Myth or Fact
Then I ducked my head and the lights went out,
and two guns blazed in the dark;
And a woman screamed, and the lights went up,
and two men lay stiff and stark;
Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead,
was Dangerous Dan McGrew,
While the man from the creeks lay clutched to
the breast of the lady that's known as Lou.
"The Shooting of Dan McGrew", in Dawson's Malamute Saloon, is among the best-known ballads of Robert W. Service, presenting one of the Klondike's strongest legends: the supposed lawless, degenerate chaos of Dawson City. American journalists and fiction writers transformed the Yukon of 250 vigilant Mounted Policemen into a mythical American wild-west frontier.
The demand for such unfounded, lurid portrayals continued into the motion picture era, and dozens of American movies depicted the Yukon and Klondike rush. Besides unconscionably distorting the physical geography of Canada, the movies painted false pictures of the Yukon gold rush showing life as dangerous, cheap and in the hands of gunslinging American lawmen. Mounted Policemen were also in these movies but only to lend that Canadian "frontier" flavour and always in numbers too few to control the prevailing violence.
Another of Service's poems, "Clancy of the Mounted Police", illustrates a contrasting myth of Mounted Police experiences in the Yukon. According to this legend, the crime rate is high in the desolate north, but a lone super-human Mounted Police sergeant
keeps it firmly in check.
In the little Crimson Manual it's written plain and clear
That who would wear the scarlet coat shall say good-bye to fear;
Shall be a guardian of the right, a sleuth-hound of the trail -
In the little Crimson Manual there's no such word as "fail"
To this tradition we owe such American comic-book and radio serial heroes as Sergeant Preston, Sergeant King of the Yukon, and Sergeant Blair. These heroes, singlehandedly, save for the aid of a favourite dog, horse or Native companion "always got their man."
Yukon life for Force members was nothing like the depicted fiction; it was, however, filled with unusual challenge.
At the close of 1903 all of Canada had a total of 793 North West Mounted Police officers. Over one third of the Force, 303 members, were stationed in the sparsely populated Yukon Territory. Was crime in the Yukon of such magnitude that it took almost forty per cent of the Force to keep things under control? Assistant Commissioner Zachary Taylor Wood, in command of the Yukon Territory, claimed "there has been little or no crime of a serious nature during the past year... I am satisfied the Yukon compares favourably with any province in the Dominion as regards the law-abiding nature of the citizens." This remarkable paradox was central to the first decade of NWMP experience in the Yukon. During this fantastic decade the Yukon region burst into world attention, then sank rapidly into comfortable oblivion, save for the legend of the Klondike gold rush and the occasional stirring adventure.
Little was known of the Yukon prior to 1886. A sudden flurry of
activity then focused attention on the Fortymile River. A gold strike on this small tributary of the Yukon, just inside the Canadian border, set off a chain reaction attracting a sudden modest influx of gold-seekers. Local traders, conscious of the new market, now turned their attentions to these fresh customers.
Prior to federal involvement the miners provided the only form of justice available. They settled matters or established regulations of common interest by means of occasional, democratic "miners' meetings". The miners were left to their self-regulative devices for the time being for two reasons: unpopular Canadian laws would be difficult to enforce in so remote a location, and enforcement could cause the miners to head for the American side of the line, leaving Canadian gold prospects unknown.
The increased population created a need for a more stable regulative authority. Major commercial interests looked for some form of order; the Anglican clergy sought to protect the Native population from indiscriminate liquor traders, even the miners worried about possible future disorder. The Canadian government's solution to these problems was "something for everyone". There would be no immediate show of force which would risk a violent clash with the miners and traders over government regulations, but the government wished to ensure that the region would remain Canadian.
