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Origins of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)

by Brian Alan Burhoe



The North-West Mounted Police Force was created in 1873 to bring Law and Order to the vast Canadian North-West Territories. 


At that time those Territories were in a state of chaos.  No Law existed. 


U.S. officials in Montana estimated that over 5000 "toughs" were running roughshod over an area greater in size than Western Europe.  Those toughs consisted of groups of outlaws, whiskey traders, wolvers and buffalo hunters -- often at war with the Indian Nations of the Northwest, including the Blackfoot, Sioux, Cree, Blood and Assiniboine.  The natives, whose numbers had been decimated by dreaded smallpox and fiery trade whiskey, were asking the few British representatives they could find to tell the Great Grandmother (Queen Victoria) to send back the red coated soldiers to protect them.


Those officials tried to explain that the British Soldiers who had patrolled that area (to protect the interests of the Hudson's Bay Company) had been withdrawn because the Territories were now part of a new nation called the Dominion of Canada.  It was up to the struggling, cash-poor Dominion to send soldiers.


Following the Cypress Hills Massacre of 1873, when a number of Assiniboine men, women and children were killed by a group of drunken whites calling themselves the Spitzee Cavalry, Canadian Prime Minister John A MacDonald was pressed by an outraged public to quickly organize a force of 275 men to ride west and establish the Queen's Law.


He originally called the organization the North-West Mounted Rifles.  But when President Ulysses S Grant warned MacDonald that if Canada sent a military force out west, it would be seen as an act of war (these were the times of Manifest Destiny), the Prime Minister promised him that no military action will be taken in Canada's western regions.


MacDonald hastily re-named the small force the North-West Mounted Police and their story, in Literature and History, has made them legend...





The North-West Mounted Police: The Popular Record

July 8, 1874.

It was a glorious sunny day.  

If the policemen in scarlet Norfolk jackets, white helmets and white gauntlets knew that they were about to make history (or have any idea that this day would launch the story that would become Canada's National Epic), none wrote about it later in their letters, diaries and reports.

Officers shouted their orders, buglers sounded their calls, horses fussed, cattle bawled and the supply wagons, field guns, wheeled mowing machines and ox-pulled Red River carts rumbled and screeched (in the case of the carts) into place. 

With Commisioner French's shouted command, six mounted divisions pulled out in a precise military line, two abreast.  The men of Troop A rode matching dark bays.  Troop B rode dark brown mounts.  C, bright chestnuts.  D division, carrying British Army lances (the same as the Light Brigade had carried in Crimea), rode buckskins and greys.  The men of E sat shining black mounts.  And F, light bays.

That image -- those matched horses -- those red coated Canadian Policemen -- the beautiful Canadian prairie setting -- was to become a central image in Canada's mythology.

(And yet, although hundreds of movies have been made about our Mounties, mostly by Hollywood, this iconic scene has never been re-created on the Big Screen - or even the small.  No dramatic close-ups of heroic actors of the day.  No thundering soundtrack playing an original patriotic score -- or even a traditional one of those times, like "The Maple Leaf Forever."  There's a kind of cultural tragedy in this.)

That small force of NWMP moved out of Dufferin, Manitoba, and headed west toward the junction of the Bow and Belly Rivers over 800 miles away in the foothills of the Rockies, in what today is southern Alberta. Their primary objective was to locate Fort Whoop-up, notorious stronghold of the whiskey traders, and destroy the whiskey trade. For two months the cavalcade of ox carts, wagons, cattle, field pieces and agricultural equipment crawled steadily westward over endless mile of prairie grass, wooded coulee, rolling hill and flatland.

After travelling 14 days they reached the Roche Percee on the Souris River. Their supplies were depleted, horses were exhausted, and many men were sick. The NWMP Commisioner, George French, decided to split the group in two. The sickest horses and weakest men would travel the easier route along a 800 mile cart trail toward Edmonton, while the rest would take the shorter but more difficult 550 mile journey toward the foothills of the Rockies.

Assistant Commissioner James F. Macleod, commanding Troops B, C and F and the remainder of A, headed westward to the foothills. Macleod, with the assistance of Métis scout Jerry Potts, set out to find Fort Whoop-up.

American Whiskey Traders from Fort Benton, Montana, had established Fort Whoop-up, a fortified trading post near what is now Lethbridge Alberta some years earlier. Whoop-up traded with the people of the First Nations for hides in exchange for poorly made guns, infected blankets and lots of bad whisky. Like a number of other trading posts on Canadian soil, the fort flew the Stars and Stripes and was well armed -- it even had a cannon. However, when the traders heard the Mounties were coming, they abandoned the fort. Thus allowing the Mounties to take the fort without a shot fired.

