He took part in most noteworthy events in Canadian history from Confederation to 1918, but he won his most lasting fame as the top cop in the Yukon during the tumultuous days of the Klondike Gold Rush. Legend claims that Superintendent Steele of the North-West Mounted Police never even drew his pistol during that time. He stared down armed men and they surrendered.
That's the way it happens in the 1993 Canadian Heritage Minute, where a recalcitrant American swindler draws twin pistols on Steele and gets sent packing, minus his gambling gear. Steele's Enfield revolver never leaves its holster. "I could'a shot that guy right there," he says, shaking his head, as a constable escorts him to the border. Yeah, bucko, but ya didn't. Ya didn't dare.
Sir Samuel Benfield Steele, Major General, Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George, Companion of the Order of the Bath, Member of the Royal Victorian Order, Veteran of multiple wars and conflicts, one of the original officers of the Mounties, hero of the Klondike Gold Rush, Canadian legend.
History goes something like this:
He first drew breath in 1849 in Purbrook, now incorporated into Bracebridge, Ontario. Both parents came from military families. His father served in the British Navy and his grandfather, in the Napoleonic Wars. Sam Steele, orphaned by thirteen, first joined the military in 1866 during the first Fenian Raids. He attended the Royal Military College of Canada for officer training; the Fenian threat had passed by the time he graduated.
He saw service out west during the Red River Rebellion, though the force to which he was attached arrived after the surrender. He had long been fascinated by the west and the western Native cultures. He elected to remain as part of a garrison at Fort Gerry, and only later returned to Ontario, spending the next part of his service at Fort Henry in Kingston.
In 1873, he was sworn into the newly-formed North-west Mounted Police, later the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, as a Sergeant-Major. The trek west and the west itself presented obstacles above and beyond their legal duties. They faced difficult terrain, inclement weather, mosquitoes, and, at least once in Steele's experience, a plague of locusts.
Steele established NWMP outposts in Galbraiths Ferry, British Columbia (now Fort Steele), and Fort MacLeod, Alberta. Gradually, word of the Mounties' exploits began to spread, at home and abroad, and Sam Steele's name became known. He arrested the Cree war chief, Wandering Spirit, for an attack on other Cree. He enforced order on the railway line that was spreading across the west. He had to face occasionally gun-happy illegal whiskey traders who operated out of places like Fort Whoop-up and Dead Man's Lake.
In the winter of 1883-1884, he arrested one Jesse Williams, a suspect in a murder, and then stood down and dispersed the lynch mob who came for the accused killer. Williams would later be executed by hanging, but only after a trial established his guilt. The following year, while suffering for the second time from Rocky Mountain Fever, he quelled violence associated with a strike by railway workers. During this period Steele also met with Sitting Bull, whose Sioux had fled to Canada after the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and the celebrated Siksika chief, Crowfoot.
Sent in 1885 to assist with ending the North-west Rebellion, the Mounties arrived after the decisive Battle of Batoche and so went on to defeat the Cree forces under Big Bear. In 1887 he and several other Mounties went to Kootenay, British Columbia, where they negotiated several disputes between white settlers and Native peoples. Steele convinced Chief Kutenai Isadore of the Ktunaxa nation to turn over two Ktunaxa accused of murder, and then quickly dismissed the charges due to the lack of evidence.
In 1890 Steele married Marie-Elizabeth de Lotbinière-Harwood. During their honeymoon trip, they stopped in New York City. The New York Police and Fire Departments, much to the couple's surprise, welcomed them with a parade. Steele's greatest fame was ahead of him, but the press had already made him a hero. The couple later had three children, one of whom became a writer and contributed to the lore surrounding his father.
Appointed to keep order during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s, Steele and the Mounties entered legend. Parliament had debated disbanding the force. The Gold Rush made them world famous, as emblematic of Canada as the beaver or the maple leaf. The popular perception of Steele likely would be little different if his story had ended in Dawson City. As Superintendent of the NWMP (and, in quick order, magistrate and territory official), Steele had broad powers, and he used them. He refused to permit entrance at checkpoints if people did not have adequate provisions. He ordered all boats be registered, so that, should anyone die or go missing, the police would know who they were and whom they should contact. Some lawbreakers were charged stiff fines, which then went to support Dawson City's underfunded hospitals. More serious offenders received "blue tickets," which gave them the choice of leaving the territory or facing months in prison. He put prisoners to work, mostly cutting wood. Gambling dens could operate, but they paid high licensing fees that supported municipal services and they were closed if they engaged in dishonest practices. Prostitutes were ignored, so long as they restricted their trade to certain recognized areas. Commerce of all kinds ceased on Sundays. By 1898, Steele could report that "the crime sheets of the Yukon Territory would compare favourably with those of any part of the British Empire."
