Army Biography: Sir Samuel Benfield Steele, CB, KCMG, MVO
Sergeant K. Grant, CD
Of the many exceptional individuals to emerge from Canada’s past, one of the most extraordinary has to be Sam Steele. He was, as one author put it, “the quintessential Canadian man of action in the Victorian era. Physically strong and courageous, he personified the heroic qualities of the early North-West Mounted Police. He even looked the part to perfection: tall, barrel-chested, and handsome, inspiring confidence in men and admiration in women.” A real life “Harry Flashman,” Steele spent as much time in the army as he did in red serge, but more importantly, he spent his entire life in the service of his country and emerged from the Canadian west a genuine legend.
Samuel Benfield Steele was born in Medonte Township, Upper Canada, on January 5, 1849. The son of a former naval officer and a Member of the Legislative Assembly, he was educated at Purbrook, the family home in Medonte. Later the family would settle in Orillia, and it was here that Sam attended a private school while in his spare time learning the skills of woodsman, fishing, tracking and shooting that would serve him well in the years to come.
After the death of his father in 1865, he lived for a time with his eldest half-brother, John Coucher Steele. It was he who had the greatest influence on the young Steele and from whom he developed his strong sense of loyalty and devotion to duty.
The Steele family had a strong military tradition and the Fenian troubles of 1866 drew Sam into the militia, where he quickly discovered his true vocation. Serving with the 35th (Simcoe) Battalion of Infantry, he deployed to the field but saw no action. When the troubles were over, he moved to Clarksburg (near Collingwood) to work as a clerk. In his spare time he raised and trained a company for the 31st (Grey) Battalion of Infantry. At sixteen, he was offered command of the company by the town fathers, but Steele declined, saying that he was too young for the responsibility and that they should appoint a captain who was a prominent member of the community. Nonetheless, he retained his commission and continued to serve with the unit.
In 1870, when a British-Canadian expedition was formed under Colonel Garnet Joseph Wolseley (to maintain order at Red River, Manitoba), Steele quickly volunteered and on May 1, 1870 joined the 1st (Ontario) Battalion of Rifles at Barrie. Although he had held a commission in the 35th, when offered the opportunity to serve as an officer, he declined, choosing instead to serve as a private. “As far as experience went,” he would later write in his autobiography, “I was better off without chevrons and learned how to appreciate the trials of other men to an extent that I should never have been able to do had I been promoted.”
The strenuous overland journey from the Lakehead to Red River was the kind of challenge that enabled Steele to demonstrate his exceptional strength and endurance. His talents did not go unnoticed; shortly after the expedition settled at Upper Fort Garry (now Winnipeg), he was promoted corporal. The battalion overwintered in the Red River area; while Steele enjoyed his time on the frontier, he was not tempted to stay when the battalion was disbanded in 1871.
Instead, having made the decision to make soldiering a career, he returned to Kingston, Ontario where the Artillery School of the Canadian Permanent Force had been established. He took the year-long course and then was assigned to Toronto to reorganize the battery there. After a year in Toronto, he returned to Kingston where he became an instructor at the school.
In 1873, word circulated about the forming of a mounted force to establish a permanent armed presence in western Canada. By this time, Steele had developed a reputation as a good administrator and an excellent soldier. He applied to his commander, Lieutenant-Colonel George Arthur French, for permission to join and received it. This was not a surprising outcome since French knew that he was to command the new force and wanted Steele with him.
Originally called the North-West Mounted Rifles, the name was changed by Sir John A. Macdonald when US papers published alarmist reports that Canada was arming its border. Instead, the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) received royal assent on May 23, 1873, but it was not until August 30 of that year that the final details were approved by Order in Council. Broadly, the legislation called for the formation of a body of not more than three hundred healthy men of good character between the ages of eighteen and forty, able to ride and to read and write English or French (married men need not apply). Sam was the third officer sworn into the new force and, based on his military experience, was given the rank of staff constable (the equivalent of divisional sergeant-major).
