This Week in History


Nerves of Steele: an officer of the North West Mounted Police

For the Week of Monday, May 15, 2017

On May 20, 1887, North West Mounted Police (NWMP) Superintendent Samuel (“Sam”) Benfield Steele led “D” Division into the Rocky Mountains to establish Kootenay Post, the first NWMP fort in British Columbia.

Members of “D” Division near Kootenay Post on August 4, 1888. Under Steele’s leadership, it took less than a year of negotiations to resolve most of the grievances which, until his arrival, had threatened to cause a war between settlers and the Ktunaxa First Nation
Library and Archives Canada / no. 3720958

Steele joined the NWMP when it was first formed in 1873. A veteran of the militia and the Canadian Permanent Force, he became a staff constable in the new police force. Steele then helped to lead the NWMP’s 1874 March West, which established the NWMP’s presence in the Prairies by combating American whiskey traders.

In the early 1880s, Steele was tasked with policing the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. He left, however, in 1885, to command a mounted scouting unit during the Northwest Resistance. Once fighting ended, he returned to oversee the railway’s completion.

From left to right: Supt. “Sam” Steele, Miss Scott, Inspector Courtlandt Starnes, Mrs. Starnes, Captain Burstall (Yukon Field Force). Taken in June 1899, this picture, entitled “Midnight in the Yukon,” features Steele in civilian clothing
Library and Archives Canada / e008128889

Steele left the Prairies in January 1898 and, a month later, established customs posts in the Yukon. Here, he installed his command and began policing the Klondike Gold Rush. The following spring, he travelled to Dawson and brought order to the famously lawless town. His efforts earned him the respect of his superiors and Yukon prospectors, despite his habit of making his own laws and often breaking existing ones.

In 1899, Steele left the NWMP to fight in the South African War, also known as the Second Boer War, later joining the new South African Constabulary. He returned to Canada in 1907 and initially took command of the Second Canadian Division in the First World War, before assuming an administrative position within the British Army. Steele was named a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George in 1918. He retired a few months later and fell victim to the Spanish Flu the following year. Over the course of his life, Steele had come to embody the ideals and pursuits of the late 19th-century British imperialism in Canada.

Sir Samuel Benfield Steele is a designated national historic person and the site of Kootenay Post, renamed Fort Steele, is a national historic site. It is National Police Week. If you would like to learn more about Sam Steele and Canadian law enforcement, please read "Whooping-it-Up" at Fort Hamilton, Sitting Bull at Fort Walsh, and An Elite Canadian Corps: Samuel Steele and the Strathcona’s Horse Regiment in South Africa in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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