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The Mounties: They Always Get Their Man

The following article is from the book Uncle John's True Crime: A Classic Collection of Crooks, Cops, and Capers.

If the Americans hadn’t disrespected Canadian borders, we might not have the Mounties.


In 1869, with Canada about to take control of its interior from the Hudson’s Bay Company, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald outlined his plan for a paramilitary police force to patrol the region. The idea didn’t really get going, though, until 1873, after the Cypress Hills Massacre. That year, American wolf trappers in Montana lost a lot of horses to thieves who appeared to be headed for the Canadian border. The trappers followed and lost the trail, but stumbled on a camp of 300 Nakota natives. In a tense standoff full of accusations and alcohol on both sides, the wolf trappers opened fire on the Nakota camp, killing at least 20 people.

The massacre outraged Canadians for a number of reasons, including the fact that Americans were invading their territory with impunity. And it wasn’t the first time either. Just a few weeks earlier, whiskey traders had started illegally selling alcohol at Fort Hamilton (nicknamed “Fort Whoop-Up” because of the whiskey trade) near what is now Lethbridge, Alberta, and rumors swirled that the traders had flown the American flag over the fort. They didn’t really, but the incident was enough to speed up the formation of Macdonald’s police force, which he named the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP), or Mounties. They got guns, horses, and red uniforms, in part to differentiate them from the blue of the American cavalry ...just in case the recurring border incursions turned into a full-scale war.


The first squad of 309 Mounties was assembled in 1874. Scoring an early point for multiculturalism, if not for sensitive language, Macdonald had specified that the new force should be a “mixed one of pure white, and British and French half-breeds.” Pay was 75¢ a day, and recruits had to be between 18 and 40 years old, physically active and able, and literate in either English or French.

On June 6, the Mounties got their first orders to move out. They were headed for the wilds of Manitoba and were to be accompanied by Henri Julien, an illustrator/reporter from the Canadian Illustrated News. (Julien had been given an all-expenses-paid invitation to make sure the Mounties’ heroic march west received adequate public attention.) The police, dressed in their scarlet best, mounted their horses and prepared for a the downtown train station. There, they loaded their horses onto train cars—an effort that Julien called “long, tedious, and amusing” in its disorder. At 3:30 p.m., the train whistle blew, and “amid the cheers of a vast crowd, we glided out of Toronto.”

They headed across Ontario and straight into the United States. There was no cross-Canada train yet, so this police force, created in no small part to repel American incursions, headed for Chicago, where they transferred to a train that would drop them off in Fargo, North Dakota. After that, they boarded another train that took them to Fort Dufferin, Manitoba, the last outpost of civilization. From there, they marched 800 miles through plains, woods, rivers, and swamps on their way to Fort Whoop-Up in Alberta. Their mission: to clean out the whiskey sellers and horse thieves, keep peace between the Europeans and the people of the First Nations, combat general lawlessness, and enforce a firm border with the United force if necessary.


It took three months for the Mounties to arrive at the fort. By then, the whiskey sellers, having heard the Mounties were coming, had cleared out. There was also no evidence of hostile natives or a gathering storm along the American border. It was an anticlimactic start for the NWMP, but for many, the best sort of anticlimax. Peace was established without a shot, and for their first few years, the Mounties had to deal with few crimes worse than horse theft. Since there was no judicial system set up, the commander at Fort Whoop-Up got himself sworn in as a justice of the peace so that he could judge civil and criminal cases there.

In 1876 the Mounties got their first real taste of combat when they defused a tense situation after 5,000 Sioux, led by Sitting Bull and pursued by the U.S. Army, fled over the Canadian border. The Americans were seeking revenge for the bloody defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Mountie commander James Morrow Walsh was assigned to deal with the situation. He organized an ad hoc NWMP headquarters at Wood Mountain, where the Sioux had set up camp, initiated a close friendship with Sitting Bull, and managed to keep the peace.


Keeping peace in Canada’s Wild West continued to be the Mounties’ primary mission. In 1895, they headed over the Rockies for the first time to regulate the influx of Americans crossing the Alaskan border during the Klondike gold rush. They collected customs duties, confiscated guns, and required that each miner be equipped with at least a ton of food and survivor gear to prevent mass numbers of needy people overrunning Canada. During this time, the Mounties managed to maintain a reasonable amount of order in a chaotic situation, expelling troublemakers while sensibly not making an issue of popular illegalities like prostitution and gambling. Prospectors, not necessarily a law-and-order bunch, were impressed by the Mounties’ conduct, and their reputation spread across the world.

Around this same time, though, Canada’s government started talking about dissolving the NWMP. Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier thought the Mounties’ golden age had passed; they’d done a good job of keeping order on the frontier, but Canada was moving into the 20th century and needed smaller, regional police forces. Despite discussions in Parliament and Laurier’s push, the Mounties were popular, especially in the west, and the measure never caught on. Instead, the Mounties became the country’s official police force in 1920 and got a name change to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They also were becoming the stuff of pop-culture legend.


Today, the Mounties are one of Canada’s best-known symbols, but it wasn’t just their crime-fighting ways that made it so. The chief culprit behind the Mounties image in pop culture was a Winnipeg writer named Charles William Gordon, who wrote uplifting frontier adventures under the pen name Ralph Connor. In 1912, he wrote a novel called Corporal Cameron of the North West Mounted Police: A Tale of the MacLeod Trail. It sold like Canada and abroad. The book starred an uncorruptible Mountie hero, some satisfying fisticuffs, and the rescue of a pretty girl. It also launched a whole line of Mountie adventures.

Where books went, Hollywood followed. By the 1950s, America’s entertainment capital had made a total of 575 films set in Canada, and many of those—including the musical Rose-Marie, involved the Mounties. Hollywood’s love did not go unrequited; from the early days, the Mounties cheerfully supplied technical advice to filmmakers, and even officers in active service. There were Mounties on the radio—including the popular 1930s show Challenge of the Yukon—and when television arrived, heroes like Sgt. Preston made a seamless transition to the new medium (though its snowy outdoor shots were filmed in Colorado and California, not Canada).

These days, the Mounties still appear in entertainment, but they’re also a legitimate police force; they act as Canada’s federal police as well as the provincial police for everyone except Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador. (Those have their own provincial forces.) Not bad for a ragtag frontier police department whose first job was cleaning up a little fort called Whoop-Up.


• In popular culture, the Mounties’ motto is “They always get their man,” but that’s actually a Hollywood creation. That phrase comes from an 1877 newspaper story in the Fort Benton (Montana) Record in which the reporter wrote, “They fetch their man every time.” Hollywood producers read the story, jumped on the phrasing, and created the Mounties’ “motto.”

• The Mounties’ distinctive outfit—wide-brimmed hat, red jacket, black riding pants, etc.—is called the Red Serge because the red jackets were originally made from a type of English twill called “serge.” The Red Serge is only for special ceremonies and events, like the Musical Ride.

• Women became Mounties for the first time in 1974.


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's True Crime: A Classic Collection of Crooks, Cops, and Capers.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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