herd of eleven bulls and fifty four cows that had already started calving.

(At this point some readers will understand how this tale fits in with previous posts concerning the growth of the cattle business in Western Canada.)

A few of the more senior officers had a vague idea of their destination. The troopers had been informed they would be going to the west to stop the whiskey trade. Commissioner French thought they would make the trip in less than half the time they would actually use. None of them had any idea of the horror they where stepping into.

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