Sam Steele: the man behind the “Lion of the North”

In the pantheon of gold rush luminaries, Sam Steele stands tall and imposing: an incorruptible man of unquestioned integrity, who ruled with an iron hand, but one wearing a velvet glove.

In the pantheon of gold rush luminaries, Sam Steele stands tall and imposing: an incorruptible man of unquestioned integrity, who ruled with an iron hand, but one wearing a velvet glove.

Steele improvised as each situation required. He posted men at the passes to ensure that prospectors brought with them a year’s supply of provisions. He imposed the rule that each stampeder would be registered, and that each jury-rigged boat was numbered and tracked. He imposed a strict Lord’s Day rule in Dawson and ensured that the gun play and chicanery that was so frequent on the American side did not happen in Canada.

But behind the stereotypical man-of-steel persona was a real human being, whose character and foibles are now coming to light. The personal papers of Sam Steele were returned to Canada, and are housed in the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

I had the opportunity to visit the library last week to look at the collection personally. In the three days available to me, I got a glimpse of the man behind the legend. It was not easy: the Steele collection is massive, and the finding aid for the collection is detailed enough to be a large book in its own right. Further, not everything that is in the collection is listed, as I discovered once I arrived there.

Before I left for Edmonton, I had the opportunity to speak with Carolyn Morgan, conservator at the library, who revealed that there were photographs with Yukon content that had not yet been catalogued. I decided to look at those first. What I discovered was an assemblage of hundreds of photographs, many taken by H.J. Woodside that revealed scenes of the Yukon, including the many Mounted Police posts that were established during the gold rush. There were street scenes in Dawson depicting many events from the event-filled gold rush town, as well as images of Fortymile and the MacMillan River.

Many Dawson City buildings were captured by Woodside’s lens, including one of the first fire engine brought in to combat the frequent conflagrations that plagued the town in the early days. There were photographs of the First Nation settlement at Fortymile, and a couple of snapshots of the reindeer expedition that arrived 15 months too late to aid the starving miners of the Klondike. In the context of Steele’s life, these are rather small details, but for someone whose historical interests lay within the Yukon, they are well worth examining.

Even more interesting were Steele’s diaries covering the year and a half he was in the Yukon, and the letters he exchanged with his wife, Marie. They are not easy reading. Steele wrote with a strong slanted scrawl. The letters are ill-formed. Was that a v or an r? The letters m and n are nothing but a squiggle. The sentences are run-on without punctuation or capitalization; the words often linked as though Steele was so busy, that he did not have the time to lift the pen from paper between the words.

In one passage from a letter he wrote to his wife, I felt that it was critical that every word be transcribed accurately. I struggled over the meaning of two key words for half an hour before I called in reinforcements. It took me, Morgan and student assistant Paul Gifford another 20 minutes to come up with the correct translation of his script.

Fortunately, a previous researcher had transcribed Steele’s diaries for the gold rush period. Even these were plagued by Steele’s scrawl. The sternwheel boat the Nora became the “Nova.” Steele did not cross the t’s in Duff Pattullo’s name, so they look like “Pallullo.” With familiarity of the history of the era, an astute researcher should be able to decipher these translations accurately. But there is no Rosetta Stone to make decoding the Steele handwriting easier.

The effort is well worth it though. The diaries are filled with notes and references to people, places and events that have the immediacy of a participant-observer. In one entry, I note that Steele identifies railway worker Jesse Murphy as the man who shot and killed Soapy Smith. This note supports the opinion (an accurate one, I believe) of scholar Catharine Spude and others that Frank Reid was not the man who did the deed.

In his diaries, you can chart his daily routine in Dawson. It included holding court (he once heard 90 cases in one day), visiting the hospitals and the jail, attending council meetings, reading or preparing reports, and meeting countless individuals. Steele was a fitness bug: he walked or ran for up to an hour every day, despite his busy schedule. He was a teetotaller, and notes his efforts to quit smoking. He reports in his letters to his wife that he is dropping excess weight as a result.

His letters to his wife reveal his devotion to her and his children, whom he misses greatly during his 18 month separation. Always starting with “my own darling wife,” or most enamoured of all, “my darling true tender and faithful wife,” they reveal his attachment to his family. He writes to her about financial matters and describes the scenery and the events as he experiences them.

