During the era of 19th century European colonialism in the new world, three main interests negotiated over territory in north west North America that had long been occupied by Indigenous peoples: Russia, Britain and the United States of America. The long-time residents had no say at all in these discussions, although major decisions would be made that would henceforth shape their lives.
In 1825, Russia and Great Britain came to agreement on a dividing line between their respective interests in the northwest corner of the continent, and agreed that the 141st meridian would be the dividing line between Russian and British territorial interests from the Arctic Ocean in the north, to the coastal mountains in the south. The dividing line then followed an ill-defined course along the coast south to Prince of Wales Island, establishing which territory would remain in Russian hands.
In 1867, the United States purchased the Russian interest in Alaska for $7.2 million, but it took several more decades before the dividing line between British territory (Canada) and the United States was firmly established. No one paid much attention to these territorial divisions until there was a need. After 1867, Canadian and American surveyors commenced the challenging task of cutting a dividing line through the wilderness to mark what land belonged to which nation.
For nearly 30 years, prospectors and placer miners exploited the administrative vacuum as they explored for gold in the Yukon River basin. In the absence of a government presence in this region, these pioneers applied their own version of law by means of miners’ committees. To confound matters even further, in the absence of a clearly defined line, the American traders even established a US post office on the Canadian side of the line at the village of Forty Mile, which they called “Mitchell.” There was no one to challenge this action until the boundary line was firmly established by Canadian government surveyor William Ogilvie.
Aside from exploration of the Yukon River by geologist George Dawson and William Ogilvie in 1887 and again by Ogilvie several years later, there was no Canadian government presence in present-day Yukon until the arrival of two Mounted Police officers at Forty Mile in 1894.
The previous year, Anglican Bishop William Bompas sent a letter from his mission at Forty Mile to Ottawa concerning the distribution of liquor to native people. The following year, C.H. Hamilton, a representative of the North American Transportation and Trading Company (NAT&T Company) wrote asking for customs collectors and police to come to Forty Mile. In response, Inspector Charles Constantine and Staff Sergeant Charles Brown of the North West Mounted Police were sent to investigate the region the summer of 1894.
After spending several weeks in the Forty Mile district, Constantine returned to headquarters, leaving Staff Sergeant Brown behind in the Yukon to collect outstanding customs duty. Constantine noted that there was an expanding trade in illicit liquor, and a whiskey gang was operating at Forty Mile, and five saloons were open for business. Sergeant Brown noted over the winter that some 35 illicit stills were in operation.
The summer of 1895, Constantine returned to Fortymile with a detachment of several officers and 13 constables to establish a post at the mouth of the Fortymile River. There they built a stockade enclosing a number of buildings, and from there, they patrolled and performed other duties.
Their role was to collect duty on the importation of foreign goods, to impose British justice, and to assert sovereignty on Canadian soil. Constantine was charged with other duties: Collector of Customs, magistrate, mining recorder, and Dominion Lands Agent.
The authority of the Mounted Police was so respected that, according Sergeant Hayne, “…if a man was wanted [by the Mounties], it was scarcely necessary to send to fetch him, and in any case, such a proceeding was a mere formality. If there was any little trouble, we had merely to send a man word that we wanted to see him, and he immediately came in and reported himself. This actually happened on one or two occasions, and I firmly believe that if we had sent for a man a hundred miles off, he would immediately have dropped his work and come in.”
The Americans were aware of the Mounties at Forty Mile, and were concerned that their presence would drive the lawless element into Alaska. Among those who had departed Forty Mile ahead of the arrival of the North West Mounted Police was trader Jack McQuesten, who headed for Circle as soon as the ice broke, the spring of 1895. McQuesten, who had been uncooperative about paying customs duty on his trade goods, was also identified as one of the members of the whiskey gang operating at Forty Mile.
In 1897, Eli Gage, a representative of the NAT&T Company stated there was a need for troops in Alaska: “The rush … that will take place this year will bring to the territory many parasites and dangerous characters; it is from these that we desire protection. On the Canadian side, they have a form of civil government which is fully as valuable to the miners as to the trading companies, for it insures and protects their interests in the mines.”
The following summer (1896), the Mounties settled a dispute among the miners on Glacier Creek and firmly set British (Canadian) law and order on the eastern side of the 141st meridian.
When gold was discovered in the Klondike later in the summer of 1896, Constantine provided updated reports on the nature of the discovery to Ottawa, and the following spring, relocated the Forty Mile detachment to a parcel of land set aside for government use at the mouth of the Klondike River. In the early years of the gold rush, before permanent infrastructure was established, the Mounted Police assumed several duties that went beyond their normal responsibilities.
As the stampede of humanity washed over the countryside, more police were brought to the territory. Permanent posts were established at the summits of the Chilkoot and White Passes. A third detachment was sent to the foot of the Chilkat Pass. Other posts were established at Bennett and Tagish. At these places, the incoming horde was monitored. Their names were registered and their safe movement to the Klondike was overseen.
The Mounted Police established common sense rules intended for the well-being of all the newcomers entering the territory. They required everybody entering into the Yukon to bring with them a year’s supply of provisions. Anybody choosing to navigate Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapid had to hire a qualified pilot to take them through. Posts were established along the waterway to Dawson City at important stopping points.
Rules were established in Dawson City to ensure a peaceful settlement, and during the following years of the gold rush, there was not the crime and violence that was encountered in the lawless community of Skagway on the American side of the boundary. Superintendent Sam Steele truly lived up to his name, and imposed a strict regime in Dawson City which might otherwise have been a lawless and unruly place.
Amid the hubbub and chaos in Dawson City, and rampant corruption of government officials in the Klondike, the Mounted Police were among the few institutions that remained relatively untarnished. They set a high standard that was widely admired, and ensured that the Klondike remained in Canadian hands.
Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Whitehorse stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.