On October 22, 1873, the first contingent of the NWMP, accompanied by the last group of settlers to travel west that year, arrived in Lower Fort Garry. The winter would be a long one, and here Steele set about the task of preparing his troops. He drove the troops hard but himself harder. He saved the breaking of the hardest mounts for himself, and when the day was done, he would spend hours doing administration. As one recruit wrote “Drill, drill, drill. Foot drill, rifle practice, guard mount, horseback . . . . Breaking in my new mount isn’t my idea of fun. Especially with Steele drilling! The man has no feelings . . . .” Throughout the winter his reputation as a tough sergeant-major grew, but it was all for a purpose. The prospect of policing a vast, wild, unmapped wilderness full of whisky traders and Indian war parties better armed then they were meant that to be effective at their jobs the men of the NWMP had to be as fit and as well trained as physically possible and had to be able to ride as well as the Indians;their lives depended on it.
THE LONG MARCH
The winter was long, but by the time the floods had abated in the spring the contingent had become a finely honed machine. In June, Steele and the contingent moved south to Pembina, North Dakota, where it linked up with the newly recruited second contingent. From there he was given the responsibility to move the entire force to Dufferin, Manitoba in preparation for their march across the prairies to the Rocky Mountains. The plan was to take with them all the provisions and equipment needed to establish posts on the prairies, including livestock to setup food-producing farms. “The Long March,” as it has become known, has subsequently gone down in history as one of the toughest forced marches on record.
“I thought I’d have an easy ride to the Rockies, with a fine horse carrying me. Instead I’m having a tough walk to Edmonton with me carrying the horse.”
On the morning of July 8, 1874, 343 mounted policemen set off at the head of a two and a half-mile long column on their journey west to the Rockies. It has been suggested that the real march didn’t begin until two days later when the Métis ox drivers had sobered up enough to make real progress. And too, because the first two days were essential for figuring out what was required and what was extra baggage.
Yet as magnificent as they looked in their scarlet coats, white helmets and gauntlets, the force quickly ran into shortages of feed for their horses and cattle. On the second night out, a violent thunderstorm sent the corralled horses stampeding, and Steele and others wasted precious hours in the dark trying to round them up. Many of the horses brought from Ontario with the second contingent were unaccustomed to the hardships of the prairies and quickly began to break down. The situation became so serious that a part of the force, which included Steele, had to be detached with the weakest animals and sent north along the Carlton Trail to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Edmonton.
Getting the ailing livestock to Fort Edmonton before winter was a gruelling job. The distance to the fort—some 1410 kilometres—was almost double the distance to the Rockies, and it had to be covered on an unpredictable trail with no grain and failing horses that had never been fed on grass before.
It was a perilous route as well. Sioux and other tribal war parties paralleled their track the whole way, and oral history suggests that fierce betting ensued between the groups as to whether the motley crew would make it. Horses became so weak that they had to be changed twice a day, and the cattle so footsore that they lay down every few yards.
On the first of November the party covered the last 20 kilometres into Fort Edmonton. Steele was the last man into the stockade, holding one end of a pole supporting the hind end of a thoroughbred horse. Cpl Ted Carr, the man on the other end of the pole supporting the horse, was overheard to say “I thought I’d have an easy ride to the Rockies, with a fine horse carrying me. Instead I’m having a tough walk to Edmonton with me carrying the horse.” The commanding officer, Inspector William Jarvis, noted in his report in November that Steele had done the “manual labour of at least two men” on the journey. At the time, Steele was earning $1.20 per day.
With the rest of A Division, Steele spent the winter at Fort Edmonton, making occasional journeys outward to gather information and to clear the area of whisky traders. When spring came the police moved down river and built their own post, Fort Saskatchewan. In July 1875, the steamer Northcote brought orders promoting Steele to chief constable (regimental sergeant-major), effective in August, and transferring him to headquarters at Swan River Barracks at Livingstone, Saskatchewan.
The following summer he was put in charge of moving the headquarters to Fort Macleod, Alberta and, along the way, making arrangements for the large police contingent at the Treaty No. 6 negotiations with the Cree at Forts Carlton and Pitt in Saskatchewan.
