History Hunter: New biography reveals Sam Steele’s role in Canadian history

The book is about more than his Klondike exploits.

A new book, Sam Steele: A Biography, can now be found in retail outlets in the Yukon. Written by Rod Macleod, professor emeritus of History and Classics at the University of Alberta, it is an account of one of Canada’s most iconic figures, and certainly one of the key figures during the Klondike gold rush. Sam Steele was on the scene during the height of the gold rush from 1898 to 1899.

Steele wrote his autobiography, and others have written about him, but here we have a complete picture of the man known as “The Lion of the North.” The book is about more than his Klondike exploits.

What makes this account unique is that author Macleod fills his narrative with passages from Steele’s diaries and letters to his wife, Elizabeth, and other documents from the Steele family papers. These letters and papers, which have only recently become accessible to the public, provide greater insight to Steele’s innermost thoughts.

I have personally seen the contents of the extensive correspondence between Sam and Elizabeth now housed at the University of Alberta. The importance of the Steele Papers to understanding the man and his time in the Klondike have yet to be fully revealed.

Sam Steele’s career spans a crucial period of the nation in its infancy. In 1870, he was a member of the Red River Expedition to quell the Red River Rebellion. He was one of the first to join the newly formed North West Mounted Police in 1873. Three years later, he arranged the negotiations for Treaties number Six and Seven. When the railroad was being constructed, he was there to maintain law and order.

In 1885, Steele commanded a scouting contingent during the Riel Rebellion. Two years after that, he was dispatched to southeast British Columbia to defuse an explosive situation that had developed there. Subsequently, he commanded Fort Macleod, the largest Mounted Police Post outside of headquarters, for ten years.

In 1898, he was assigned to the Yukon in charge of the Mounted Police force overseeing the Klondike gold rush and patrolling the trails and waterways to Dawson City and the goldfields. Following his meritorious service in northern Canada, he was sent to South Africa as second in command of the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles, to fight in the Boer War.

When Canada entered the First World War in 1914, Steele served overseas as a major–general, and was given a knighthood in January, 1918. In all – a very distinguished career in the service of the young country of Canada. Yet despite his accomplishments, Steele seemed disappointed by missed opportunities and frustrated ambitions throughout his career.

Of interest to Yukon readers would be the section of the book that details his time in the Yukon, which amounts to 28 pages of text. Steele was at first dispatched to take control of the passes into the Yukon, Bennett, Tagish Post, and the rapids at Whitehorse. Later he was redeployed to Dawson City where he maintained a brutal work schedule while the gold rush was at its peak.

Many times, Steele made up the rules as he went along, rules that were pragmatic and undoubtedly saved many lives, and maintained order, while at the same time, giving the stampede its unique character. When he left the Yukon in the late summer of 1899, he was given a hero’s send-off by the citizens of Dawson.

The Sam Steele papers were held by his descendants, until they came up for sale a few years ago. Antiquarian book dealer Cameron Treleaven of Calgary brought them to the attention of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, who, in a very short time raised the $1.8 million necessary to purchase the collection and bring it back to Canada in 2008.

In addition to uniforms, medals and other military paraphernalia belonging to Sam Steele, the collection contains “thousands of pages of his letters, manuscript memoirs, pocket-diaries, journals, notebooks staff diaries, standing order books, official reports, scrapbooks, printed papers and photographs that document his career as a militiaman, Mounted Policeman and soldier.”

Readers can, if they are interested, check the collection out online, where a sampling of documents have been posted at https://steele.library.ualberta.ca/explore. One document that piqued my interest is a handwritten undercover report, detailing the shifty criminal element in Dawson, and their professions, often identifying them as former members of Soapy Smith’s gang as well.

I have had the privilege, on two occasions, of visiting the Peel Library at U of A and examining the papers that relate specifically to the time that Steele spent in the Yukon. Steele’s handwriting is a challenge to read. I spent the better part of a day, with the help of two library staff, deciphering his scrawl to transcribe the content of a single letter that Steele had written to his wife, Marie Elizabeth.

But it was worth it. These letters provide remarkable new insights into the man. Steele was obviously devoted to his wife during his long sojourn in the Yukon, embellishing his letters with such overstated salutations as “My sweet pet, my dearest, my darling true tender and faithful wife…”

Steele revealed many of his innermost thoughts to his wife, comments which have appeared nowhere else. For example, September 12, 1898: “I am disappointed at the latter (Commissioner Walsh). Her Majesty’s representative and staff in a dance hall box or theatre with common prostitutes…”

This book is a detailed treatment of the entire life of Sam Steele, informed and enhanced by new information held within the Steele collection. The breadth of Steele’s accomplishments encompass the opening of the west and north as Canada grew into nationhood after confederation.

There is much to explore, and much more to be written about this remarkable man and his contribution to the origins of the Yukon Territory, and more broadly to Canada as a whole. There is certainly enough material at U of A to write a book about Steele’s time in the Klondike gold rush.

Sam Steele: A Biography is 407 pages in length, with nearly 40 pages of endnotes (for those who want to pursue his history further), as well as a lengthy bibliography and a detailed index. Included are 25 photos, mostly of Steele in uniform at various stages of his career. Five maps help to place Steele in context during his various exploits. The map of the Yukon has an insert showing Dawson City. It places the courthouse in the wrong location for the period when Steele was in Dawson City, but that is a minor oversight in this well-informed biography.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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