On May 20, 1894, Commissioner L.W. Herchmer directed Inspector Charles Constantine to set out for the headwaters of the Yukon. S/Sgt. Charles Brown would accompany the Inspector, who was now well versed in the several government departments he would represent. One of his primary objectives was to let the people of the Yukon know that a Dominion Agent was establishing roots. Almost two and a half months later, travelling by foot, horseback, and boat, Constantine and Brown arrived at Fort Cudahy near the town of Fortymile. It was August 7th, 1894 - who could predict that gold would soon be discovered? For the moment, Constantine and Brown had few pressures with only 1,000 miners, traders and trappers in the Territory. Yukon temperatures, Constantine was told, range from 60°C in the nine-month winter to 49°C in the summer. The environment itself would provide the greatest initial challenge.
The largest number of people in the Yukon were Native. The majority of the white population was about equally divided between Americans and Canadians. A few English and other nationalities completed the population picture. Fortymile had
approximately 260 miners, but so far the gold pickings were thin in comparison to what was to come. Constantine estimated the 1893 gold take from the Yukon at $300,000.
The Inspector anticipated difficulty in establishing authority because the miners believed Yukon conditions justified mining claims five times the size allowed by Canadian law. Constantine also felt they would hold out for their rights as established by local practice. Constantine, conscious of possible trouble over mining or other regulations, recommended a force of 50 men including two officers, one surgeon, three sergeants and three corporals. The men should each have at least two years' experience, "large and powerful build" and a reputation for not drinking. Despite his report to the Canadian government, Constantine was sent back to the Yukon with a contingent of only 19 men. He arrived outside Fortymile with Inspector D'Arcy Strickland, Assistant Surgeon A.E. Wills and the remaining men on July 24, 1895. Two days later, a Canadian Order-in-Council created the separate "Yukon District" as an administrative sub-unit within the Northwest Territories. Constantine and the men busily began constructing what was to be known as Fort Constantine - the first Mounted Police post in the Yukon - in time to spend the winter of 1895-96 adjusting to Yukon conditions.
By mid-1896 the NWMP had been established as sole agents of legitimate authority in the Yukon. Inspector Constantine, as well as being justice of the peace, land agent, customs officer, postmaster and Indian Agent, was also responsible for registering miners' claims. The test of his authority came with the challenge of a miners' meeting decision regarding a claim. With the miners "breathing defiance", Constantine despatched Inspector Strickland and ten men to Glacier Creek with a stern warning to the miners that failure to obey his direction was contrary to Canadian law. The miners respected Constantine's order asserting his and Canada's authority. Fortunately this was just in time for the spectacular Klondike gold rush.
Klondike Gold Rush
George Washington Carmack, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, with their "Bonanza" discovery of gold on Rabbit Creek, charted a new course for life in the Yukon in mid-August, 1896.
Rabbit Creek, renamed Bonanza Creek, was a tributary of the Klondike which flowed into the Yukon River 50 miles upstream and east of Fortymile. After striking coarse gold, valued at 30 times the normally good 10-cent-strike-per-pan, the men registered their claims with Inspector Constantine on August 21. (The anniversary of the strike is celebrated annually on the 3rd Monday in August.) As Constantine anticipated, news of the strike outside the Yukon provoked a frenzied stampede in search of easy gold. Over the next two years tens of thousands of gold seekers converged via various routes to the Klondike.
The nineteen officers and men of the NWMP in the Yukon could not handle the anticipated "rush". A complete reorganization was needed. Retired NWMP Superintendent James Morrow Walsh was appointed Commissioner and Chief Executive Officer for the Yukon
District in August, 1897. Walsh was also reappointed a superintendent in the NWMP and placed in charge of the Force in the Yukon. He reported directly to Sir Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior for the Canadian government, while the remainder of the Force responded to the commands of NWMP Commissioner L.W. Herchmer.
