On February 27, 1911, Cpl. William John Duncan Dempster received a message that would put his name into the Yukon history books forever.
“You will leave tomorrow morning for a patrol over the Fort McPherson Trail, to locate the whereabouts of Inspector Fitzgerald’s party,” read the letter, from Superintendent A.E. Snyder of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
“I cannot give you any specific instructions you will have to be guided by circumstances and your own judgment, bearing in mind that nothing is to stand in your way until you get in touch with this party.”
Fitzgerald and his men were lost on the mid-winter patrol between Fort McPherson and Dawson, a distance of 800 kilometres.
Dempster, who was visiting Dawson City at the time from his regular post on Fortymile, assembled a group of three men and set out the next day.
Little did they know that they were in for a grim discovery. Fitzgerald and his men, who came to be known as The Lost Patrol, had already perished.
The journey for Dempster, Const. F. Turner, Const. Fyfe and their guide Charles Stewart was bitterly cold. Temperatures averaged minus 35 degrees Celsius and plummeted to minus 65 degrees Celsius.
“Turner’s feet were frostbitten the third day of the trip and he was to suffer considerably for the next 10 days as a result,” according to Dick North’s book The Lost Patrol.
It took the patrol nearly two weeks to find the first trace of Fitzgerald, and by March 21 Dempster had found the bodies of two of the four men. One had committed suicide with a rifle he still grasped in his hand, Dempster wrote in his final report on the patrol.
The next morning he found the two other bodies just 16 kilometres away.
“The bodies of all four were in a terribly emancipated condition, the stomach of each was flattened almost to the back bone, the lower ribs and hip bones showing very prominently,” wrote Dempster.
“After the clothing had been cut off, I do not think either of them weighed a hundred pounds.”
It’s thought they died between February 12 and 15.
Later reports blame the tragedy on three factors: that the Fitzgerald patrol did not take enough provisions, they did not have an efficient guide and they delayed in turning back after they had lost the trail.
Dempster and his men were lauded for tracking down the lost patrol quickly and efficiently.
“In conclusion I would draw your attention to the really remarkable work done by this patrol. Cpl. Dempster and all members of his party are deserving of the highest praise,” wrote Superintendent Snyder. “Not only did they make this patrol in record time, which was all the more remarkable as they had to search the rivers while travelling, which necessarily took them longer, but they travelled at a time when travelling is more difficult on the account of soft snow, high winds, blinding snowstorms…”.
Although Dempster is best known for this tale of tragedy and heroism, he served at total 37 years on the force.
He spent much of the winter following the disaster making the route safer for future travellers. He built shelter cabins, loaded caches and set markers along the trail.
Dempster also set the record for the fastest patrol over the route twice at 19 days in 1911 and 14 days in 1920.
“Dempster avoided the publicity associated with disasters, for he did not take unnecessary chances in an attempt to set records and he was not too proud to employ Indian guides or admit the fact on the rare occasion when he lost his way,” according to William Morrison in the Department of History in Brandon, Manitoba.
Today the Dempster Highway bears his name. It connects a point on the North Klondike Highway just below Dawson City to Eagle Plains, Fort McPherson and Inuvik.
This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.