The year 1874 was pivotal for Western Canada and in particular Fort Macleod. Louis Watson and his Metis wife were living on an island in the Oldman River, about a mile east of the present town of Fort Macleod. There was an abundance of water, firewood and feed, so their home became the favorite stopping place for adventurous traders and plainsmen.
On the evening of October 13, 1874 the Watsons watched, likely with mixed feelings, as the cavalcade of 150 uniformed men with arms and supplies approached from the Slide Out area to the southeast. The Watsons could be forgiven their ambivalence, had it been borne of relief that they were to have protection or a little apprehension because they would no longer have the freedom to trade at will. They probably were not whisky traders, or Jerry Potts, who knew the area, would surely have informed Colonel Macleod. The guide and interpreter brought the weary, bedraggled, North West Mounted Police troops to their first home in the West. They arrived none too soon. Winter was approaching and some kind of hurried preparation was necessary. Under the direction of Sub-Inspector Thomas R. Jackson, an artillery officer and engineer, twelve-foot logs were placed upright in three-foot trenches and plastered with mud to form the outside walls of the fort. Sod roofs and dirt floors would have to do. The square, 200 feet across, enclosed a hospital, stables, living quarters, stores, kitchen and blacksmith shop. It was built pretty much in that order, since the sick men and the horses had priority. Fireplaces and chimneys were constructed of stone. Building supplies were plentiful though crude. D. W. Davis, a trader from Fort Whoop-Up, assisted. Davis then set about building the first I.G. Baker store. It was a branch of the Fort Benton Trading Post, that had already replenished the force's dwindling supplies.
Official reports indicate that the men didn't complain, but it is more likely they were just careful to whom they voiced their opinions. They must have been quite despondent at times. Their entire term in the force had been marked by hardship, deprivation and disappointment. A trip more than 800 miles, under almost unbearable circumstances, had been endured. They had lost their way because of faulty maps and inadequate guides, the promise of excitement and adventure at Fort Whoop-Up had been anticlimactic and now they faced a winter not knowing how severe it might be. Letters home told the bad as well as the good. They may have been willing and able but it took more than just stamina in mid-October putting a mud plaster on with bare hands. One chap wrote, "With everyone engaged, the Fort was soon finished. Plastering in low temperatures with clay softened with hot water and put on by hand was frigid work." The roof was finished with sod ripped from the frosty ground. It was not until 1876, when the first sawmill was established, that there were plank floors. The troops and officers, at their own expense, improvised. Colonel Steele reports lining the walls with factory cotton to keep out the dust and allow a touch of neatness. A letter from William Parker, Reg No. 252, to his father in October, 1876 details his impression. "This is the worst Fort I have been to yet, for comfort. The buildings are miserable, mud floors and mud roofs, so that when it rains there is a devil of a mess." In the summer of 1877, during a rainstorm, a trickle of water ran across the floor of the commissioner's hut. Macleod remarked that it was following an old buffalo track. "We may be the only family in Canada that has one", he said.
But, the area was blessed with Chinooks. According to Colonel Sam Steele, the Chinooks "eased their labour." William Parker, in June, 1877, noted, The country is looking beautiful, in fact, it is a second Emerald Isle, it is so green. The Prairies are a mass of flowers that smell delicious when I take my evening walk. The bush here is full of wild gooseberries and strawberries."
The force came to this place, with its misery and its beauty, as a result of the Mounted Police Act of May, 1873. An incident at the Cypress Hills that year spurred Parliament to press the measure with some expediency. According to The North West Mounted Police, a book by J. P. Turner, Edward McKay of Fort Qu'Appelle reported back east on the incident: "In the first part of May there was a party of Crees and Saulteaux Indians started from the south branch of the Saskatchewan to steal horses from the Blackfoot who were living in the Missouri district. By mistake they took some American horses. A party of Americans was immediately organized, and went on the trail of their horses. They came to the Cypress Hills where they were met by some of their countrymen selling liquor to the Assiniboines.
They camped there all night, the Indians being made drunk by the traders, were noisy and troublesome . They ( the horse hunters ) being enraged at the loss of their horses, and en- couraged by the traders to help them, fell on the unprepared Indians and killed 22 men, women and children, besides burning all their effects and killing their animals.
The reason why I write you this is to see if nothing can be done to put law in force there."
