Cst. George Hamilton JOHNSTON – May 23, 1882

  1. Reg. # 345, Cst. George Hamilton JOHNSTON

May 23, 1882, Fort Walsh, NWT               Age:  22 years

Was born June 7, 1860 at Billings Gate, Ont. (Now Ottawa / Napean) where family home still stands.  He was brought up in a strong Presbyterian household.  Cst. JOHNSTON and a friend of his, Marmaduke GRABURN applied for the NWMP on April 3, 1879 in Ottawa.  They left Ottawa on June 9, 1879 and arrived Fort Walsh on July 4.  Training for JOHNSTON began immediately, and consisted of foot and mounted drill, rudimentary law and statute awareness and orientation to the surrounding terrain.  Both JOHNSTON and GRABURN were soon tending one of the several ‘horse camps’ located about 16 kms north-west of Fort Walsh.  This particular horse camp was notorious for its poor relations with the Blood Indians who had been suspected of utilising the land that the horse camp intersected, as an escape route for horse-stealing sorties.

On November 17, while JOHNSTON remained on guard at the camp, GRABURN set out with several horses for their daily exercise.  When GRABURN returned to the camp, he discovered that he had left his lariat and axe some 10 kms back at he rest area and, though already exhausted, he set off to retrieve them, hoping to be back before nightfall.  Unfortunately; JOHNSTON was never to see his friend alive again.  When no signs of GRABURN was noted as darkness fell thick over the prairie sky, a search party that included JOHNSON and the famed scout Jerry POTTS was organised.  Cst. GRABURN’s body was soon found near the rest area, at the bottom of a brush-filled narrow ravine.  He had been shot in the back.  The investigation into Marmaduke GRABURN’s murder culminated nearly two years later in May of 1881.

The Mounties heard Star Child was in the Blackfoot camp in southwestern Alberta.  Corporals PATTERSON and WILSON, two constables, a guide and interpreter headed onto the Blood Reserve to arrest him.  “The manner in which the arrest was effected reflects much credit on the tact and unquestionable firmness displayed by the non-commissioned officers and constables detailed for this duty.”  Despite making a confession, Star Child was acquitted by the six-man jury, the rumour being that the jurors feared reprisals if a guilty verdict was rendered.  Commissioner IRVINE reported, “Star Child was acquitted Oct. 18, 1881 at Fort Macleod, in “a fair and impartial trial such as is afforded to the humblest of Her Majesty’s subjects in every portion of the realm.”

The loss of his friend with whom he had shared dreams of adventure took its toll on Johnston during the years that followed.  Nevertheless, he endured as best he could the loss and also the poor conditions of Fort Walsh, taking solace in hard work.  For several reasons, it was difficult for any member of the Force to remain disciplined; political neglect from Ottawa concerning the morale of the Force resulted in a constable’s pay being reduced from $0.75 to $0.40 per day; food rations were tightened and consisted of a drab routine of beef, bread and tea three times a day; uniforms were worn out at a remarkably fast rate due to the extreme temperature and terrain, and so on.

By May 1882, JOHNSTON had long overcome his brief restless period and was rapidly gaining in seniority within the ranks.  This was partly helped by the fact that, due to the appalling conditions, many other members did not renew their contracts after five years of service with the Force.  Nevertheless, new recruits were plentiful and were arriving steadily.  Sentry posting outside the Fort was a common initial duty assignment.

Shortly after his arrival in May 1882, Constable Gadfry CASSAULT, regimental #517, completed his first ‘beat’ on the night sentry duty at 5:00 am on May 23, having relieved JOHNSTON earlier.  CASSAULT was making his way to the barracks where JOHNSTON would be about to awake for the 5:30 am morning parade.  On this particular morning, CASSAULT was experiencing difficulty in extracting the three cartridges from the carbine of his Winchester rifle.  Taking the rifle with him to the guard room in the morning darkness, CASSAULT asked the sergeant of the guard for help, but was advised to wait until light to determine the problem.  As the morning light made its creeping appearance into the barracks, JOHNSTON and CASSAULT went about the routine of preparing for inspection.  While Cst. Arthur DORIAN was cleaning his boots and JOHNSTON was washing at one of the basins, CASSAULT felt that there was now enough light to re-examine his rifle in an attempt to remove the cartridges.  He could see that the cartridges had been loaded off-centre and were jammed in the breech.  Taking his hunting knife from his kit box, he attempted to rectify the problem and was immediately partially successful as the first two cartridges popped out at once.  The third cartridge; however, proved to be slightly stickier, so CASSAULT dug the knife further into the breech.  JOHNSTON, who was now drying his hands turned from the wash table, walked towards his bed and was little more than two feet from CASSAULT when the report fo the rifle exploded, startling the entire Fort.  Cst. DORIAN saw a blinding flash as JOHNSTON’s hand reached for his heart; blood spouted through his fingers as he unleashed an agonising cry of pain.  Gravely wounded, JOHNSTON fell between CASSAULT’s and DORIAN’s beds.  Sergeants Major LAKE and ABBOT, who had been preparing the parade square, rushed to the barracks to find DORIAN struggling to drag

JOHNSTON – still alive – out of the barracks to the hospital, while CASSAULT stood frozen.

Surgeon George A. KENNEDY, awakened by the report of the rifle, was on the scene in seconds.  A brief examination of the injury beneath JOHNSTON’s shirt told KENNEDY that the wound was fatal.  He ordered the men to take JOHNSTON back to the barracks, and upon being laid on his bed, the 22 year old JOHNSTON let out one last gasp and died.  The whole incident lasted no more than two minutes.

The next day, George JOHNSTON was buried in the Force’s cemetery on a hill overlooking the gates to Fort Walsh.  His epitaph read simply: “In memory of GH JOHNSTON, NWMP, accidentally shot and killed, at Fort Walsh, NWT, 23 MAY 1882, aged 22 years’.  From his resting place, JOHNSTON was only a stone’s throw from the grave of his friend GRABURN, neither of whom had lived to see fulfilment of the dream that brought them West.

Cst. JOHNSTON’s legacy, like that of Cst. GRABURN, is to imbue us with a sense of the dreams of adventure that attracted him to the Force, along with an admiration for his dedication to duty despite the hardships he endured.  For such duty, he and many of his colleagues gave their lives.  The present members of the RCMP and other police forces throughout the world are proud of the tradition of excellence set by their dead comrades and continuously strive to serve and protect enthusiastically and effectively………..

Cst. JOHNSTON’s niece, Christina RITCHIE (nee JOHNSTON), first cousin to Georgina JOHNSTON, married Gibson RITCHIE, whose grandsons Gibson GLAVIN (Reg. # 38752) and James GLAVIN (Reg. # 39`831) are currently members of the RCMP.

(See photo attached) Could be homestead…

293 SW 19 13 2 W3 Part Section Township Range Meridian

  1. Reference:

Liber: 751

Folio: 476

File reel number: C-6538

Names: George Johnston