Inspector 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’.

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.

Fort Walsh in 1878 looking to the south west - towards Montana.

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 Blackfoot Indians.

In 1878 Sub Inspector Dickens was transferred to Fort Walsh where he overlapped with Sitting Bull. In November 1879 NWMP Constable Graburn was murdered while attending to horses near Fort Walsh and this led to increased tensions in the area

In June 1880 Dickens was promoted to the rank of Inspector and was transferred from Fort Walsh to 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.

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.

Inspector F. J. Dickens and the men of the NWMP on parade at Fort Pitt, 1884.

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.

On November 2, 1885 eight Metis 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.

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.