The Force in the Yukon swelled from 19 members in late 1896 to 285 by November, 1898. Fort Herchmer became the new headquarters in Dawson in summer, 1897. After the Yukon Territory was created on June 13, 1898, the 31 detachments were reorganized into "H" and "B" Divisions. Superintendent Samuel Benfield Steele arrived at the head of the Lynn Canal, the main entrance to the gold fields, in February, 1898. Inspectors D'Arcy Strickland and Robert Belcher took charge of the detachments established at the summits of White and Chilkoot Passes. Collecting customs duty for supplies brought into the Yukon by gold seekers was the chief official duty.
Nature inflicted her conditions on the wealth-seeker and lawman alike. Survival became the prime objective for most who entered the Yukon. It was Walsh who had the foresight to permit only those with a year's provisions to continue into the Yukon. Carrying 20 to 30 loads of provisions over the summits, individuals looked ant-like hauling their supplies. Boat specifications were imposed and Walsh insisted that only experienced pilots navigate boats through the more difficult rapids on the long trip down the Yukon River to the gold fields. When navigation opened in May, 1898, the rush of prospectors kept "every available man on duty all the time in Dawson City."
The Canadian government sent a force of 200 men, drawn from Canada's permanent militia, known as the Yukon Field Force, to assist the NWMP to guard prisoners, banks and gold shipments between 1898-1900.
The North West Mounted Police and the Union Jack became symbols of personal security and justice at the summits of the Passes. Steele wrote, "The whole demeanor of the people changed the moment they crossed the summit. The pistol was packed in the valise and not used. The desperado, if there, had changed his ways, no one feared him." Certain crimes did increase. In the frequent cases of theft, Yukon punishment was designed more to fit the 'need' - supplying fuel - than the 'deed', and thieves were sentenced to the huge Mounted Police wood pile behind Fort Herchmer.
Bootlegging, gambling and prostitution could not be reduced using this punishment system. Efforts to abolish vices altogether were not conceivable until after 1900, so the police opted for control. Saloon licences cost $2,500 each, although many owners preferred to pay a succession of nominal fines rather than purchase a licence. Gambling was tolerated as long as it was not organized to provide a take for the house. Prostitution was controlled by token raids, $50 fines or a month's hard labour. The girls were prohibited from drinking in saloons and dance halls and eventually were contained in Klondike City or "Lousetown" across the Klondike River from Dawson.
These fines and punishments were nothing compared to what was reserved for those Mounted Policemen who stole gold, consorted with prostitutes or drank excessively while on duty. Respect for the police was the objective; any member whose behaviour lowered the Force's image was dealt with severely. Protection of gold went hand in hand with temptation to men who earned only $1.25 a day and where a single egg, or a waltz with a dance-hall girl, cost a days pay. Theft always resulted in prison terms and dismissal; "disgraceful conduct" frequently brought similar penalties. One Constable served two months in the stockade and was then fired for dispensing tickets to three prostitutes to watch the arrival of the Governor General at Dawson.
The NWMP achieved a glowing record of assistance and protection to the tens of thousands who entered the Yukon in search of gold. The Yukon refused to surrender her riches easily and the entrepreneurs continually battled the realities of their harsh environment. Only a few found gold; injury and death was the reward for many who dared to venture. Not many found their Eldorado and most left the inhospitable climate as quickly as they had come.
By 1899 the population of the Yukon was declining, yet Mounted Police strength continued to increase and peaked in 1903. Why? The answer lies in the basic fact, somewhat obscured by the gold rush, that the NWMP were there to assert Canadian authority in the Yukon. With the gold rush now on the decline, a new incident magnified this concern over sovereignty once again: an alleged American conspiracy against Canadian jurisdiction in the Yukon.
Order of the Midnight Sun
On September 17, 1901 it was reported to the NWMP that a newcomer in Dawson was boasting of membership in a secret organization supposed to be headquartered in Seattle and Skagway. The plot of the group was to take possession of the Yukon Territory by capturing Whitehorse via Dawson from Circle City and Eagle City on the Alaska portion of the Yukon River. Confirming the actual existence of a conspiracy proved difficult. The NWMP learned of a location in Skagway where papers detailing annexation plans might be found, but could not obtain access to them. Consideration was given to the fact that this might simply have been a smokescreen for a series of bank robberies but contingency plans continued in case of invasion.
