Monday, November 22, 2010

NWMP Arrive in Fort Dufferin

North West Mounted Police trooper from 1870s
[Artist:  R.J. Marrion - Canadian War Museum]

Fort Dufferin was originally established in 1873 by the North West Mounted Police (later the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) - this site was also used by the International Boundary Commission in its mapping of the International Boundary in 1874.

That same year, men were recruited for important efforts even further west, but to get them there, they had to come down into the United States, then back up into Canada (direct travel not yet being practical due to obstacles such as the Canadian Shield...)  The article below chronicles their adventures 'getting there', coming through Fargo, then Fort Dufferin (the modern day Emerson area...)

[A thank you to Jake Rempel of Halbstadt, Manitoba...]

NWMP to Fort Dufferin
by Elmer Heinrichs

At Lower Fort Garry, where the men were to be housed and trained, the inimitable Sam Steele, a star recruit, was given the responsibility of breaking the horses and teaching the men to ride – exasperating work that went on seven days a week from 6 a.m. till well after dark.

Steele would later write:

"With very few exceptions the horses were broncos which had never been handled, and none but the most powerful and skillful dared attempt to deal with them.

"Even when we had them 'gentled' so as to let recruits mount, the men were repeatedly thrown with great violence to the frozen ground; but none lost his nerve...I drilled five rides per day the whole of the winter in an open ménage, and the orders were that if the temperature were not lower than thirty-six below zero
the riding and breaking should go on."

In The Wild Ride, Charles Wilkins writes:

"Back in Ottawa, the force's first commissioner had been appointed in the person of Lieutenant Colonel George Arthur French, an Irishman and British soldier, a merethirty-two years of age, with a reputation for discipline and competence."

And perhaps more important to the recruits French was noted for hating incompetence. He had been in charge of the gunnery at Kingston, and when he arrived at Lower Fort Garry nine days before Christmas in 1873, he was mortified by what he saw. Hardly any of the men could yet ride, and even the officers were dressed in a hodgepodge of ill-fitting uniforms that appalled a man schooled in British decorum and discipline. "The rank and file looked like prisoners of war!" he complained.

Throughout the winter, no one at the fort was more active than Commissioner French, who was doing everything possible to learn more about the west – in particular about the tribes and whiskey traders and what sort of resistance the force might expect from them.

Map showing location of Fort Dufferin - Click to Enlarge
[Source:  Archives of Manitoba]
When French learned from the lieutenant-governor that the Blackfoot alone could send two thousand armed warriors into the field, he sent word to Ottawa demanding that the force be increased to three hundred men.

Approval came quickly, and in late winter the commissioner traveled to southern Ontario to recruit the men he needed. This time it was easier. The newspapers had been full of stories of the NWMP’s romantic and adventurous mission to the west.

In Stratford, a single advertisement drew two hundred young men, all of whom were reported to be "literate, healthy, and over six feet tall."

While adventure was the goal for most, a few joined for moral or social reasons. The recruits took crash training in Toronto. On June 6, more than two hundred men and officers boarded trains that would take them through the American Midwest to Fargo, North Dakota, from where they would march north to Fort Dufferin on the Canadian side.

There they would meet the hundred or so men who remained from the original force at Lower Fort Garry which by this time had been trimmed significantly of men in poor health or with bad attitudes.

The Manitoba contingent would be traveling to Fort Dufferin under the command of James Macleod, a tall bearded thirty-seven-year-old, who had accompanied Colonel Wolseley on the Red River Expedition, and who had recently been appointed assistant commissioner.

Fort Dufferin in 1874
[Source: Archives of Manitoba]
Macleod had been a bulwark of the force since its inception and was admired by his men for his toughness and intelligent decision-making, as well as for his sense of fair play and his two-fisted drinking in off-hours.

As the recruits rolled west, Commissioner French continued to work feverishly, assembling supplies, pack animals and wagons – everything that would be needed to send the force on its long march into the west.

The arrival of the easterners in Fargo was a predictable fiasco. Many of the men had never pitched a tent or even slept out of doors. Some had never been bitten by a mosquito, billions of which now buzzed around them as they attempted to make sense of their surroundings. Henri Julien, a young journalist and artist who had accompanied the recruits as a reporter for Canadian Illustrated News, wrote that the pestilence of mosquitoes was “thick enough to put out a fire, or tear a protective net to pieces.

Farce quickly turned to calamity. On the five-day march to Fort Dufferin, several of the men were felled by heat stroke. Others were treated for dust inhalation or suffered blisters so severe that they could barely walk.
Four men contracted typhoid from bad water, and two of them eventually died. Many of the horses had  been chosen for looks rather than an ability to haul loads, and two died of fatigue en route. Others resisted the harness and stampeded, overturning wagons, in some cases seriously injuring their keepers.

Several of the men questioned Commissioner French’s wisdom in moving his forces so quickly under the conditions. French would later write that he “feared the Sioux” and was “determined to get back on  Canadian soil.” He also knew that if he was to get his men to the Rockies before winter, he had best make haste.

North-West Mounted Police horse stampede during a storm at Fort
Dufferin, Manitoba. June 20, 1874 - From a sketch by Henri Julien
[Source:  Archives of Manitoba]
The mustering at Fort Dufferin was as chaotic as the arrival at Fargo. The tents were bulky, the food barely
edible, the heat oppressive. The horses were corralled in a field enclosed by a loose line of wagons and tents. The “fencing” proved a disaster on the second night, when a hail and wind storm rattled the heavens,
sending down what French described as “one incessant sheet of lightning from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.” At about midnight, an immense bolt of electricity exploded above the wind-flattened tents, sending the horses into stampede – out through the gaps between the wagons off across the prairie.

Fifteen-year-old Fred Bagley, a recently recruited bugler from England, sounded the alarm, rallying the men, some of whom believed they were under attack from the Sioux. Crazed with fear, 250 of the force’s 310 horses ran, some as far as 40 miles into North Dakota, before collapsing of exhaustion on the plains.

Young Sam Steele witnessed it all and, with the others, laboured through the night to calm the horses that remained in the camp. At dawn, a contingent set out to recover the runaways, travelling more than a hundred miles during the next twenty-four hours, anxious to get to their animals before they were claimed by the Sioux. Miraculously, the posse brought back all but one horse, which was thought to have drowned in the
Pembina River. Steele wrote that the “stampede had such an effect on the horses that for the remainder of the summer they were ready to repeat the performance on hearing the slightest unusual sound. “Every thunderstorm brought us out of our tents at night, and in the daytime we had to be amongst them to calm their fears.”

Meanwhile, reports of Sioux atrocities – nearby scalpings – sent some of the recruits into private panic. “The proximity of the border was just too tempting,” wrote the historian A. L. Haydon some thirty years later. "And one by one the chickenhearted slunk out of camp and headed south.” In all fifteen men deserted the
force the night before departure for the west. Luckily, the commissioner had anticipated their leaving and had had the foresight to bring with him twenty spare men, so the force was not short-handed.

Officers quarters at Fort Dufferin, 2006
[Photo: Gordon Goldsborough]