THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN RANGERS

"NORTH WEST REBELLION COWBOY CAVALRY"
IN 1880'S MEDICINE HAT, N.W.T.

RMR Troop

ABOVE: A Rocky Mountain Ranger Patrol formed up near Medicine Hat. Heading up the column, on the extreme right, is Chief Scout "Kootenai" Brown, with Captain Lord Richard Boyle beside him. Accordingly, this may be part of No. 1 Troop, which Lord Boyle commanded.

One of the volunteer militia units raised in Canada's North West in response to the 1885 Rebellion was the Rocky Mountain Rangers, a body of mounted irregulars, mostly cowboys and ranchers from the area around Fort MacLeod (District of Alberta), the headquarters of the NWMP located at the base of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, about 150 miles to the west of Medicine Hat (in what was then the District of Assiniboia.) [View Map]

campbell

ABOVE: Duncan J. Campbell, Adjutant, Rocky Mountain Rangers, April 1885

The unit was organized and commanded by John O. Stewart, a former Militia Cavalry Officer then engaged in ranching near Fort MacLeod. Captain Stewart happened to be visiting in Ottawa, where he had family, when news of the swelling Metis unrest reached the Capital. He immediately contacted the Minister of Militia and Defense, Adolphe Caron, offering to raise a volunteer mounted unit for service as the Government might direct.

The following is the entire text of Stewart's proposal, coincidentally filed just the day before the bloody skirmish at Duck Lake. (A few items of interest are highlighted in red. Notice the request, in item 15 and the following paragraph, that he be permitted to enlist men of "other than British Nationality", since so many of the cowboys in Southern Alberta were Americans.)

Ottawa March 25th, 1885

To the Honourable The Minister of Militia, Ottawa.

I have the honour to submit the following Report as requested in private interview today with reference to the formation of a Mounted Force in the Southern District of Alberta, N.W.T.
A Provisional Cavalry Force of the Strength of 150 officers, Non-commissioned officers and Troopers can be formed in the District named, having as its northern boundary, High River, its Eastern, Medicine Hat, and its Southern the International Boundary Line, of the above strength upon the following basis:
[Note: Original rosters and pay-lists indicate that a total enlistment of 115 Troopers, NCOs and Officers was attained.]
saddle

(1) Each officer, non-com. Officer and Trooper to supply his own horse and horse appointments (Mexican) consisting of Bridle, Lariat, Saddle and Saddle blanket.

(2) The uniform of Officers to be that of an undress Cavalry officer, supplied at their own expense. The uniform of non-coms and Troopers to consist, during their provisional enlistment and whilst undergoing their preliminary Drill, of their own serviceable Western apparel, with perhaps some additional inexpensive distinctive equipment supplied by Government.pistol

(3) The arms to consist of 1 revolver Mounted Police pattern or any other serviceable Revolver in their possession. One Winchester carbine or other serviceable Carbine or Rifle in their possession. 1 Cartridge belt with knife attached (M.P. pattern)(A limited deficiency in Arms to be supplied by Government, but the conditions of enlistment to require them furnished by the men.)

NWMP PATTERN 1876 WINCHESTER

ABOVE: Militia and NWMP Issue Carbine, Winchester Model 1876, Cal. .45-75

(4) Blankets 3 per man of N.W.M.P. weight and quality.

(5) Each officer, non-com officer and Trooper to be allowed $.50 per diem for rations. (Camping utensils to be furnished by Government of the description and number required on the Trail.)

(6) The forage per horse to be allowed at the rate of $.50 per day.

(7) The pay for horse to be at the rate of $.75 per day.

(8) Pay of Officers to be that of the respective rank of Canadian Cavalry officer with extra allowance of $.50 or Rations and $.50 or Forage per day.

(9) The pay of non-com officers, viz: - Sergeant-Major, $1.50 - Sergeant, $1.00 and - Corporal $.90

(10) The pay of a Trooper to be that of N.W.M.P. Constable, or $.75 per day. (The total cost of a Trooper, horse, horse appointments, Arms, Equipment, Rations, forage and pay being $2.50 per man and horse per day with the proviso aforesaid that where Arms are totally deficient a draft will be allowed by Government.)

(11) The Government to be responsible for loss or destruction of those appointments during Provisional Service, and for the loss by death or stray of horses when established by Board of Officers to have been accidental and not due to neglect or carelessness, validation to be arrived at by said Board of Officers.