Figure 1: Military movements during the 1885 Northwest Rebellion
At Fort Macleod, Steele continued his administrative duties, trained horses and acted as clerk for the busy criminal sessions conducted by the officers in their capacity as justices of the peace. In October 1877, he was one of the party of commissioner J. F. Macleod that went to Fort Walsh, Saskatchewan to conduct negotiations between Sitting Bull and General A. H. Terry of the United States army.
When the talks failed and Sitting Bull and his warriors remained in Canada, Steele returned to Fort Macleod. The following year, 1878, the headquarters was moved again, this time to Fort Walsh and Steele was promoted sub-inspector. He remained there until 1880, when he was made an inspector and assigned to his first independent command, Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan.
Up to this point, the duties of the NWMP had focused largely on Indian skirmishes and whisky traders. But that quickly changed with the coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). The main line of the CPR bisected Steele’s district, and he found himself occupied with disputes generated by settlement and construction. As the railway advanced west in the summer of ‘82, he was put in charge of policing the line. Moving west with the construction camps, he laid out the NWMP post at Regina, to which the force’s main headquarters was transferred in December. Most of his work was in his capacity as a magistrate, but it was no easy task to maintain law and order. When construction reached Fort Calgary in the fall of 1883, he stayed on there as commanding officer.
Sir Samuel Benfield Steele, 1849–1919
In April 1884, Steele was assigned to accompany the CPR into British Columbia where he continued his work throughout the summer and into the winter. The following spring in the town of Beavermouth a serious labour dispute developed over non-payment of wages by subcontractors. At the time Steele was gravely ill with fever, yet he rose from his bed and donned his scarlet tunic. Winchester rifle in one hand and the Riot Act in the other, he faced down the crowd and declared that if he saw more than a dozen gathered together he would open fire on them. Given Steele’s imposing size, booming voice and fierce determination, nobody in the crowd felt inclined to challenge him and so dispersed. The action was pure Steele of course; indeed, legend has it that at times he was prone to make new laws as he went along just to resolve conflicts. But settling labour disputes and keeping gamblers and whisky sellers within limits was just the kind of job for which Steele’s forceful personality, sense of humour and boundless energy were perfectly suited.
By 1885, the force had developed a solid reputation and Steele had worked hard in numerous areas throughout the west to build it. 1885 also brought the North West Rebellion, and Steele was appointed to command the mounted troops and scouts of Major-General Thomas Bland Strange’s Alberta Field Force. Consisting of some 110 ranchers and cowboys and 25 NWMP, Steele led the force north to Edmonton and then down the North Saskatchewan River in pursuit of Cree chief Big Bear. Two weeks after the battle of Frenchman’s Bute, where Big Bear’s warriors defeated the Canadian forces under General Strange, Steele’s field force defeated Big Bear’s warriors at Loon Lake, the last battle ever fought on Canadian soil.
Returning to Alberta, Steele was one of the few senior NWMP officers to come out of the North-West Rebellion with their reputation enhanced. He had led his scouts with imagination and aggressiveness, and his small force was the only one capable of keeping up with Big Bear before his surrender in July 1885. Strange recommended him for a CMG,6 but this was ignored, instead in August he was promoted to superintendent. That fall he returned to law enforcement along the CPR in British Columbia and was present at the driving of the last spike at Craigellachie in November.
Steele was then posted to Battleford, Saskatchewan to command D Division. There he spent most of his time training the recruits who had come in with the doubling in size of the NWMP in 1885.
In September 1886, his division was sent to Fort Macleod, and early in 1887 it moved again, this time to Lethbridge, the new headquarters for southern Alberta.
More tasks followed in the next two years including establishing a NWMP station in the town of Galbraiths Ferry, which was later named Fort Steele after he solved a murder in the town. Steele moved between British Columbia and Saskatchewan before he settled in Fort Macleod to take command of the largest post with the most policemen west of Regina. For the next ten years Steele presided over an expanding prairie population, and it was here in 1889 that he would meet, court and eventually marry his wife Marie Harwood with whom he would have three children.
