Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Rocky Mountain Rangers of 1885

Today the Rocky Mountain Rangers are a reserve infantry regiment of the Canadian Army headquartered in Kamloops, BC. However, in 1885 the Rocky Mountain Rangers was a volunteer militia charged with ensuring the safety of the range between the Cypress Hills and the Rocky Mountains.
North of the Cypress Hills in that part of the Northwest Territories which is now Saskatchewan lived a few thousand Métis who were being ignored by government officials. The offspring of Hudson’s Bay Company and Northwest Company employees, primarily of French and Scottish ancestry who had lived with Cree, Ojibwa and Salteaux the Métis where those who actually made the fur trade work. After the Hudson’s Bay Company turned Rupert’s Land over to the new country of Canada and the fur trade became a very different business from what it had been the harsh life of the Métis became even rougher. At the same time the plains buffalo or Bison, the “prairie larder” had been virtually wiped out. They did not have a treaty such as the full blood peoples of the plains and had to eek out a living through methods they knew nothing about.
Those people with treaties where also not fairing very well. Dishonest Indian agents issued short rations or damaged goods and sometimes both. Primarily this was due to racism or ignorance on the part of government officials but it was also aggravated by the fact that the Federal Government didn’t have any money in their coffers. There are several instances recorded both officially and unofficially of the North West Mounted Police securing provisions for a starving community. It wasn’t their job but they where on the ground seeing the devastation.
Whatever the reason, in 1885 the Métis, led by Louis Riel (political leader) and Gabriel Dumont (military leader) demanded better. High handed and insulting responses from government agents (including NWMP officers) resulted in violence. In a very short time the Métis were joined by some Cree and Assiniboine. It has been called the Second Riel Rebellion, the Métis War and other names but in recent years it appears we have settled on the Northwest Rebellion.
There have been countless essays and books written on the subject with views from both sides and including far more details than will be found here. No one has reached a definitive understanding but it is apparent that several people died and both sides were wrong.
With many peoples represented in the rebel forces the white settlers, farmers and ranchers were afraid that the violence would spread. For most of the five month duration of hostilities it was feared the members of the Blackfoot Confederacy would join although that never happened due primarily to their treatment by the NWMP and the agents who served their locations. To heighten everyone’s fears a contingent of Mounted Police were sent to assist the Canadian soldiers in quelling the uprising thus reducing an already undermanned force.
To counter this threat the Rocky Mountain Rangers were formed, a militia made up of volunteers. They were primarily ranchers and cowboys with some of them being retired Mounted Policemen. The General Order creating them called for them to “guard the two hundred mile frontier between Lethbridge and the Cypress Hills; protect the cattle herds from thieves and rustlers; and act as a buffer to keep warlike American Indians from surging north to join their Canadian cousins.” There were 114 members led by a Major John Stewart. The members were to supply their own mounts, tack and sidearms but since this last resulted in a variety of questionable weapons Major Stewart arranged for the issuance of some NWMP rifles including a few of the obsolete single shot Snider-Enfield .577 and forty of the new 1876 .45-75 Winchesters. As for sidearms they might have anything as can be seen in the accompanying pictures.

Rocky Mountain Ranger Major John Stewart
with what appears to be a Smith & Wesson Model #3
Rocky Mountain Ranger Jack Clark 
w 1873 Winchester
RM Ranger Henry Boyle, brother of
Richard (Lord) Boyle who Captained one of the troops.

            Divided into three troops the Rangers patrolled their designated area. They had three major confrontations, border crossing Indians rustling horses near the Cypress Hills, outlaws near Medicine Hat and a rustler ring near High River.

 R M Ranger patrol near Medicine Hat
R M Ranger patrol in the Cypress Hills

            After three months service the Northwest Rebellion had been quelled and those NWM Policemen on war service had been returned to their original duties. The Rocky Mountain Rangers were ordered back to Fort Macleod and disbanded on July 17, 1885. Major Stewart arranged for them to receive the North West Canada Medal and they were eligible for 320 acres of homestead or eighty dollars.

For a more comprehensive study of the RM Rangers go to and look for The Cowboy Cavalry: The Story of the Rocky Mountain Rangers by Gordon E. Tolton 

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