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” and as “one of Yukon’s greatest tragedies.”
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.
The following year, under the command of Lawrence Herchmer, Fitzgerald joined the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles 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. When Fitzgerald returned to Halifax after the war, he was given accolades by the local newspapers.
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.
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.
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.
The Lost Patrol
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.
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.
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.”