In 1892, when the assistant commissioner’s job became vacant, Steele was the most experienced superintendent and had the most distinguished record in the Force. He lobbied for the job and did not hesitate to use the political connections of his wife’s family. But the position went to Superintendent John Henry McIllree, a less assertive officer who was not expected to clash with the abrasive commissioner, Herchmer.
The period of routine administration in southern Alberta ended abruptly when gold was discovered in the Yukon in 1897. When it became apparent that a major rush would develop, the police force there was strengthened. In January 1898, Steele was ordered north to establish and then take command of the customs posts at the height of the White and Chilkoot passes and at Bennett Lake, the headwater of the Yukon River and the main staging area of the rush. When Steele arrived the following month, there were only a few policemen in the Yukon; by the time he left a year and a half later almost a third of the NWMP would be under his command. The minister in charge of the Yukon in the federal Liberal government, Clifford Sifton, had arranged for the police there to report directly to Ottawa, bypassing Regina, so that the contingent was virtually a separate force.
Nothing could have suited Steele better. Not only could he run the police as he saw fit, but the isolation of the Yukon allowed him to make up laws and regulations as necessary. The most famous example of this unilateral authority occurred at Bennett during the spring break-up of 1898, when Steele dictated that all prospective miners register their boats and adhere to strict rules for navigation when heading down river. Later in the year, he refused to allow anyone into the territory without a minimum quantity of food and money. These actions were blatantly illegal, as Steel freely admitted, but they so obviously saved lives that both the miners and Ottawa accepted them.
In July 1898, Steele assumed command of all the NWMP in the Yukon and became a member of the newly formed territorial Council; from that point on he could exercise his legislative talents legally. In Dawson, Steele concentrated on keeping order. Gambling, bawdy houses and saloons were tolerated but strictly controlled; observers reported that Sundays were as quiet as those in Toronto. Steele put minor offenders to work cutting firewood for police headquarters while dubious characters were shipped out on the first available boat. The miners, mostly Americans, might have been expected to chafe under this stern regime, but that seems not to have been the case.
Under his command Steel built a police force that in his words:“built cabins with their own hands; carried vast sums of gold over the lonely trails and even to the banks of Seattle without losing or misappropriating an ounce. They nursed the sick and injured they found in lonely cabins in the wilds, they helped the paupers who were streaming out of the Yukon after their dreams of gold had exploded, they took into protective custody the many madmen that the shattered dreams, the hardship, and the isolation had produced. Along with their comrades of the Yukon Field Force, they fought fires twice saving Dawson from destruction, they assessed and collected mining taxes;they sorted and delivered the mail. They went out on epic patrols into the wilderness to look for missing persons and they buried the dead,”7 and they did all this for $1.25 per day.
When Steele was transferred out of Dawson in September 1899, reputedly for resisting the partisan system of patronage sanctioned by Sifton, such was his reputation that virtually the entire population of the area turned out to cheer him and the present him with a bag of gold dust.
Before Steele could be assigned to new duties, the South African War broke out, and Steele immediately volunteered. In short order he was offered the position of second in command of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, which he rejected because he felt that not enough mounted policemen were being allowed to volunteer. He then accepted an offer to command a regiment to be formed in western Canada (the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles), but he agreed to step down to second-in-command when Commissioner Herchmer decided he wanted the position. He had just started recruiting men and buying horses when, in January 1900, he was offered command of a British army unit to be recruited in Canada and sponsored by Lord Strathcona.
Although the NWMP had been picked over by the earlier contingents, Steele managed to get enough officers and NCOs that he trusted to provide the backbone for the newly formed regiment, and as soon as they were assembled, he began a rigorous training program. On the journey across the Atlantic, he organized every day, thus preventing the deterioration of morale that plagued other Canadian units. Once in South Africa, Steele used all his skills, together with the substantial influence of Strathcona’s name, to ensure that his unit was not dispersed or given routine assignments.