Two days after the Mounted Police Act was put into force, on November 1, 1873, the enlistment of recruits began. They had to be competent horsemen, of good character, between the ages of 18 and 40 years. They signed up for three years and agreed not to leave the force without three months' written notice to the commissioner once their terms were expired. The RCMP Quarterly notes that among the first 150 recruits, 46 were clerks, 39 had trades, nine were professional soldiers, nine were farmers, four telegraph operators and two sailors. The others included professors, planters, gardeners, students, lumbermen, surveyors, and one bartender.
The force's trip west is well-documented. It could just as easily have ended at Fort Whoop- Up, had Colonel Macleod's offer of $10,000 to buy the fort been accepted. It was reportedly refused because, after all, the cost to build it was $25,000. Even that price would have been a bargain, however. The fort at Macleod cost the government $30,000.
The first police work, about two weeks after their arrival at Fort Macleod, was the arrest of whisky traders at Pine Coulee about 40 miles north. If trouble was expected with the large population of Indians, it didn't materialize. Credit goes to both Indians and police. If the police had been more aggressive, if they had not taken time to sit down with the chiefs, the tribes would have had no trouble wiping out the Red Coats. Sir Cecil Denny writes in his book Riders Of The Plains, "The Indians by this time had got over their fear of us, many councils being held. They were told the reason for our coming, and were glad to have whisky abolished. Large camps of many hundred Blackfoot, Bloods and Peigans near us are on very friendly terms." The Indians were instrumental in the capture of many an illicit trader. On December 1,1874, not two months after his arrival, Colonel Macleod and Crowfoot, Chief of the Blackfoot Confederacy, met and set the stage for a fair, friendly relationship that was enjoyed for years. Crowfoot agreed with goodwill and dignity.
When Lieutenant-Governor David Laird arrived at the fort before he and the force went to the Treaty Number Seven negotiatlons at Blackfoot Crossing, he was impressed with the way the force handled the Indians. According to an account in the Globe and Mail, Lt.-Gov. Laird said: "I cannot speak too highly of the kind manner in which the officers and men of the mounted police at Fort Macleod treat their Indian visitors. Though the red man is somewhat intrusive, I never heard a hard word employed in asking him to retire. The beneficial effects of this treatment, of the exclusion of intoxicants from the country, and of impartially administering justice to whites and Indians alike, were apparent in all my interviews with the Indians. They always spoke of the officers of the police in the highest terms, and of the commander of the force, Lieutenant-Colonel Macleod, especially as their great benefactor."
The Lieutenant-governor had been met a few miles outside of the fort and escorted in by a large party of the force. "The men, whose horses were in excellent condition, looked exceedingly well and the officers performed their duties in a most efficient manner. The villagers presented me with an address of welcome, and altogether my reception at Fort Macleod was such as to satisfy the most fastidious lover of display, and more than enough to satisfy the writer."
However, Father Lacombe was not too complimentary of the force, nor of Fort Macleod in general. He was at the town often and spent the winter of 1882 there working on his Blackfoot dictionary. Katherine Hughes, in her book Father Lacombe, the Black Robe Voyageur, wrote: "At Fort Macleod, where he located the headquarters of the mission, Father Lacombe found only a bleak police post whose constabulary found their spice in life lay in exciting chases of whisky smugglers and cattle rustlers."
However, the police were involved with more than the "whisky smugglers and cattle rustlers." The arrival of settlers, ranchers and railroads made their duties quite complex. Not only did they do their own carpentry, painting, tailoring, blacksmithing and most of their freighting, ploughing, gardening, haying, repairing of wagons and harness, but they acted as firefighters, customs and quarantine officers, jailers and keepers of the insane. The jails were not yet adequate so the prisoners had to be taken back to Winnipeg. For years, the insane had to be escorted to Brandon, Manitoba. The constable responsible was expected to obtain a receipt for safe delivery of the "lunatic."
There seems to have been an endless amount expected of this young force. Adding to the list, an 1879 member wrote, "We act as magistrates, sheriffs, constables, postmasters, undertakers, issuers of licenses, we marry people and bury them. We act as health inspectors and weather bureau officials, Indian Treaty makers and above all, diplomats."
