Staff Constable James Mitchell

 

 

Despite the fact that James Mitchell only served three years in the Force, he made a notable contribution.

After leaving the Force, he distinguished himself in Winnipeg by designing and coordinating the construction of many schools.

With the arrival of World War I, he volunteered his services and again distinguished himself.

 

 

Early Years

James Bertram Mitchell was born at Gananocque, Ontario on October 14, 1852.  He was the son of George Mitchell and Jane Brown. James was educated at the Gananocque High School.  At the age of 14, he joined the Gananocque Artillery (Canadian Militia Unit) as a Bugler and eventually rose to the rank of Corporal by 1870.

While in the Canadian Militia, he served in the Fenian Raid conflict of 1866 and as a Corporal in the second Fenian Raid (1870) conflict at Cornwall, Ontario.  For his service in both of these actions, James received the Canada General Service Medal with the “Fenian Raid 1866” and “Fenian Raid 1870” clasps.  The following is an illustration of this medal.

In 1870, he was described as a “promising young Corporal” and was sent to “A” Battery at the Royal School of Gunnery, Kingston Ontario to complete a course that would qualify him in the duties of a Sergeant Major.

It was at the Royal School of Gunnery that he drew the attention and approval of Commandant Colonel George A. French – who would later become the first Commissioner of the Force.

Apparently, Colonel French commented that James Mitchell was “a keen, well-setup youth who possessed good material for the military.”

After completing the training at the Royal School of Gunnery, he returned home and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major in his home Artillery Regiment.  Shortly thereafter, James Mitchell attended three years at the Art Institute of Montreal to study architecture.  It seemed that he had a passion to develop functional buildings which also were attractive to the eye.

 

  Joins The Force

At the age of 21 on April 1, 1874, James Mitchell enlisted in the North-West Mounted Police at Kingston, Ontario.  He was one of many men who sought the sense of adventure in the North West Territories.

On March 21, 1874, “a very violent thunder, rain and wind storm, which leveled tents, about 250 horses stampeded.  Six men, one seriously, were injured in an attempt to stop them.  About sixty men – one of the earliest away being Sub-Inspector Walker – went after them and most of them were recovered some from as far as 36 miles south of the boundary.[1]  Sam Steele and James Mitchell were also members of this sixty men group who chased after the frightened horses.

At Fort Dufferin, it was event to many that James Mitchell had good carpentry skills which the Force would need later in the construction of many NWMP Posts.  After two month of being in the Force, he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major.

March West

As the Force commenced the famous ‘March West’ on July 8, 1874, James Mitchell was assigned to “E” Troop which was under the command of Inspector James Morrow Walsh and two supporting officers: Sub-Inspectors James Walker and John ‘Jack’ French (brother of George French – Commissioner).  As they marched westward, “E” Troop rode all grey horses.

After completing the March West on September 29, 1874, the Commissioner ordered the members of “D” and “E” Troops to commence their return march of more than 800 miles to Fort Pelly.

Once back at Fort Pelly, “E” Troop were ordered to commence cutting and harvesting hay to be used for their horses over the winter of 1874/1875. With hay harvested, James Mitchell was then tasked to coordinate the construction of the buildings at the Swan River Barracks.

Many years later, James Mitchell recalled the case of “an Indian who had undergone a one-month’s sentence at Swan River barracks for his wife beating.  Clothed in one of six part-coloured convict suits that had been brought from Toronto, the prisoner was employed cleaning away stones from the rock-strewn parade-ground.  Came time for his release and he anxiously asked if he had to give up the prison barb.  Receiving an affirmative answer he complied with evident reluctance but promised to be back soon. Instead of deterring crime, as had been intended, the harlequin suits rather engendered it, for they appealed to the Indian’s love of colour, and as a result of this incident were discarded.”[1]

Details about the conditions of Swan River Barracks is summarized on the Library Archives of Canada’s website (http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/Police/eng_html/4.2_historyofmajor_pelly.html).

Commissioner French was appalled when he arrived at the Swan River Barracks near Fort Pelly in late October. The government had decided that headquarters should be established at Swan River instead of Fort Ellice and the change in plans meant that construction did not start until September. When the force arrived, the buildings were only partially finished. The Commissioner left a small detachment under Inspector Carvell, and pushed onward with the rest of the men.

Not only were the buildings inadequate, the detachment was sited on a wind-swept hill covered in huge boulders. Some of the men were assigned to breaking the rocks and clearing a space for buildings and parade ground while others were sent off to find and cut hay for the horses and oxen. The men spent a cold winter with snow blowing into the buildings through large cracks between the green logs. Most of the horses and oxen died from their efforts of the previous summer and the poor winter feed. When spring returned, the men found that their post had been established on a hibernaculum – snakes, awoken from their winter hibernation, were everywhere!

The men had arrived at the new barracks with their uniforms in tatters and dressed in whatever clothing they could purchase along the way. Fred Bagley summed up the new uniform: “The uniform of Trumpeter Fred A. Bagley, of the North West Mounted Police Force consists, at the present time of rough red shirt, moleskin trousers (barndoor), brogan shoes, and long stockings, topped off by a disreputable helmet, all miles too big for him. The glory has departed.