From 1901 to 1903 the established NWMP strength increased from 250 to 303 officers and men, supported by three "Maxim" machine guns. A raid in Skagway eventually unearthed a Seal of the Order but nothing more was found. The Order of the Midnight Sun faded into oblivion with the settlement of the Canada-U.S. border dispute along the Alaska Panhandle.
The end of the Alaska boundary dispute and the steady departure of disappointed prospectors and opportunists led to the reduction of the Mounted Police force in the Yukon Territory. A Yukon population which peaked near 40,000 was by 1921 reduced to fewer than 5,000. That did not mean Mounted Police work decreased. Assistant Commissioner Z.T. Wood, commanding the Yukon in 1905, claimed that patrols; rescue work; care of asylums, penitentiaries and prisoners; acting as bailiffs for the sheriff; court bailiffs; health officers; mining recorders and inspectors; timber agents; royalty collectors; custom house agents; gold dust inspectors; baggage inspectors; magistrates; coroners; mail carriers; in addition to the normal work of a peace officer, still did not exhaust the list of operations Mounted Policemen were expected to accomplish.
Nevertheless, by 1910, RNWMP strength (the prefix Royal added in 1904) was reduced to just 60 men. Detachments were closed one after another while some operated temporarily during the seasons of peak river travel. On September 1, "H" and "B" Divisions merged with headquarters at Dawson. The post at Whitehorse became one of ten remaining detachments.
The people of Dawson and vicinity, by 1911, nostalgically referred
to the Gold Rush as the "good old days" and for the first time celebrated "Discovery Day" on August 17, firmly relegating the Gold Rush to history.
In 1912, the number of Mounted Police in the Yukon sank to 36, its lowest level since 1896. Six permanent detachments were supplemented with a few seasonally opened posts. Very little recovery took place after the Force was reorganized as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1920. On November 1, 1938, "B" Division, Yukon Territory, was reduced to a Sub/Division of "G" Division, Northwest Territories, with the commanding officer stationed in Ottawa.
Northern patrols in conditions of utmost adversity required rugged and courageous men to carry on the best-known frontier traditions of the Force.
Early patrols went from Dawson to Fortymile (84 km), to Selkirk (280 km), to Mayo (286 km) and to Minto (258 Km). Conducted year-round, the most strenuous patrols were those made during the winter by snowshoe, dog team and toboggan. The most famous was the patrol between Dawson and Fort McPherson.
The first such patrol by Constable H.G. Mapley with two constables, a civilian and two Native guides, left Dawson on December 27, 1904 with five dog teams and toboggans, the mail and thirty days' provisions. The party reached Fort McPherson on February 2, 1905 after travelling over 764 km. Despite the winter cold and the isolation of the routes taken, this patrol became an annual event, not only to carry mail, but also to maintain contact with Natives, trappers and prospectors.
The strongest demonstration that these patrols were hazardous came from the fateful Fitzgerald patrol in 1911. The previous year Commissioner A.B. Perry instructed that the patrol begin from Fort McPherson so that the Commissioner might communicate directly with its leader, Inspector Fitzgerald, by telegraph in Dawson. Fitzgerald and his party left Fort McPherson on December 21, 1910 but had not yet arrived at Dawson by February 20, 1911, nearly a month overdue.
A party led by Corporal W.J.D. Dempster, a veteran on that patrol route, was sent to search for Fitzgerald. On the eastern side of the MacKenzie Mountains,
less than half the distance from Dawson to Fort McPherson, Dempster discovered signs of the lost patrol, which for some reason had turned back. To Dempster's distress he found Fitzgerald's campsites closer together the further he travelled. An abandoned toboggan, harness and dog bones, signalled weakness and lack of food. Within 48 km of Fort McPherson, Dempster's patrol found the ravaged bodies of the Fitzgerald patrol. They were in pairs, 16 km apart, barely short of their goal.
