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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 4

A Brief History of Lower Fort Garry

by Dale Miquelon

The Mounties Learn to Ride

A new province had been established in the Northwest, but a province that bore curiously little resemblance to its elder partners in confederation. Tiny Manitoba was held in tutelage by the central government through the agency of the Lieutenant-Governor. This control was reinforced through the departments of the Interior, Indian Affairs, and Justice.

The signing of Indian Treaty No. 1 and the establishment of the penal system symbolized by the penitentiary at Lower Fort Garry were only the first elements of the systematic extension of Canadian authority across the ocean-like expanse of the prairies. Economic control was to be secured by the projected Pacific Railway. Military and judicial control were in fact prerequisites to the extension of the Canadian economy into the Northwest.

The Dominion government had been shaken by the Red River troubles of 1869-70 and did not remain untaught by its experience. The lesson that the Northwest was not an abstract entity to be bought or sold but a heterogeneous and complex society living in a territory of infinite promise was not lost on the sagacious Sir John A. Macdonald. The passing of the Manitoba Act, the conciliatory policy of Lieutenant-Governor Archibald, and the work of Wemyss Simpson were all part of the new and more realistic approach to the Northwest. The creation of the North-West Mounted Police naturally follows these events as the extension of this policy to the remaining Indian lands of British North America.

The time lag between the military and economic penetration of the Northwest was not foreseen by Macdonald. The unfortunate "Pacific Scandal," the subsequent collapse of the Liberal-Conservative government, and the instability of the international money market stalled the extension westward of railway facilities. When the Macdonald government returned to power in 1878, it seemed to have forgotten the lessons of 1869. The government obtained treaties from the various Indian tribes of the Northwest, but continued to neglect their needs, invoking insurrection once more. But before that day there occurred one of the great odysseys of Canadian history, the 1874 trek of the Mounted Police across the plains to the Whoop-up country. The first Mounties arrived at Lower Fort Garry to begin their training in October, 1873.

Lieutenant Colonel W. Osborne Smith, an officer of the militia established in Manitoba, was made temporary commander of the new police force, charged with preparing for its accommodation and organizing the first divisions which were to arrive late in 1873. On 16 December, Commissioner French arrived from the East to take command of the force.1

The first problem was to find barracks, and Smith soon determined that Lower Fort Garry was the most suitable place to organize and train the large group of men and horses expected at any time. A large three-storey fur and pemmican warehouse in the northeast corner of the fort next to the river wall was the first building taken over.2 As luck would have it, the Hudson's Bay Company was just finishing a new sales shop, a thoroughly modern structure with large windows and a spacious interior. Unabashed by the presumption of his request, Smith asked for the new building as an auxiliary barracks and he got it.3 There remained only to quarter the officers; and, to French's disgust, this was accomplished by transforming the attic of the Big House into a barracks by means of "wooden partitions which do not reach the ceilings."4 Several small outbuildings were added: behind the warehouse barracks, which itself was renovated, were built a kitchen, a washroom and a latrine. A kitchen and washroom, smaller in size, were also built behind the new barracks and in addition, the barracks itself required certain alterations. The building near the rear (landward) gate, which had been used as a canteen by the Quebec battalion, became the hospital and canteen. Only interior renovations were made to the structure, except that a kitchen, washroom, water closet, and covered passageway were added. Interior alterations were also made in the guardroom at the river gate.5 Outside the fort extensive new stables with harness and forage rooms were built,6 The barracks were just completed when the troops arrived, and the stable accommodations not until sometime later.7

Smith also saw to the delivery of clothing and equipment from the militia stores in Ottawa. Lacking any semblance of a uniform, the police had to be content during that first winter with odd articles of clothing. A variegated shipment of military issue failed to reach them before the freezeup sealed off the new province from the rest of Canada.8 Fifty Snider carbines and fifty short rifles were provided. Old military saddles "with high wooden cantles" were sent out, although a lighter saddle was immediately demanded by French.9 Food was provided by a contract with the Hudson's Bay Company,10