The glory had departed even further by the following summer when Commissioner French returned to inspect the men. “July 7, 1875 – General parade of “E” Troop for inspection by Colonel French. The Troop, for this important parade, donned their best ‘Undress’ which consisted largely of deerskin jackets and trousers, all profusely fringed; large fox fur caps with the tails hanging down the backs of the men wearing them, with here and there throughout the ranks a remnant of scarlet showing.

“Colonel French rides to the parade ground, and accosts one who appears to be the chief bandit, and indicating the ‘E” Troop ragamuffins, enquires: ‘What is this, Captain Carvell?’, and is answered with: ‘My troop, Sir, paraded for inspection by you as per orders.’

One fierce look, and a hasty ‘Good God’ from the Colonel, and then turning about and spurring his thoroughbred mare he is off like a shot.

Swan Barracks remained headquarters until 1876. In spite of being on the proposed railway and telegraph route, the post was too distant from the rest of the posts and the core of the action.”

During his time with the Force, Mitchell signed as witness with Governor Morris’ Treaty with the Wood and Plain Cree Indians at Fort Carleton and Fort Pitt on 23 August and 9 September 1876.

Advances In Life

On November 15, 1876, he returned from leave and discharged from the Force on May 30, 1877 as his term had expired.

In the spring (1887) Sgt-Major J.B. Mitchell who had reached Fort Wash with “E” Troop from Swan River the previous autumn, too his discharge, journeyed to Fort Benton, travelled down the Missouri and eventually reached Gananoque, Ontario, intending to enter his father’s business.  But his intentions were unexpectedly delayed. No sooner had he reached his home town than word came to him that Frederick White, chief clerk in the Mounted Police Department, wanted to see him in the capital on business.  The ‘business’ was a request to return to the Force.  Intrigued by  the unusual offer, Mitchell went to Ottawa to ask for more details, and when White told him these could not be divulged unless he, Mitchell, was prepared to act, the trustworthy sergeant-major promised that unless an agreement was reached, the matter would be entirely forgotten as far as he was concerned.

White decided to talk.

‘You know, sergeant-major,’ he said, ‘that Sitting Bull is now on Canadian soil.  The Canadian Government does not want him there, neither does the United States Government, and the Mounted Police want him away – so do the Canadian Indians.  Thus far he and his tribe show every indication of remaining in Canada, and this is the important fact which I now wish to place before you.  The Mounted Police have very little ammunition and could not put up a fight of any kind until supplied.  The question which is worrying us is how are we to supply them.  Under ordinary conditions it could not be sent through the United States, and to transport it over the plains by ox train would take several months.  Doubtless, having recently arrived from Fort Walsh, you are aware that every day counts.  We have communicated with the United States Government; they fortunately, are as anxious as we are that every precaution should be taken to meet adequately any possible outbreak of Indian hostility in the border country.’

It had been arranged that seven carloads would be shipped from Sarnia by rail to Bismarck in North Dakota and that en route an additional carload sent south from Winnipeg would be picked up at Brainerd, Minnesota.  From Bismarck a river steamer would carry the entire shipment up the Missouri River to Fort Benton.

Explaining this procedure, White added: ‘There is one very important proviso – a thoroughly responsible person will have to accompany this shipment from Sarnia to Fort Benton, in order that there shall be no interference and that the U.S. authorities may be notified immediately of any mishap that might occur on the way.  Will you take charge of this shipment?[2]

James Mitchell accepted the assignment and proceeded to coordinate and supervise the shipment of ammunition.  Several logistical issues arose but Mitchell endeavoured to have all the ammunition shipped to Fort Walsh as soon as possible.

Having passed through Winnipeg during his time with the NWMP, Mitchell decided to settle there.  In 1888, he was elected to the Winnipeg School Board and in 1892 was appointed the Architect and Commissioner of School Buildings and Supplies. Working with School Superintendent Daniel McIntyre, Mitchell designed and coordinated the  construction 48 Winnipeg schools.  These schools were recognized as being the safest built schools in North America.

He served as president of the Canadian Club of Winnipeg from 1908 to 1909.

In 1912, James Mitchell became a Lieutenant Colonel in command of the 100th Winnipeg Grenadiers.

At the outbreak of World War I, he commanded this Battalion.  When the Battalion went overseas, it was absorbed into the 26th Battalion (Nova Scotia) and saw action at St. Etoi and Vimy Ridge.  James Mitchell was mentioned many times in dispatches for his service.

In addition to his World War I medals, James Mitchell also received the Long Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada as well as the insignia of Commander of the Order of St. Johns of Jerusalem.

By 1945, James Mitchell was the last surviving member of the NWMP members who participated in the March West.  On November 14, 1945, he passed away in Winnipeg at the age of 93.

In recognition for his dedicated service to Canada and the progressive buildings he designed, the Winnipeg School District in 1956 dedicated a new Junior High School in his name – “J.B. Mitchell School.”

A photograph of this school is illustrated below:

[1] RCMP Quarterly (Volume 41, Number 4)– “They Opened The Way For The Peaceful Development of Canada’s Broad Plain” (page 26)

[2] Turner, John Peter – “The North-West Mounted Police Volume 1” – Ottawa: King’s Printer (Pages 334-335)



[1] MacLeod, J.E.A. “Mounted Police Beginnings” – Ottawa: RCMP Quarterly (Volume 3, Number 1 – July 1935) (page 15)

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