Tag: Northwest Mounted Police

Law on the Frontier

As part of my research, I’m reading real life stories of the Northwest Mounted Police.  Our public conscience sees the Mounties as glamorous, romantic figures, the essence of heroic, stoic, dogged, upright, committed and brave.  The truth is, the myth and the reality aren’t that far apart.  In the late nineteenth century one man was often assigned to bring law and order to vast areas of wilderness, to deal with murderers, thieves, drunks and claim-jumpers over hundreds of square miles.  It wasn’t uncommon for a single policeman to travel 1000 miles by horse and canoe to bring a prisoner to stand trial in a courtroom.

In 1858, when the Fraser gold rush brought tens of thousands of prospectors, many of them heavily armed, into the British Columbia interior, the miners outnumbered the police by over one thousand to one, the rule of law reigned.  What the Mounties couldn’t do by superior numbers, they accomplished with personal courage, reputation, skill and good will.  One of the reasons for the red coat, was that it symbolized the crown.  At that time Queen Victoria was held in high esteem, especially by the native population.  The Mounties, by fair dealing, established good relations with the aboriginal population.  Even when they had to arrest a native, his people believed he would receive a fair trial.  There are many instances where natives have worked with the police to track a criminal and bring him to justice.

Men in the field (it was all men at that time.  Women were first admitted to the RCMP in 1974) took short cuts that wouldn’t be permitted today, like searching a cabin without a warrant, but given the magnitude of their task, they must be forgiven a few technical leniencies.  If the search produced evidence of wrongdoing – like a murdered man’s wallet – the culprit was arrested.  If no evidence came to light, there was no arrest.

Since many of the men who volunteered for Sam Steele’s police force were scions of noble families in England, it is hard to imagine the loneliness and isolation they must have felt being the only lawman in a vast territory.  Yet they persevered and did their duty.  When the Colonial Secretary visited the Wild Horse Creek mines in 1882 he remarked that “I found the Birish Columbia mining laws in full force, all customs duties paid, no pistols to be seen and everything as quiet and orderly as it could possibly be in the most civilized district of the colony . . . much to the surprise and admiration of many who remembered the early days of the state of California.”

In our cynical age, it is popular to scoff at Duddly DoRight, but I’d rather trust my safety to a determined, methodical, dogged servant of the law, intent on doing the right thing, than on some wise-cracking talk-show host, bent on raising his ratings.

Mounties and other police are still dying to” Maintiens le Droit” (hold the right).  We owe them our thanks and admiration.

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Tombstones

I have a fascination with old graveyards, the older and more isolated the better.  When I was researching my Prospect stories, I spent considerable time wandering through ghost towns and old graveyards.  The tale of human triumph and tragedy was there, written on the stones.  I could tell when an epidemic has passed through the area by the number of children who died within weeks of each other.   One heartrending epitaph gave a child’s age as 27 hours. One stone gave a brief epitaph of a man’s life and concluded with the words, “shot” and the date.

Some grave markers are stone, others are wooden, one notable one was a varnished tree branch.  Some are nearly impossible to read with moss and lichen covering the face and weather dimming the letters.  At Fort Steele, in British Columbia, there is a very well tended corner of the historic graveyard, surrounded by a wrought iron railing, (the original white pickets  rotted), it contains the memorial of five members of the NorthWest Mounted Police, who died there.

On older gravestones the place of birth was often noted.  As though the deceased wanted future passersby to know where he came from as well as where he was buried.  Perhaps they had a sense of history and knew family members might one day come looking for them.

Here are two examples:  Native of Milton Abbot, Devonshire, England. Aged 32 years, who met with his death on the 15th of June 1864 by accident while working in the Prairie Flower Ore Claim

Native of Sweden. Born in the year of our Lord [date removed]. Died in the R.C. Hospital the 10th of October, 1883 from the effect of a fall in a shaft by which he broke his back and died afterwards within six hours.

 I also have a penchant for reading the obituaries.  There are some interesting stories told in those columns too, although more and more I see “no service by request,” and “ashes were scattered . . .”  In contrast to previous generations, our age seems less inclined to leave a monument to mark their passing through this world.  Perhaps they wish to spare their families expense.  Perhaps their ideology opposes cemeteries.  Whatever the reason, future generations will be unable to wander through a graveyard and read the history on its stones.   We’ll all be poorer for it.

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