There wasn’t a better man for policing the Klondike Gold Rush than Sam Steele.
The towns of Skagway and Dyea, Alaska, were uncontrolled and lawless during the height of the gold rush.
In Skagway, Steele noted, robbery and murder were everyday events and gunshots were exchanged on the streets in broad daylight. In one instance, bullets passed through the thin walls of the cabin that he and inspector Wood (also of the North West Mounted Police) used for a short time while in Skagway. So common was the event that they didn’t bother to rise from their beds.
On the Canadian side of the border, where the Mounties had a firm hand, things were different.
People packed away their guns and attended to the business of hauling a thousand pounds of gear over the Chilkoot Trail and on to the Klondike.
Under the watchful eye of Sam Steele, the Mounties guarded the passes, collected customs duty, handled the mail and attended to the health and well being of the thousands of stampeders on their way to Dawson City.
When circumstances demanded, they made rules without seeking guidance from Ottawa.
In order to prevent the loss of life in Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids, the incorruptible Steele issued an order that required that an experienced pilot guide the boats through the boiling waters and huge waves. As a consequence, many lives were saved.
No one was murdered in Dawson City at the peak of the gold hysteria in the winter of 1898. The goldfields were a model of order and civility; the heinous crime of chopping wood on the Lord’s Day earned the guilty party time on the government woodpile, and Steele had a lot to do with it. For the 18 months he served in the Yukon, Sam Steele worked 18 hours a day making sure that everything ran smoothly.
When Steele was transferred from the Yukon, the whole town came out to bid him farewell.
His contributions to the policing of the gold rush would have been enough to earn him a place in Canada’s history books, but it seems he was determined to leave his mark in every chapter. As a young man, he continued the family tradition of serving in the military when he joined the militia during the Fenian Raids in 1866 and participated in the Red River Expedition in 1870, travelling to Manitoba to fight the Red River Rebellion.
In 1873, then an instructor in the Canadian Permanent Artillery, he joined the newly formed North West Mounted Police in the rank of Sergeant-Major, and a year later began the “Long March” west to control the whiskey trade and keep order on the prairies.
Steele earned a reputation as a harsh disciplinarian and stern dispenser of justice.
He was seconded from his mounted police duties to the rank of major in the Alberta Field Force where he played a significant role in suppressing the Riel Rebellion.
By 1885, Steele held the rank of superintendent in the North West Mounted Police, and established a post at Galbraith’s Ferry, British Columbia, which was later re-named Fort Steele. Then he moved on to Fort MacLeod where, in 1889, he met, courted and married Marie Harwood, who was from a Quebec family with influential political connections.
After his posting in the Yukon, he was immediately invited to command a cavalry unit, Lord Strathcona’s Horse, to fight in the Boer War in South Africa. For his heroic service in this campaign, he was decorated by King Edward VII, made a Commander of the Bath and a Member of the Victorian Order.
He had become a national hero back in Canada, but before returning home, he helped organize the newly formed South African Constabulary.
He retired from the North West Mounted Police in 1903, but remained busy with military and community activities. At the outbreak of the First World War, he was appointed Major-General in command of the Second Canadian Division and embarked for England with 25,000 troops.
He was knighted January 1, 1918; a year later, while still in England, at the age of 70, Steele fell victim to influenza and died.
For his achievements, in 1928 he was recognized by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada as being nationally significant. A plaque recognizing this fact is now mounted on the Sir Sam Steele Memorial Building, near his birthplace, in Orillia, Ontario.
The fifth highest peak in Canada, located in the southwest Yukon is named in his honour.
At this point, the story seems complete.
Steele has been dead for nearly ninety years, so there couldn’t be more to tell; recently however, events have transpired that will reopen the book on Sam Steele.
In June, in a traffic-stopping ceremony in Trafalgar Square in London, England, Prince Edward, the youngest son of Queen Elizabeth, symbolically handed over the personal papers of Sir Sam, which had been purchased for nearly $2 million, to the University of Alberta.
Apparently, the family had been sitting on this collection of papers for years.
The family was very protective of his reputation, particularly his son, Harwood.
According to University of Alberta historian Rod Macleod, the collection reveals Steele, warts and all.
“I think that this will just make him a more human and interesting figure,” said Macleod in a June interview.
The collection contains a wealth of information that will allow the rewriting of Steele’s, as well as Canada’s, history.
In addition to uniforms, medals and other military paraphernalia, the collection includes “manuscript memoirs, pocket-diaries, journals, notebooks, staff diaries, standing order books, official reports, scrapbooks, printed papers and photographs that record his career as a militiaman, Mounted Policeman and soldier.”
Perhaps the most interesting of all will be the extensive correspondence between Steele and his wife, Marie, which continued almost daily during their lengthy separations.
I visited the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library at the University of Alberta in Edmonton two weeks ago, and spoke to Mary Flynn, the archivist organizing the Sam Steele collection. Recently, she’s been reading the correspondence between Steele and his wife. When I asked what they wrote about, she smiled enigmatically, but wouldn’t give up the goods.
I got the impression that she is really enjoying her work, though.
In addition to these documents, the collection also contains extensive correspondence between Steele and many other individuals prominent in Canadian history, as well as the papers and publications of long-time friend Captain Henry Roger Pocock.
The work on the Steele papers continues, and I am told that they won’t be available for viewing by the public for at least another year.
According to the website, “efforts are ongoing to raise additional funds for processing, digitization and the creation of an internet presence to provide barrier-free, public access to these resources.”
I can hardly wait!
If you are interested in learning more about this collection, go to: “http://www.library.ualberta.ca/mediaroom” http://www.library.ualberta.ca/mediaroom