All this responsibility was handled well considering the amount of training they had. Drill and equitation were a part of the military, but they needed more than that to support them while they were on patrol. July, 1875, Commissioner French, realizing the dilemma of the men with uniforms in tatters and needing complete self reliance out on patrol or stationed at a sub-post, issued a general statement that "standing orders for the guidance of officers, constables and sub-constables will soon be posted." Understanding the lack of initial training, he posted the following memos: "Members of the Force, for their own sake as well as that of their friends, should be careful in giving advice about matters of which they are ignorant." Also, "The Assistant Commissioner directs that the dress and appearance as well as the demeanor of the men of the Force should on all occasions and in all situations be such as to create respect for the Corps they belong to. He would like to see the men, if possible, properly dressed when they go beyond the precincts of the Fort." There must have been the occasional consternation. There wasn't a book of rules to which they could refer. Colonel Macleod, himself a lawyer, was the guiding force around Fort Macleod. He had observed the problems of the United States Militia and was determined that Canadian policy would avoid the same disaster. It was a simple philosophy: where others had lied, his men would tell the truth; his men would be humane and incorruptible. The Indians may have mis- interpreted this at first, but in the end, recognized its advantage.
Many systems of training were used until 1882, when headquarters were moved to Regina and a regular school was established. Before this, a basic training was given in an effort to "weed out the deadwood" before the government went to the expense of sending the men west. This action cut down on the number of desertions. No longer could one join the NWMP, have his transportation provided and then desert. But the administration was continually forced to change the rules of discipline. It was years before desertions ceased. The proximity of the border, south of which was the promise of better pay, was a great attraction. However, those who stayed formed the core of a much-respected police force. The blame for discipline problems could not be laid to the poor character of the men. The work was hard and usually lacked adventure. The pay was poor and seldom on time. The men could charge their needs at the local store, but with interest rates as high as 24 per cent, the recruits became hostile. At one point, Colonel Macleod wired his superiors that the men were near mutiny. Only then was he allowed to withdraw their back pay from a Helena bank.
Perhaps it was at this time that the troops started calling their pay "menial stipend", just 75 cents a day, for long days. It changed very little tle over the years. By 1909, it was 60 cents for sub-constables. In 1918, when Charles Edgar joined, it was $1 and by 1923, when Paul Dersch enlisted, it had jumped to $2.
On the other hand, there were enticements. In 1873, each recruit was promised 60 acres of land after three years of continuous service. Their choice of land was granted when it was certified by the commissioner that the member's conduct was satisfactory and that he had performed his duties efficiently. The land grant was renewed once more in November, 1876. As further inducement to those due to re-enlist, $40 cash, a second land grant and three months furlough were offered. And despite reports of lack of adventure, the force was gaining reputation for its esprit de corp.
Liquor played a large part in their careers. The formation of the force was primarily to stamp out whisky trading. It succeeded to some extent; the trade did become more controlled. But members of the force sometimes faced the contradiction of enjoying a drink on the one hand, and being called on to stamp out this "foul malady" on the other. When whisky traders of the 1800s and rum runners of the 1900s were apprehended, the confiscated goods had to be destroyed. There were times, though, when it wasn't all thrown out. This required disciplinary action which led to discontent, not only among the members, but the public as well. Colonel Steele, in his book Forty Years In Canada, wrote, "We had the detestable, prohibitory law to enforce, an insult to free people. Our powers were so great, in fact so outrageous, that no self respecting member of the corps, unless directly ordered, cared to exert them to full entent. We were expected, on the slightest grounds of suspicion, to enter any habitation without a warrant, at any hour day or night, and search for intoxicants; no privacy was respected. Yet owing to the pressure of a lot of fanatics who neither knew nor cared to understand the situation, parliament would not repeal the law and let the white people speak for themselves. This state of affairs continued for some years, despite the fact that the judges quashed nearly every conviction which was brought before them on appeal," about 1885. In the 1900s their powers were modified. The situation was the same, but now the public repeatedly voted for prohibition.
But, all was not discordant. Life in the barracks had its lighter moments. In the West, far from family and friends, the men depended on their own incentive to provide entertainment. Their first Christmas could not have been topped. Huge roasts of buffalo, haunches of venison, saddles of antelope, plum puddings, cakes, canned fruit and steaming vessels of tea and coffee were on the menus. The officers had turkey, a delicacy brought in from Fort Benton by Inspector Walsh. Some reports discreetly say that festivities were complete with toasts. A dance followed, with half-breed girls the troops' partners.
Sir Cecil Denny wrote in The Law Marches West, "Fiddles, harmonicas and voices joined in light-hearted celebration, nature's debutants vied for indulgence, high boots and beaded moccasins swept the hard earth floors, and in reel and jig the extremes of life were forgotten amid an unburdening of frontier mirth. Draped in decorations above the messroom door, hung the prophetic motto, a portrayal of simple faith, 'The Pioneers Of A Glorious Future."'
