As a group they strode thousands upon thousands of miles on snowshoes behind dog teams. Inspector W.H. Routledge did it in the winter of 1897 — twenty-two hundred miles between early December and late March — checking on the unfortunate and unwise Klondikers who would go where and when they were advised not to do so, via the Mackenzie River. In the same year Inspector Synder came from Athabasca Landing via Lesser Slave Lake to Fort St. John and back, a trip of a thousand miles. A little later Sgt. Major A.E.C. McDonnell came by way of Lac St. Anne, Whitecourt, Sturgeon Lake, Spirit River and Dunvegan.
Here and there crimes had been committed which could be dealt with on the spot. Most trappers or settlers were living alone far from neighbours. The Mounties checked on them all, arranging for them to get food if they were starving, or getting the sick and injured to the nearest help. They often found themselves acting as doctor, dentist or mid-wife. Now and again an Indian turned “weentigo” or cannibal through insanity or starvation. He had to be restrained and removed before the Indians invoked the ancient law of killing the person themselves.
Sometimes there were real crimes, as in the famous “King Murder” near Lesser Slave Lake. The Indians reported that one of two unknown white men was missing. Indian woman hired to tread barefoot in the oozy mud of a nearby slough, found some articles, one of them a stickpin, made in London. A Mr. Hayward was brought from England to identify the property as that of his brother. With one name to work on, a cheque of the owner of the tiepin made out to an American, Charles King, was found in a British Columbia bank. It took eleven months from the time Sergeant Anderson had found remains of human skull bone and flesh in the campfire which the Indians showed him, until King was tried and found guilty.
Sergeant Anderson figures in many stories of the North. One started at Coleman Creek near Pouce Coupe in 1910.
Two trappers named Coleman and Trotter were living together one winter on the Pouce Coupe prairie about ten miles from Tremblay’s store. It was an unfortunate partnership. The two men quarreled frequently. Coleman seems to have been an irritable man, easily angered and sometimes very sensitive to noise. It was not uncommon for men living isolated to get “bushed” or mildly — even violently — insane.
Whatever the cause, Coleman became furiously angry with Trotter for working with a hammer and chisel, hollowing out a log for a water trough. Perhaps Coleman was being kept awake by the regular bang-bang in the way sufferers from the “Chinese water torture” go mad from the regular falling of a drop of water. In any case, Coleman reached for his gun hanging on the wall; Trotter struck him on the forehead with the hammer. Coleman dropped like a stone.
The frightened Trotter ran all the way to Tremblay’s to summon help but on their return they found Coleman dead. Tremblay left Trotter in charge of the store while he hastened off by dogteam to Peace River one hundred and sixty miles away to fetch Sergeant Anderson. The dead man was left where he was. The three went back to the shack, where Anderson checked on the unfinished water trough, the gun and the hammer. Trotter was arrested.
Now there was a difficulty to overcome. Coleman’s body was literally a “stiff”. How to get it to Kamloops — the nearest place in British Columbia that a trial could be held? The nearest point on a railway was Mirror Landing on the Athabasca River east of Lesser Slave Lake. The only part of the body that bore evidence [of an attack] was the head, so the resourceful Mountie chopped it off, put it in a pail, put that in a gunny sack and started off with his grisly burden.
Now it was equally necessary for Mountie and Trotter to get the evidence to Kamloops. It might convict Trotter of murder, or it might get him off on a plea of self-defense.
At first Anderson felt that the accused should be handcuffed, as usual, when under escort. One night, however, after a particularly tough day, Anderson was sleeping heavily when Trotter woke him to rescue the evidence, which was about to disappear. The sleigh dogs had brought down the precious gunnysack from where it hung too low on a tree. Trotter had convinced the Mountie he was to be trusted.