Fitzgerald's disaster contrasts with the remarkable Yukon patrol record of Corporal Dempster. He was placed in charge of the annual Dawson-Fort McPherson patrol from 1907-14 and twice again in 1917-1920. Dempster successfully tackled one patrol after another reporting each as if they were routine. To him they were.
The 1921 Fort McPherson-Dawson patrol was not made again in its entirety until 1945, when Inspector D.O. Forrest, commanding Aklavik Sub/Division, completed the 1,093 km between Aklavik-Fort McPherson and Dawson by dog team. Patrolling did not decline during the 1920s and 1930s. On the contrary, despite a total Yukon strength of only 40 or 50 officers and men, the Force annually logged 113,000 to 193,000 miles on patrol. Of these, 16-24 thousand kilometres continued to be patrolled by dog team during each winter mainly to see that isolated settlers were not destitute. Testimony to the lingering power of the gold rush was the standard entry in patrol reports describing mining operations.
Isolated conditions often contributed to old prospectors neglecting their physical and mental well-being, occasionally leading to violence. In July, 1939, a 68-year-old miner named George Croteau made rifle threats in the Granville area. Superintendent Sandys-Wunsch, Officer Commanding in Dawson, went to the miner's cabin with four members. Croteau released a volley of shots at the Mounted Police. in the exchange of gunfire, Croteau lay dead and Sandys-Wunsch narrowly escaped death when a bullet grazed his temple. Most such cases did not result in gunfire, but all had to be approached with caution.
In the far northern corner of the Yukon Territory, far from the gold fields, the people of the Porcupine River had a fur trapping tradition dating back to 1847. Around the detachment at Rampart House from 1914 and Old Crow after 1929, the chief duties of the patrolling police were unique. They had to clarify the confusing distinctions in law governing fur trading and hunting for local Native and Inuit people in the three separate jurisdictions of the Northwest Territories, the Yukon Territory and Alaska. The RCMP also checked to see that traders were observing the closed seasons on such scarce fur-bearing animals as the marten.
Policing the Modern Yukon
By 1899 the White Pass and Yukon Railway connected Skagway with Lake Bennett making the tortuous foot-route over the Chilkoot and White Pass summits an experience of the past. The line was completed to Whitehorse in 1900, and "H" Division headquarters moved to this new transportation terminal. The Yukon Territory would never again be as inaccessible as it had been. Technological advances continued over the years to lessen Yukon isolation.
A bizarre case in 1932 demonstrated the usefulness of advanced technology in communications and aviation to the RCMP in the Yukon. Albert Johnson, the legendary "Mad Trapper", killed one Mounted Policeman and wounded another in two separate incidents involving complaints that Johnson was tampering with Native trap lines. Johnson's cabin was located far to the North on the Rat River about 113 km from Arctic Red River, Northwest Territories, so the first two patrols were made from Aklavik.
On the third attempt to capture Johnson, in February, 1932, the
desperate fugitive fled alone into the Yukon Territory. The Officer Commanding in Dawson City arranged for a radio broadcast to Old Crow detachment from the nearest radio station at Anchorage, Alaska. This unusual measure succeeded and two members proceeded eastward from Old Crow to meet the RCMP contingent from Aklavik. Part of the success in pursuing Johnson uninterruptedly was because of supplies flown in by Captain W.R. "Wop" May. Once cornered, Johnson wounded a staff sergeant of the Royal Canadian Signals from Aklavik. Captain May was credited with saving the man's life by flying him to medical attention at Aklavik. May's success, plus the 17,700 km northern flight by Commissioner Sir J.F. MacBrien in 1933, influenced the RCMP decision to establish an Air Section in 1937.
