The Popular Hero
The Mountie in Fact and Fiction
James M. Walsh in "western style" garb, before 1884
In the early 1890s, Mounted Police appeared in fiction for the first time. People outside the Prairies were treated to the romantic image of the red-coated Mountie, ensuring the peaceful settlement of the West. As early as 1893, novelist Gilbert Parker, in The Patrol of the Cypress Hills, described the NWMP's exploits in terms that would soon become standard fare in popular novels. In 1897, the Jubilee year, the Mounted Police appeared for the first time in England's Boy's Own Paper.
Transcription of a letter from the Vitagraph Company, an early motion picture firm, requesting information on Mounted Police uniforms, March 6, 1916
Fact mirrored fiction. From a ragged force of 300 in 1874, the NWMP had grown in stature and respectability over its 30 years. As immigrants poured into the Prairies, cities sprang up where only buffalo had roamed a few years before. The Gold Rush was a wild and raucous affair, but its excesses were tempered by the NWMP's presence. By the first years of the 20th century, the NWMP had pushed their own frontiers to the Far North, to the mouth of the Mackenzie River and Hershel Island, and to Hudson's Bay.
As the West had been transformed since the 1870s, so too had the Mounted Police. The transformation was unplanned. It simply happened, and it happened because of the 4,200 men who served in its ranks, some for months, some for decades. A few were well known, most others were anonymous to history.
George B. Moffatt, served 1876-1903, commissioned 1883
Collectively, the men of the NWMP helped forge the image of the Mounted Police that is with us today. As Margaret Atwood aptly observed, Canada is the only country with a police force as a national symbol. The men of the NWMP made it possible.
If the Mounted Police enjoyed the accolades and applause of the London crowds in June 1897, it was only because their reputation had been carefully moulded over the course of some 25 years by hundreds of individuals who left home for the rigours of life on the Prairies. By 1904, the NWMP were identified with prairie society and were almost synonymous with the Yukon. They had secured their place in history and in the popular imagination in Canada, the United States and the British Isles. By their pursuit of law and order on the Prairies and in the Yukon, they now served as an image for Canada and an essential ingredient in our Canadian identity.