Later, so the story goes, somewhere on the Lesser Slave Lake Trail, the two were overtaken by a savage blizzard. The policeman, exhausted, wanted to rest, but the experienced Trotter knew that to “rest” was to go to sleep — forever. His own escape from a fugitive’s life as an accused murderer depended on his keeping his “jailer” alive. Until the blizzard blew itself out he kept Anderson on his feet and moving, thus saving his life.
Just what they used as a deep-freeze during the train journey to Kamloops does not appear [in the stories], but eventually the living and the dead arrived. When the prosecuting Sergeant produced his evidence, he rolled it into the view of the horrified judge and jury. He point to the wound and asked, “Sir, what do you think was the cause of death?” The startled judge relied, “Decapitation, of course!”
Trotter pled self-defense. In the face of the evidence, and in the absence of any witness to the contrary, the verdict for Trotter was, “Not guilty”. So captor and captive returned to the Peace River Country.
Every settlement had its “character” that gave the police a bit of work from time to time. There was one fairly recently in the vicinity of a village near Grande Prairie. He had a habit, it is said, not only of riding his horse into the hotel but also “picking up things”. Generally the police would quietly see that “finders weren’t keepers” and encourage the culprit to mend his ways. Once, however, he went too far, and an angry woman went to the police. It seems that the widow had a cow. In those days butter was good for barter, for there was little money, so when she observed her cow in her neighbour’s herd, the police had to get it back for her. Looking them straight in the eye, the “finder” asserted, as he did later in court, that he didn’t take the cow. The only way he could account for its presence was that one day while passing through the woods he had found a good-looking piece of rope, which he picked up, of course. He didn’t know that there was a cow on the other end! He meditated on a better excuse next time for a short stretch of “time”.
Much of their time — too much according to the Mounties — was spent smelling out home-brew and bootleg liquor. Many people had a thirst that had nothing to do with diabetes. In the early days of the Athabasca Trail, which was then the only way into the country, some whisky came in legally under permit — for white men “for their own use”. Getting too much on permit led to suspicion of bootlegging it to those who hadn’t a permit (which cost money) or to Indians to whom it was forbidden to sell it. It wasn’t long before two other trails were cut on either side of the Athabasca Trail, making three trails for the harassed Mounted Police to patrol. To this was added another one known as the Whisky Trail used only for that purpose. Over all the trails went good liquor, concealed in all manner of places.
The genius of all the bootleggers was one known to history only as Baldy Red. With him it was a game. On one occasion he overtook a clergyman on the trail. The reverend gentlemen was having some trouble with his broncos, so Baldy offered to trade rigs. The clergyman was grateful. The police searched Baldy – but let the missionary pass, unknowingly carrying Baldy’s stock.
Baldy couldn’t do that same caper again but another worked equally well. He overtook some nuns traveling in a slow, uncomfortable vehicle. Gallantly he offered them a ride. They must be comfortable. He arranged a seat for them, covered with blankets and cushions. The police did not disturb the gentle ladies.
It wasn’t Baldy who contrived a clever raft. One trader felled a huge tree into the river, observed it carefully to see which side stayed up as it floated. Then after lashing twelve cases of whiskey on the downside, he let it go. He rowed quickly to Six Mile Island where there was a detachment of police on the job for the purpose of searching all passers by. They saw the log, commented on its size, and let the “clean” boat go. The man rowed down where the log had passed around the bend, retrieved his whisky, and was away.
Another gave a conscientious Mountie a nickname that stuck. “Sad Sam” sent word ahead that he was coming in with three loads of coal oil, the universal fuel for lamps. It came in four-gallon cans. That would be, probably, fifty cans a load. Somebody dropped a hint that some cans just might not contain coal oil. The Mountie tried them all. Not a drop of what he sought! Actually the fourth load had taken a little detour while Sad Sam — straight faced — helped the policeman search. The policeman was thereafter called “Coal Oil Johnny”.
