NWMP Sergeant in 1884 wearing 1853 Light Cavalry Sabre
History and Uniform of the
North West Mounted Police, 1873-1904
The following is an extract from the book Military Uniforms in Canada, 1665-1970 by Jack L. Summers and Rene Chartrand (Ottawa: Canadian War Museum, 1981) and is reproduced here by the kind permission of the Canadian War Museum. Reprinting or duplication of the text or illustration without permission from the Canadian War Museum is prohibited.
In 1870, the vast area known as Rupert's Land was transferred from the Hudson's Bay Company to the new Dominion of Canada. The sudden shift of authority and resultant uncertainty and unrest among the inhabitants of the region erupted into the Red River Rebellion of 1869-70. Alarming reports of whisky trading and of restlessness and inter-tribal warfare among the Indians of the plains reached the newly formed federal government in Ottawa. It was essential that order be restored and maintained if the Canadian Northwest was to attract settlers.
In 1872, Colonel P. Robertson-Ross, Adjutant-General of the Canadian Militia, was dispatched into the Northwest on a fact-finding journey for the Canadian government. He recommended that a regiment of 550 mounted riflemen be organized to preserve order in the territory and to protect the surveyors and railway builders who were working their way to the Pacific coast.
On 3 May 1873, Sir John A. Macdonald introduced a bill to establish a police force, para-military in nature, in the Northwest Territories. On 23 May the bill was passed; and, after receiving royal assent, the North West Mounted Police came into being.
In October, Lieutenant-Colonel George Arthur French, former commandant of the School of Gunnery at Kingston, was appointed Commissioner of the Force, and recruits were assembled at Toronto and Fort Garry, Manitoba. In June 1874, the two groups assembled at Dufferin, Manitoba, to complete preparations for a march west to intercept the whisky traders from Montana. When clothing and equipment had been issued and the divisions adjusted to equal strength, all ranks were assembled for a full-dress ceremonial parade. This is the only occasion in the history of the Force on which it paraded at full strength.
On 8 July, the Force began its march with a strength of 275 officers and men, 114 Red River carts, 73 wagons, and two 9-pounder field guns. The beef ration, still on the hoof, was herded along at the end of the column. Commissioner French planned to move directly to the forks of the Belly and Bow rivers, where Fort Whoop-up, headquarters of the whisky traders, was rumoured to be. He would leave a garrison to police the area, and would return with the remainder of the Force to establish headquarters at Fort Ellice. Another division of the Force was to leave the column at Roche Percee and proceed to the north of what is now Saskatchewan.
On 18 September, after failing to locate Fort Whoop-up, the column halted at a suitable site for winter quarters in the Sweet Grass Hills. In seventy-two days they had covered more than 1700 km (1000 mi.) under most difficult conditions. The B, C, and F divisions were left under the command of Assistant Commissioner Macleod, while D and E divisions returned with the commissioner to Fort Ellice. The A Division was stationed in Edmonton.
Before winter set in, Macleod learned of the real location of the infamous Fort Whoop-up. He appeared with his men before the palisaded structure only to find that the traders had left for winter quarters south of the boundary. Though he failed to catch up with the whisky traders, Macleod did discover an excellent site for a permanent camp near the present city of Lethbridge. Here he built Fort Macleod and established the permanent presence of the North West Mounted Police in the Canadian West.
From the moment the Force was established, demands for its services multiplied. It was called upon to control and contain the migration to Canada of Sitting Bull's Sioux after Custer's disaster at the Little Bighorn. The Northwest Rebellion of 1885 taxed the Force to its limit, as the West was threatened with a general Indian uprising. The opening of the far North and the discovery of gold in the Yukon also tested the Force's ability to preserve order. The Force supplied many officers and NCOs for the Canadian mounted regiments that went to South Africa in 1899. For excellence of service performed in the course of these many duties, King Edward VII conferred the title Royal upon the North West Mounted Police in 1904.
In 1920, the jurisdiction of the RNWMP was extended throughout the entire nation and, in recognition of this added responsibility, the name of the Force was changed to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The wheel had come full circle: the Force that marched from east to west marched back east fifty years later.
When a western constabulary was first considered, Sir John A. Macdonald was determined that there be as little gold lace, fuss, and feathers as possible. He believed that the appearance of the unit should reflect its purpose: an efficient police force for the ready enforcement of the law in Western Canada. In keeping with this spirit, the original dress was extremely simple.
