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Sam Steele: Lion of the Frontier

If Major-General Samuel Benfield Steele had not been a real person Hollywood would have invented him. Born in the Ontario hamlet of Purbrook on Jan. 5, 1848, he embarked on his life of adventure at age 16 by volunteering for front line militia duty against Irish-American border jumpers during the Fenian raids, then joined the fabled Red River Expedition against Louis Riel’s Metis insurgents. As a graduate of the artillery school at Kingston, a skilled horseman and a deadly shot with both rifle and sidearm, Steele was an ideal recruit for the newly-formed North-West Mounted Police in 1873. Given the rank of Sergeant Major, he was posted to Lower Fort Garry and placed in charge of training the first batch of NWMP troops assigned to bring law and order to the untamed expanse of the North West Territory, which today consists of all of Saskatchewan and Alberta and parts of British Columbia and the Yukon.

With enormous physical strength to complement a persuasive personality and innate leadership abilities, Steele threw himself headlong into his new command. Through the winter of 1873 he trained his charges hard for the daunting task that lay ahead, and in 1874-75 the 120 men (along with wagons, oxen and 50 horses) proved their mettle on the epic 1,959-mile march to Fort Edmonton – still the longest on record anywhere in the world by a force carrying its own supplies.

The following year Steele was promoted to Chief Constable and transferred to NWMP headquarters at Swan River, Manitoba, where he became a central figure in concluding the 1876 Indian Treaties. In his memoirs, Forty Years In Canada, Steele related the poignant scene when Red Crow, Chief of the Blackfeet, signed the historic accord: “Red Crow rose and spoke eloquently. He said: ‘Three years ago when the Mounted Police came to our country I met and shook hands with Stamix-oto-kan (Col. Macleod) at the Belly River. Since that time he made me many promises and kept them all. Not one of them was broken. Everything that the Mounted Police have done has been good.’”

With conflicts between Indians and settlers on the wane the railroad came to the North West Territory, and once again Sam Steele was on hand to keep the peace. He was commissioned as a Sub-Inspector in 1878 and given command at Fort Qu’Appelle two years later, with responsibility for maintaining law and order over an area comparable in size to Western Europe. In his memoirs Steele fondly recalls riding 6,800 miles on horseback “in all weathers” in 1879-80. Another personal highlight was a pow-wow with Sitting Bull, fabled chief of the Sioux, in 1881.

In the summer of 1887 Steele was ordered to march to Kootenay, British Columbia to quell tensions between the local Ktunaxa tribe and white settlers. The situation had come to a flashpoint when two Ktunaxa accused of killing a pair of white miners were sprung from jail by their compatriots. Steele and his men departed for Golden, B.C. in June, and a few weeks later orders came to proceed to the site of what became the NWMP’s first permanent post beyond the Rocky Mountains. After setting up Kootenay Post, Steele took action to settle the legal case which had called for the force’s presence. At his request the Ktunaxa chief handed over the two suspects for trial, but upon reviewing the evidence Steele realized the case against them was superficial and quickly dismissed the charges.

Although the “Kootenay Crisis” was resolved in the fall of 1887, “D” Division stayed at Kootenay Post through the winter and spring. During that time Steele settled most of the region’s outstanding problems, including bitter land disputes between white settlers and the native population. After leaving B.C. he served in southern Alberta for many years, and continued to keep the peace through the dizzying heyday of the Yukon Gold Rush in the 1890s, often personally settling violent disputes between rival klondikers and defusing potentially deadly situations without ever drawing his pistol. “Major Steele is the embodiment of red-frocked frontier courage,” is how one contemporary newspaper account described him. “By sheer force of his personality he is able to bring peace and order to this wild place whilst never even hinting that he can muster all means of violence under the law, should that become necessary.”

In recognition of his renown as a fair-minded peacekeeper, in 1896 Steele was made a member of the council of the Yukon Territory, which by an Act of Parliament had separated from the North West Territory. He was also promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given command of the NWMP for both the Yukon and British Columbia.

The following year, when an epidemic of typhoid fever swept through Dawson City, Steele organized Canada’s first liquor licensing tax to pay for treatment of the sick. As he described in Forty Years In Canada: “The place was full of loose characters who had come into the country to prey upon the respectable but, as a rule, simple and unsuspicious miners. The heavy fines meted out ended up furnishing a large and useful fund, which in a few months amounted to many thousands of dollars, every cent of which was devoted to the patients

in our fever-crowded hospitals. A board of licence commissioners was formed, of which I was the chairman. All saloons, dance-halls, wayside inns and other places where intoxicating liquor was sold had to pay for licences to carry on their business. The only charges against the fund were for stationery and postage, and before winter was over we had collected $90,000 – the cost of which to the public was only $75!”

With the wild Canadian west all but “civilized” by the end of the century, Steele turned his adventurous eye towards foreign shores. In 1899 he enlisted for duty in the Boer War in South Africa and commanded Lord Strathcona’s Horse Regiment, a mounted troop that achieved legendary status in that conflict. That command led to an offer to head a divisional command of the South African Constabulary, where Steele incorporated the lessons learned by the NWMP to help bring law and order to the war-ravaged nation.

In 1907 Steele returned to Canada and was placed in command of a militia training camp in Calgary. When the First World War broke out in 1914 Steele again presented himself - at the advaced age 64 – for active duty and was and placed in command of Canadian troops stationed in Britain.

Sam Steele, dubbed the “Lion of the Frontier” by his NWMP troops, maintained his sense of duty and unshakable devotion to king and country to the very end. When he passed away in England on Jan. 20, 1919, a remarkable monument to the unconquerable spirit of the Canadian west died with him.

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