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 steele.library.ualberta.ca.

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 msgates@northwestel.net

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