This is the third post in a series edited by Blair Stein interrogating the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
“I had always been a close student of the works of James Fenimore Cooper, and imagined that life in the N.W.M.P. would be one grand round of riding wild mustangs (I was always an expert horseman), chasing whiskey traders and horse thieves, potting hostile savages, and hobnobbing with haughty Indian Princes and lovely unsophisticated Princess. Alas! A few years of service in the Force sufficed to dissipate much of this glamour.”Fred Bagley, who joined the NWMP as one of their musicians at the age of 15, during the march west.
The Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP) are a vibrant part of Canada’s nostalgic past. They appear in popular media as the tamers of the west, the bringers of law and order, and as a symbol of Canadian nationalism. Their imagery is visible across the continent in everything from television shows to comic books to high school mascots.1 But where did that image come from, and how well did it match the lives of the men who came to represent Canadian power in the west?
If the NWMP are remembered today for their clean pressed red tunics, they were often a far sadder looking bunch. In the nineteenth century, years passed between the men’s hiring and the moment they received their basic tunics. Many lacked socks, mitts, and other essential winter gear.2 Their work was lonely and dangerous. Temperatures fluctuated from -46C to almost 40C adding significant risk to even the simplest tasks. During the summer, recruits pushed their horses too hard, causing injuries that limited the animal’s utility for future police work. In the colder months, blizzards caught men by surprise killing horses, and causing snow blindness and frostbite.3
Even summer storms brought risks. In June of 1874, “one of the most dreadful storms” struck a NWMP camp creating chaos. Scared horses “tore madly through the camp, flattening loaded waggons [sic] and tents in a few moments with their flying hooves.” The six men caught in the path of the animals suffered serious injuries. Those who avoided calamity huddled together in soaked blankets under makeshift accommodations. Even after the storm let up, the men suffered. It took days for the force to recapture the 250 horses that had fled up to 80 miles into American territory. “Fatigue, hunger, and want of sleep” left members of the search party so weak they required help to dismount. It was a blunt reminder of the power of the natural world.4
If summers brought danger, the winters brought misery. The extreme colds of the prairies defined both the men’s struggles and Canadian power. In the summers, the police spread out trying to maximize their ability to patrol along the Canada-US border. But as the winter colds crept in, they retreated to larger centralized posts that were easier to supply and maintain.
This map showcases the shift in the distribution of NWMP personnel in 1888 across the summer and winter months. Dragging the slider to the left shows the distribution during the summer. Dragging it to the right shows the distribution during the winter. This map does not include the roughly 150 individuals listed as lacking a permanent station (“On patrol,” “On herd,” “on leave” “flying patrol”). Nor does it account for the frequent patrols sent out from these posts or the many smaller posts not listed by name in the annual reports. 5
Even at major posts, however, the harsh climate was never far from view. Large fires kept fingers warm but caused pneumonia and other respiratory ailments in buildings with poor ventilation. In 1879, the superintendent at Battleford noted that they were “now burning from four to five cords of wood per day and it is only by keeping fires night and day that we are able to live in” the barracks. “Colds, Toothaches, and Rheumatism” grew throughout the winter as winds continued to blow through the walls and constant fires made soot and smoke a part of everyday life.6 Rough working conditions, combined with poor pay, illness, and lice led to unhappiness and desertion.7
Even a properly supplied and supported force would have struggled under these conditions. The NWMP were often neither. In 1874 during the initial march west, the diaries of the men were filled with references to “Supper of 23” and “Breakfast of wet and dry”—meals consisting of only tea, water, and/or hard tack.8
They entered territory for which they had little knowledge and fewer supports. They were guests in lands controlled by the Cree, Oceti Sakowin (Sioux), and Siksikaitsiitapi (Blackfoot). Asked to serve as border guards, police officers, justices of the peace, diplomats, and census takers, the force often came up short.9
If the NWMP were the vanguard of Canadian power, it was a power underwritten by other nations. American railroads and steamships transported recruits. American merchants and Indigenous hunters provided food and other supplies. Cree transporters and laborers brought mail and constructed buildings. Metis and Indigenous guides helped the force navigate unfamiliar terrain.10
To make matters worse, the border they had been tasked with patrolling made little sense. The Canada-US border cut across mountains and rivers, following abstracts lines of latitude rather than the contours of the natural world. The result meant that the NWMP occasionally needed to violate American sovereignty to secure the basic necessities of life. During their initial trek west, they ran out of food, water, and firewood. Unsure of what to do, they took a two-mile detour into American territory to secure supplies hoping to strike a balance between the necessities of life and the diplomatic outrage police officers and soldiers could cause when entering into foreign lands.11 While American soldiers were often understanding of these excursions, their necessity provided an uncomfortable reminder of how much goodwill the NWMP relied on for its continued existence.
