Trenholm 1

On the North West Mounted Police: Taming the West

David Trenholm April 2nd, 2007 HIST 2783 B2 Professor Stefan Jensen

Trenholm 2 The North West Mounted Police is an organization that is often recalled alongside names like John A. MacDonald, the Hudson Bay’s Company, Fort Whoop-Up and the Blackfoot Indians. The N.W.M.P. is an intrinsic component of Canadian culture, history and identity—it is known today, however, by a different name: the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In preserving the tradition, culture and mandate that shaped the N.W.M.P., the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has risen to become one of the most recognizable symbols in Canada, and one of the most recognizable symbols on the world stage.1 The scarlet-clad Mountie is now synonymous with Canada around the world. It is not a coincidence, then, that the history and origins of the R.C.M.P. are so closely connected to that of its nation, specifically on the evolution and development of Canada. It was in turbulent times when the burgeoning new government, the Dominion of Canada, began setting its sights on the west in an effort to form a nation that spanned from the Atlantic to the Pacific. With the Americans to the south, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald had cause to worry about his plans of expansion, and it was from this parliamentary concern that the idea of a pseudo-military police force formed. The North West Mounted Police were intended to act as an arm of the Dominion Government in the vastly under-represented Canadian west—there was little government control in the North West Territories after the Dominion had acquired it. Rumours and reports of violence, robbery, murder and other crime had also concerned the government, as prospective settlers would be understandably more hesitant to move and expand into the west if the area was unprotected and exposed to lawlessness. The pacification of the various indigenous populations was also a concern for the government, preferably using


Rob Cameron, “About Us,”, (accessed March 14th, 2007)

Trenholm 3 non-violent means. The clashing between American forces and the various native bands of the United States discouraged Macdonald from addressing this issue with a military solution, as the cost—both to human life and the federal treasury—could have been great. The North West Mounted Police, then, was formed in 1873 and after only a short year were deployed, beginning their historic 900-mile Great March West. Facing threats of American expansion, lawlessness and restless indigenous peoples, the Dominion’s solution of dispatching a Mounted Police Force has been seen as quite an effective one. The initial three hundred members of the N.W.M.P. and their mandate were quite capable, and certainly up to the daunting task of policing half a nation. They were not only effective in representing the government and their sovereign claim to the affected regions, but also in preserving law, order and the friendly relations that had been fostered between the local aboriginal people. The North West Mounted Police, as a result of their historic success in the west, have been immortalized in Canadian history. They remain an important part of the development of Canada and the culture, nationalism and patriotism that pervades it. Cecil Denny, the knighted author and former member of the N.W.M.P., summarizes the current state of western Canada in 1873 quite easily in his narrative The Law Marches West, “Violence was in the saddle over Canada’s West—battle, murder, and sudden death, a composite of evils which, from the Red River to the Rocky Mountains, year by year, exacted a grisly toll.”2 A sad state of affairs for a growing country, indeed. The simple fact that violent crime on a such large scale was affecting the west was disconcerting for the Dominion government; they had just acquired the North West Territories and were hoping to settle it. Western lawlessness was widely acknowledged,

Sir Cecil Denny, The Law Marches West. (Toronto: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1972). 1.

Trenholm 4 the reality of it was well documented; a particular case involving the slaughter and mutilation of 30 Assiniboine by American wolfers had reached Parliament, accelerating the formation and deployment of the Force. The Dominion government, prior to this, had sent a colonel, Patrick Robertson-Ross, on an expedition to elucidate the problem of law and order in the country.3 Colonel Robertson-Ross travelled from Ottawa to the west coast, reporting back to the Prime Minister in three months’ time on the perilous situation —that with no infrastructure in which to endorse it, law and order was non-existent. He recommended the formation of a force of mounted riflemen that could restore law and order in a peaceful and diplomatic manner. The Americans, too, were also a problem that the Dominion was considering—manifest destiny, the American ideology that involved the domination of the continent, concerned Canada. After the American Civil War, the army that had fought in it was largely idle, and many Americans soon looked to the northwest with expansion in mind. They had done it before in California, Texas and Oregon—it was a very real possibility that the same could occur in Rupert’s Land; the North West Territories.4 A desire to establish a sovereign claim, then, quickly joined a desire for law and order. The government also grew wary of the indigenous populations to the west, and the possible obstacle they presented for safe settlement and expansion— fears of warmongering Indians corrupted by American whiskey-traders and firewater ran rampant in parliament. Furthermore, the matter of the settlement of the American west was also cause for concern—it came at a great cost to both the United States government and the aboriginal peoples of the mid-west—parliament was looking for an acceptable, non-violent solution.5 The government sought an answer to these many problems that
3 4

