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F. J. DICKENS - of the NORTH WEST MOUNTED POLICE
Here is a unique tale from Canada’s historic North West. It is a tale
within a tale for Francis Jeffrey Dickens was the son of a very famous
father, the renowned English author Charles Dickens. Dickens Senior wrote
many stories but the short life of third son, Francis Jeffrey is an
interesting, little known story of adventures.
Francis Jeffrey was the fifth child out of ten as parented by Charles
and his wife Catherine. He was born in London, England January 15, 1844.
The previous Christmas had seen the great success of ‘A Christmas Carol’.
As was his practice Charles while playing with his children, gave them
nicknames and eventually Francis Jeffrey would be called ‘Chickenstalker’
which carried hints of another Christmas book ‘The Chimes’.
The moneyed English tradition of sending children away to boarding
school at an early age held true with Francis Jeffrey and he was sent to
attend an English boys’ boarding school in Boulogne, France. Within a
few years he was writing from another school in Hamburg, Germany where he
was unsuccessful in studying pre-medical subjects. Upon return to London
he was employed for a time with his father’s magazine. It was reported
that Francis was a bit hard of hearing and had a stutter on occasion.
In 1863 Francis went out to India to serve with the Bengal Police.
Upon his father’s death in 1870 Francis Jeffrey returned to England. In
October 1874 he obtained commission as a Sub-Inspector in the newly
formed North West Mounted Police and sailed for Canada. He arrived too
late to participate in what would become known as The March West of the
NWMP during the summer of 1874. However he was posted to Fort Dufferin
near the 49th parallel for the winter of 1874/75.
During 1875 he was stationed at Fort Livingston on the Swan River
(Manitoba) and then at Fort Macleod. Both postings necessitated long hours
in the saddle travelling the seemingly endless parkland then prairie. The
following year all of the Canadian and American Great Plains were in
turmoil after the massacre of Custer and his men at the Battle of the
Little Big Horn by Chief Sitting Bull and his warriors. Both countries
were on war alert as the aboriginal peoples far outnumbered the whites.
The following year 1877 Sitting Bull moved into the Cypress Hills under
the watchful eyes of the NWMP at Fort Walsh and Wood Mountain. Bull and
his people would remain in Canadian territory for almost three years.
During 1877 while stationed at Fort Macleod, Dickens was present at The
Blackfoot Crossing for the signing of Treaty Number Seven with the
In 1878 Sub Inspector Dickens was transferred to Fort Walsh where he
overlapped with Sitting Bull. In 1879 Francis Jeffrey was still at Fort
Walsh and during this year his mother died and was buried in Highgate
Cemetery, London. (His famous author father had been buried in Westminster
Abbey). In November 1879 NWMP Constable Graburn was murdered while
attending to horses near Fort Walsh and this led to increased tensions in
In June 1880 Dickens was promoted to the rank of Inspector and was
transferred from Fort Walsh to Fort Macleod. The following year ‘Chickenstalker’
moved to The Blackfoot Crossing on the Bow River about 50 miles east of
Fort Calgary. He was involved with at least one confrontation with a brave
who had stolen a horse. This incident was settled by the wise intervention
of Chief Crowfoot and the support of NWMP personnel who forced marched
from Fort Macleod.
Dickens remained at The Blackfoot Crossing during 1881 and the first
half of 1882 and was well aware that vast changes were about to occur in
the country with the westward progress of the construction of the Canadian
Pacific Railway. No longer would arduous, dusty route marches need to be
made down to Fort Benton Montana Territory on the Missouri River to catch
a paddlewheeler headed for Bismark, North Dakota to gain rail transport
back to the east. During Dickens 12 years of service with the NWMP he
never left the frontier.
In 1883 Dickens was transferred to Fort Pitt on the North Saskatchewan
River and placed in charge of the small, poorly located fortification
which lay on the main river highway supply route from Fort Carlton to Fort
Edmonton. Ever since Sitting Bull had massacred Custer and the Seventh
Cavalry in 1876 tensions throughout the whole region were high. Fort Pitt
was in the heart of the most volatile regions where both Big Bear of the
Crees and the Metis were in a state of unrest. There was also ongoing
concerns that Louis Riel who had led the Red River Rebellion of 1870 would
return from self-imposed exile in Montana to lead another uprising.
Inspector Dickens repeatedly warned of unrest in the area and in March
1885 it all came to a head with NWMP battles at Duck Lake followed by the
burning of Fort Carlton then the Crees murdering priests and Hudson Bay
Company employees and family members at Frog Lake. This site was 35 miles
north west of Fort Pitt. Dickens sent out three scouts to reconnoiter.
When they returned they were attacked by Cree warriors; one escaped
unharmed, one was wounded - played dead then crawled to the ‘fort’,
the other Constable Cowan was killed within sight of Fort Pitt then the
warrior cut out young Cowan’s heart and ate a piece of it before the
horrified defenders of the fort.
The NWMP detachment were outnumbered and outgunned 200 to 20.
Negotiations led to the civilians agreeing to become prisoners of the Cree
and Big Bear. The Chief gave Dickens and his men a short time to abandon
the fort. This they did, and travelled amongst the ice pans in a leaky
scow. Scouts from Fort Battleford reported that everyone at Fort Pitt had
been massacred however after six days on the river Dickens and his men
arrived at Battleford and received a hero’s welcome.
On November 2, 1885 eight aboriginal men were hanged at Ft. Battleford
for their part in the uprising. Louis Riel was hanged at the NWMP barracks
in Regina November 16. Dickens had left prior to the executions, travelled
overland to Swift Current where he travelled by CPR to Regina, Winnipeg,
Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. He resigned in March 1886.
While in Ottawa he became friends with Dr. Alexander Jamieson of
Moline, Illinois who was an admirer of the writings of Francis Jeffrey’s
father, Charles. ‘Chickenstalker’ accepted Dr. Jamieson’s invitation
to travel to Moline to give talks about his experiences in the Riel
Rebellion of 1885. June 11 while sitting down to dinner prior to his
scheduled speech, Francis Jeffrey took a glass of ice water, then clutched
his chest in pain. He was escorted to an adjoining room but died of an
apparent heart attack. He was 42 years old. The townsfolk of Moline made
all the arrangements and carried most of the expenses of Inspector Dickens’
funeral and burial. In time a cement marker was placed at the grave and
many years later a bronze plaque was attached to the original marker.
Since childhood David J. Carter has been a fan of Charles Dickens ‘A
Christmas Carol’ and since 1993 has been carrying out research re:
Francis Jeffrey Dickens.
In 2001 funds were generated (led in particular
by Jean Carter and the Medicine Lodge Coulee Heritage Society) to cover
the costs of an official NWMP headstone which was placed at the grave of ‘Our
Mutual Friend’ Inspector F.J. Dickens of the NWMP. The headstone was
carved in Medicine Hat by Michael Anctil. It was officially unveiled
September 24, 2002 by an entourage of present members of the RCMP and former
members of the RCMP representing The March West Committee. (Inspector Daun