By the time the unit was ready to take the field in May 1900 however, the conventional phase of the conflict was over and guerrilla warfare had begun. After taking part in an abortive scheme to blow up a railway bridge on the border of Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), the regiment spent the next seven months scouting for the columns pursuing the elusive Boer commandos. The pursuit was usually too cautious and ponderous to suit Steele, but his unit performed well—one of its sergeants, Arthur Herbert Lindsay Richardson, won Canada’s first Victoria Cross of the war—and it drew praise from the British high command. By the time the Strathcona’s were ready to return to Canada in January 1901, Steele’s leadership had attracted the attention of Major-General Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, who offered him a divisional command in the South African Constabulary (SAC) he was organizing. Awarded an MVO8 in England, on the Strathcona’s trip home, Steele was made a CB9 during his brief sojourn in Canada. In June, he was back in South Africa with the SAC.
The last year of the war was spent pacifying the countryside by pursuing the remaining Boer commandos. Even before hostilities formally ended in May 1902, Steele had begun the process of converting his unit to civilian duty. He knew from his Canadian experience that no police force could function effectively without public cooperation. To Steele this meant winning the confidence of the Boer farmers by supplying practical services. In addition to providing security, the SAC acted as game wardens, veterinarians, census takers and license issuers. As soon as the war ended, he stepped up the transition, encouraging his men to learn Afrikaans, pushing the authorities to allow the Boers to have their rifles back and persuading the government to appoint senior officers as magistrates.
As a transitional institution, the SAC was a success; though, for Steele the experience was a frustrating one. By 1906 the force was being cut severely, and Steele, who had officially retired from the NWMP in 1903, was making plans to leave. After eight months in England as adjutant to Baden-Powell, then inspector general of cavalry, Steele returned with his family to Canada, where in 1907 he was appointed commanding officer of Military District No. 13 (Alberta and the District of Mackenzie). In 1910 he was transferred to command the more important Military District No. 10, based in Winnipeg. There, among other things, he worked on reconstituting Lord Strathcona’s Horse as a Canadian cavalry unit and on preparing his memoirs.
WORLD WAR ONE
The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 postponed the release of Steele’s memoirs, then ready for publication, and removed any thoughts of civilian life from his mind. Although he was 63, Steele hoped to command the 1st Canadian Division, but the minister of militia and defence, Sam Hughes, rejected him on the grounds of age. Within a few months it became apparent that the war would last for some time and would require more military effort. In December 1914, Hughes promoted Steele to Major General and put him in charge of training in western Canada. When formation of the 2nd Canadian Division was announced early in 1915, Steele was offered command, and he accepted.
At the British War Office, Lord Kitchener vetoed the appointment because he believed Steele was too old for an active combat command. Infuriated and pressured by western Tories, Hughes now insisted that Steele be given the post, even though he still thought him to be overage and inexperienced with large military formations. A compromise was reached under which Steele would head the 2nd until it was sent to France. After assuming command on May 25, 1915, he handled its organization in Canada and training in England until he was replaced by Major-General R.E.W. Turner in August.
One of the legacies of Steele’s service in South Africa was that his British Army commission. Kitchener was thus able to offer him an administrative post as commanding officer of the Southeastern District of England, which included the principal Canadian training camp at Shorncliffe.
Steele, who took up this command on 5 August, might have served out the war in useful semi-obscurity if it had not been for Hughes’ genius for administrative muddle. Hughes had decided that, in addition to his British appointment, Steele should have command of all Canadian troops in England, effective 3 August. This step inevitably brought about conflict with Brigadier-General J.W. Carson, special representative of the minister of militia, and Brigadier-General J.C. MacDougall, general officer commanding Canadian troops in the United Kingdom, both of whom thought they were in overall command.
The situation remained unresolved until Hughes fell from power in November 1916. The newly appointed minister of overseas forces, Sir George Perley, moved quickly to sort out the mess. After Steele refused to return to western Canada as a recruiter, he was relieved of his Canadian command. But that wasn’t enough.
Even though he was officially a British officer, the Canadian Overseas Ministry was doing all it could to get rid of him. For the next year and a half Steele remained in England with the support of the War Office and retained his British command. The Canadians, however, continued to treat him badly at every opportunity. When the King’s honours list was drawn up for 1918, Steele was overlooked. It fell to the War Office to put his name forward for the KCMG.10 In the end, rather than displease an ally, the British finally gave in and removed him from command in March 1918 and on July 1, 1918, placed him on the retired list.