He also expresses personal observations not found in any official documents about the men with whom he worked. He regards Commissioner William Ogilvie as a straight shooter, but his remarks about Ogilvie’s predecessor, James Walsh are not so complimentary. “I am disappointed at the latter [Walsh],” he writes disapprovingly on March 6, 1899. “Her Majesty’s representative and staff in a dance hall box or theatre box with common prostitutes….”

The papers hold the immediate and personal thoughts and experiences of one of the most important characters from the gold rush and provide an insider’s view of the events not captured in any of his published writings.

Some of his papers have been digitized and can be viewed online. If you are interested, you can view the diaries and letters by going to the website

The library’s webiste has more than 1,100 documents covering his long and distinguished career. It’s a great place to start the journey.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Children’s performer Claire Ness poses for a photo for the upcoming annual Pivot Festival. “Claire Ness Morning” will be a kid-friendly performance streamed on the morning of Jan. 30. (Photo courtesy Erik Pinkerton Photography)
Pivot Festival provides ‘delight and light’ to a pandemic January

The festival runs Jan. 20 to 30 with virtual and physically distant events

The Boulevard of Hope was launched by the Yukon T1D Support Network and will be lit up throughout January. It is aimed at raising awareness about Yukoners living with Type 1 diabetes. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Boulevard of Hope sheds light on Type 1 diabetes

Organizers hope to make it an annual event

City of Whitehorse city council meeting in Whitehorse on Oct. 5, 2020. An updated council procedures bylaw was proposed at Whitehorse city council’s Jan. 18 meeting that would see a few changes to council meetings and how council handles certain matters like civil emergencies. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Whitehorse procedures bylaw comes forward

New measures proposed for how council could deal with emergencies

A Yukon survey querying transportation between communities has already seen hundreds of participants and is the latest review highlighting the territory’s gap in accessibility. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Multiple reports, survey decry lack of transportation between Yukon communities

A Community Travel survey is the latest in a slew of initiatives pointing to poor accessibility

Mobile vaccine team Team Balto practises vaccine clinic set-up and teardown at Vanier Catholic Secondary School. Mobile vaccine teams are heading out this week to the communities in order to begin Moderna vaccinations. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Mobile vaccine teams begin community vaccinations

“It’s an all-of-government approach”

A file photo of grizzly bear along the highway outside Dawson City. Yukon conservation officers euthanized a grizzly bear Jan. 15 that was originally sighted near Braeburn. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon News file)
Male grizzly euthanized near Braeburn

Yukon conservation officers have euthanized a grizzly bear that was originally sighted… Continue reading

Mayor Dan Curtis listens to a councillor on the phone during a city council meeting in Whitehorse on April 14, 2020. Curtis announced Jan. 14 that he intends to seek nomination to be the Yukon Liberal candidate for Whitehorse Centre in the 2021 territorial election. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Whitehorse mayor seeking nomination for territorial election

Whitehorse mayor Dan Curtis is preparing for a run in the upcoming… Continue reading

Gerard Redinger was charged under the <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> with failing to self-isolate and failing to transit through the Yukon in under 24 hours. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Man ticketed $1,150 at Wolf Creek campground for failing to self-isolate

Gerard Redinger signed a 24-hour transit declaration, ticketed 13 days later

Yukon Energy, Solvest Inc. and Chu Níikwän Development Corporation are calling on the city for a meeting to look at possibilities for separate tax rates or incentives for renewable energy projects. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Tax changes sought for Whitehorse energy projects

Delegates call for separate property tax category for renewable energy projects

Yukon University has added seven members to its board of governors in recent months. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
New members named to Yukon U’s board of governors

Required number of board members now up to 17

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Your Northern regulatory adventure awaits!

“Your Northern adventure awaits!” blared the headline on a recent YESAB assessment… Continue reading

Yukoner Shirley Chua-Tan is taking on the role of vice-chair of the social inclusion working group with the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences’ oversight panel and working groups for the autism assessment. (Submitted)
Canadian Academy of Health Sciences names Yukoner to panel

Shirley Chua-Tan is well-known for a number of roles she plays in… Continue reading

Most Read