Royal Canadian Mounted Police History

Learn how a party of wolf hunters was inadvertently responsible for the creation of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The Cypress Hills straddle the southern borders of the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

For as many as 7000 years, the Hills were a winter Eden in the prairies for people of the time. Archaeologists have confirmed presence of at least four distinctive cultures. During the 1870's five different tribes were wintering in the Hills, including Assiniboine.

At that time in the Midwest, no border existed between Canada and the United States. In 1869, the Hudson's Bay Company relinquished fur trading rights in the region. With that move, the only official authority in the region was removed. Essentially, lawlessness prevailed.

The Canadian government of the day was anxious to establish sovereignty in the region and, indeed, from coast to coast. Americans were settling their prairies much faster than Canadians. North-south relations, primarily trade ties, were much stronger than East-West. By 1870 the Canadian government was planning a nation-wide railroad to counter this trend by bringing in a tremendous influx of settlers to inhabit the prairies.

To achieve this objective required more than a railroad. The Canadian government recognized it would require the cooperation of natives, just as native cooperation had been required to make a success of the fur trade. Moreover, the rule of law, Canadian law, would be required to prevail if sovereignty was to be a reality.

In 1873, in the staid stone halls of the Canadian Parliament in far-off Ottawa, politicians were debating a Bill which would legislate formation of a police force for the prairies.

At the same time, deep in the Cypress Hills, activities were far from staid. After the departure of the Hudson's Bay Company, the fur trade continued. Several trading posts, notably Fort Benton, were established in northern Montana, as well as several on the Canadian side, most famous of which was called Fort Whoop-up, located in present-day Lethbridge, Alberta. Two small posts in the Cypress Hills, Farwell's and Solomon's, were to become sites of an historic cause celebre.

The Hudson's Bay Company had banned trade in alcohol, and had the power to enforce the ban. By 1873 alcohol had become the principal trade commodity to be exchanged for furs. This factor was not lost on the Canadian politicians, some of whom were adamantly temperance.

Came then, in 1873, an event history books refer to as the Cypress Hills Massacre.

A party of wolf hunters was returning through the Cypress Hills to its base at Fort Benton when their horses were stolen. They found other horses and then shared an overnight camp near Farwell's and Solomon's trading posts with a party of 200 or more Assiniboine Indians.

The story goes that the wolf hunters suspected the Assiniboine of stealing their horses. This was never proven one way of the other. What is certain is that the whiskey flowed freely that night among everyone present. Early in the morning, according to reports, the wolf hunters attacked the Assiniboine camp, leaving up to thirty dead, including one wolf hunter, and many wounded. The following day Farwell's and Solomon's posts were burned down.

No one was ever officially found guilty of wrongdoing. Moreover, on their return to Fort Benton, the wolf hunters were regaled as heroes.

This affront fired anti-American feeling in the Canadian press. By the time the story reached the halls of Parliament, the number of dead had climbed to 200 Assiniboine, plus countless wounded and raped.

By the end of May, the legislation to establish a police force was passed by Parliament. By August, the force was budgeted. By September, recruitment was underway. By October, the members were trudging westward.

This was the North West Mounted Police, later to be renamed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They brought the rule of law to the Canadian prairies. Whiskey trade was virtually eliminated overnight. The Mounties also helped secure peace treaties with the prairie tribes, thus opening the way to settlement of the Canadian western provinces. Little more than two decades later, the Mounties would also take the rule of law to the Klondike gold fields.

Some historians have been quick to point out that the ignoble wolf hunters were Americans. However, at least one source mentions Canadians in the party, a point politicians of the day doubtless found inconvenient.

Canadian-American relations have improved considerably, from the time when the Mounties rode into the prairies. For example, copyrights and trademarks of the Mounties, such as their distinctive red tunics, are now owned by the Disney Corporation.

To this day however, the Mounties have presence throughout Canada and probably more often than not, they "still get their man."

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