A loose-fitting red Norfolk jacket without lace or facings, having a roll collar and large skirt pockets, was worn with steel-grey Bedford cord breeches. Dark-blue trousers with a double white stripe were issued for dismounted duties. The white cork helmet of Indian pattern was worn with the ends of the puggree hanging behind. The round blue pillbox forage cap had a band and button, white for the men, and gold for sergeants, warrant officers, and officers. Black Wellington boots with steel spurs were worn in full dress; brown riding boots were provided for service wear. White gauntlets and haversack, and brown leather pistol belt with S buckle completed the men's dress. The only deference to officers' rank was a gold Austrian knot on the jacket cuffs, and badges of rank on the collar.
For winter wear, the officers and men were supplied with a short buffalo coat, fur cap and mittens, moccasins, and long woollen stockings. This sensible and serviceable winter dress remained practically unchanged as long as the Force was mounted.
Although practical, the Norfolk jacket was most unpopular; and a new pattern of uniform was introduced in 1876. Full dress for officers consisted of a scarlet tunic, cut and braided like that of the 13th Hussars, with dark-blue collar and cuffs, and dark-blue overalls with -a gold outside stripe. The white helmet was fitted with a gilt chain and spike, and a white horsehair plume. The heavily gold-laced red Russia-leather pouch belt and sword slings had gilt metal fittings. White gloves, Russia-leather sword-knot with gold acorn, black half-Wellingtons, and steel spurs completed the uniform.
For undress uniform officers wore a scarlet jacket fastened with hooks. It was trimmed around the blue collar, down both front edges, and around the hem with gold braid. The skirt pocket openings and back seams were trimmed, hussar fashion, with gold cord ending in a crow's-foot; the cuffs were edged with an Austrian knot of gold cord. Twisted gold cords were fastened on each shoulder by a small gilt regimental button. Dark-blue pantaloons with a red stripe were worn with black riding boots. A black binocular case was carried on the brown leather pouch belt; brown sword slings and a black sabretache with regimental badge were supported by a sword-belt worn under the jacket. A blue forage cap was worn with this undress uniform.
Full dress for the men is illustrated in the plate. It consisted of a scarlet tunic of dragoon pattern without facings. The collar was trimmed all around with yellow cord. The cuffs were edged with an Austrian knot of yellow cord, while the shoulder-straps, tunic front, and skirt edges were piped with yellow. The dark-blue pantaloons initially had a red stripe, but it was later changed to yellow; the pantaloons were worn with black riding boots. The white helmet, of a new pattern, had a brass spike and chain, but no puggree.
The helmet was a most cumbersome and unpopular form of head-gear; carried in the wagons whenever possible, it soon became badly battered. Though preferred to the helmet, the forage cap was a useless adornment, giving protection from neither sun nor rain. The soft felt western hat, though quite unofficial, was commonly worn from the earliest days of the Force. It was light and comfortable, and provided good cover from the elements. Though repeatedly recommended for official approval, it was not until the turn of the century that the Stetson became a formally recognized item of dress.
A plain red serge jacket was worn on routine duties and patrols to prolong the presentable appearance of the tunic. Brown cotton jacket and trousers were issued for stables and other fatigues. This sombre uniform was worn as an improvised service dress during the Northwest Rebellion.
The original weapons of the Force were the .577 Snider-Enfield carbine, Mk. III, and the .450 Adams revolver, first model. The single-shot carbine was satisfactory for the first few years; however, as the Indians soon began to carry repeating rifles, equality of fire-power had to be restored. The police experimented with the Winchester repeating rifle, and finally adopted the .45-.75 Winchester Model 1876 military carbine in 1878.
The Force left Dufferin equipped with the British Army universal saddle. However, the steel buckles and stirrups rusted and became unbearably cold in winter, and the saddle slipped from side to side in rough going. After trying several types of saddle, the California saddle was adopted and proved most satisfactory. The new saddle altered the carriage of the carbine from a bucket to a strap fastened to the pommel.
The dress and equipment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has changed over the years to meet changing roles and conditions. However, the scarlet jacket that immediately identified a "Mountie" still remains a symbol of the Force more than a century after its founding.