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The Lost Patrol 2: Police patrol turns to tragedy in the Arctic

The search for a missing Royal North-West Mounted Police patrol uncovers shocking scenes

In December 1910, Royal North-West Mounted Police Inspector Francis J. Fitzgerald (41) and three other men — former RNWMP Constable Sam Carter (41) and serving Constables Richard Taylor (28) and George Kinney (27) — left Fort McPherson, N.W.T. via dog sled for the annual 475-mile trek to Dawson City, Yukon. Only five days into the estimated 30-day trip they were already lost; Carter had missed a vital cutoff. Esau George, a local First Nations man, guided them until Jan. 1, when he was dismissed, and the patrol continued.

READ MORE: The Lost Patrol 1: In 1910, a routine police patrol in the Arctic goes wrong

On Feb. 20, 1911, Esau George and his party arrived in Dawson City, where Superintendent Snyder, in charge of the detachment there, interviewed them. The patrol had been due in Dawson a month earlier, and when he heard that they were already lost on Dec. 26, when they had met and hired George, Snyder immediately sought authorization to send out a search party, which did not arrive for a week due to troubles with the telegraph line that meant the request had to be re-routed. When authorization finally did arrive, it was Corporal William Dempster — who had been stationed in the north since 1898 and had previously made the Dawson City to Fort McPherson run — and a team of three other men who were sent out to find what had become of Fitzgerald’s patrol.

They left Dawson City on Feb. 28, 1911, and on March 12 found the first confirmed traces of Fitzgerald’s party. As they continued, Dempster found evidence of camps quite close together, and correctly deduced that Fitzgerald had turned back for Fort McPherson, and that they were seeing camps from both legs of the trip.

Worryingly, however, they also found many indications that the patrol was in dire shape. At various points they came across equipment that had been jettisoned, dog harnesses, and dog bones that had evidently been cooked and had the flesh cut off them. In a cabin on the Peel River they found Fitzgerald’s dispatch bag and the mail bags; 30 pounds of official documents that the patrol had continued to carry almost until the end.

On March 21, some 20 miles from the cabin, Dempster found an abandoned toboggan with all the rawhide lashings cut from it, and two dog harnesses. He saw a blue handkerchief fluttering from a tree, and upon investigating found a small, open camp nearby. A kettle over a long-dead fire was half-full of moose hide that appeared to have been boiled in water to create a kind of stew.

Also in the camp were the bodies of Constables Kinney and Taylor. The group had probably reached the spot on Feb. 10 or 11, based on their location in Fitzgerald’s last diary entry, which had been dated Feb. 5, and if one or both of the men had been strong enough to try to cook something, they could have lived for several days.

One of the two axes had been left with them, along with all four of the sleeping bags. Kinney was lying on his back with his hands crossed on his chest, likely indicating that he died first, of natural causes, and Taylor had positioned his hands. Taylor himself was lying huddled on the ground, having shot himself in the head with the group’s only weapon, a .30-30 carbine, at some point after his companion’s death.

Dempster reckoned that Fitzgerald and Carter had left the sleeping bags with the two younger men to give them a greater chance of survival and then made a desperate dash for Fort McPherson, less than 40 miles away. He continued along the trail, and on March 22, about 25 miles from the fort, saw that the trail veered towards a bank. Dempster and his party climbed it, and found the bodies of Fitzgerald and Carter.

The guide had clearly died first; a report noted that Carter’s body “was lying about 10 feet from Inspector Fitzgerald, and had evidently been dragged and laid out immediately after death, as both hands had been crossed on the breast and the face covered with a handkerchief. Inspector Fitzgerald was lying where a fire had been, and was stiffened to the contour of the ground the right hand lying on the breast.”

Fitzgerald’s diary had been left with Kinney and Taylor, where it was later found, and there has been speculation that, afraid Carter might survive him and destroy evidence of his mistakes, Fitzgerald had taken pains to ensure that the record of the disastrous trip would survive. When Fitzgerald’s body was searched, a piece of paper was found, with words scrawled on it using a piece of charred wood. It read “All money in Despatch Bag and Bank, clothes etc I leave to my dearly beloved Mother Mrs. John Fitzgerald Halifax. God Bless all. F.J. Fitzgerald R.N.W.M.P.”

The bodies were taken to Fort McPherson, where they were examined. All four men were severely underweight, in extremely poor condition, and must have been in excruciating pain. Their clothing was torn and badly scorched by fire, presumably from their attempts to dry it out. That the two older men outlived the younger ones has been attributed to their greater experience in the north and their ability to pace themselves accordingly.

The Rev. C.E. Whittaker, who knew Fitzgerald well, supplied 250 feet of lumber for coffins, and a single large grave was dug in the cemetery of the Church of England mission in Fort McPherson. A special service was held on Sunday, March 26, and on March 28 the four men were buried with full military honours, including a salute fired by an honour guard.

On March 30, Dempster set out for Dawson City with the grim news of the fate of the Fitzgerald party. Despite poor conditions, he arrived in Dawson on April 17, having made the 475-mile trip in just 19 days; the fastest RNWMP patrol on the route to that date.

Fitzgerald’s mother was the first to hear definite news of what had happened, but the story soon spread, and shocked the world. It coincided with word from Ottawa on April 18 that all four men from what has come to be known as the Lost Patrol had been selected to join a complement of Mounties who were scheduled to attend the coronation of King George V in England that summer.

In hindsight, it is easy to see what Fitzgerald should or could have done to prevent disaster, but he and his men did not have the benefit of hindsight. They could have hired a First Nations guide, or kept Esau George on to guide them to Dawson City. They should have taken more, and more suitable, food provisions (although nutritional science was in its infancy in 1910). They should not have spent so much time fruitlessly searching for the cutoff at Forrest Creek, and turned back sooner. They should not have put their faith in Carter, who had only done the route once, four years earlier, and from the other direction.

But they were also dealt a cruel hand by Fate. Apart from George and his party, they did not run across any other groups of First Nations people who could have helped them. The weather was unseasonably cold and snowy, which meant that there was no game to be had. They had no reliable map, because none was available. The trail had not been adequately blazed or marked, and there were few places along it where they could stay or shelter without having to laboriously make a camp, or few caches of food that they could depend on.

Dempster himself attributed the failure of the patrol to a combination of factors, and was instrumental in ensuring that such a disaster could not happen again.The following year he established a supply cache at a cabin along the route; another cabin was later built to act as a shelter and a cache, and more food caches were put in place. First Nations guides became mandatory on all future patrols.

During the patrol of 1911/12, which was led by Dempster, one of the group’s tasks was blazing the Dawson City-Fort McPherson trail in any areas where the correct route could be missed. The Forrest Creek trail, which the Fitzgerald patrol had tragically missed, was marked with a lobstick or lopstick: two spruce trees were stripped so that they were bare apart from the top branches and two protruding lower down.

Dempster once again led the patrol in 1912/13, and was in charge of the last four patrols along the route. The final one took place in the winter of 1920/21, and when it was over Dempster had led more RNWMP patrols than any other person and had set speed records going both ways: during the 1920 patrol he made the return trip to Dawson City in 14 days. He rose to the rank of Inspector before retiring in 1934, and died in October 1964 at the age of 88.

Even though the Dempster Highway from Dawson City to Inuvik was still some years from completion in 1964, Dempster was told shortly before his death that it would be named in his honour. It is a fitting tribute to a man who was hailed as “the best trail man in the Yukon” that the highway traversing part of the old RNWMP dog sled route with which he was so familiar, and the scene of a tragedy in which he played a key role, is named after him.

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