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Sir Samuel Benfield Steele

Photograph: Samuel Benfield Steele


Samuel Benfield Steele.

(January 5, 1849 - January 30, 1919)

Sam Steele was connected with many major events in Canadian history, stretching from the Fenian raids to the First World War. His actions as an officer of the North West Mounted Police (forerunner to the RCMP), particularly during the Klondike Gold Rush, helped form the mythical image of the Canadian Mountie that persists to this day.

Sam Steele was probably born in 1849 (some sources give the date as 1851 or 1852), in Medonte Township, Upper Canada, the son of Elmes and Anne Steele. He received his education at Purbrook, the family home, and later at a private school in Orillia. Following the death of his father, he lived for a time with his older brother, John.

Steele joined the militia with the coming of the Fenian raids in 1866. He later volunteered for the Red River Expedition of 1870, serving with several battalions. In 1871, Steele returned to Ontario, enrolling in the artillery school at Kingston. After taking a year-long course, he was assigned to Toronto in 1872, to reorganize that city's battery. He then returned to Kingston to act as an artillery instructor.

When Steele heard about the formation of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) in 1873, he immediately requested permission to join the force. He was given the rank of staff constable, and sent west with a contingent in 1874. Among other activities, Steele was part of the team negotiating between Sitting Bull and Gen. A. H. Terry of the United States Army, during Sitting Bull's exile in Canada. In 1878, Steele was given his own command at Fort Qu'Appelle.

NWMP duties changed drastically with the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) during the early 1880s. At first, Steele was occupied with disputes concerning settlement and construction. By 1882, he was in charge of policing the entire railway. As a result, he moved with the construction camps to plan out a new post at Regina. NWMP headquarters would move there in December of 1882. Steele settled labour disputes, acted as a magistrate, and kept close watch over the gamblers and bootleggers in the area. After accompanying the CPR into British Columbia in April 1884, he joined the officers responding to the Northwest Rebellion, acting as commander of the mounted troops.

By 1885, Steele held the rank of superintendent. He established Fort Steele in 1887 before moving on to Fort Macleod in 1888. He married Marie Harwood at Vaudreuil, Quebec in 1890 (they had met at Fort Macleod the previous year). As well, he campaigned unsuccessfully for the position of assistant commissioner in 1892.

The discovery of gold in the Klondike in the late 1890s presented Steele with a new challenge. In January of 1898, he was sent to establish customs posts at the head of the White and Chilkoot Passes, and at Lake Bennett. By July of that year, he commanded all NWMP in the Yukon area, and was a member of the territorial council. As the force reported directly to Ottawa, Steele had almost free rein to run things as he chose, always with an eye towards maintaining law, order and Canadian sovereignty. He maintained this course of action after moving to Dawson in September of 1898.

When the Boer War broke out in 1899, Steele immediately requested leave from the NWMP in order to volunteer. In 1900, he was offered command of Lord Strathcona's Horse, a British Army regiment. The regiment was occupied with scouting for the advancing troops, winning high praise for its efforts. Although the unit returned to Canada in January of 1901, Steele himself went back to South Africa in June as a divisional commander in the South African Constabulary (SAC). This second stay was spent in converting the SAC to civilian duty, and in providing practical assistance and service to the Boers. Steele went home to Canada in 1907, after a short stay in England. He eventually assumed command of Military Division No. 10 (Winnipeg), where he spent his time in regrouping Lord Strathcona's Horse, and in preparing his memoirs.

Steele requested active military duty with the outbreak of the First World War. He was initially rejected for command on the grounds of age. However, a compromise was reached which allowed him to act as commander of the 2nd Canadian Division until the unit was sent to France, where he would be replaced. After accompanying the Division to England, Steele was offered an administrative post as commanding officer of the South-East District.

Matters were complicated, however, when Canadian Minister of Defence Samuel Hughes insisted that Steele also be made commander of all Canadian troops in Europe -- a slight problem, as there were two brigadier-generals who each believed the Canadian command was theirs. The issue was not resolved until 1916, when the new Minister of Overseas Military Forces of Canada, Sir G. H. Perley, removed Steele from his Canadian command after Steele refused to return to Canada as a recruiter. He kept his British command until his retirement on July 15, 1918. While in Britain, Steele was knighted, on January 1, 1918. Unfortunately, he died of influenza just after his 70th birthday and was later buried in Winnipeg.


Macleod, R. C. -- "Steele, Sir Samuel Benfield". -- The Canadian encyclopedia : year 2000 edition. -- Ed. James H. Marsh. -- 3rd print ed. -- Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, 1999. -- P. 2251.

Macleod, Roderick Charles. -- "Steele, Sir Samuel Benfield". -- Dictionary of Canadian biography.  -- Ed. Ramsay Cook. -- Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1998. -- Vol. 14, p. 967-972.

Steele, S. B. -- Forty years in Canada : reminiscences of the great North-West, with some account of his service in South Africa. -- Ed. Mollie Glenn Niblett ; Introd. J. G. Colmer. -- Toronto : Coles Publishing Co., 1915, c1973. -- 428 p.

"Steele, Sir Samuel Benfield". -- Macmillan dictionary of Canadian biography.  -- Ed. W. Stewart Wallace. -- 4th ed. -- Toronto : Macmillan of Canada, 1978. -- P. 792.