(12) Cavalry regulations to govern the Discipline and drill and the maintenance to be subject to the aforesaid conditions.

(13) If Quartered under Canvas, the prescribed number of tents to be supplied.

(14) The enlistment of Officers, Non-com. Officers and men to be for a period of 30 or 60 days and during which time they will be subject to orders for Active Service for the period named,Ranger and additionally, subject to, and enlisted for if necessary, and received by Government for a further period of 9 months with the proviso that in the event of Active Service during the additional enlistment, the government will furnish necessary uniforms, Arms and General Equipment for the "trail" with transportation.

(15) The Officer in command to be permitted to enlist men of other than British Nationality (i.e. Western men of any class) to the extent of say 40, or one troop, provided he has knowledge of their capacity and faithfulness, and will be responsible for their Conduct and Discipline.

In recruiting the aforesaid Contingent it will be necessary to draw the men for Cavalry work and available for any emergency from Ranchers and their employees, a large number of whom are ex Mounted Police of 1 or 2 terms of service in the West together with Englishmen, Canadians & Montanans who have been living a nomadic life and whose home is in the prairie.

In tendering my services to my Country and Government to command a force of the nature above described and within the said Territory, I do so with full knowledge of the undertaking and with no fear, [ ? ] successful results from my experiences in Cavalry work and of the country in which my duties will be required.

I have the honour to be, J. Stewart."

News of the outbreak of actual hostilities at Duck Lake, the following day, shocked the Government into even greater action, which included the following direction on March 28, 1885, from Minister Caron: "Authority is given to raise four (4) troops of Rocky Mountain Rangers on basis and conditions contained in report submitted by Captain Stewart to me." Mounted

Stewart was in immediate communication by telegram with contacts at home to commence recruitment, and soon departed by train for the Territories. While awaiting the arrival of some supplies in Winnipeg, before proceeding, Stewart received word of his promotion to the rank of Major. In relatively short order three troops of Rocky Mountain Rangers had been enlisted, and were being drilled. There are some indications that recruitment of the "lost" 4th Troop began in Calgary - the earlier newspaper reports in that community referring to formation of a troop of "Mountain Rangers" - but this unit was later incorporated into The Alberta Mounted Rifles, part of General Strange's command: the Alberta Field Force, the westernmost of the three columns which converged on the main area of unrest.

- - - -

TRYING TO TURN COWBOYS INTO CAVALRY TROOPERS:

As might be expected, the rough and ready cowboy volunteers were not particularly inclined towards military thinking or discipline, and a few amusing anecdotes in that regard have survived:

- A MacLeod Gazette article (April 25, 1885) mentions an incident which occurred during drill, when one of the men left the ranks on some personal errand as the Troop passed the town. "Officer in Command: 'Halt! Where are you going?' Trooper: "Aw, you fellers go on; I'll catch up to you before you get far.'"

- John Higinbotham, a druggist in Fort MacLeod, recounted in his published memoirs: "Discipline is quite unknown to them; a Mountie told me that he heard one of them, during drill to-day, call out to his commander [when the officer apparently had to repeat an order to fall in] 'Hold on, Cap, till I cinch my horse!'" drinking

- An article in the December, 1941, issue of Canadian Cattleman contains personal remembrances by a former Ranger identified only as "Old Timer", including the following, perhaps not quite accurate, recollection: "...Charlie Smith was our Lieutenant. Charlie would give the order - 'Mount, Walk, Trot,' then when we got in front of the little log saloon - 'Halt! Everyone dismount and have a drink.' That was all the drill we got."

Troop #3 of the Rangers remained in the Fort MacLeod area as a "Home Guard" unit, while Troops #1 and #2 (the "Active Service Corps") were posted to Medicine Hat, a fledgling settlement (founded in 1883) at the very strategic point where the Canadian Pacific Railway crosses the South Saskatchewan River (which - with its deep valley - constitutes the most significant natural obstacle anywhere on the CPR main line between Winnipeg and the Rocky Mountains), their primary duties being to guard the bridge and settlement, and patrol the main railway line and surrounding area. Some detachments of a few men each were posted at other strategic locations through the intervening territory, charged with protection of the narrow-gauge railway line then under construction to Lethbridge (100 miles west), as well as the telegraph line being built between Medicine Hat and Fort MacLeod. (The telegraph line was completed at the end of May, 1885, and the railway line in August of the same year.)

