Friday, July 24, 2015

The Red, White and Blue and Scarlet Serge By Alison Bruce

My dear American friends, have you ever been talking about the Great American Pastime, only to have your northern neighbour point out that baseball was a Canadian invention*? Strike back by pointing out that their beloved RCMP owes its invention to the United States.

Fort Whoop-Up (Now Lethbridge, Alberta)
The Cypress Hills Massacre

Before the Pikes Peek Gold Rush of 1859, relations between "white" trappers, prospectors and settlers and the "red" nations as generally peaceful, mostly out of enlightened self-interest on the part of the Americans. The Civil War slowed hostilities as the focus of conflict was in the east, but as soon a the war ended, the hostilities ramped up again.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the 1860s saw the withdrawal of the Hudson's Bay Company's (HBC) control over what would later become Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. American trappers and traders took advantage of this to encroach on Canadian territory. The most infamous of these were the wolfers, a gang of 100-300 Americans who had stolen a couple of US Army cannons and set up shop about in a former HBC fort about fifty miles north of the border. Originally designated Fort Hamilton, it was nicknamed Fort Whoop-Up.

The wolfers traded whiskey, which was an illegal and potentially lethal brew, and hunted buffalo for the hides. They got their name for poisoning the remaining buffalo carcasses, leaving them for wolves to consume. Then they'd return and harvest the pelts. It didn't matter to them that dogs, and in some cases people, were eating the meat and dying.

In 1873, a party of wolfers lost their horses at Cypress Hills and blamed a group of Nakoda (Assiniboine) camped nearby. They retaliated, massacring the Nakoda men, women and children.

First Mounties at Fort Walsh
The news outraged eastern Canadians. Prime Minister MacDonald had already received approval to form a military company to police the Canadian west and facilitate treaty making. Cypress Hills sped up the process.

Recruitment and training of the North West Mounted Police started, followed by the arduous trek west. Just over a year after the massacre, Division B under the command of Superintendent James Morrow Walsh reached the site.
"Walsh was sent to the Cypress Hills in command of B Division to establish an independent post which he was allowed to name for himself. Fort Walsh (Sask.) was to be the most important North-West Mounted Police establishment for the next seven years" (Dictionary of Canadian Biography)
James Morrow Walsh

Walsh's mandate was to stop the whiskey trade and bring the wolfers to justice. Easier said than done. By the time they reached Fort Whoop-Up, the illicit alcohol had been cleaned out. Bringing the men responsible for the massacre to justice was even more frustrating. Arrests were made, but no convictions. In the American courts, killing Indians wasn't considered a crime. In Canada, the cases were dismissed for insufficient evidence.

Walsh prevailed, however. It took time, but he cleared out the whiskey traders and gained the respect of the plains nations for upholding the law equally. This reputation which was met with skepticism by Chief Sitting Bull when he sought refuge in Canada.

Accompanied by six men, Walsh paid Sitting Bull a visit at his 1,000-warrior encampment. He told the chief that he was welcome to stay as long as he wanted in Canada, so long as he obeyed the law. Sitting Bull laughed at the notion that one man with six followers would tell a mighty chief what to do. Regardless, Sitting Bull stayed in Canada for four years, during which he and Walsh developed a strong mutual respect.

Sam Steele
Sam Steele and the Klondike Gold Rush

The NWMP were not meant to be a permanent force. Once the prairies were peacefully settled and Canadian sovereignty secured, they would no longer be needed. It could be said that Americans save the mounties from that fate. Bringing order to the Gold Rush, in particular the American prospectors, gave Sam Steele adding to the Mountie legend.
"Sam Steele was the quintessential Canadian man of action in the Victorian era. Physically strong and courageous, he personified the heroic qualities of the early North-West Mounted Police. He even looked the part to perfection: tall, barrel-chested, and handsome, inspiring confidence in men and admiration in women." (Dictionary of Canadian Biography)
 Steele was one of the first recruits to the NWMP and, like many of his fellows, he already had military training. Many more recruits were farm boys and tradesmen looking for adventure. Steele's talent for training horses and men was put to use very early in his career. He was one of the six constables that accompanied Walsh to treat with Sitting Bull. His intelligence, thoroughness and force of personality ensured that he continued to get choice assignments, including commanding the customs station at Bennett, where the bulk of the rush passed from Alaska into Canada.
"Nothing could have suited Steele better. Not only could he run the police as he saw fit, but the isolation of the Yukon allowed him to make up laws and regulations as necessary. The most famous example of this unilateral authority occurred at Bennett during the spring breakup of 1898, when Steele dictated that all prospective miners register their boats and adhere to strict rules for navigation when heading down river. Later in the year he refused to allow anyone into the territory without a minimum quantity of food and money. These actions were blatantly illegal, as Steel cheerfully admitted, but they so obviously saved lives that both the miners and Ottawa accepted them." (Dictionary of Canadian Biography)
Like Walsh, Steele was able to levy his force of personality to keep the peace with a relatively small police force, establishing the reputation of "One job. One Mountie."

Sgt Preston featured in radio and TV shows.
Promoting the Image

The Mountie is an internationally known Canadian icon thanks, partly if not mostly, to American pop culture.  Hollywood was so in love with the Canadian Mountie, the RCMP eventually started sending advisers to oversee their portrayal.

"The first, but not the last, Mountie motion picture was Rider of the Plains, made in 1910 by the Edison Moving Picture Company. There are well over 200 Hollywood movies featuring the RCMP, or their predecessors, and many more that show Canadian Mounties in their distinctive red uniforms. For American movie audiences, that uniform was the best clue of a Canadian location. The courteous, brave and trustworthy police became clich├ęd national characteristics; all of Hollywood's Canadian heroes were members of the RCMP." (The Force of the North)

My favourite portrayal of a man in red serge is Benton Fraser of Due South. Constable Fraser both embodies and pokes fun of the image of Canada and the RCMP. Fraser has the best traits of Sam Steele, without the 19th century prejudices.

References: (not already sited)
Klondike Gold Rush - The Canadian Encyclopedia
James Morrow Walsh - The Canadian Encyclopedia
Fort Whoop-Up

*Whether the Beachville (Ontario, 1838) or the Cooperstown (New York, 1839) games were really baseball can be argued 'til the cows come home. As Wikipedia and the American Congress agree, "the modern professional major leagues, that began in the 1870s, developed directly from amateur urban clubs of the 1840s and 1850s, not from the pastures of small towns such as Cooperstown."

3 comments:

Allan J. Emerson said...

Interesting post on the origins of the RCMP. I never knew most of this, and I'm a Canuck. Thanks, Alison.

Alison E. Bruce said...

I learned a few new things too, Allan. That's why this piece ended up so long. I'm glad you like it.

Jacquie Rogers said...

I learned a few things, too. Always good to read your posts. Thanks!