Manitoba History: Review: Jim Wallace, A Double Duty: The Decisive First Decade of the North West Mounted Police
by Allen Kear
The title for Jim Wallace’s book A Double Duty comes from Commissioner George A. French’s 1874 annual report to the Minister of Justice after the march west of the North West Mounted Police (N.W.M.P.): “But that little force had a double duty to perform: to fight, if necessary, but in any case to establish posts in the far west.”
To fight meant potentially against the whiskey smugglers who were debauching the Indians, while simultaneously exploiting them in the fur trade. That force of 274, armed with rifles, lances, revolvers, 2 howitzers and 2 field guns went forth to bring Canadian “peace, order and good government” to the North West Territories, and to establish good relations with the various Indian tribes who were facing an uncertain future with the rapid disappearance of the buffalo, and the probable decline of their age old way of life because of incoming settlers as farmers.
French was commenting on the longest march ever known to the world (exceeding Alexander the Great’s feat), the precursor of today’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police which has become the best known internationally recognized symbol of Canada. The 1874 march west is a world epic in itself, and is fundamentally Canadian. That march became part of our heritage, both for what was accomplished and for what was prevented.
Upon arriving at its destination at Fort Whoop Up, near contemporary Lethbridge, the Mounties found only one old man because news of their coming had travelled by mocassin telegraph. Indeed, long before they arrived at that infamous hunters’ and traders’ fort, some Indians had met Commissioner French and men, and demonstrated their pleasure at the approach of the Mounties. French later returned to Fort Dufferin, after travelling 1900 miles round trip. Assistant Commissioner James F. Macleod then led the remaining men to build their first of a chain of forts, Fort Macleod (Alberta), before winter set in. It was here the 1999 reenactment ended.
Part of the rationale for publishing this book review in Manitoba History is because the first contingent of the Mounties travelled in the fall of 1873 from Ottawa to Toronto, then via Collingwood by ship to Prince Arthur (today’s Thunder Bay), and over the Dawson Trail to Lower Fort Garry, where they overwintered. (See the plaque on entering the Fort’s interpretive centre.) Hence, their first training took place in Manitoba, where they also engaged in their first patrol, appropriately against an illegal liquor operation.
In the spring, they were joined at Fort Dufferin by others who had come out via American railway. From there they marched into history, a scene graphically described by Wallace’s first few paragraphs, scarlet tunics and all.
The Mounties were part of Canadian government policy so that law and order preceded settlers, contrary to what occurred in the U.S.A. Settlement of our west was peaceful compared to the Americans’ opening of their west as repeatedly celebrated by Hollywood. American methods resulted in Indian wars conducted by their army, a method totally avoided here. The N.W.M.P. helped establish peaceful treaty relations with the different tribes who had a tradition of warfare among themselves. This book ends just prior to the outbreak of the 1885 North West Rebellion when mutually respectful relations between the Mounties and the Métis unfortunately deteriorated due to Canadian government policy.
Most accurately, Wallace chronicles the glory days of the Mounties, a story every Canadian should be proud of, and knowledgeable about, as part of our ethos. It is more than a Western Canadian story, even though the events chronicled took place mostly in what became the Prairie Provinces as the Canada of four provinces of 1867 expanded westward.
Jim Wallace’s approach stems from his continuing admiration of the Force while admitting some of its personnel had clay feet. This is not surprising as he delved into archival sources where he read deeply into the Force’s history as made by its men, as recorded by these men, and later as interpreted by scholars. This was also the period when British ways and values were uppermost in Canada. For example, the first Commissioner was a professional British army officer, and most of the men were products of the Victorian period. Needless to say, there were no women in that march west, a situation that has now changed with the appointment of the first female in charge of the Training Academy in Regina.
“No book should be judged by its cover,” a useful maxim when reading any book, holds true for this one. The front cover shows what became the Musical Ride, a glamorized version of everyday police work, an activity unknown in 1873-74. The rear cover never mentions the 1874 march west, a most significant event in the N.W.M.P’s formative years.
Both the author and this reviewer have points of view known to each other. Wallace wrote in his preface: “... I have attempted to remain unbiased, objective and analytical in presenting the facts. Along with many other Canadians, I have had a lifelong admiration and respect for the place of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Western Canadian history. As my research progressed I found that some of my idols had feet of clay; however, ultimately, my admiration and respect both for the organization and individual members remained undiminished.” His book is not hagiography.
My wife and I began studying the Force in 1981 when we travelled by car and provincial road map attempting to find anything about the Mounties. Unlike Wallace who has devoted many, many hours in archives and has an extensive bibliography, in addition to travelling over the West, I have used secondary sources, maps and conversations with people mainly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. They have accompanied me in walking some of the remaining ruts of the Boundary Commission Road in Manitoba, the exact route that now famous march took in 1874.
This has led to many papers to historical societies throughout Manitoba, including a memorable evening in 1983 with the Manitoba Historical Society. Two members of that audience had antecedents in that march. One of them is the grandson of J. B. Mitchell, the last remaining original of 1874. Many people have aided me in my subsequent research, in addition to my being an inaugural Board member of the Boundary Commission North West Mounted Police Trail Association, and later its Treasurer.
