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The Lost Patrol of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police

Crime & Policing in the North

    From 1904 to 1921, it was an annual Royal Northwest Mounted Police tradition to make a trip from Dawson City, Yukon to Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, approximately 620 miles, to deliver mail and dispatches. In December 1910, the Commissioner of the Force, Aylesworth Bowen Perry, asked instead that the trip be made from Fort McPherson to Dawson. The trip was to be led by Inspector Francis Joseph Fitzgerald. Accompanying him were Constable Richard O'Hara Taylor, Constable George Francis Kinney and their guide, Special Constable Sam Carter. The four set out from McPherson on December 21, 1910 but they never made it to Dawson. The trip became known as "The Lost Patrol."

    Fitzgerald and his men left Fort McPherson, with fifteen dogs, three sleds and enough food for thirty days. The men felt no need to question whether they would reach their destination or not. They successfully completed the first leg of the journey and hired native Esau George to lead them through the next section. When he had completed his part of the trip, Fitzgerald let George go, trusting in Carter to lead them successfully to their destination. Unfortunately, Carter had been on only one patrol, in the opposite direction, and would soon prove to be an inefficient guide. By January 12, 1911, the patrol was lost for Carter was unable to find Forrest Creek which would lead them to Dawson. The team unsuccessfully travelled up and down several streams in search of the correct one. With only four days of regular rations remaining, Fitzgerald made a notation in his journal: "My last hope is gone...I should not have taken Carter's word that he knew the way from the Little Wind River." The following day, the patrol reversed their trail in the hopes of returning to Fort McPherson.

    The trip back to McPherson proved to be difficult. Weak from lack of food and exhaustion, the team were able to walk only a few miles a day, sometimes not at all due to inclement weather conditions. Starving, frostbitten and ill, the patrol trekked on. Between January 19 and February 5, ten of the dogs were killed for food. February 5, 1911, day 47 of this fatal patrol, was the date of the last entry in Inspector Fitzgerald's diary.

    In Dawson, the Fitzgerald patrol was more than a month late in reaching their destination. Anxiously, a relief patrol was sent to locate the Mounties. Accompanying Corporal William John Dempster were ex-Constable Frederick Turner, Constable Jerry Fyfe, and Charles Stewart, a Métis from Fort McPherson. They left Dawson on February 28, 1911. On March 21, the lost patrol was found, apparently on their way back to Fort McPherson. Kinney and Taylor were dead, side by side at an open camp, Kinney of starvation and Taylor of a fatal, self-inflicted bullet wound in his head. The next day, Fitzgerald and Carter were found. Having left the other two in search of help, they finally succumbed to the cold and hunger, just 40 kilometres away from Fort McPherson. They would never find help.

    Why did this patrol fail? Although no single, conclusive answer can be given, several factors contributed. Although Carter had made the trip once, and convinced himself and Fitzgerald he was competent, he did not in fact know the route from Fort McPherson to Dawson. After becoming lost, the team spent much time attempting to find the proper stream to follow. With temperatures that winter between -45 and -62 degrees Fahrenheit, and food sources of limited supply and nutritional value, the patrol was doomed to fail. By the time they were missed at Dawson City, and a search party was sent out, it was too late.

    Patrols were still made annually until 1921, but because of the fatal trip of 1910-11, measures were taken to ensure that this tragedy never occurred again. Future patrols always hired an aboriginal guide. Cabins and regular caches were established along the trail in case of food shortages. Most importantly, the Forrest Creek Trail was clearly marked so that it would not be missed again. These measures proved successful.

    All four men were buried at Fort McPherson on March 28, 1911. In 1938, the graves were cemented over into one large tomb, with cement posts at the four corners connected by a chain. In the centre is a memorial to the Royal Northwest Mounted Police Patrol of 1910.

Cpl. Dempster's search party prepares to leave Dawson City on February 28, 1911

This article was originally published by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and is reproduced here with permission.