Francis Joseph Fitzgerald

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Francis Joseph Fitzgerald
FrancisJFitzgeraldNorthWestMountedPolice1905.jpg
Francis Joseph Fitzgerald
Born 12 April 1869
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Died on or about 14 Feb. 1911
beside the Peel River south of Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories
Nationality Canadian
Known for Royal Northwest Mounted Police

Francis Joseph Fitzgerald was a Nova Scotian who became a celebrated Boer War veteran and the first commander of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police detachment at Herschel Island in the Western Arctic (1903). From December 1910 until February 1911, he led a mail patrol from Fort McPherson southward to Dawson City. When the patrol did not arrive in time, a search party led by Inspector William John Duncan Dempster, was sent from Dawson City and found the bodies of Fitzgerald and the other patrol members. The trip became known as "The Lost Patrol" [1] and as "one of Yukon’s greatest tragedies."[2]

Early life[edit]

Fitzgerald served with the militia in Halifax until the age of 19 and then enlisted as a constable in the North-West Mounted Police on 19 November 1888. He spent the next nine years in the Maple Creek District, Saskatchewan. At age 28, under the command of Inspector John Douglas Moodie, Fitzgerald was the first to chart an overland route from Edmonton to Fort Selkirk, Yukon via northern British Columbia and the Pelly River (1897). The voyage took eleven months, having covered about 1,000 miles (1 600 km). As a result of this achievement, Fitzgerald was promoted corporal in 1899.[3]

Boer War[edit]

The following year, under the command of Lawrence Herchmer, Fitzgerald joined the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles[4] to fight in the Second Boer War. The mounted rifles participated in a number of major drives that resulted in the destruction of at least twenty percent of the Boer forces in the western Transvaal, most of these being captured. It was not all one-sided, however. On 31 March the unit fought as part of an outnumbered British force at the Battle of Harts River, or Boschbult.[5] When Fitzgerald returned to Halifax after the war, he was given accolades by the local newspapers.[6]

As a result of his service, he came to the attention of Commissioner Aylesworth Bowen Perry in Regina, and he was raised to sergeant after his return to Canada. He went to England in 1902 with the NWMP contingent for the coronation of Edward VII.[7]

Herschel Island[edit]

In the summer of 1903 Fitzgerald and a constable were sent to Herschel Island in the western Arctic to establish a police post, where he stayed for six years. His only links with the outside world were the whaling ships that visited occasionally, police whaleboats from Fort McPherson in the Mackenzie delta, and a police patrol by dog sled from that post. Relieved in the summer of 1909, he went to Regina, but in July 1910 he returned to Fort McPherson.[8]

While at Herschel, Fitzgerald had a daughter with an Inuit woman Lena Oonalina (1909). Shortly after, he was promoted to inspector on 1 December 1909. As the first officer posted to Herschel Island, Fitzgerald paved the way for his successors by diminishing the alcohol trade and keeping the peace.[9]

The Lost Patrol[edit]

In late 1910 Fitzgerald was selected for the contingent to be sent to George V’s coronation. To get him out of the north in time, it was decided that he would head the annual patrol that winter from Fort McPherson to Dawson, a distance of some 470 miles (750 km). Given the competitive spirit within the police, Fitzgerald undoubtedly saw this trip as an opportunity to break the time record set by an earlier patrol. He therefore decided to lighten the load on his sleds by reducing food and equipment, confident that the quantities normally taken would not be needed.[10]

On 21 Dec. 1910 Fitzgerald left Fort McPherson with three other constables. From the outset, the patrol was slowed by heavy snow and temperatures as low as −62°. They were unable to find the route across the Richardson Mountains. Nine days were wasted searching for it. With supplies dwindling, Fitzgerald reluctantly had to admit defeat and return to Fort McPherson. The patrol now faced a desperate struggle. As food ran out, they began eating their dogs. In the last entry in his diary, on 5 February, Fitzgerald recorded that five were left and the men were so weak they could travel only a short distance. Within a few days all four died, three from starvation and exposure, including Fitzgerald, and one by suicide. Their emaciated bodies were found in March a few miles from the safety of Fort McPherson, where they were buried.[11]

On Fitzgerald's body was his will, scratched on paper with a piece of charcoal; it read: "All money in dispatch bag and bank, clothes, etc., I leave to my dearly beloved mother, Mrs. John Fitzgerald, Halifax. God bless all."[12]

Legacy[edit]

When the four failed to return to Dawson, a search party led by Dempster set out to find the missing patrol. On 21 March, Dempster found the bodies and, as a result of the successful search, Dempster became a celebrated hero. Today’s Dempster Highway winds northward through the land of the Lost Patrol where at Kilometre 118 there is a monument to the winter patrols.

All four men were buried at Fort McPherson on 28 March 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.

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. Subsequent 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.[13]

Fitzgerald was memorialized in the Halifax Public Gardens, which named a bridge in his honour.

In 1905, Fitzgerald had met at Fort Resolution with a patrol led by Dr. George Pearson Bell. On this occasion, he gave Dr. Bell a collection of artifacts. Among them were "Eskimo Items" which he had most likely acquired at Herschel Island. In 1975, Dr. Bell's widow sold them to the Canadian Museum of Civilization.[14]

Author Dick North wrote a book about Fitzgerald entitled The Lost Patrol (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books, 1978, reprinted 1990, 1995). (See Dick North Interview re: The Lost Patrol)

In 2010, the RCMP in the Yukon conducted a parade marching to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Lost Patrol in Dawson City. On 21 December, members of the RCMP and the community of Fort McPherson held a memorial service to remember the Lost Patrol on the 100th anniversary of their tragic trip in Fort McPherson's St. Matthew's Anglican Church, next to where they are buried.[15]

See also[edit]

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