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Feminist and family man: Book shines new light on legendary Mountie Sam Steele

He's the very image of a sober, stern and incorruptible Mountie on the frontier— and according to his biographer, the legendary Sam Steele was the real deal.

Author Rod Macleod had unprecedented access to massive archive of Steele's papers

Sam Steele of the North-West Mounted Police, in Dawson City, Yukon, 1898. 'He was loyal, he was extremely hard-working, he was a patriot, he did his job,' says Rod Macleod, author of a new biography of Steele. (Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta)

He's the very image of a sober, stern and incorruptible Mountie on the frontier— and according to his biographer, the legendary Sam Steele was the real deal. 

"He didn't have much of a sense of humour," said Rod Macleod, whose new book Sam Steele: A Biography is based on unprecedented access to thousands of Steele's letters, journal entries and other papers now held by the University of Alberta.

"When I started the project, I wondered if I could really do it — but I ended up really liking the guy in spite of the fact that he didn't have much of a sense of humour."

Steele is legendary for bringing some law and order to the famously frenzied Klondike Gold Rush, as head of the Yukon detachment of the North-West Mounted Police in 1898.

He established customs posts at the White and Chilkoot Passes, and enforced a rule that otherwise ill-prepared stampeders had to be adequately supplied with gear, before carrying on the treacherous journey to Dawson City. That rule likely saved some lives.

A line of gold miners climbing a mountain using a rope during the Klondike Gold Rush. One of the men is carrying a canoe on his back. Steele is celebrated for bringing some order to things. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"Things were quite an appalling mess when Steele got there. He really deserves all kinds of credit for sorting things out," Macleod said.

"He was loyal, he was extremely hard-working, he was a patriot, he did his job."

Surprising insights 

Macleod, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Alberta, started work on the biography a decade ago. He'd long been interested in Steele, and had written before about the North-West Mounted Police.

In 2008, Steele's family sold a massive collection of his papers to the university. It included years of diaries, hundreds of long letters from Steele to his wife, official correspondence, photos — most never before seen by historians.

He was a supporter of votes for women, decades before it actually happened- Rod  Macleod , biographer

Macleod eagerly dug in. He spent countless hours transcribing documents, sometimes struggling to decipher Steele's awful handwriting.

"It's truly an amazing collection that gives you a real insight into the man," Macleod said. "It's a great privilege and I must say a pleasure for a historian to be able to do this, to get this kind of insight."

Biographer Rod Macleod says it was 'a great privilege' to have access to a massive collection of Steele's personal papers. (Submitted by Rod Macleod)

One surprising insight, Macleod says, is that Steele was something of a feminist.

"He really believed that women should be independent thinkers. He was a supporter of votes for women, decades before it actually happened," Macleod said.

Steele's letters also reveal how devoted he was to his wife and children, who he reluctantly left behind in Alberta when he was unexpectedly called to go North. He pined for his family, and some letters to his wife ran up to 40 pages long, Macleod said.

Steele's papers also detail encounters with some famous figures during the Boer War, after his time in the Klondike. He rubbed shoulders with the likes of Winston Churchill and Rudyard Kipling.

"You know, he lunched with Kipling several times during his tour in South Africa," Macleod says.

An entry from Steele's 1898 diary, written at Lake Bennett, B.C. Deciphering Steele's chicken scratch was a big challenge for Macleod. (Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta)

Thwarted ambition

Still, Macleod says the Klondike Gold Rush was clearly the high point of Steele's professional life, and the main reason he's still widely remembered in Yukon and beyond. Canada's fifth highest mountain — Yukon's Mount Steele — is named after him.

But according to Macleod, Yukon also may have given Steele his greatest disappointment. 

"The biggest ambition of his life was to become Commissioner of the Mounted Police. And he never managed that," Macleod says.

Steele and his detachment near Revelstoke, B.C., during construction of the CPR in 1884. Macleod says Steele's ambition was to become Commissioner of the North-West Mounted Police, but it never happened. (Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta)

The reason? Macleod thinks Steele was just too good a lawman. 

"He was yanked out of Dawson in September of 1899 basically because he'd stepped on the toes of friends of the government who were, shall we say, trying to benefit from their positions in the Yukon government," Macleod said. 

"He was essentially fired by the government at that time because he'd done his job too well."

With files from Sandi Coleman

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