When Blackfoot Chief Crowfoot signed the Blackfoot Treaty No. 7 in 1877, he said, “If the police had not come to this country, where would we all be now? Bad men and whisky were killing us so fast that very few of us would have been alive today.”
The police were the North-West Mounted Police — which in 1920 became today’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), known worldwide for their bright red coats and famous slogan, “They always get their man.” Their real motto is “Defend the Law” or in French, “Maintiens le Droit.”
Long before the Mounties were established, alcohol, gold seekers, fur traders, whisky merchants and other shady characters, along with white man diseases — smallpox and measles — were decimating the Indians.
For almost 200 years, the Hudson’s Bay Company ruled the Canadian frontier called Rupert’s Land under royal charter that included all or parts of Québec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta — a region five times larger than France, stretching from the Atlantic to the Rockies to the prairies and north to the Arctic Circle.
The company was in the fur trading business both with trappers and Indians, which they did generally with little friction — making no effort to govern the Indians.
Then the Canadian government stepped in.
During the 1860s, while the U.S was tearing itself apart in the Civil War, Canada was trying to piece itself together as a single nation.
That effort became more critical after the Civil War ended. The U.S. had a huge army looking for a mission, and the American government had its eye on possibly acquiring parts of Canada.
In 1867, Québec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia joined together to form the Dominion of Canada.
In London, the British government was worried about increasing costs of governing their Canadian colonies, and also worried about U.S. expansionism.
The Americans had enough money to buy large chunks of Canada and the British didn’t. To stop any such purchase, the Crown disallowed any sale to the U.S.
At the same time, Hudson’s Bay was worried about the increasing European settlements in Rupert’s Land that were running up their operating expenses.
So in 1869, the Crown bought Rupert’s Land from HBC for $1.5 million, plus some fine print — the deal finalized the following year.
Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, envisioned a vast nation stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the U.S. to the Arctic — as big as the Russian Empire.
He knew Canada needed more people and more law and order, but everything west and north of “civilization” was wild and lawless.
Law and order were needed first.
On Aug. 30, 1873, the North-West Mounted Rifles (later “Police”) was established, modeled after the Irish Constabulary and the U.S. Army’s mounted rifles.
For several years, Alexander Morris, Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor, had been warning the Prime Minister there was big trouble in the Canadian West between its few settlers and the Métis — a mix of North American Indian and European ethnicity.
In mid-May 1873, a party of American buffalo and wolf hunters were camped about a day’s journey from Fort Benton, Montana Territory — not far from the Canadian border — when they discovered about 40 horses missing. Cree Indians were blamed.
A posse of 13 hunters led by Thomas Hardwick — AKA “the Green River Renegade” — chased the Indians but couldn’t catch them or find their horses, so they gave up and went to Fort Benton.
At Cypress Hill across the border in Saskatchewan, there were two trading posts — one owned by Abel Farwell and the other by Moses Solomon. Two bands of some 300 Assiniboine were camped there as well under chiefs Little Soldier and Inihan Kinyen.
The Assiniboine had accused Solomon of cheating them, and then fired shots at his post and threatened to kill the traders.
At the end of May while that dispute was simmering, Hardwick’s wolfers arrived from Fort Benton, still looking for their horses.
They were joined by some Métis freighters (cargo haulers) and started drinking whisky, continuing the binge into the next day.
About noon on June 1, someone said a horse belonging to a man named George Hammond was missing. Immediately, the Assiniboine were blamed and the drunken party of hunters grabbed their rifles and headed for the Indian camp, cursing in English and French.
Then another man, Alexis Labombarde, found the missing horse that had only wandered off. He shouted the news to the men, but they were too drunk to listen.
It’s unclear who fired first, but the Indians with antiquated guns were no match against the attackers with Winchester and Henry repeating rifles. The Indian women, children and elderly raced for the woods and bushes or crossed the river as some 50 warrior tried to fight back.
When the short battle was over, from 13 to 20 Assiniboine were dead — including women and children.
It took until late August for news of the massacre to reach Ottawa, but when it did, it fired up the need for a police force in the Canadian west.
Trials of the killers were eventually held in both the U.S. and Canada but no one was ever convicted of the killings.
In 1874, Commissioner George French led 300 Mounties on a torturous nearly four-month, 800-mile march suffering “extreme weather conditions, hunger, foul water, illness, and hordes of mosquitoes and black flies” from Fort Dufferin in southern Manitoba to bring law to the Canadian West.
