Fort Steele Historic Park in B.C.’s Kootenay district, is a fascinating place to visit. Located on the site of the first North West Mounted Police (now the RCMP) post in B.C., the 142-acre park is an authentic restoration of a typical town at the turn of the century.
Born at Purbrook in the County of Simcoe, Ontario, on Jan. 5, 1851, he was the fourth son of Captain Elmer Steele, RN. His father served in the Royal Navy during the days of Nelson and his mother’s family were involved with the British Army, her father being a çolonel of the militia. A fighting family, and a background which undoubtedly had an influence on young Sam.
As a child he was taught to ride, shoot, swim and find his way in the woods, an education which stood him in good stead. He served through many hardships during his military career but took it all in his stride.
Left an orphan at an early age. Sam joined the militia at the age of 15, and his reaction to the drills and discipline of the new life was excellent. A slim fair haired boy. energetic and reliable when he joined, after 10 years he had a thick chest, bronzed face, and was a handsome hard working man’s man.
In 1870 he joined the 1st Ontario Rifles as a corporal to serve in the Red River expedition, when he went to Prince Arthur’s Landing, now called Port Arthur, and then on to take Fort Garry. Returning, Sam trained a brigade of garrison artillery at Fort Henry and then, ever eager to learn, took a course in business and telegraphy at Toronto.
When the NWMP Force was to be raised in 1873, with Major Walsh recruiting for A. Division, it was a natural for Sam and he joined as sergeant major of a division. The Mounties, so named because they rode horses, were needed. The West was a lawless place, with the fur traders exchanging arms and firewater to the Indians for buffalo robes and furs. Travelling across the prairies was a dangerous business, for murder, drinking, scalping and horse stealing were the order of the day. Men of the calibre of Sam Steele were ready to meet the challenge, with their sense of adventure and just plain guts.
On the Great Trek of the NWMP, 1.250 nearly impossible and extremely difficult miles, from Dufferin to Fort Carlton, and Edmonton Steele was outstanding. On a dare he had thrown 300 pounds up on his shoulder and walked with it, and one of the stories about him is often repeated: As equestrian instructor he was dealing with unbroken western broncos, and new men. When one threw its rider, then kicked him, Sergeant Steele exclaimed : “Someone catch and look after that poor horse, and a couple of you carry that awkward lout off the square.”
The lout was his brother, for there were three Steeles in the Mounted, in A Troop, but Sam became the best known. During the hectic march through miserable weather he would grab an ox by the horns when it was bogged down, yank it onto firm footing, then go around behind the Red River cart and boost it out with his thick shoulder.
The resolute Mounties were not just riders, they were trained in many duties; soldiering, carpentering, painting, black-smithing, freighting, plowing, fire fighting, mending their own clothing, and acting as customs and quarantine officers . In addition they could repair wagons, saddles, harness, and at the other extreme, handle the insane and build their own barracks. All this is hard to believe in these days of specialization.
By far the best known Steele story, took place in the small town of Golden where the CPR railroad was being laid. The British Columbia detachment was under Inspector Steele, and in 1885 there was trouble brewing. As their wages were in arrears 1,209 of the workmen on the line struck and threatened trouble.
Steele received a deputation of ringleaders and told them that if they were not orderly he would inflict severe punishment on them. Several hundreds returned to their camps after seeing the manager of the construction, but some wild characters started to incite a riot, and when a constable tried to arrest one of the ringleaders he was attacked by a crowd of strikers.
Meantime, Sam Steele was suffering one of his few illnesses, mountain fever, and was in his sickbed. A Sergeant Fury consulted with him about the attack on Constable Kerr, and Steele instructed him to take two constables and arrest the man who had started the trouble. He was in a saloon with a rowdy gang, and though the constables seized him they were rushed by the crowd who freed the culprit. By now a mob had formed, and, though the Mounties had taken the man prisoner again, as they dragged him over a narrow wooden bridge the crowd formed on the other side, with knives and revolvers in their hands.
The inspector, roused by the shouting, crawled from his bed, dressed, grabbed his pistol and walked across the bridge. White and thin he stood facing the mob, revolver in one hand, sword in the other. “Now,” he shouted, “the first man who sets foot on this bridge will be shot!”
They could see he meant it, and the crowd hesitated and drew back. The riot collapsed, before the strength of Steele.
In 1887 another side of Sam Steele’s nature was brought to the fore when he settled peacefully a threat to good relations with the Kootenay Indians. On Aug. 1, 1887, Superintendent Steele and a detachment of 75 NWMP established the first NWMP post west of the Rocky Mountains at Galbraith’s Ferry.
A Kootenay Indian known as Kapula had been jailed at Wild Horse on the charge that he had murdered two white men. Chief Isadore forcibly released him, and a general uprising was threatened. Steele, with his diplomacy and tact, and yet unwavering strength, was soon able to settle the affair, and had Kapula released for lack of evidence. The settlers at Galbraith’s Ferry were so pleased and relieved they renamed their settlement Fort Steele, and it stands there today.
By 1888 Steele commanded the Fort MacLeod district, which embraced the war-like Blackfoot country, the restless border country, the land of the international horse thief, cattle rustler and outlaw. There couldn’t have been a better man in charge, for he mixed strength with compassion, efficiency with the ability to look the other way.
Somehow he found time for courtship, for in January,1890, he went east to be married to Marie Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Robert W. deLotbiniere Harwood, conseigneur of Vaudreuil, P.Q. This union produced one son and two daughters. The honeymoon was spent in and around New York, a real change from the then desolate prairie.
In 1898 he was sent to command the NWMP posts in the White and Chilkoot Passes during the Klondike gold rush, and by 1899 had jurisdiction over all the Yukon and British Columbia.
The summit of the Chilkoot marked the Canadian border and so the Mounties were stationed there, and the posts in the passes were under Steele, with headquarters in Skagway. He commented : “The town was about the roughest place in the world.” And so it was.
In the spring Sam went to Lake Bennett where 30,000 people waited for the ice to go out. When it did, many boats were lost, and the crew with them. So Steele had the Mounties check every boat for serviceability, and many lives were saved. When he moved on to Dawson he was soon known for his fair, swift justice, sometimes this was a fine and a spell on the woodpile, for wood was a very necessary commodity in that climate. The culprits felt lucky to be let off so lightly.
The gold rush dwindled and when the South African war broke out Sam obtained leave from the Force to assist in raising the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles, and to form and command the Lord Strathcona’s Horse, which performed outstanding service. His record in South Africa was of the highest, he was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the King’s Medal with two clasps. Returning to Canada in 1907 he went on to further military command. When the First World War broke out he raised and trained 7,600 troops from M.D. 10, Winnipeg, for the first Canadian Division. In May,1915, he went to England in command of the second Canadian Division, and later was awarded the Allied and Victory Medals.
On Jan. 1, 1918, Sam Steele was created a K.C.M.G. and retired the following July after more than 50 years of service. When Sam Steele died on Jan. 30. 1919. at Putney, London, England, his name was Major General Sir Samuel B. Steele, K.C.M.G., C.B., M.V.O. His body was brought to Winnipeg and lies buried in St. John’s Cemetery, the resting place of many of Canada’s pioneers.
Meanwhile the thousands of visitors to Fort Steele may little realize why the town was so named, but the legends about the indomitable character, Sam Steele, will linger on.