Vet of the Month: August 2009
A Memorial dedicated to
Scout, Guide And Translator, NWMP Jerry Potts
by J. J. (Buffalo Joe) Healy
At birth time circa 1873, policies to hire or engage men into the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) were simple and clear. On paper, the ideal recruit should be of good character, physically fit, able to ride a horse and able to read and speak either French or English.
As time went on, Officers in the field employed wide latitude and flexibility to hire. Book rules were sometimes overlooked if a man displayed special talents such as; fighting skills, horse breaking, a fluency of Indian languages, tracking skills, intelligence gathering or an expertise in guiding strangers over the prairies.
A through background check for recruits was not pressing or necessary. In fact, most times a man did not want his past secrets to come to light. A man felt that the past was the past. Our August Vet of the Month does not fit the usual mold as he had a questionably past and he could not read or write. That aside, Jerry Potts is known as being one of the most colourful characters of the NWMP. Jerry Potts quickly became a friend and a valued asset to the Force.
Strangers to the west included the NWMP but they quickly recognized the unusual skills of Jerry Potts. He was a tough character and he possessed survival outdoor skills which were sought by the NWMP.
History places Jerry Potts somewhere between being a dangerous and unpredictable person and a valuable employee to the police. He was born in 1840 and folklore has it that he killed a man at age twenty-two. About 1874, Potts caught the favourable attention of Commissioner French who set the usual employment rules aside and hired him as a Guide at the rank of Special Constable.
It is known that Jerry Potts was born at Fort McKenzie, Montana, USA. It’s widely accepted that his mother belonged to the Piegan tribe and it’s known with more certainty that his father was Scottish. It’s believed that Jerry Potts was married to two women and that his pedigree included a large family of sons and daughters.
Prior to joining the NWMP, Potts had carved out a career by selling horses and he had gained sufficient wealth. Although he was illiterate, he was considered an insightful businessman with a large inventory of horses ready for sale especially if a profit was to be made.
Jerry Potts had trained himself to be an expert marksman and he possessed an uncanny ability to win with knife fighting. It is known that in addition to his pistols and a very visible rifle, Potts also carried other guns and knives which were hidden under folds of his clothes.
Jerry Potts had one foot in the white man’s world and the other foot in Indian land. The story is told that he was mystified at some of the cultural habits of the NWMP. On one occasion, Potts asked why the white man would equip his living place with a chamber pot. “Why,” he asked a Mountie, “ would anyone [pee] in a perfectly good eating bowl when the entire prairie lay before him”? He could speak several languages and was fluent in English, Blackfoot and Cree.
In his book ‘Policing the Plains’, author R.G. MacBeth, provides a detailed description of Jerry Potts. MacBeth tells us: “…Jerry Potts, [was] a short, heavy-set, taciturn man, half Scot and half Piegan, a wonderful plainsman, skilled in the language of the Indian tribes and a past-master in all the lore of the prairies” (p.54).
Jerry Potts was employed by the NWMP as a trainer of scouts, a diplomat with the Indians, and an expert interpreter. As well, he possessed other valuable skills which made him an asset to the NWMP. MacBeth states: “He [Potts] began to be useful as soon as he took service with the Force in that fall of 1874. He guided them [NWMP] to be best feeding places for the horses and cattle, and to the watering places which were so constantly needed” (p.54). In short, Jerry Potts was a man fit for the early times and harsh conditions of the NWMP.
Jerry Potts may have committed some serious transgressions in his past, but he was recognized as an expert outdoorsman which was the principal reason for his engagement into the Force. Hence, his appreciative contributions to the NWMP. Special Constable Potts served the NWMP for 22 years.
He died at Fort MacLeod, Alberta on July 14, 1896 and he is buried in the Police Cemetery at Fort MacLeod.RIP
Reporting from the Fort,
J. J. (Buffalo Joe) Healy
On line. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (Jerry Potts)
MacBeth, R.G. (no year of publication). Policing the Plains. (Being the Real-Life Record of the Famous North-West Mounted Police). Hodder and Stoughton Ltd. London.