Mounted Police history traced in reissue of Law of the Yukon

A warm and appreciative crowd was out to celebrate the launch of the reissue of the book Law of the Yukon by Helene Dobrowolsky at the MacBride Museum on August 7. Law of the Yukon was first issued in 1995 by Lost Moose Publishing, then of Whitehorse.

A warm and appreciative crowd was out to celebrate the launch of the reissue of the book Law of the Yukon by Helene Dobrowolsky at the MacBride Museum on August 7.

Law of the Yukon was first issued in 1995 by Lost Moose Publishing, then of Whitehorse. In the new edition, it has been updated and reformatted to standard trade size book by Harbour Publishing in its Lost Moose imprint.

No one book could hope to tell the complete story of the Mounted Police in the Yukon, nor has it been easy, for more than a century, to patrol and maintain law and order in a region twice the size of Great Britain. For most readers, this book is a well-researched, authoritative starting point for that story. In 12 chapters, Law of the Yukon takes the reader from the first arrival of the Mounted Police prior to the Klondike gold rush, up to the present day.

Along the way, it recognizes the

role of First Nation special constables, the wives of many members of the force who joined their husbands in the North, and the dogs upon which the Mounties relied in the performance of their duties.

While the book reviews major developments in the policing of the Yukon, profiling major figures, most notably Superintendent Sam Steele, who oversaw the operation of the Mounted Police during the gold rush. It also focuses on the day-to-day lives of regular rank-and-file members of the force.

Dobrowolsky turned to photographs, diaries, letters and interviews to assemble a fascinating account of the lives and the activities not only of the officers of the force, often stationed in isolated one-man detachments, but also their wives and the special constables upon whom they relied.

Law of the Yukon consists of vignettes of Mounted Police history, starting with the arrival of the first detachment at Fortymile in 1895. They endured extreme conditions patrolling and manning detachments along the Chilkoot and White Pass Trails.

Inspector Belcher and Corporal Still, for example, collected customs duty and occupied a crude plank and canvas shelter in the snow-bound cleft at the summit of the Chilkoot Pass in early 1898. There snow blew in through the cracks in the walls and everything was sodden and mildewed. If they had firewood to heat their shelter, the frost on the canvas melted and it rained inside. Their bedding never dried out until spring. The narrative continues the length of the route to the Klondike, describing detachments along the way while profiling officers and men.

Women also played an important role in the early days, accompanying their husbands to remote outposts, often keeping things running while their spouses made extended patrols to outlying regions. Mary Ryder, an American who married Mountie Claude Tidd, accompanied him to postings at Rampart House, Old Crow, Mayo, Ross River, Teslin and Atlin. They loved the outdoor life so much that after he retired, they remained in the North another 10 years.

“By the end of February,” wrote Mary Tidd in 1928, “we were ready for the required police patrol to Whitehorse, the nearest headquarters. It meant 300 miles by dog team as the crow flies across wild uninhabited country and unbroken trail … it took 15 days. Fifteen days of glorious adventure and then seeing people – white women – tea in a living room, instead of outdoors by an open fire tasting of spruce needles and campfire smoke – and best of all – mail!”

As early as 1898, the Mounted Police hired First Nation men as guides, interpreters, and dog handlers. Doctor Scottie, hired on the Dalton Trail, was the first such constable from the Yukon. He was described as very intelligent and well worth the money he was paid for his work. In the spring of 1900, he accompanied Const. Pringle on a 600-mile patrol to take a census of all the First Nation people in the Dalton Trail region.

Another special Const., Stick Sam, was described as “the best and most intelligent Indian in that (Dalton Trail) district,” until, in 1903, he was swept away and drowned in the Dezadeash River (then called the Kaskawulsh) while on a patrol. He had been in service to the Mounted Police for four years.

Louis Cardinal came from the Prairies to act as a dog handler in the Yukon, and was stationed at the Chilkoot Summit during the peak of the gold rush. John Martin from Fort McPherson was one of the first guides on the patrols between McPherson and Dawson City. John Moses from Rampart House and Old Crow helped Const. Sid May track down Albert Johnson, better known as the “Mad Trapper,” in the Yukon’s most famous manhunt.

The story of the Mounted Police in the Yukon is filled with momentous events. Once they dealt with a plot by the Order of the Midnight Sun to overthrow the Yukon. The tragedy of the Lost Patrol is recounted, and the hunt for the Mad Trapper described. The construction of the Alaska Highway during the Second World War changed the future of the Yukon, and the Mounties were there too.

This 248-page book brings us up to modern times, charting the changes as the Mounted Police transformed into a modern organization, catching international spies and pursuing criminals into other countries. It concludes with an honour roll that pays tribute to 18 members of the Mounted Police who lost their lives in the line of duty in the Yukon, though inclusion of Const. Michael Potvin (who died while on duty in 2010) would have brought the list entirely up to date.

The book is accompanied by five maps that include the distribution of detachments in 1903, and the route of the lost patrol. The 120 well-chosen photographs included in this volume are essentially the same as those included in the original volume as far as I could tell. They do much to portray the people, places and events that represent the history of the Mounted Police in the Yukon, and enhance the telling of the story.

If you are looking for a well-illustrated account of the lives and adventures of the Mounted Police in the Yukon, you need go no farther than this one. I recommend it as a good read for all.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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