That organization was replaced by Manitoba’s Boundary Commission Heritage Region, the first of its kind in Western Canada. It is devoted to commemorating Manitoba’s Highway #3 as the route closest to the actual route taken by the force. Organizations need to do similar historical, preservation and commemorative work in Saskatchewan (by eliminating, where necessary, reference to fallacious Highway #18 as the Red Coat Trail) and also in Alberta so travellers and tourists alike can follow the 1874 route to try to experience what the Mounties saw, felt and accomplished.
Most of my knowledge lies within Manitoba, but not exclusively so. To illustrate, I participated in the 1993 reenactment of the March from Roche Percee until Big Muddy Valley in Saskatchewan in a week long wagon ride organized by interested volunteers. The wagon trek was conducted at a much cheaper rate than my three-day official 1999 Mountie reenactment which had 1/4 the number of participants, even with replicated uniforms etc. My experience with volunteers was superior in all ways, including the historical element, because there was less official hoopla but more reality, and better scenery. To experience the treeless country of southern Saskatchewan enabled me to better understand and appreciate Commissioner French’s diary, his official report to the Minister of Justice, and what the “originals” experienced.
I like “on the spot history” to try to imagine what 187374 was all about. Have you the reader yet visited Fort Walsh in southwestern Saskatchewan’s Cypress Hills? Do so, and then you will understand why it is necessary to reconstruct Fort Dufferin in our own province, from where the march began. Will the R.C.M.P. Foundation and the R.C.M.P. Veterans’ Associations across Canada jointly or separately lobby Ottawa to reconstruct Fort Dufferin so tourists travelling westwards recreate in their own minds “1874 and all that”? A few of the original buildings used by the Mounties still stand guard. And so Jim Wallace’s book complements my own approaches, such as my enjoyable 1999 evening at The University Women’s Club where members watched the video of part of my Saskatchewan march.
Wallace has been the sole researcher, author, proofreader, editor, index maker etc. of his book. Since no sources of financial assistance for publication are acknowledged, one knows his is a labour of love, tinctured by his own sense humour and not expecting to make money from his book. Sales are good, however, indicating that people are interested.
If we compare Wallace’s book with that by David Cruise and Allison Griffith, The Great Adventure: How The Mounties Conquered The West (1996), as listed in his bibliography but not the index, we better understand the value of his research and writing style. Note their use of the word “conquered,” shades of an American attitude. The Great Adventure is a pot boiler for fans of Reader’s Digest based almost wholly on others’ research, and without the usual scholarly footnotes to verify sources of information. Its bibliography mentions the books they consulted, to the extent that most of what they provide is culled from others work. Their book ends with a pseudo-reconstruction of what is alleged to have been a confrontation between Commissioner French and the Assistant Commissioner who later succeeded him, James F. Macleod. This alleged confrontation took place on the parade square before the assembled men. They assert this so-called quarrel took place in full sound of everyone. I very much doubt this ever happened, knowing what I do about the military as a graduate of the Royal Military College, and the paramilitary methods of the Mounties.
Wallace made good use of maps to help the reader. The map opposite page one gives an overview of the west, including the postage stamp province. That on page 58 is accurate of the route taken out to the western foothills. Henri Julien’s well known sketch on page 74 of man-handling the artillery guns through the Dirt Hills in what is now Saskatchewan demonstrates vividly the hard life of the trek, and gives the reader a taste of what the men experienced. Conditions haven’t changed, as we discovered in our own trip near Swift Current. Each of us got dehydrated, and I got a splitting headache in what Commissioner French had recorded more than a century earlier as 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Part of the Mounties’ task was to establish good relations with Canada’s Indians on their hereditary lands. An especially awkward episode occurred when Sitting Bull crossed into Canada. He was one of the participants of the Indian conquest of General Custer in 1876. Notice the Battle of the Little Bighorn occurred two years after the Mounties’ march west. What were the Mounties to do, in addition to keeping the American and Canadian Indians apart? One answer is to visit the Wood Mountain Depot, now the site of a museum in Saskatchewan, and see for yourselves. Furthermore, some Sioux descendants still live at Wood Mountain.
One role of the critic is to help the writer. Later chapters suggest future volumes in a series on the Mounties’ later history, but not explicitly so, reflecting the author’s indirect style. He may differ with some of this critic’s remarks, but that is par for the course. One of the book’s delights is the author’s good, clear prose based on having read various accounts of the Mounties’ early years. Unfortunately the publisher has not served the author well. For example, page 2 confuses the 1870s for the North West Company’s activities in the 1780s. Also, the publisher, or printer uses apostrophe “s” when the apostrophe is wrong. And then on pages 80, 82, 85, 89, 91 and later throughout the book there are spaces where there should be none.
One interesting strength of his book is “What Happened To Them?” These character sketches are fascinating to read, a method that should be adopted by other writers. For example, Commissioner French’s own brother was killed in the 1885 Rebellion.
The latter half of the book describes very well the challenges and tribulations of relations with the Indians, providing patrols for the peace of mind of new settlers, meeting their needs, and similar social welfare types of services one doesn’t usually associate with police chasing criminals. We are struck with the scope of their responsibilities. Wallace sets out changes in government policy which made their work increasingly difficult. Western Canadians, Indians and settlers alike, whether they fully understood or not were almost inevitably moving towards the confrontation at Batoche, the subject of Wallace’s next volume. For avid readers, there is an excellent bibliography for those wanting to deepen their understanding. All in all, despite the unintentional shortcomings which can be corrected in a second edition, Wallace provides a good read for Westerners and other Canadians interested in the formative first decade of the North West Mounted Police.
Page revised: 26 June 2015Back to top of page