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Legendary Northern Lawman

Bust of Sam Steele with insets, Whitehorse. © Alan Luke

The original man of Steele

This year is the centennial of the death of Sam Benfield Steele (1849 – 1919). This imposing and incorruptible individual exemplified the stereotypical broad-chested man-of-steel persona.

In 1873, Sam Steele was appointed a Staff Constable (Sergeant-Major) in the newly created North West Mounted Police. The Canadian Mint struck a (1973) centennial quarter depicting a Mountie you can still find in your circulated change. Mounties in the Musical Ride “dome” formation were previously depicted on the Canadian $50 banknote where the riders are in a circle pointing their lances inward.) In 1879, Steele oversaw police detachments supervising the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Following its completion in 1885 with the “Last Spike,” he was promoted to superintendent.

Serving in the Yukon for 18 months, he allegedly worked 18 hours daily to ensure the goldfields were a model of order and civility. He even issued a decree requiring an experienced pilot guide to operate boats through the tumultuous Miles Canyon and White Horse Rapids to prevent loss of life.

During the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, he assisted in establishing the Canadian government’s authority. This was the same year the Yukon Territory entered Confederation, celebrating their 120th anniversary last year. Arriving in 1898, Steele was ordered to take command of main staging areas overseeing the influx of fortune seekers through trails such as Chilkoot Pass. Thousands of stampeders hauled heavy loads through the passes which were guarded by the Mounties who collected customs duty, as well as tended to the welfare of the phalanx of prospectors.

“Along with the prospectors had come the usual assortment of riffraff, prostitutes, gamblers, and crooks. With only 13 policemen stationed in Dawson, Sam and his men were constantly busy in the wild town, known as San Francisco of the North,” Holly Quan stated in The Wild West Adventures of the Most Famous Mountie.

Mountie Banner along the Alaskan Highway and North West Mounted Police Outpost inset. © Alan Luke

In the community of Dawson City, he concentrated on maintaining order; gambling and saloons were tolerated but strictly controlled. “Big Sam was regarded as the stern paterfamilias of Dawson City, doing what was right for everybody. Henry Woodside, the editor of the Dawson Midnight Sun, called him, “the Lion of the Yukon,” recalls Robert Stewart in his book, Sam Steele: Lion of the Frontier. Legally exercising his legislative talents and prudent unilateral authority, he would require minor offenders to cut firewood for the headquarters. The more dubious and heinous characters were shipped out on the first available vessels. Among his attributes was Steele’s inherent capacity to be an effective diplomatic administrator. At the peak of the gold seeking frenzy, surprisingly, not a single person was murdered in the winter of 1898 as the small town swelled to more than 14,000 (and peaked the following year at almost 30,000).

Commander Steele stated that “along with their comrades of the Yukon Field Force, they fought fires twice saving Dawson from destruction, they assessed and collected taxes; they sorted and delivered mail. They went out on epic patrols into the wilderness to look for missing persons and they buried the dead,” all for a mere pittance.

Sam was transferred from Dawson City the following year due to his opposition to the existing patronage and graft he encountered. Steele received a fond farewell from a multitude of citizens and was presented with a poke of gold nuggets collected from the miners and merchants to show their respect. A positive profile in Chicago’s Sunday Chronicle (May 1899) stated: “Colonel S.B. Steele…is a whole army unto himself. He was born to rule in a country where he must become dictator for he is…far away from assistance, from advice and from supplies”.

In 1996, a Canadian stamp featuring Sam Steele was issued to celebrate the centennial of the initial big gold find in 1896 at Bonanza Creek (formerly Rabbit Creek). Steele also has streets, parks and schools named in his honour. West of Whitehorse in Kluane National Park is Canada’s fifth highest mountain peak, Mount Steele, in the St. Elias Range. A newspaper editor remarked that he was a “monumental man, as strong and selfless as the Rocky Mountains”.

Mural of North West Mounted Policemen, armed, Whitehorse. © Alan Luke

A bronze bust of the man sits in front of the RCMP Headquarters in Whitehorse. Several colourful murals depicting Mounties in various situations are located throughout the capital. Drawings on vertical banners of a pair of Mounties line the streets as well. In one of the Historical Canada’s vignettes, Steele is shown evicting a gun-wielding American gambler from the region in a classic Heritage Minute.

Pierre Berton, a prolific writer on Canadian history, was born in Dawson City the year after Sam Steele’s death. He described him as the “prototype of the Hollywood Mountie”. During the 1930s, there were more than 40 feature films released featuring the Mounties.

Sir Samuel Steele was the “quintessential Canadian man of action in the Victorian era”. He was the personification of northern jurisprudence, a legendary lawman whose successful sojourn secured his legacy in the Yukon and beyond.


VIAAlan G. Luke
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