Who was Sam Steele?

A legendary figure in the history of the Canadian West, Superintendent Sam Steele was head of “D” Division, North-West Mounted Police when they marched to Kootenay Post in 1887. Choosing a site for the post near Galbraith’s Ferry, Steele dispensed justice and defused the tensions that had initiated a NWMP presence in the area. Steele was born in Purbrook, Ontario, in 1848, into a family with a strong tradition of military service. Although orphaned at age thirteen Steele followed tradition when, at age sixteen, he formed his own militia squad (in order to fight the Fenian raids). He joined the North-West Mounted Police at its inception in 1873. Steele accepted a commission as a Sergeant-Major and was given regimental number 2 in the new force.

In 1874, Steele joined his fellow NWMP on the Great March to the Canadian West. Commissioner George French, first commissioner of the North-West Mounted Police was assigned the task of marching his troops to Fort Macleod in order to shut down the whiskey trade in that region. However, French was unprepared for the poor conditions and trials that awaited him in the West and the march was a disaster from the start. Sam Steele proved to be a great asset on that march due to his strength, character, determination and commitment to getting the job done. These all were characteristics that would be attributed to Steele throughout his life, drawing the admiration of friend and foe alike.


From his enlistment in 1873 to the year 1887, Steele’s career included involvement with some of the most significant events in the history of the Canadian West including: the Fenian Raids, the Great March West, the Northwest Rebellion of 1885 and the building of the CPR through the Rocky Mountains.

Steele was notified in the early summer of 1887 to be prepared to march to Kootenay, British Columbia with “D” Division. Tensions between the local Ktunaxa men and European settlers had come to a flashpoint, when two local Ktunaxa men accused of killing a pair of miners were released from jail by their compatriots. This combined with an ongoing land dispute regarding traditionally used Ktunaxa land claimed by Colonel James Baker (a local settler and political representative for the region), the situation in Kootenay had become critical.

Steele and “D” Division departed for Golden, B.C. in June of 1887, where they awaited further orders from Commissioner L.W. Herchmer on whether to proceed to Galbraith’s Ferry (site of the dispute). Orders came in July of 1887 to proceed to the site of what would be the NWMP’s first permanent post beyond the Rocky Mountains.

After setting up Kootenay Post, Steele took action to diffuse tensions in the region and to settle the legal case which had called for the NWMP’s presence. At Steele’s request Chief Isadore handed over the two suspects for trial. Upon reviewing the evidence Steele soon realized that the case against the two Ktunaxa was superficial and quickly dismissed the charges.

Sam Steele

Steele went on to settle most of the outstanding problems in East Kootenay including many land disputes between European settlers and the area’s First Nation’s people. Although the “Kootenay Crisis” which had called for the presence of the North-West Mounted Police was resolved in the Fall of 1887, “D” Division stayed at Kootenay Post through the winter and spring, departing the area in the summer of 1888.

After leaving Kootenay, Steele served in southern Alberta for many years, waiting for his chance to move into the upper echelon of leadership in the NWMP. Although political intrigue worked against Steele and he was never appointed Commissioner or Assistant Commissioner, he still worked diligently dispensing justice and upholding the law.

In the late 1890’s Sam Steele was sent to bring law and order to the gold fields of the Klondike, which he did very successfully. However, political intrigue once again worked against Steele and in 1899 he was unceremoniously recalled from the Yukon. Instead of waiting for a transfer to another assignment he accepted the command of a regiment being sent to fight the Boers in South Africa.

That acceptance was the end of Sam Steele’s NWMP career, serving the rest of his life in other military and police organizations including: Lord Strathcona’s Horse Regiment, the South African constabulary and the Canadian expeditionary force in World War I. After a long and grueling service to his country in foreign lands and at home, Samuel Benfield Steele passed away on January 30, 1919 at the age of 70.

Article courtesy of www.fortsteele.org edited 25/05/2017