The "MacLeod Gazette" of May 2, 1885, reported the departure of #1 and #2 Troops for Medicine Hat, with the following description: "The corps is composed of a particularly fine body of men, and as they marched past armed to the teeth with Winchesters, and waist and cross-belts jammed with cartridges, there was but one opinion expressed regarding them, and that was that they would make it extremely unhealthy for several times their number of rebel half-breeds or Indians, should occasion require action."

the cowboy cavalry

ABOVE: This image is derived from a sketch, entitled "The Cowboy Cavalry" drawn by J. D. White, which accompanied an article about the Rocky Mountain Rangers written by the MacLeod druggist J. D. Higinbotham, and published in the summer of 1885 in the Canadian Illustrated War News and Pictorial. White exercised considerable artistic license in his rendering, no doubt heavily affected by Higinbotham's rather florid and overblown verbal imagery, as quoted below. For example, contemporary photographs most commonly show Rangers wearing Shotgun-style chaps without fringe, and hats without the exaggerated sombrero-like brims seen here [refer to the photo at the top of this page, and the original studio portrait of a Ranger shown on my "What The Heck Is A Rattlesnake Jack" page.] The two leading figures are intended to be Major Stewart (left) and Chief Scout John 'Kootenai' Brown, and in fact closely resemble them, although Stewart is known to have worn a serviceable uniform combining a Dominion Militia cavalry field tunic and breeches with western gear such as boots, spurs, cartridge belt, open western-style holster and broad brimmed Stetson.

Higinbotham's description of the unit, included in the above mentioned article and which appears to have so greatly influenced White in his sketch, is as follows:
"Headed by their youthful but intrepid commander, Capt. Stewart, the Rocky Mountain Rangers presented quite a formidable appearance as they left McLeod, amid the loud huzzas of the garrison. Their tanned faces [were] almost hidden beneath the brims of huge Spanish sombreros, strapped on for 'grim death'. Around many of their necks were silk handkerchiefs, which besides being an embellishment, prevented the irritation by their coarse brown duck or 'Montana' broadcloth coats. Over pants of the same material were drawn a pair of chaps (leather overalls). Cross belts pregnant with cartridges, a 'sixshooter', sheath knife, a Winchester slung across the pommel of the saddle and a coiled lariat completed the belligerent outfit. Mounted on 'bronchoes' good for 60 to 100 miles a day, they soon disappeared in the distance, a loud clanking of bits and jingling of their huge Mexican spurs now gave place to the rattling of the transportation wagons."

- - - -

THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN RANGERS IN MEDICINE HAT:

PICTURE: MEDICINE HAT, 1885

(CLICK HERE FOR FULL IMAGE)

ABOVE: Part of Medicine Hat, Dist. of Assiniboia, North West Territories, during the 1885 Rebellion (viewed from the North side of the South Saskatchewan River) the community where #1 & 2 Troops of the Rocky Mountain Rangers were stationed. The river steamer Northcote, with barge in tow, is shown departing for Clarke's Crossing, General Middleton's staging point on the river between Saskatoon and Batoche. [The present-day railway bridge rests on the original stone abutments of the bridge depicted in this drawing, although they were reinforced and re-faced several years ago.] The cantilevered section of the railway bridge next to the far bank was designed to pivot to rest on two timber-cribbing abutments, one of which is shown in front of the other moored vessels, to permit the passage of steamboats upstream. The Halifax Battalion were quartered under canvas on the heights to the southwest (upper right), while the Rocky Mountain Rangers encampment was likely located some distance upstream, to the West.
(Engraving is from the Montreal Witness Rebellion Souvenir Edition, 1885)

PHOTO: MEDICINE HAT, 1880s
1880'S PHOTOGRAPH OF MEDICINE HAT
Alhough the CPR booklet which this image comes from was not published until 1887, the photo was probably the basis for the above 1885 newspaper engraving, judging from such details as the configuration and positioning of the steamboats moored at the riverbank . Indeed, the engraving artist likely was not even present when the Northcote departed, since records indicate the steamer was actually towing two barges.