Tony Hollihand, The Mounties March West. (Edmonton: Folk Lore Publishing, 2004). 24. Hollihand, 14. 5 Tony Hollihand, The Mounties March West. (Edmonton: Folk Lore Publishing, 2004). 14.

Trenholm 5 impeded Canadian expansion, and Prime Minister John A. Macdonald responded with his proposed “mounted rifles”. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s “mounted rifles” soon became known as the North West Mounted Police. It was deemed that the term “rifles” carried a militaristic tone—something the government wanted to discourage. The aboriginal populations of the west, specifically the American mid-west, were wary of soldiers. The United States cavalry forces were hated among many tribes in the mid-west, and this attitude was exported across the border into Canada. It was Colonel Robertson-Ross himself that suggested the Mounted Police be uniformed in red, in order to clearly distinguish the difference between American and Canadian authority6—indeed, it would prove to be a solid move, as the scarlet tunic of the Mountie became one of their most coveted symbols. The Mounties, however, did not have an easy start. Although their mandate and mission were established quite clearly and eloquently, putting it into action was another matter entirely. General recruitment and supplying for the Force was disorganized and rushed, due in part to the urgency that was impressed upon Ottawa with the receipt of new reports detailing western violence and crime. Leadership was also called into question, and Commissioner French—a Colonel from the Imperial Government—is considered today as a sub-par commander that had his own personal agenda that did not include the N.W.M.P.7 French’s allocation of supplies and resources for the Great March was poorly arranged and disorganized, resulting in the loss of horses and the malnourishment of many officers—something that he downplayed well after his retirement.8 The Force can thank Commissioner French, however, for doubling the roster
6 7

Hollihand 24. Hollihand, 186. 8 Tony Hollihand, The Mounties March West. (Edmonton: Folk Lore Publishing, 2004). 220.

Trenholm 6 —Ottawa had initially approved a 150-man force, and it was only at French’s insistence that it was doubled to 300. He could not fathom how 300, let alone 150 mountedpoliceman could effectively patrol over 300,000 square miles of territory inhabited by over 15,000 indigenous people.9 The Force did march with 300, though, and its size would not see an increase until after the capture of Fort Whoop-Up, when the Sioux Indians under Sitting Bull had departed Canada for the United States.10 Despite these obvious obstacles, however, and with such a large territory to patrol, the North West Mounted Police performed surprisingly well. The organization owes its fame, in a large way, to the early successes it enjoyed during their tenure on the vast prairie-lands of the Canadian west. The approach the North West Mounted Police took when faced with the issue of lawlessness and order earned them a place in Canadian history as an important contributor to the development of western Canada and the expansion of the nation from sea-to-sea. In order to deal with the importation of American whiskey and the traders that often accompanied such trade, the N.W.M.P. gave little quarter. The “victory” at Fort Whoop-Up, the illustrious centre for vagabonds and whiskey-traders, was the first objective for the fledging police force. Fort Whoop-Up very quickly bowed to the authority of the Dominion, and within a few short days the Force had quickly established a permanent residence—Fort Macleod—from where they could establish further control over the area.11 General lawlessness and crime would continue to plague the North West Territories, but now legal recourse existed—with the arrival of the N.W.M.P., along with their stalwart resistance and tenacity, the trafficking of liquor and the sale of firearms had

Morris Longstreth, In Scarlet and Plain Clothes (Toronto: The Macmillian Company, 1933). 10. Delbert A. Young., The Mounties (Toronto and London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1968). 38. 11 Hollihand, 202.

