Academic journal article Alberta History

Thomas Wellington Chalmers: Mountie, Surveyor, Soldier

Academic journal article Alberta History

Thomas Wellington Chalmers: Mountie, Surveyor, Soldier

Article excerpt


Early in the last century, feminist and author Emily Murphy was dining with Edmonton's Mayor, William A. Griesbach, when the conversation turned to his experiences in the Boer War and to the exploits of an ex-Mountie with whom he'd served. Suddenly she realized this man's memorial tablet was opposite to where she sat in All Saint's Anglican Church, and this was the man, Captain Chalmers, about whom she'd been "weaving romances" during the reading of the first and second lessons. It was hard to sustain her romantic illusions when she discovered that Chalmers bore the nickname "Scissors' due to his long, thin legs, and that he was a reticent person who didn't shine as 'a good fellow' during his time in the Mounted Police. However, she also learned that in South Africa he turned out to be "the most efficient officer of them all." And she leaves the reader to weave some romance of their own by her tantalizing final revelation:

   And once Old Scissors had a serious love-affair--No,
   on second thoughts, I'll not
   tell. (1)

Captain Chalmers' full name was Thomas Wellington Chalmers and, in addition to being an officer in the North-West Mounted Police and serving in the Boer War, he was the surveyor who laid out one of the most controversial sections of the Klondike Trail north of Edmonton.

Born in 1862 in Adolphustown, Canada West, Chalmers may have been destined for a military career from the time he was given the middle name of 'Wellington' presumably in honour of the very English hero of the Battle of Waterloo. Thomas' father 'Captain' James Chalmers, earned his living sailing on Lake Ontario. However, he also purchased land so by the time Thomas was five years old, his father had acquired 20 acres of land immediately adjacent to the small village settlement. By 1871 he had become a fulltime farmer, owning 180 acres on the first concession, fronting on the Bay of Quinte. (2)

After completing high school, Thomas entered the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston in 1880-the 99th 'gentleman cadet' to enter the institution since its formation. (3) The RMC, modelled along the lines of West Point, provided education in engineering and general scientific knowledge, in addition to military tactics. So when Thomas graduated at the age of twenty-one, in June 1883, he had a 1st class certificate, as well as both military and civil engineering credentials. (4) He had also formed friendships within his relatively small group of classmates, perhaps most particularly with Gilbert Sanders, with whom his path was to intersect significantly in the future.

Following his military training, Thomas became a lieutenant in No 4 Battery, Montreal Garrison Artillery, (5) but as this was a voluntary militia group, he also had to find gainful civilian employment. During his first year after graduation he did some work for the Dominion Lands Survey in the North-West Territories but a more exciting opportunity presented itself when he became a cowboy for retired Major-General Thomas Bland Strange on his 70,000 acre Military Colonization Ranche east of Calgary. (6)

In 1885 he was still on Strange's ranch when the North-West Rebellion broke out. Chalmers hastily left the ranch and headed east to join his militia unit and use his military training. Ironically, he might have seen more action by remaining with Strange, who organized forces in Alberta that engaged the Cree at Frenchman's Butte. As it was, it's doubtful that Chalmers saw any action because the Montreal Garrison Artillery didn't receive orders to proceed to the North-West until after General ED. Middleton wired for help from Batoche on May 11. Riel had already surrendered by the time they arrived in the West on May 20. There they were faced with the tedious task of garrisoning Regina, where their leader Col. W.R. Oswald wrote that ".. a number of us feel that this loafing is not what we came for. …

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