In later years when there were more women in the district, everyone was invited to the Police Ball. On such occasions, the women slept in the barracks and men slept outdoors. Revelry lasted well into the night so a roaring bonfire was sufficient for their comfort.
Only the officers were allowed to marry at first and it wasn't until 1876 that the first of the wives arrived. Marriage was discouraged among the ranks, mainly because the outposts were so far apart. A man with a family wasn't, according to policy makers, free to be sent to out-of-the way places. Wives were a "mill stone around their neck defeating the efforts to police the North West Territories." No married men were engaged for service, but there is no evidence that they were prohibited from marrying after their enlistment. However, their isolation limited their opportunities. Two men sent for their eligible sisters, each expecting to gain the favor of their friend's sister. But the girls had other plans. The scheming friends were thwarted.
Miss Horne married an English lawyer and Miss Ryan a NWMP surgeon, L. G. de Veber. This was the exception, though. Many wives came and adapted to the rugged life with an aptitude that shamed the administrators. They became an asset, more often than not acting as a second man on detachment. This trend has con- tinued for most of the force's existence, especiallv in small communities and isolated posts.
The first ladies set a pattern for the years to come, although the part the NWMP wives played in settling Fort Macleod is poorly recorded. Mary Macleod, wife of Commissioner Macleod, arrived in the summer of 1877. She made her home in the cabin that had been the Officers' Mess. Mary, as the book Red Serge Wives records, had met her husband in 1870 at the age of 17. They were not married until 1876 when the commissioner was making the rounds of his new command, the North West Territories. The new bride travelled with her husband all that winter. Unlike so many who came west to marry, she had been raised in Manitoba and was somewhat prepared for the hardships she faced.
Mrs. Macleod, with other wives, was the driving force behind all forms of entertainment. Dance clubs and drama clubs were formed and concerts organized.
Fort Macleod served as headquarters of the force from 1876 to 1878 when they were moved to Fort Walsh. A large contingent, 'C' Division, remained in this area: 'C' was replaced by 'D' and 'H' in 1886. These divisions remained for some time, but eventually 'H' relocated and 'D' stayed in Fort Macleod until 1919. A reserve squadron 'M' under Inspector Townsend then took over. Division headquarters was moved to 'K', with offices in Lethbridge. This reduction in status caused considerable consternation, as illustrated, in the speech made by Mayor D. J. Grier (ex-NWMP) at the farewell banquet.
The night of the party, an electric storm came up, lightning struck and splintered the flag pole it seemed symbolic. D. J., of Irish descent and nature said, and not in jest, "The Gods of Fortune are angry." This was perhaps the last social function connected with the RCMP, of any magnitude, until the Jubilee in 1924.
The number of policemen stationed in Fort Macleod varied according to the need in the district and the strength of the force. The district covered by the Macleod Division varied as well. At one time, it covered an area from the Cypress Hills to the Rocky Mountains and beyond, and from the Bow River to the United States border. There doesn't seem to be any period of time that it stabilized. The strength at any given time was considered below requirements.
Fort Macleod remained headquarters of 'D' Division until early in 1919 when it became a subdivision of 'K' Division, which at that time controlled the southern Alberta district and had its headquarters in Lethbridge. From late 1919 until 1922, 'M' Division (a reserve squadron) occupied the Macleod post. When this division was abolished in 1922, the old historic post was closed leaving one non-commissioned officer and one constable .
Most of the police property and buildings were turned over to the department of the Interior in 1929 and the remainder, one house and one stable, finally vacated by the detachment members on June 1, 1933, when quarters were rented in town from C. O. Edlund on 17th Street West. New quarters were obtained in the federally-owned Customs Building in August, 1933.
The large parade grounds and the well-kept buildings established in 1884 were to fall into gradual ruin. Some were purchased by farmers and ranchers of the district while others were moved to locations in town.
The force not only facilitated settlement, but itself contributed many permanent settlers. Many descendants of the early North West Mounted Police and Royal North West Mounted Police (1904 to 1920) remain in the Fort Macleod area. The following list is of those on the force who retired and settled here before 1924:
J. F. Macleod
John B. Allan
R. G. Mathews
W. H. McDougall
William H. Metzler
E. J. Camies
F. G. Moses
R. G. Charlton
H. G. Christianson
William H. Cox
D. J. Cummings
J. K. Ridley
E. Tom Drinkwater
J. M. Shaver
J. A. Grant
John W. Gray
David J. Grier
P. J. Thomas
R. N. Wilson
C. E. D. Wood
.Tames S. Lambert
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