So as you can see, the site has gone through a bit of a transformation since last we spoke. Yesterday I was fiddling around with a couple of things and, as has often been the case, the next thing you know I went and made a complete overhaul of it – new template, new everything. Why the change? Truth be told, I don’t really know. Late Spring cleaning, I guess.
The subject of this week’s post is one I ought to have put forward a while ago now, when it was a bit more timely – but better late than never, as they say. It’s a story that began about four years ago now, when the RCMP Veterans’ Association embarked on a hunt to locate the final resting place of one of its own, #3501 Cst. James Henry Blackett of Souris East, which had been lost to time. After searching high and low through newspapers and archival records, an unmarked grave in nearby St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery was eventually located, and almost three weeks ago, a dedication ceremony was held during which a grave marker was unveiled in his honour. Truly a feel-good story in a world that grows more chaotic each day.
For those not familiar, today’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) was originally established by royal assent in 1873 as the North West Mounted Police (NWMP), thanks to a bill introduced by no less a figure than Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald himself. Concerned about the Canadian government’s interest in the Northwest Territories (at that time a vast area encompassing much of the country’s landmass) it had been recommended to him the year before that what was needed was a professional force of armed men to maintain order in the region, encourage settlement, and protect the construction of the Intercolonial Railway as it made its way to the Pacific.
Details of Cst. Blackett’s early years (and frankly his life in general) are hard to pin down. For all intents and purposes, he was born around 1867/68, although depending on the source you look at, he could have been born as much as ten years earlier. One of a sizeable brood of brothers and sisters, his parents were John Blackett (c.1827-189?), a farmer, and Charlotte DeCoste (c.1829-190?), of French extraction. Theirs was a mixed marriage (Protestant and Catholic), which must have caused a bit of a stir back in the day (in some parts, it still does).
Coming from a large family, life could probably get a bit frustrating at times, and certainly crowded. No doubt the desire to break free was a strong one, and if Cst. Blackett was looking for an out, he found it, along with thirty-two other Islanders, when the NWMP’s recruitment drive came to town in March 1900. On the 20th, he signed on in Charlottetown for a standard five-year term, and in short order found himself on a train bound for Regina and the rigours of training. Barely clearing the minimum height (5’8) and weight (175 lbs.) requirements, we learn from Cst. Blackett’s initial medical examination conducted on April 5 that he was of fair complexion, with brown hair and blue eyes, and possessed of both good intelligence and muscular development. We also learn that he was a carpenter by trade, a skill set that would eventually net him a per diem pay increase of 15 cents for services rendered in that capacity in addition to his other duties.
Though the records are a bit scant, it all seems to have been going as well as could be expected for Cst. Blackett until a bit of a hiccup one night in late August. On the evening of the 24th, he was attending a ball in Prince Albert where, according to a number of witnesses, he became “the worse of liquor”. Placed under arrest for drunkenness, he was removed to his barracks. In his defence, he claimed that he had indeed taken “a drink or two” – not enough to be drunk – but felt that he had been “acting and speaking correctly”. The evidence, unfortunately, was stacked against him, and he was slapped with a sizeable $10 fine and an additional punishment written illegibly in his records. (Alcohol abuse was not uncommon in the early years of the force).
Though he’d agreed to five years of service with the NWMP, Cst. Blackett was relieved of his duties in March 1901, a year and a day after his enlistment. His records show that he had suffered a series of ailments throughout the summer of 1900 (unrelated to the alcohol incident), some of which continued into 1901, and for that reason was deemed physically unfit by a medical board and invalided out of service. It’s hard to say how he would have felt about that. Perhaps he was happy to be sent home – for some, life in the NWMP didn’t jive with their expectations. Or perhaps it was a blow to his pride that haunted him the rest of his days.
So what of our protagonist following his premature discharge? According to his records, Cst. Blackett intended to return to the Souris area, and indeed we find him on the federal census of that year resident in Lot 45 (Kings County), along with his mother Charlotte, now aged 71. Still a relatively young man, two years later he married an even younger Jessie Alice Shields (1886-1931), and together they had at least three children: Alonzo Francis, Evelyn Marion, and William. He applied to the renamed RCMP for an old age pension in 1933, a request that appears to have been granted, although it is unlikely that he was able to benefit from it. On November 26 that same year he passed away, and as we now know was buried two days later in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery. And whether or not there was at the time a grave marker erected in his memory, one can be seen standing proudly now.
Because the Mounties always get their man.
PEI History Guy
P.S. – Apologies for the late hour of the post. I’ll try to get it up a bit earlier next week.