‘There are strange things done in the midnight sun
“By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Laberge
I cremated Sam McGee.
Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee….” Or was he?
The infamous McGee from Robert Service lore was not really from Tennessee.
In fact, the real McGee never set foot in Tennessee. He was from Peterborough, Ontario (which doesn’t even rhyme with Tennessee.)
Nor was he cremated on the marge of Lake Laberge. He died in Calgary in 1940 at the age of 70.
And, sorry to disappoint, but he loved the North and didn’t mind the cold one bit.
McGee came to the Yukon in 1898, like many others, to seek his fortune on the Klondike creeks but he never did strike it rich on the goldfields.
McGee was an entrepreneur, a construction foreman and a roadhouse operator.
Soon after settling in Whitehorse, he met Robert Service, who was working at the bank where McGee did his business.
As the story goes, Service liked the sound of McGee’s name, and so he asked if he could use it in a poem.
McGee consented and took Service on a rafting trip through the White Horse Rapids that was so wild it put Service off water journeys for the rest of his life.
“I told him he had cremated me once, and that now I was going to plant him in a watery grave,” McGee told the Daily Star in 1934. “We got through the rapids alright, but Service promised me he would not abuse Sam McGee anymore.”
While living in the Yukon in 1899, McGee built a log cabin in downtown Whitehorse.
The cabin was donated to the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire and moved to a lot across from the Old Log Church Museum.
In 1954, it was given to the Yukon Historical Society, the same organization that started the MacBride Museum of Yukon History, and was moved onto the museum’s lot.
More than 100 years later, that cabin is a little worse for wear, but it still stands and is a big visitor attraction. The museum runs programs twice a day entitled Sam McGee Fact or Fiction, in which one of the staff dons a moustache, vest a bowler cap and tells Sam’s tale.
The story of the Cremation of Sam McGee was most likely pulled from a newspaper article that appeared in the Daily Alaskan in 1899.
It was called A Stiff Story, and was about a man from Iowa who went prospecting in the Klondike and froze to death.
His friends returned the body to his home for burial, but the corpse was so misshapen they had to “bake” him to fit him inside a coffin.
“In the course of half an hour, one of his friends opened the oven door, when lo, and behold!” according to the story. “The corpse arose slightly from its reclining position, and shivering perceptively, remarked petulantly: ‘Shut that door, I think I feel a draught.’”
Though poor health caused McGee and his family to move south in 1909, he returned to North numerous times afterwards.
During one visit after Service’s poem had become popular, while McGee was returning south from the Yukon, he ran into a man who was selling an urn of ashes he claimed to be from Sam McGee’s cremation.
“He just chuckled,” McGee’s daughter told the Rural Times in 1995. “He didn’t even try to set them straight.”
This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.