On the Job
Before the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), settlers and settlements were few and scattered. In 1884, for instance, 500 policemen were responsible for an area of approximately 200,000 square miles (518,000 square kilometres). In summer, temporary detachments or camps were established where needed, usually in areas close to the border with the United States, as a preventive against liquor smuggling, horse theft, and other criminal activity. In 1886, the Mounted Police operated about 40 detachments, although a good number of them closed in winter. By the end of the century, in 1899, a comprehensive system of 90 detachments, many of them permanent, covered strategic locations all across the Prairies.
Bonanza Detachment, Yukon Territory, 1903
Much changed with the coming of the rail connection with the east. The end of the 1885 Rebellion marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. The buffalo, long the mainstay of First Nations and Métis, were gone. The government launched a vigorous campaign to attract settlers and immigrants to the territories, and First Nations people were confined to reserves.
This transformation of the nature of prairie society signalled dramatic changes for the Mounted Police as well. In April 1886, Commissioner Lawrence Herchmer was appointed 1886 to replace A.G. Irvine. Six hundred men were also added to the force, which now totalled more than 800. Herchmer was convinced that the police had a vital role to play in the government's plans for the settlement of the Prairies.
In Herchmer's mind, it was important not only that the police be seen, but that they also participate, individually and collectively, in the transformation of western Canada. To this end, he inaugurated a patrol system in 1886. It was based on a series of small detachments stretching from the Manitoba boundary west to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Many of these detachments were located south of the CPR line, where most of the new settlement was occurring, and relatively close to the international border. They were close enough to one another that patrols would meet and intersect so that vast areas were covered on a regular basis.
NWMP patrols made a significant contribution to the development of the Prairies in the critical years between 1885 and 1904. Regular patrols visited First Nations reserves and, for many years, every settler and rancher, especially those who were isolated. Mounted Police historian, John Peter Turner, described the mounted policeman on patrol as a "protector, helper, counsellor and not infrequently, physician." Information on everything from crops to weather was freely exchanged.
Patrol diary, Writing on Stone Detachment, Alberta, November 1891
As settlement steadily increased by the mid-1890s, the patrol system changed to meet the new circumstances. Some detachments were abandoned and new ones were established, all in an effort to meet the ever-changing needs of the prairie population. The system allowed for daily and weekly patrols, although they were often reduced in winter.
By 1890, mounted policemen (and their horses) traveled close to 1.5 million miles (2.4 million km) on patrol every year. Superintendent John McIllree, commanding officer of "E" Division (Calgary) reported that men in his division undertook 2066 patrols in the year 1889, all on horseback, traveling over 160,000 miles (257,600 km); two years later, he reported that the total patrol miles for his division was approximately 175,000 miles (281,700 km). Patrols were comprehensive and carefully planned. They ensured the force's visibility in a vast land, and contributed to the preservation of law and order.
Jerry Potts, Métis, interpreter and guide for NWMP, in garb of South Piegan Indians, 1889
But patrols were not easy. They were especially difficult for the horses, horses which often traveled more than 3,000 miles (4,800 km) in the course of a single year. Weather was always a concern. It could be harsh and unpredictable at any time of the year, but patrols had to go on, sometimes against all odds (and common-sense) and with occasional tragic results. Raging spring-time rivers claimed more than a few mounted policemen.
One of the saddest events took place in southern Alberta in 1891. Contrary to regulations, Constable James Herron set out alone from Kipp detachment for St. Mary's on March 2. His frozen body was found two days later. Circumstances suggested that he had become snow-blind in a horrible blizzard, and lost, alone, and freezing to death, he killed himself.
By the mid-1890s, with the boom in population and the expansion of settled areas, the patrol system was reduced, but never abandoned. Keeping in touch was now easier; the telephone, telegraph, regular mail service, improved trails, new railways, and roads all served to knit western communities together, just as the Mounted Police had done earlier in their regular visits to homesteads and ranches.