They would first deal with a “band of desperadoes” around Fort Whoop-Up near today’s Lethbridge, Alberta, who were making a potent “Bug Juice” whisky for sale to Indians out of alcohol spiked with Jamaica ginger, molasses, laudanum and red pepper — the concoction colored with black chewing tobacco, then diluted with water and boiled.
By the time Col. James F. Macleod’s unit of Mounties arrived there, they found no whisky and left to establish police posts elsewhere — thus ending Canada’s brief “Wild West” days.
As their mission became action, the Mounties helped develop the rest of Canada by protecting settlers and Indians, while also fighting prairie fires, disease and destitution.
In 1885, the Mounties faced big trouble with both the Métis and the First Nations (to use the Canadian term) rebelling against the Canadian government to preserve their rights and culture.
Their leader was Louis D. Riel, who fought the government for the same cause in 1869 and was defeated — forcing him to flee into exile in Montana.
Now he was called back by Métis leaders to once again help both Métis and Indians fight for their survival.
Chief Crowfoot thought the fight was hopeless and stayed out of it.
Using the new transcontinental railroad, the North-West Mounted Police joined government forces to defeat Riel at the Battle of Batoche. Riel was arrested, convicted of treason and hanged — despite widespread appeals for clemency.
But today, he’s remembered as champion of the Métis people, founder of Manitoba and a folk hero of French-speaking Canadians and “is the most written-about person in all of Canadian history.”
At the end of the 1800s, when British forces were not doing well in South Africa’s Boer War (1899-1902), two NWMP regiments were sent to help. Their exemplary service earned them medals from King Edward VII, who also authorized adding “Royal” to the NWMP name.
Canadian Mountie units also served in World War I, with a cavalry squadron of volunteers fighting in France, and another squadron being sent to Vladivostok, Siberia.
In 1920, the Mounties changed their name to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Since World War II, the RCMP’s duties have grown to include fighting organized crime, terrorism, illicit drugs, economic crimes, border security, airport policing, VIP security and drug enforcement.
Chief Crowfoot lived to be 60, dying in 1890 of tuberculosis. He believed that keeping peace with the government “would ensure the cultural and spiritual survival of his people as a separate and distinct nation.”
In 1877 on behalf of the Blackfoot Nation tribes and Stoney Nation Sioux, he signed a treaty to do just that.
“I have two hearts my friends; one is like stone, the other is kind and tender,” Chief Crowfoot said. “Treat us badly, and my heart is like stone. Treat us kindly, and my heart is the heart of a child.”
Crowfoot kept his word.
Sadly, the Canadian government didn’t.
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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Women in RCMP…
Klondike Kate Ryan, the first woman to become a Mountie was born in 1869 in New Brunswick, moved to Seattle and Vancouver, trained as a nurse and made her way to Whitehorse in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush.
Nearly six feet tall and popular, she opened a restaurant, raised money to build a Catholic church, grubstaked miners, nursed the ailing for free — unless they could afford to pay—and was recruited as a “Constable Special” by the North-West Mounted Police to guard women prisoners at the local jail.
Klondike Kate died in 1932 in Vancouver at the age of 63.
A star is born…
“Sgt. Preston of the Yukon” was a popular radio show from 1938 to 1955, giving way to a TV series that ran from 1955 to 1958. Each episode ended with Preston hugging his dog and saying, “Well, King, it looks like this case is closed.”
Richard Simmons who played Sergeant Preston was discovered by Louis B. Mayer who saw him breaking a horse and offered him a screen test.
Watch TV episodes of Sgt. Preston online at: https://www.seasonsepisode.watch/tv-shows/filter/locale-US?locale=US
Uniting Canada brings trouble…
“In 1867, four British colonial territories had united to create the Dominion of Canada: Canada East (Quebec), Canada West (Ontario), New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.
“In 1869 the new Canadian Government in Ottawa bought “Rupertsland,” the vast northern and western territories of Canada, from the Hudson’s Bay Company (even though the Indians and Métis said the lands belonged to them, not to the Hudson’s Bay Company).”
— Canada’s First Peoples
No escaping a Mountie…
There’s a famous saying about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that criminals can’t escape a Mountie on their trail — “They always get their man.” That reputation began when they were still the North-West Mounted Police in the late 1800s, but the origin is believed to have come from an article in Montana’s Fort Benton Record on April 1877 that ended with:
“M.P.’s are worse than bloodhounds when they scent the track of a smuggler, and they fetch their men every time.”