James Macleod led his detachment on to the banks of the Old Man River, where in October 1874, they began building the first police outpost in the far west. It was named Fort Macleod. 

In the months that followed, the whiskey trade was smashed and lawlessness sharply declined.

When the Mounties made arrests in the Cyprus Hill Massacre investigation, elements in the American press were outraged.  The concept of arresting white men for murdering Indians was a new one. 

By 1875, the police had erected additional posts at Fort Saskatchewan, Fort Calgary and Fort Walsh. Law and order was firmly established on Canada's western frontier. 

The NWMP's main task between 1874-85 was to establish and maintain amicable relations with the native peoples of the Northwest Territories. One of the Canadian Government's main concerns during this period was to avoid the American experience of genocidal frontier wars. Fortunately, the Canadian situation was different from that below the border. Miners, settlers and profit-hungry merchants had still not arrived in the Canadian west in sufficient numbers to challenge the warlike tribes for their hunting lands.

An essential demand of the Western Tribes was that the deliberate mass slaughter of the Bison, the Plains Buffalo, stop.  Upon arrival, the Mounted Police had ridden through a peaceful herd of Bison, which they estimated to be eighty thousand in number.  They wondered at first what the natives were talking about. But how could the natives describe herds of millions of Bison? 

The First Nations explained that the US Army and American railroad companies were giving out free ammunition to White hunters with orders to erradicate the Buffalo.  Also, the U S Cavalry was ordered to patrol the border to prevent Canadian Indians from hunting south of the Border and keep the Herd in US territory. 

Later, American historians would find government documents showing that Washington's plan was to drive the big herds to extinction, believing that the end of the Buffalo herds would "starve the Indian out" and bring about the death of Native culture.  They succeeded in this extinction with the Southern Herd.

Part of the Mounties' mission was to save as many of the Northern Herd as possible.  But in the spring of '75, a series of immense prairie grass fires just north of the Canadian Border almost prevented the migration of most the Northern Herd back into Canada.  The fires spread from the Wood Mountains in central Saskatchewan, westward to the Rocky Mountain Foothills, in a band of blackened prairie almost a hundred miles into the Dominion. 

Lieutenant Governor Archibald of Manitoba, after gathering evidence from Metis hunters and Mounted Police scouts had no doubt who started the fires.  "The fires were started at different points almost simultaneously," he raged.  "As if by some preconstructed arrangement." 

The Mounties, with help from Blackfoot and Cree warriors, were still able to round up and protect enough animals to form a few small protected herds.  In 1877, the Canadian government created a law that forbade the killing of buffalo bulls under two years of age, and the killing of cows.  By 1882, American Buffalo hunters were reporting that the last remnants of the wild Northern Herd were living "north o' the border" in Canadian territory.  The frustrated hunters were telling U. S. newspapermen that the Bison was "gone from our land.' [2]

All Buffalo living today are descendent from the Last Herds created by the North-West Mounted Police.

The Mounties were also charged with monitoring all Western Plains wildlife in their jurisdiction, arresting poachers and making all big game hunters sign in to a local NWMP detachment.

By the time substantial settlement did get underway on the Canadian prairies, the Indians' way of life had already changed dramatically, with the rapid disappearance of the buffalo herds. In the Spring of 1876, hostilities between the American Sioux and the United States Army made Canadian authorities anxious to peacefully acquire title to most of the territory held by the Saskatchewan First Nations and the Blackfoot Confederacy.

The arrival of Chief Sitting Bull and five thousand Sioux in Canadian territory after the Battle of the Little Big Horn accented that anxiety.  Major Walsh of the Mounted Police and two others met Sitting Bull and his people at the border.  Sitting Bull had the right to claim sanctuary in British territory due to a treaty made by his grandfather years earlier with King George III.  Walsh told the War Chief that he could stay on British soil as long as he obeyed the law. (Another iconic scene: Imagine three lone Mounties facing Sitting Bull, his gathered battle-weary warriors and people on the greening prairie...)

In the same year, Treaty No. 6 was concluded between the Canadian Government and the Cree and Assiniboine. The Crees and Assiniboine surrendered their title to 120,000 square miles of central Saskatchewan and Alberta by agreeing to this treaty. The presence of the NWMP in their scarlet tunics played an important calming role in the negotiations of Treaty No. 6.

In September 1877, at Blackfoot Crossing on the Bow River, tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy met with the two Canadian commissioners appointed to treaty with them: the Honourable David Laird, Lieutenant Governor of the Northwest Territories; and Commissioner J.F. Macleod of the North-West Mounted Police. The bond of trust which had developed between Commissioner Macleod and the two most prominent Indian Chiefs, Crowfoot and Red Crow, was the key to the successful signing of Treaty No. 7.