Another character named Bill Burns gave another Mountie a more painful experience. The policeman was zealous about raiding Bill, an ex-prize fighter and his friends, so they set a trap. It was a real one made up of two stout coyote traps covered lightly with straw and wired securely to a stump. Then they knocked the bottom of a barrel and set it firmly over the trap. To make more sure of their catch, they nailed the barrel firmly to a stump and scattered more straw and a bottle or two around it. They made sure that a path was nicely visible from shore to the trap and then had an unsigned note sent to the policeman saying that Bill Burns had a “still” back in the bush. The three conspirators made themselves visible, fishing in the river.
“The law” found the path and like a dog on the scent went straight to the spot.
Presently a yell brought the men up from the river. Since a barrel was about waist high — at least the reach of a man’s arm — the Mountie was in the position which gave rise to the expression “over a barrel”. Naturally his “rescuers” had to get him out — but how? With a husky man more or less filling the hole at the top of the barrel, how to get the spikes out of a stump? By the time the men had with difficulty got to him, the victim was addressing the atmosphere in an eloquent fashion, its effectiveness some what muffled by being delivered on the inside of the barrel. The combined efforts of all four finally rearranged the policeman’s “bottoms up” position, and it isn’t likely that he told the story on himself unless –!
An ex-Mountie tells that it was an accepted arrangement between the police and the wrongdoer that the guilty get at least “thirty days”, for that insured that the culprit must be escorted to Fort Saskatchewan near Edmonton. Hence the policeman made the offender repay any trouble he had caused by giving the constable an unscheduled free trip to the city.
Another chore the Mounties fell into was enforcing the game laws. Unless they themselves were short in which case they could exercise their right to confiscate the meat, they generally turned a blind eye on any wild meat especially in the days of the depression. On their inspection trips they often ate heartily of the food on the homesteader’s table, and gallantly told the hostess that “that was the best beef roast I ever tasted”.
When the great flood at East Pine occurred in 1939, several families had all they owned swept away with out warning. The police asked one man “have you any meat out in the bush?” “Yes!” said the man. “Then go and bring it in.”
Some good hunters were known to have shot twelve to fifteen moose out of season to give to destitute neighbors who had no money for shells or no skill in the bush. Only if he sold it was any fuss made by a reasonable officer.
An old timer still living in the area tells that the first building in Old Dawson Creek was a two-storey shack. The downstairs was a store of sorts, with a very small stock, but a pile of gunnysacks in the corner indicated a thriving trade in potatoes — or something. The trader, whose names are perpetuated in two lakes that lay along his trapline south east of the present city, might be getting his “stock” out from under the potato sacks. Although he was searched several times, nobody expected to find “the stuff” almost in plain sight. It is said he never got caught.
As late as 1942-45 the illegal liquor traffic was carried on in another way. Liquor was rationed. Everyone who obtained it at the vendor’s had to have a permit which would be endorsed. Suddenly every man and woman in the city had a permit. There were thousands of thirsty American construction men around. Up the Alaska Highway it sold for $1.00 an ounce or more. In town where over six to ten thousand people were trying to live on rationed milk, butter, tea and coffee, meat, and sugar — one’s rationed liquor could be exchanged for goodies from the American Army mess.
This writer was the food ration officer. Another woman handled the liquor ration permits. It was amazing how many indignant men roared into the food ration office by mistake complaining about the ex-employer who demanded that every employee turn over his permit. It was not uncommon for one traveler to make his way to the Government liquor store for “Pouce Juice” with permits of several persons besides himself — taxis being few, and gasoline rationed. It was averred that certain businesses were exchanging liquid money for ball-bearings, nails, tools, electric appliances and other assorted commodities that got “lost” in Dawson Creek and Fort St. John from American Army stores and PX’s. When an irate man gets thirsty and can’t get his permit back when changing jobs, no one woman can stem the flow of dry oratory until he gets “good and ready” to be advised that he should see the other “ration lady!”
It has always been noticeable over the years how fond many people have been of raisins. During the war years and even during the depression those people somehow found a way to indulge their taste!