For all the challenges they faced, the NWMP weren’t the trail breakers they are sometimes attributed to be. On their journey west, the NWMP traveled along the trails and bridges created by the commission who marked the Canada-US border. When they complained about broken saddles and old hay their horses refused to eat, it was because they were stuck using supplies left behind by the boundary commission that had preceded them. 12
Sent west in 1874 to serve as the frontline of the Canadian state, the NWMP police struggled to overcome the challenges they faced. Battered by weather and reliant on Indigenous communities, American supply lines, and earlier expeditions, they created a foothold for the Canadian state that changed by season and remained dependent on goodwill of those around them for decades after their arrival.
 C.B. Steele, “Macleod Tells of Harrowing Experience During Blizzard on Winter Trip to Helena Party Nearly Frozen to Death – But United States Soldiers from Fort Shaw Come to Rescue Raw Bacon Only Food to Be Eaten,” Great Falls Tribune, n.d., 4–5, Southern Alberta Research Project, M4562, Box 1, Folder 20, Glenbow Archives; Hoy, A Line of Blood and Dirt, 167; Major D.R. Cameron, “North American Boundary Commission, from the Most North-Western Point of the Lake of the Woods to the Stony Mountains,” February 8, 1876, 7, ’General Correspondence United States of America, Series II, North West Boundary, Commissioner D.R. Cameron and Generals 1876, MG 16-FO 5, Vol 1667, LAC; Canada. Parliament, Sessional Papers 1896, Report of the Commissioner of the North-West Mounted Police 1895, No 15, volume 11, 6th session of the 7th Parliament (Ottawa: S.E. Dawson, 1896), 15–21, https://www.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.9_08052_29_11/23.
 Fred Bagley, “Fred Bagley’s Diary,” 1884, June 20, 1874, Fred Bagley fonds, Archives Society of Alberta (originals previously held at Glenbow, M44), https://albertaonrecord.ca/iw-glen-116;rad?sf_culture=en.
 Canada. Parliament, Sessional Papers, 1889, Report of the Commissioner of the North-West Mounted Police Force 1888, Paper No 17, Vol 13, 1889, 135–39, http://eco.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.9_08052_22_13/824?r=0&s=1.
 Superintendent to James MacLeod, “1879 Battleford Report,” December 19, 1872, A113 Innes Papers, III. Canadian North West Historical Society (a) subject files Mounted Police Barracks, Battleford, 1936-1942, PAS.
 Joseph J. Carscadden, “Diary,” 1874, 10–11, Joseph J. Carscadden Fonds, M6608, Glenbow Archives; Benjamin Hoy, A Line of Blood and Dirt: Creating the Canada– United States Border across Indigenous Lands (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 94; Mary Julia Dover, “Biographical Sketch of James Alexander Farquharson MacLeod,” n.d., 4, James Farquharson MacLeod Fond, M3939, Glenbow Archives.
 Fred Bagley, “The ‘74 Mounties,’” 1938, 14, Fred Bagley Fonds, Fred Bagley’s Manuscript: the ’74 Mounties, Archives Society of Alberta (originals previously held at Glenbow), https://albertaonrecord.ca/iw-glen-737.
 Canada. Parliament, Sessional Papers 1896, Report of the Commissioner of the North-West Mounted Police 1895, No 15, volume 11, 6th session of the 7th Parliament (Ottawa: S.E. Dawson, 1896), 2, https://www.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.9_08052_29_11/23.
 Hoy, A Line of Blood and Dirt, 93–94, 171.
 Bagley, “The ‘74 Mounties,’” 25; George A. French, “Diary of Colonel George A. French,” 1874, Fred Bagley Fonds, M2111, Folder 4, Glenbow Archives.
 L.F. Hewgill, “In the Days of Pioneering: Crossing the Plains in the Early 70’s The Prairie Black with Buffalo,” March 1, 1894, 10, MG1 B23/5, AM; Hoy, A Line of Blood and Dirt, 94; French, “Diary of Colonel George A. French,” 1.