In accepting the "Blackfoot Treaty," Crowfoot said: "The advice given me and my people has proven to be very good. If the police had not come to this country, where would we all be now? Bad men and whiskey were killing us so fast that very few of us would have been left today. The Mounted Police have protected us as the feathers of the bird protect it from the frosts of winter."

On September 22, amid pomp and ceremony, the Chiefs of the Blackfoot Confederacy signed Treaty No. 7, surrendering their title to what is today Southern Alberta. At last, the way was clear for plains' settlement and the building of a transcontinental railway which Canadians hoped would bring a new and prosperous future to their young nation.


The Force would go on to fame.  From battling rebels to guarding the gold fields of the Yukon, their legend would grow.  The hunt for the Mad Trapper of Rat River, would reflect the adventure they would live; the lost Mounties patrol would reflect the tragedy they would undergo...



[1] I first saw Canadian-born artist Silvia Pecota's "Duty Service Sacrifice" in our local Shelburne Detachment.  I, like so many, was captured by the image and artistry.   Those four saddle-less horses...  I've since discovered that Silvia Pecota is one of our premier artists.  Her paintings of the RCMP, Military (both US and Canadian), hockey players, the Inuit and Northern images are amazing.  Not to mention her sculptures, photos and books, all revealing her many talents.  You can see her artwork at


[2] In 1885, during the heated Riel Rebellion, the Mounties could no longer act as Conservation officers.  Some bison drifted south into Montana.  It was in 1886 that Smithonial-based naturalist William Temple Hornaday rounded up six bison in a "remote part of central Montana."  In '89, Hornaday would write THE EXTERMINATION OF THE AMERICAN BISON, a book that called for the saving of the species.  He is credited with single handedly changing the public perception of the bison.



In Honour of Our Fallen

Many Mounted Police have put themselves in harm's way to protect our freedom, and lost their lives in doing it.  The recent tragedy in Moncton, New Brunswick, highlights that.  Can we honour them enough?

This iconic painting, "Duty Service Sacrifice" was created by artist Silvia Pecota [1] to honour the Members who were slain on March 3, 2005, near Mayerthorpe, Alberta.

Constable Anthony Gordon

Constable Lionide Johnston

Constable Brock Myrol

Constable Peter Schiemann

"The trumpet shall sound and the dead will be raised immortal . . . and we shall all be changed."





THE MOVIES: Hollywood's Mounties

On July 1st, 2013, Turner Classic Movies decided to celebrate Canada Day by showing "Canadian Classics" like Men of the North starring Gilbert Roland, Rivers' End based on a 1920 bestselling novel by James Oliver Curwood, Peg O' The Mounted, a parody of Hollywood's vision of Canada written by Bert Sterling, Rose Marie with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, God's Country and the Woman with George Brent, and also based on a Curwood novel, Northwest Rangers with James Craig as the tormented Mountie, Northern Pursuit with Errol Flynn playing the RCMP officer tracking down Nazi spies, and Cariboo Trail with Randolph Scott and Gabby Hayes.  All of them were Northwesterns, with lots of Mounties, horses, dogsleds and the great Northwoods... 


The American West and the Canadian North became romantic settings in Hollywood's world. The North-West Mounted Police were ready-made larger-than-life heroes and could be adapted to the western story with hardly a script change.

The North-West Mounted Police (later renamed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or Gendarmerie royale du Canada)  were portrayed, first in novels and magazines, and then in film, on the radio and television, and in advertising. Radio and TV shows about the Canadian Mounted Police had an interesting way of building on the truth to create a fantastical image using a mixture of events from Canadian and American history without regard to history or geography.

The first Mountie motion picture was The Cattle Thieves, produced and released in 1909 by the Kalem Company and featuring real members of the NWMP.  This film was followed the next year by Riders of the Plains, by the Edison Moving Picture Company.

Many silent era stars played Mounties, including William S Hart, Tom Mix, Monte Blue and Ken Maynard, in screenplays often based on the best selling novels and magazine stories of American author James Oliver Curwood.

One of the first Mountie stars of the Talkies of the early '30's was Kermit Maynard, the brother of Ken Maynard. Code of the Mounted starred Kermit Maynard as a Mountie hunting down "the coldblooded killer of two of his fellow Mounties." In Wildcat Trooper, Maynard's Mountie character "goes undercover to put the lid on a violent family feud between rival fur trappers."

Other early Western stars who donned the Red Serge jacket and broad-brimmed Stetson include Buck Jones, George O'Brien and Tim McCoy.

There are over 270 Hollywood movies featuring the RCMP, or their predecessors, and many more that show Canadian Mounties in their distinctive red uniforms. For American movie audiences, that uniform was the best clue of a Canadian location. The courteous, brave and trustworthy police became clichéd national characteristics-- all of Hollywood's Canadian heroes were members of the RCMP. 