Trenholm 7 dropped significantly. Local aboriginal groups, such as the Blackfoot, saw a significant improvement with the absence of liquor from their settlements. Father Scollen, upon visiting the Blackfoot, had reported in detail on these improvements. The Blackfoot are becoming more and more prosperous. They are now well clothed and well furnished with horses and guns. During the last two years, I have calculated that they bought 2000 horses to replace those they had given for whiskey. They are forced to acknowledge that the arrival of the Red Coasts has been to them the greatest boon.12 The North West Mounted Police quickly earned the trust and friendship of the Blackfoot. Crowfoot, the leader of the Blackfoot, had even refused an alliance with another indigenous tribe across the border, as they had expressed interest in attacking outposts of the North West Mounted Police—instead, Crowfoot warned the Mounties, and pledged 2000 Blackfoot warriors to any defense that would be necessary.13 The N.W.M.P also enjoyed good relations with many other indigenous bands that inhabited the prairies— Major Walsh reportedly had a good relationship with Sitting Bull, the Sioux mastermind behind Custer’s demise at the Battle of Little Bighorn.14 The trust the N.W.M.P. managed to cultivate between the aboriginal populations of the west became quite significant when the Dominion government began signing treaties with them. The N.W.M.P. were often chosen to facilitate the ceremonies, and in many cases, host them. While it is disheartening that the Dominion government did not pursue such friendly relations with the aboriginal peoples of the west as tenaciously, they did appreciate the efforts of the N.W.M.P. and the affect such efforts had on the overall stability of the region—the
12 13

Tony Hollihand, The Mounties March West. (Edmonton: Folk Lore Publishing, 2004). 217. Hollihand, 224. 14 Delbert A. Young., The Mounties (Toronto and London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1968). 35.

Trenholm 8 Blackfoot remained close friends with the North West Mounted Police for many years. Close ties with the aboriginal community is still seen and enforced today in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Both share a history of collaboration and cooperation, a history that is built upon compromise, honesty and trust. The west was in disarray—American whiskey-traders, vagabonds and criminals was the largest export to Canadian from across the border, and with no system in place to keep criminal activity in check, lawlessness and disharmony was a very real problem for the North West Territories. Fear of a violent Indian uprising, or worse, American manifest destiny, had encouraged Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to draft a solution that would address all of these many problems—Canadian westward expansion, after all, would not occur beforehand. The North West Mounted Police was born then, along with the many problems and obstacles that stood in the way of their mandate and mission—the preservation of law and order. After a few short years of dangerous travel and hard work, the North West Mounted Police was successful in establishing a presence in the west, and a semblance of law and order soon appeared. The friendship that was fostered between the N.W.M.P. and the local aboriginal groups would be recognized in history remarkably different when compared to the turbulent relationship that the Americans shared with their indigenous counterparts. The R.C.M.P., though, have not been always so vocal with their history, and it has only been in recent years that information on their origins has become widely available and popularized. This history has been closely tied with the development of Canada as a nation, and the birth of the Canadian west. As a result of such a close connection, the Canadian Mountie has been immortalized in literature and film—the Mounties were a very popular figure in the golden era of film during the 1920s

Trenholm 9 and 1930s. Such popularity, in turn, took the globe by storm, and it did not take long for the world to become familiar with the famous Canadian scarlet-clad Mountie.

David Trenholm

Trenholm 10 Bibliography Denny, Sir Cecil, The Law Marches West (Toronto: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1972). Griffiths, Alison, The Great Adventure: How the Mounties Conquered the West (Toronto: Viking, 1996). Hollihand, Tony, The Mounties March West (Edmonton: Folk Lore Publishing, 2004). Longstreth, Morris, In Scarlet and Plain Clothes (Toronto: The Macmillian Company, 1933). Rob Cameron, “About Us,”, Young, Delbert A., The Mounties (Toronto and London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1968).

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