Sam Steele survives in popular culture mainly as a legend of the Gold Rush.1 His son, Harwood Steele, published Spirit-of-Iron in 1923. Its iconic Mountie hero goes by the name Hector Adair, but many readers conflated him with Steele.2 He appears by name in James A. Michener's historic novel, Alaska (1988). In 1994 he made his first appearance in a videogame, an historical adventure called Yukon Trail. In 1995, Disney commissioned a Steele/Scrooge McDuck team-up from Don Rosa, "The Heart of the Yukon."3 The Canadian historical crime drama, Murdoch Mysteries had its titular detective work with Steele in a 2012 episode, "Murdoch of the Klondike." (Both the Scrooge comic and the Murdoch episode feature another celebrated figure from those times, Jack London). Depictions generally trade on Steele's reputation for clean living and indomitable toughness. Rosa's comic has scores of thugs clear out at the mere mention of Steele's name. When he falls in mud, his uniform remains clean and the brass buttons, polished and sparkling.
With the passing the Gold Rush, Steele became commander of the light infantry division, Lord Strathcona's Horse, which fought in the Boer War. Steele received numerous decorations for his service in Africa. including the Royal Victorian Order. However, it is in Africa that his reputation becomes somewhat tarnished, at least in retrospect. After the war ended, Steele and his troops became part of the effort to pacify the Boers, hunt down remaining combatants, and restore order. Although he denied illegal trials and executions, some obviously took place, and may have taken place under Steele's watch. In order to win support from the Boers, his troops provided public services and lobbied to restore the Boers' weapons to them. These policies bought him some favour with the Afrikaners; they didn't work out so well for the indigenous Africans.
During World War I, that military initially denied his request to serve on the grounds of age. They later allowed him to command the second division until the arrived in Europe, whereupon he assumed administrative duties. For a time, he was one of two commanders of Canadian troops, a position he lost when he refused to assist with recruitment. He received many of his British honours, including his knighthood, in 1918. Even those larger than life eventually encounter a stronger enemy. Count Sam Steele among the numerous victims of the 1918 Flu Pandemic. He died January 30, 1919.4
Although he once protested Fort Mcleod's name change in his honour, the now-restored Fort Steele has become a tourist attraction that features Steele memorabilia. Even Canadians can want traditional heroes. I grant, we need to consider how his actions must be contextualized by his times. He acted for a government whose views and aims we may no longer share-- and which some people never did. Those worthy considerations notwithstanding, a writer would be hard-pressed to forge a better example of an old-time Canadian hero than a Mountie named Steele.
For ReQuest 2018
1. His fame may have influenced another hero's name. The protagonist of L. Frank Baum's 1906 novel, Sam Steele's Adventures on Land and Sea is an entirely different adventurer, but it seems likely Baum would have known Steele by reputation.
2. Steele's own memoirs were published posthumously as Forty years in Canada: reminiscences of the great north-west with some account of his service in South Africa. Ed. M. G. Niblett. Toronto and London, 1915.
3. The fourth story involving the younger Scrooge's Yukon adventures, it later reappeared in The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck Companion.
4. Marie-Elizabeth survived into her 90s, and died in 1951.
R.C. Macleod. "Sam Steele." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. January 22, 2008. Last edited March 4, 2015. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sam-steele/.
Holly Quan, Sam Steele: The Wild West Adventures of Canada's Most Famous Mountie. Canmore, Alberta: Altitude, 2003.
"Sam Steele." Canadian Heritage Moments. September 13, 1993.
"Steele, Sir Samuel Benfield." The Dictionary of Canadian Biography. University of Toronto, 1998. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/steele_samuel_benfield_14E.html.
Robert Stewart. Sam Steele: The Lion of the Frontier. Toronto: Doubleday, 1979.