The first horses procured by Smith were of Red River breed and stood only between 14 and 15 hands,11 but more elegant mounts came with the force's "left wing" organized in Toronto. According to Sam Steele, they did not fare well in the rigours of the prairie climate.12 The first 40 police arrived in Winnipeg on 21 October and were carried to the lower fort by steamer on the following day.13 On 26 October, 60 more men arrived at Lower Fort Garry.14 The last of the police arrived at their new barracks on Hallowe'en.15 The force was organized into three divisions, A and C under superintendents Young and Windsor occupying the pemmican warehouse, and B under Superintendent MacLeod, living in the sales shop.16 Given the weekend to orient themselves, the men were sworn into the force on Monday, 3 November 1873, at noon. Smith came down from Winnipeg to administer the oath.

Captain Jarvis had been placed in charge of the police at the Stone Fort and instructed to "have the forms filled in" and to order the men "to be present in Barracks at noon for the purpose of being inspected by me and properly attested."17 Details are incomplete. Sam Steele stated that "each man was given a warrant with his name and rank, the first and last issued to the force."18 Longstreth states that each division in turn paraded before Smith and signed a single sheet of paper headed, "Mounted Police Force of Canada." It bound the recruits for three years to obey and perform all lawful orders. According to Longstreth, "[Henry] Griesbach signed first, Percy R. Neale second, Samuel B. Steele third; whereupon 'A' and 'B' and 'C' added their signatures, very legibly for cold fingers and quite as if nothing were happening for the history of Canada."19

The force lost no time in becoming fully organized and establishing a training program. Subinspector Walsh took on the duties of riding master, adjutant, and veterinarian. Greisbach was in charge of discipline, and instructed foot drill in the fort's square. Sam Steele was in charge of "bronco-busting," and teaching recruits to ride. Jarvis remained in command in French's absence.20

Surprising as it seems in view of the force's later prowess, the bulk of the first recruits could not ride. Shortly after his arrival in Manitoba, French reported to Ottawa that "Although the act specifies that all men joining the Force should be able to ride, I find that very few really can do so, the officers who enlisted the men state that they had no means of finding out whether the men could or could not ride."21 Sam Steele records the difficulty encountered in turning the raw recruits into a body of cavalry:

I took over the breaking of the horses and instructed the N. C. O.'s and men in riding. Our work was unceasing from 6 a.m. until after dark. I drilled five rides per day the whole of the winter in an open menage, and the orders were that if the temperature were not lower than 36 below zero the riding and breaking should go on.

With very few exceptions the horses were bronchos which had never been handled, and none but the most powerful and skilful 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.22

The regimen maintained by the force was taxing in the extreme, every minute of the day from dawn to dusk being accounted for.23 Thus the core of the force was tempered.

Daily routine was punctuated with some small pleasures. Sam Steele records that, "Although we had much work at Stone Fort, there were some amusements, such as balls, parties and rifle matches; but with the thermometer in the thirties below zero there was little pleasure in shooting. There was a Quadrille Club for the N.C.O.'s and men."24 Turner mentions skating on the river as the chief diversion.25

The first patrol undertaken by the Mounted Police set out from the Stone Fort. The Force's official historian records the event as follows:

Early in December word reached the Stone Fort that several whisky traders were operating among Indians on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. Commissioner French took steps to investigate, intending, if possible, to arrest the men and bring them in for trial. Superintendent Macleod was assigned to the case.

A sergeant and three constables, one from each of the three troops, were chosen and given several days of instruction and practice in snowshoeing, under the supervision of Macleod, who was an expert. The little party set out in horse-drawn bobsleighs, followed by two dog teams hauling toboggans loaded with tents, blankets and food. At the mouth of the Red River, they strapped on their snowshoes, and by hard travelling, camping by night in the shelter of the woods, reached the traders' headquarters — a small log shack. Six men were taken into custody, and about ten gallons of liquor found on the premises were spilled. The Stone Fort was reached the day before Christmas.

The first patrol by the North West Mounted Police had been accomplished successfully.26

The police remained at Lower Fort Garry until 7 June 1874, when in Steele's words they left for Dufferin "with considerable regret, but with high hopes"27 to meet the remainder of the force coming from Toronto.

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