[VISIT PRESENT-DAY MEDICINE HAT]

Patrol

Following their arrival in Medicine Hat, the Rocky Mountain Rangers were dubbed "The Tough Men" by the local residents. As it turned out, there was no military action anywhere near Medicine Hat, so the "Tough Men" spent their entire period of service engaged in long, mostly uneventful patrol rides, livening up their existence with a lot of drinking and gambling, and further amusing themselves by taking every opportunity to harass the Halifax Provisional Battalion (militia infantry from Nova Scotia who were also stationed at Medicine Hat.) One of the cowboy's favourite "pranks" was riding through the infantry bivouac located on the heights to the southwest of the townsite, collapsing tents and jeering the "feet soldiers". The Eastern fellows were not particularly amused by these rambunctious cowboy antics, however, and relations became so strained between the two units - and with the townsfolk for that matter - that Major Stewart ordered the Ranger encampment moved some distance further upriver. William Tupper (a member of the Halifax Battalion, and son of a later Canadian Prime Minister) wrote in somewhat prissy disgust that "[the Rangers] go through town firing revolvers and swearing like fiends."

This early rivalry eventually became diverted into various sporting activities between the units, including baseball, cricket, target shooting and even a tug-of-war. Except for the latter contest, in which it is perhaps not surprising that foot soldiers would best horsemen, it appears that the Rangers were the victors in all such competitions.

Like most of the voluntary Special Corps formed in the Territories during the Rebellion emergency, The Rocky Mountain Rangers only existed officially for a little more than three months. In mid-June, as things were winding down, Major Stewart communicated by telegram with the Adjutant-General, asking that the Rangers be placed into General Service (i.e. designated as a permanent Militia unit.) In early July, when Troops 1 and 2 were ordered back to MacLeod, he departed for Winnipeg by train, hoping to meet with General Middleton on this point. The Rangers arrived back in MacLeod on July 8 and went into encampment outside the town, awaiting the arrival of their Commanding Officer, who returned a few days later. Major Stewart's hopes were not to be realized, however: on July 17, 1885, the Militia General Orders directed the release from service of all Special Corps organized for the Rebellion, including the Rocky Mountain Rangers. On that date, the Rangers were paid off and officially discharged, learning at that time that their pay had only been approved by the government up to July 10. Their officers undertook to press the case for the seven lost days, but there is no record whether any such efforts met with success.

A FEW MORE RELATED PHOTOGRAPHS ....


Members of 3 Company, Halifax Provisional Battalion, at Medicine Hat.




Officers and Scouts of the Rocky Mountain Rangers, at Medicine Hat.
On the extreme right in this photo (and also "front and center" in the following picture) is John George "Kootenai" Brown (1839-1916), Chief Scout of the RMR. He had a very colourful life, serving in India as an ensign in the British Army and gold prospecting in British Columbia ... during the 1870's he spent several years in the United States as a courier and scout, buffalo hunter and wolfer. He was tried for Murder at Fort Benton, Montana, and returned to Canadian Territory following his acquittal, settling in the extreme southwestern corner of what became the Province of Alberta within the area which became Waterton Lakes National Park in 1911 - he was named its first Superintendant, and served in that capacity for a couple of years.




Members of the Rocky Mountain Rangers and at least one infantryman from the Halifax Provisional Battalion, together with some Medicine Hat residents and a few Natives, enjoying some of the wares of the local brewery (visible in the background.)
"Kootenai" Brown is seated at center in the front.




A Rocky Mountain Ranger patrol




Finally, various members of the North West Mounted Police, Medicine Hat Home Guard (who were absorbed into the Rocky Mountain Rangers after they arrived) and some citizens of Medicine Hat, photographed at the NWMP Post across the river from the townsite - an area still called Police Point, but now well within the city limits, of course.



SALH Badge

ROCKY MOUNTAIN RANGER TIES TO THE PRESENT DAY

The original Rocky Mountain Rangers have no connection with the current infantry regiment bearing the same name, which is headquartered in Kamloops, British Columbia.

The present-day Canadian Armed Forces Reserve Regiment headquartered in Medicine Hat, the South Alberta Light Horse ('SALH', affectionately known as the 'Sally Horse', and currently assigned an Armoured role) is officially considered to be the modern unit perpetuating the Rocky Mountain Rangers. This explains the earliest honour - "North West Canada 1885" - emblazoned (lower centre) along with the many WWI and WWII campaign and battle honours on the SALH Regimental Guidon.

The Regimental Motto of the SALH is Semper Alacer ("Always Swift".) The Motto is represented by that fastest of North American mammals, the Pronghorn Antelope, featured on the Regimental Badge (above.) Medicine Hat is situated at the approximate centre of the Canadian range of the Pronghorn. The prairie origins of the unit are further exemplified by the official Regimental March Past: "A Southerly Wind and a Cloudy Sky".

Thus, Alberta's "Cowboy Cavalry" lives on.

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