The Royal Canadian Mounted Police established a sterling reputation for law enforcement in the early days. They collected customs, sorted and distributed mail, and they investigated crime. Much of their work was mundane, but every now and then, they found themselves confronting situation where, as Robert Service so aptly put it, there are “deaths that just hang by a hair.”
Never was this more the case when they had to deal with the occasional off-kilter trapper or miner. As Pierre Berton, noted author wrote, a winter didn’t go by when the Mounties had to haul someone from the goldfields in a strait jacket.
Most well-known of such cases is that of Albert Johnson, the so-called Mad Trapper of Rat River. In a confrontation with Johnson in the Northwest Territories in 1932, Constable King was shot and wounded by Johnson, and a man hunt for Johnson began. For six weeks, the Mounted Police tracked the elusive Johnson through deep snow and winter storms, over the Richardson Mountains into the Yukon where Constable Edgar Millen was shot through the heart and died, and another officer lay wounded in the snow, before Johnson was shot and killed.
A few years later, in July of 1939, the Mounties had another shootout with a trapper/miner near Jensen Camp on Dominion Creek, south of Dawson. James Croteau, a tall, good-looking man, 70 years of age (there is disagreement on his precise age), had lived and worked in the goldfields for many years. He hunted and trapped in the winter, and did road work for the government or sought employment with one of the mining companies in the summer. A long-time denizen of the goldfields, he had been acting strangely for some time. A few months earlier, Wilf Gordon of Granville had gone hunting with Croteau, and noted Croteau’s peculiar behaviour. At the conclusion of their hunt, Croteau didn’t want Gordon to go home.
Things came to a head when Croteau shot at George Fulton, the teamster, who was making deliveries on the Dominion Creek. The Mounties were called in , and during an exchange of gunfire, Croteau was mortally wounded and died a short time later. Inspector Sandys-Wunsch of the RCMP was grazed in the side of the head by one of Croteau’s bullets.
But perhaps one of the most stirring encounters took place in January of 1926 on Sulphur Creek, another mining area south of Dawson City. Little is known about John Smith. Even his name is called into question. He is believed to have come from the southern United States, and had mined in the area of Sulphur Creek and Granville. Like many others, he prospected and worked on and off for the mining companies in the area. Small in stature, and dark of complexion, the 52-year old Smith was a loner; no one really knew where he came from or who were his next of kin.
The shootout came about after Smith fired his rifle at Scotty Lowe, one of his neighbours. It later came out that before that, Smith had taken a shot at one of Lowe’s children. Constable Burt from the Granville detachment was called in to investigate, and Smith sent him packing. Consequently, Burt contacted Dawson City and asked for reinforcements. He was soon joined by constables Sonnie, Cameron and Scaife. They again approached the cabin, Scaife and Burt from the front of the cabin, while Sonnie and Cameron went around to the back.
Smith refused to talk to them and fired a couple of rounds from his rifle through the cabin door. One of them knocked the revolver from Scaife’s hand and they withdrew. He went to the back door and fired at Sonnie and Cameron.
More reinforcements were called in from Dawson while the headline on the front page of the Dawson News proclaimed “Armed Maniac is Holding Police at Bay.” Inspector Humby, sergeants Lean and Daly, and Constable Cruikshank soon joined the growing force of policemen on Sulphur Creek. On the third day of the showdown, Smith tried to make a run for it through the snow, but was driven back inside by Mountie gunfire.
The following day, the policemen closed in on the cabin, and found the dead Smith inside, slumped on the floor in a pool of blood, his back propped against the cabin wall. In his arms was his rifle. Beside him was a shotgun, along with 50 rounds of ammunition for each weapon. Also at hand were three 18 centimetre-long butcher knives and an axe, all indicating that he was not going to give up without a fight. The barrel of the rifle had been sawed short for reasons that will become apparent in a moment.
In an interview with Harry Gordon-Cooper many decades later, G.I. “Cam” Cameron reminisced about the incident, in which he was involved. When the four officers surrounded Smith’s cabin, it was dark and the temperature hovered near -40 C. Cameron had been hunkered down in the snow for an hour when Smith made his move.
“The old chap had come out from his woodpile,” explained Cameron, “ and was coming straight for me. By that time we were too cold to move with any speed, but I got to one knee, and as I could not squeeze the trigger of my revolver with one hand, I managed to get a shot away with both hands.”
“Of course, it missed, but it made him drop into the snow. The next thing I saw, he was standing up again and pointing his rifle straight at my head. I was completely paralyzed and waited for him to pull the trigger — which he did. There was a terrific report and a flash. He looked with some amazement at the end of the gun, turned and belted for his woodpile with more alacrity than I had thought possible.’
The barrel of Smith’s rifle had been plugged with snow, and when he fired, the end of the rifle barrel was split open in the misfire, and Cameron’s life was spared. And it’s a good thing too because if Smith’s aim had been true, the Yukon would not have had the pleasure of knowing his daughter Ione (later Christensen), born a few years later, who became the mayor of Whitehorse, commissioner of the territory and finally, senator from the Yukon.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org