Sam Steele

Sir Samuel Benfield Steele was born on 5th Jan 1849 in Medonte Township, Upper Canada. He was a larger-than-life character who managed to achieve lasting fame in the history of the Mounties. He was physically strong and very brave, earning the respect of all who worked with him. He wrote a book of his experiences called Forty Years in Canada which brought his story to prominence. His success as a leader was due to his thoroughness in preparation, his shrewdness as an administrator and his dislike of barrack square drill.

His father was a naval officer who died when Steele was 15. He was educated at a private school in Orillia and joined the Militia during the Fenian troubles in 1866. He served in Garnet Wolesley's Red River Expedition in 1871 as a private even though he held a commission in the 35th (Simcoe) Battalion. When the campaign was over he joined the regular Canadian Artillery at the gunnery school in Kingston, Ontario. When he heard of the creation of the NWMP he immediately applied to his Commanding Officer, Lt-Col George Arthur French who was later to command the force. Steele was given the rank of Staff Constable, equivalent to a Sergeant-major and went to Lower Fort Gary where he instructed recruits in riding and horse breaking.

The March West

He took part in the great March West in 1874 and was in the party from 'A' Division that went to Fort Edmonton to take sick livestock into winter quarters. This expedition was under the command of W D Jarvis who noted that Steele did the manual labour of at least two men. His admin duties increased when the force moved from Edmonton to built Fort Saskatchewan and he was promoted to chief constable. He was in charge of moving the HQ from Swan River Barracks to Fort Macleod. He was involved in the negotiations between Sitting Bull and the Americans which failed to persuade the Indian chief to return to the USA. In 1877 the HQ moved again, this time to Fort Walsh and Steele became a Sub-Inspector (1878) and then an Inspector (1880).

He was put in charge of policing the construction work on the Canadian Pacific Railway, his duties involved acting as a magistrate, settling labour disputes and controlling gamblers and whisky traders. When the railway reached Fort Calgary in 1883 he stayed there as commanding officer. The next year saw him on railway duty again, a job that he took so seriously that he persauded the authorities in Ottawa to double the area of his jurisdiction from 20 miles to 40 miles each side of the track. In 1885 a labour dispute promted Steele to get out of his sick bed to confront the angry strikers. His presence calmed the situation.

The Rebellion of 1885

Steele was part of the force that fought the Metis in the 1885 Rebellion. He was in the Alberta Field Foce commanded by General Thomas Bland Strange and put in charge of scouts and mouted troops which consisted of 110 ranchers and cowboys and 25 NWMP. The part played by the NWMP is glossed over in the story of the Rebellion for reasons that are not clear but Steele emerges with his reputation intact. He managed to track Big Bear, the Cree chief whose Indians had killed several people at Frog Lake. Big Bear surrendered in July 1885. Steele was recommended for a medal but it never materialised. He was promoted to Superintendant and returned to the Railway which was completed in November 1885.

Whilst in command of 'D' Division the size of the NWMP doubled so recruits had to be trained. They moved to Lethbridge in southern Alberta in 1887 but Steele and 75 policemen had to go back to British Columbia to settle a dispute involving the Kutenai Indians. They established Fort Steele and persuaded the chief Isadore to give up the armed resistance. In December 1888, Steele was in command of Fort Macleod. It was a peaceful time and he took several month's leave during which time he married Marie Harwood, a young lady from a well connected family. The Commissioner at the time was Lawrence Herchmer who was a difficult character. He and Steele clashed so a division arose in which the force was either pro-Steele or Pro-Herchmer.

The Gold Rush

Fortunately the Klondyke Gold Rush occurred in 1897 and Steele was sent to the Yukon, finishing up in charge of a force consisting of a third of the NWMP and autonomous command that did not involve Herchmer. He drew up his own regulations that were not legal, but he was able to enforce them and they saved lives. When he moved from Bennet to Dawson City, the town was under his total control. He insisted on Sunday observance so that bars and music halls were closed. His rule was popular so that when he left in September 1899, almost the entire population turned out to cheer him and present him with a bag of gold dust.

The South African War

Steele took leave from the NWMP to serve in the war in South Africa. The Mounties were a police force so could not fight as a unit. They were allowed leave to join other units and Steele was given command of Strathcona's Horse in 1900. They trained rigorously on the sea voyage to South Africa and were kept together when they arrived instead of being dispersed like some other units. They arrived in May when the war was in it's guerrilla phase. They acted as scouts for columns which Steele found frustrating because the columns slowed him down. One of his men, Sergeant Arthur Richardson won the VC and the regiment earned a reputation for perfoming well. Baden-Powell offered Steele Divisional command in the South African Contabulary.

Steele brought 1200 Canadians with him and hoped to keep them in his Division of the SAC but he was overruled and they were distributed around the other divisions. He was, however, influential in transforming the SAC from a military force into a civilian police unit and developing good relations with the Boers. Steele officially retired from the NWMP in 1903 and carried on in the SAC until 1907. He spent 8 months in England as adjutant to Baden-Powell and returned to Canada to command the Military District of Alberta and Mackenzie. He then worked on the reconstitution of Lord Strathcona's Horse into The Royal Canadians.

By the time World War 1 started Steele had retired and started his autobiogaphy, but he was eager to serve his country and after an initial rebuff on the grounds of age, he was made Major-General. He commanded the 2nd Canadian Division with responsibility for their training before embarkation. He had authority over all Canadian troops stationed in England until he retired in 1918. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to enjoy retirement: he died in England in that year, aged 70.

Regimental details


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by Stephen Luscombe