A Brief History of the RNWMP
August 10, 2023
The Royal North-West Mounted Police
The North-West Mounted Police, established on May 23rd, 1873, by our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was Canada’s first national police force. It was created to maintain order in the new Canadian North-West Territories – formerly New Rupert’s Land, under the ownership of the Hudson’s Bay Company – and to reduce tensions with the United States and the First Nations Indigenous communities. The NWMP was modeled after the Royal Irish Constabulary (the police force of Ireland from 1822 to 1922). Macdonald initially called it the North West Mounted Rifles, but later changed Rifles to Police so as to avoid arousing suspicions from the Americans (who were recovering from their Civil War of 1861-1865).
So, who were these men?
The first recruits came from every corner of 19th Century Canadian society. Hundreds of young men volunteered for the new police force – some wanted adventure, some were tired of farming, and some were eager for the regular pay check. Despite their initial motley appearance, they were soon trained up smart. Their training included learning how to use firearms, horseback riding, and getting physically and medically fit. Many of the recruits had previous military or police experience, and were granted the rank of non-commissioned officers, or NCO’s.
However, some of them decided that the training and living conditions were no picnic, and returned to their homestead.
After a month of training, the new police force, with great fanfare, rode the train from Toronto to Fargo, North Dakota, then on to Fort Dufferin, Manitoba. Here, they began the long, difficult journey to the Canadian Prairies – the officers and recruits called it ‘the March West’. The column of men and horse-drawn supplies, stretching 8 km from the leader to the rear guard, traveled the 1,400 km westwards towards Fort Whoop-Up – today known as Lethbridge, Alberta. They would then build and settle in Fort Macleod, Southern Alberta.
Once Fort Macleod was established, the 300 men were tasked with enforcing the law in an area covered by Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. This task required a reputation of fairness and compassion, which was greatly appreciated by the local Metis and Blackfoot tribes. Among the key objectives was the abolition of the illegal American whiskey trade in and around Fort Whoop-Up. Most of the Fort Whoop-Up outlaws had fled prior to the NWMP’s arrival. A few remaining local whiskey traders were promptly arrested soon after; this was greatly appreciated by the local Indigenous leaders, including the Siksika chief Isapo-muxika (Crowfoot). The illicit trade was eventually quashed by late 1874, without a single shot being fired on either side. The NWMP was also instrumental in building and settling Fort Calgary in 1875, which, along with Heritage Park, is another historical landmark of Calgary and Alberta.
By 1885, the failure of the N.W.M.P. and Canadian government to protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples as the railway and settlers arrived led to widespread unrest. The North-West Resistance resulted in the suppression of the Métis and First Nations and permanent enforcement of Canadian law in the West. Essential to the opening of the West for colonization, Mounties enforced the new Indigenous reserve system while gaining a reputation for fairness and dependability among many newcomers.
The NWMP history didn’t stop there – they were also responsible for keeping the peace during the Yukon/Klondike Gold Rush during the late 1890’s. Their presence as a government authority became both a symbol and a promise of security throughout the Yukon region. To quote the newly promoted Superintendent, Samuel B. Steele: “the whole demeanor of the people changed the moment the NWMP crossed the summit…the desperado, if there, had changed his ways, no one feared him.”
In 1904, the NWMP was granted the prefix ‘Royal’ by King George V, and became known as the Royal North-West Mounted Police; this was updated again in 1920 to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – a title that remains to this very day.
We mentioned earlier how these young men were trained up smart for the new police force. Their training regimen included parade-style marches within and around their encampment at Lower Fort Garry (present-day Winnipeg), and being drilled in the use of revolvers, carbine rifles, and field artillery. The regimen was centered along the lines of a mobile cavalry unit.
Now, let’s go over the weapons used by the NWMP. The standard firearms used by them were the .577 Snider-Enfield carbine Mk. 3, and the .455 Adams Revolver. They would eventually switch to the Model 1873 Winchester Repeating Rifle – affectionately referred to as “The Gun That Won the West”. They were also trained in the use of light field artillery, such as the 9-pounder smooth bore muzzle loader.
Now, it was mentioned beforehand that they traveled by horse. So, what types of horses did they use? Well, the first horses were the tough western broncos, and standard breed horses. However, these proved to be unsatisfactory, as they were unsuited for the rough terrain, dry summer heat, and lack of proper water and forage. As such, they turned to local Alberta and Montana ranchers for their rugged, strong, broad chested horses.
Finally, let’s talk about their uniforms. Each of the recruits and officers had a pith helmet made of cork, and were covered in cloth. They wore loose-fitting, red jackets with large pockets, dark blue trousers, brown riding boots, and brown leather pistol belts. Their uniforms were adopted from the traditional British scarlet tunic and blue trousers; this decision was influenced by previous reports from the West emphasizing the symbolic importance of the British army attires among the First Nations. For the winter months, they were each given a buffalo coat, a fur cap and mittens, moccasins, and long woolen stockings.
The North-West Mounted Police was an integral part of our city, province, and nation’s history. These young men, from all corners of Canadian society, helped pave the way for Canada’s national police force. They served with distinction, tenacity, and courage, so as to preserve the safety of the First Nations and settlers whom called this land their home. These are traits that can be found in today’s RCMP – so be sure to give your local police a friendly wave the next time you see them.
Caliber: The Canadian Firearm Magazine – THE GUNS THAT WON THE WEST: THE FIREARMS OF THE N.W.M.P. RICHARD VAN LEERSUM IN GUNS ON JANUARY 1, 2014
Defending the Law: The North-West Mounted Police, 1873-1920. Canada’s Historic Places – A Federal, Provincial, and Territorial Collaboration:
North-West Mounted Police Commemorative Association – Bringing History Back to Life.
The Canadian Encyclopedia – North-West Mounted Police. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/north-west-mounted-police#:~:text=In%20August%201873%2C%20the%20first,rifles%2C%20and%20light%20field%20artillery.
The Victorian Soldier: History and Uniform of the North-West Mounted Police, 1873-1904. Jack L. Summers & Rene Chartrand; Access Heritage – Putting History in your Hands.