Being forced out of something you love is a bitter pill for any man to swallow, and Steele was full of bitterness at the way he had been treated by his own country. Now forcibly retired, he moved his family from Folkstone to a quiet private home in the London suburb of Putney where the giant of a man who so often endured appalling hardships had difficulty shaking off a cold. But soon his spirits rallied, the war was over and he began making plans to return to western Canada with his family. For the time being however, he would have to wait, as all available space shipboard was being filled by returning frontline troops. Besides, he was still unable to shake the flu that had been confining him to bed for the past several months. In the early hours of January 30, 1919, Sam Steele quietly died in his sleep, one of the many victims of the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918–19. He had just turned 70.
Two days later his funeral procession wound its way through the streets of London. His body lay in a coffin draped with the Union Jack and rode on a horse-drawn gun carriage. Behind it came a troop of red-coated mounted policemen from the contingent of the force that had served at the front. They were followed by a troop of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse dressed in khaki uniforms and flat-brimmed Stetson hats;they in turnwere followed by files and files of men from the 2nd Canadian Division, the division he’d help train.
Steele had left a request to be buried in Winnipeg, and in July that request was granted. It seems somehow appropriate that even in death, Steele, who devoted his life to keeping the peace, should have an effect in death. When his body was returned to Winnipeg for final burial, it was in the midst of the great 1919 Winnipeg riots. The day before, strikers had pelted the RCMP and militia with bottles and loose debris, even dragging several RCMP officers off their horses and beating them up amidst the commotion. Yet with the strike still in progress, the largest funeral western Canada had ever seen was held. Throughout the city there was a lull in the ongoing violence as rioters lined the streets to witness the passing of Steele’s cortège, escorted by mounted RCMP riding behind the riderless black horse with Steele’s boots reversed in the stirrups. The strikers who had battled these men in hatred the day before did not so much as raise a voice against them.
- Macleod, Roderick Charles. “Steele, Sir Samuel Benfield.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. http://www.biographica/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=7722&&PHPSESSID=58g2sm08dvhrrht780hbn3qgm7 (accessed December 1, 2009).
- “Sam Steele.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Steele (accessed January 10, 2010).
- Stewart, Robert. Sam Steele: Lion of the Frontier. 2nd ed. Regina: Centax Books / Publishing Solutions / PrintWest Group, 1999.
- “The Sir Samuel Steele Collection.” University of Alberta Libraries. http://steele.library.ualberta.ca/ (accessed January 15, 2010).
- “‘Without Fear, Favour or Affection’ The Men of the North West Mounted Police.” Library and Archives Canada. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/nwmp-pcno/025003-1203-e/ (accessed January 15, 2010).
Ouan, Holly. Sam Steele: The Wild West Adventures of Canada’s Most Famous Mountie.
1. Macleod, Roderich Charles, “Steele, Sir Samuel Benfield,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=7722&&PHPSESSID=58g2sm08dvhrrht780hbn3qgm7 (accessed December 1, 2009).
2. Brigadier-General Sir Harry Paget Flashman, VC KBC, KCIE (1822–1915) was a fictional character created by George MacDonald Fraser(1925–2008); hewas based on the character“Flashman” inTom Brown’s Schooldays, a semiautobiographical work by Thomas Hughes (1822–1896). In a series of books written by MacDonald, Flashman fights in nearly every battle involving the British Empire between 1822 and 1900 and became an urban legend as a man who “went everywhere and did everything.”
3. Robert Stewart, Sam Steele: Lion of the Frontier, 2nd ed. (Regina: Centax Books / Publishing Solutions / PrintWest Group), 1999, p. 22. The quote refers to Steele’s own writings in S. B. Steele, Forty Years in Canada (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company), 1915.
4. Stewart, p. 40.
5. Ibid., p. 52.
6. CMG—Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and St George
7. Stewart, p. 234.
8. MVO—Member of the Victorian Order
9. CB—Companion of the Order of the Bath
10. KCMG—Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George
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