Short wave radio was first used by the Force in the Yukon in 1936. Cpl. E.A. Kirk of Old Crow contacted Mounted Police at Aklavik and the U.S. Deputy Marshall at Fort Yukon, Alaska, by radio. Old Crow Detachment members now knew in advance when the mail, boats or canoeing tourists should arrive. Cpl. Kirk was also able to pass on weather information to pilots flying toward the vicinity of Old Crow. The first radio equipped patrol took place in 1939 when Kirk took a home-made portable radio on a dog team patrol.
Future progress in the Yukon was assured in 1943 with the construction of the 2,400 km Alaska Highway. This project, accomplished by the U.S. Army, extended from Dawson Creek, B.C., through Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska. A parallel chain of airfields (including airports at Whitehorse and Watson Lake) and an oil pipeline from Norman Wells, N.W.T. to Whitehorse, were undertaken in reaction to the Japanese threat in the Pacific. Construction workers briefly swelled the Yukon population during the war years and RCMP work increased. Whitehorse replaced Dawson City as the site of the Yukon Sub/Division headquarters on June 1, 1943.
At War's end, on July 1, 1945, it became necessary to police the 1,930 km Canadian extent of the Alaska Highway. This meant highway patrols from detachments at Whitehorse, Haines Junction, Teslin and Watson Lake, and the manning of three traffic control gates.
Distances between other settlements are still great enough to
ensure the importance of patrols, but Constable W. Townsend and Special Constable P. Benjamin made the last winter patrol by dog team from Old Crow to Fort McPherson and return in 1969. Motortoboggans, or snowmobiles, have now replaced dogs.
The traditional Yukon role of the Mounted Police, where members acted as agents for numerous government departments, has diminished with this population increase. The RCMP remain the sole police force in the Yukon and have exclusive jurisdiction over the enforcement of Federal and Territorial statutes.
The RCMP in the Yukon have a varied and comprehensive law enforcement role. Headed by a Chief Superintendant, the Force's thirteen permanent detachments provide police services throughout the territory.
RCMP personnel are involved in drug enforcement, general investigation, commercial crime, federal policing and customs and excise duties. These investigators, along with crime prevention and drug awareness personnel, deal with community concerns by maintaining regular contact with the public, creating a more effective, responsive police service. Highway patrol and assistance to outlying communities are also a large part of the RCMP function in the Yukon. Detachment personnel are directly involved and work together with leaders and elders of the First Nations communities to enhance the police service. RCMP recruiting initiatives, cross-cultural education and regular meetings and conferences help in this process.
Cananbis products and cocaine remain the illegal drugs of choice in the Yukon, as in the rest of Canada, and the RCMP continues to focus on higher-level dealers to stem the flow of drugs. The RCMP works together with health care and social service agencies in healing community problems, including family violence, alcohol and substance abuse.
Yukon RCMP operations are supported by air services, security systems specialists, explosives disposal, police dog services, an emergency response team and coordinated search and rescue operations. Administrative and financial personnel coordinate logistics and employee needs from Headquarters in Whitehorse.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has established and maintained an excellent working relationship with the Alaska State Troopers, fostered by a spirit of cooperation and friendly competitiveness. The Mounties and the Troopers hold an annual shoot each Fall, as well as participating in conferences and social events. In the Yukon, sports make up a large part of members' social calendars. Hockey, relay races, golf, basketball, fishing derbies, dog sledding and curling bonspiels are all enjoyed for personal satisfaction and as community relations functions. Our members not only provide police services but must become fully integrated in those communities they serve.
What is the challenge of northern policing today? Certainly air travel, radios, telephones, satellite television broadcasts and fax machines have eliminated the total isolation of northern settlements and towns. But there remains a distinct flavour to northern life. Just ask any of the men and women of the RCMP who live and work in Yukon.
This report was produced by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Public Affairs Directorate, and this revised edition was published in 1992.
Crime & Policing in the North