Some of the most popular movie serials featured red-coated Mounties.  King of the Royal Mounted chased bad guys through the Northwoods, as did Clancy of the Mounted. 

One of the strangest was Republic's 1953 release, Canadian Mounties Vs the Atomic Invaders, a kind of early version of the James Bond thriller Dr No, in which a Soviet villain called Marlof builds a secret missile base in the Canadian Northwoods, planning a nuclear missile attack into key American targets south of the border.

The next year saw the release of perhaps the last major Mounted Police movie: Saskatchewan.  Staring Alan Ladd, Shelly Winters and Hugh O'Brian, this Raoul Walsh epic was filmed in Technicolor in the foothills of Alberta's Rocky Mountains, not to be confused with the prairies of Saskatchewan... 



Classic Mountie Hollywood Movie Serial


One of the last Saturday movie serials was Gunfighters of the Northwest - Last of the White Horse Rebels, a Columbia film starring Jack Mahoney as Sergeant Joe Ward and Clayton Moore (TV's Lone Ranger) as Constable Bram Nevin.  Kermit Maynard appeared in a few episodes as a Mountie named "August."


The popular Mountie movies were also grist for the TV mill. The Sergeant Renfrew series of films were run as serials on television in 1953 with new introductions added. Some new material was written for television, maybe as many as 13 new episodes, and some programs were a combination of new and old. In "Get Your Man," James Newill, as Sergeant Renfrew, explains how his North-West Mounted Police father was killed by smugglers and the show uses an edited flashback from the movie Renfrew of the Royal Mounted. The ideas may have been thin but the action was fast.

Famous mythical Mounties appeared in many formats over the years. The main character in the movie King of the Mounted first appeared in a short story written by the popular American Western writer, Zane Grey. Grey used the character to script a newspaper comic strip that his son, Romer Grey, expanded. The comic strip ran from 1935 to 1939. The movie, King the Royal Mounted, was made in 1940. The series continued in Big Little Books.

As Pierre Berton pointed out in HOLLYWOOD'S CANADA, the movie Mountie was a common and favourite hero although he was often indistinguishable from the American cowboy. Just as Canadians made North Woods Melodramas, they also made Mountie films. Corporal Cameron of the North West Mounted Police (1912) was one of the earliest and most popular Mountie films, and was made by Canadian film entrepreneur Ernest Shipman. Mounties and other elements of North Woods Drama also appear in Shipman's most celebrated film, Back to God's Country, starring Nell Shipman, who among other endeavours, would become an early Animal Rights activist.

As B-westerns thrived in the 1930s, so did the Mountie films. So much so that many referred to Canadian feature films as "Northerns," since the Mountie films of the 1930s were almost identical to the American Western genre, substituting dusty sheriffs for clean cut RCMP officers. Further blurring the lines was the fact that heroic Mounties were often played by the same matinee stars associated with the Western genre, including Ken Maynard and Tom Mix.

In the middle of the 20th Century, the RCMP was always the good guy and the Mounties always got their man. In O’Mally of the Mounted, made in 1930, Sergeant O’Mally was a "veteran of a thousand trails and a man who never failed." The movie begins with a criminal’s lament when he realises that the RCMP are on his trail.

A main theme of early RCMP movies was that of duty and honour over love and friendship. This classic plot development was followed closely in all three very different versions of Rose Marie. In the 1936 version, Nelson Eddy is tasked with bringing his sweetheart’s brother to justice. Rose Marie is most famous for Nelson Eddy’s warbling rendition of "Indian Love Call." 

The superhuman qualities of the movie Mountie were toned down after a former mounted police officer, Bruce Curruthers, was hired as the technical advisor for some big budget films. Curruthers was able to correct some of the common errors in Mountie flicks. However, for Wildcat Trooper, the studios disregarded Curruthers advice about the proper RCMP uniform. 

In some cases, the RCMP movies were based on books and the authors were considered expert enough. The films Murder on the Yukon and Yukon Flight were both loosely based on Laurie York Erskine's book Renfrew Rides North; RCMP officer Kermit Maynard investigates rival fur traders in Murder on the Yukon; the owners of a flight service skim gold from their cargo in Yukon Flight.

In Renfrew of the Royal Mounted, there are few things right about the detachment of singing Mounties galloping their way to a community barbeque. This film was made without technical advice from the Mounties, although the RCMP initially liked how the Force was depicted in the film.

The singing Sergeant Renfrew (James Newill) was at the opposite end of the spectrum from the hard-galloping, gun-toting Mountie (Kermit Maynard) portrayed in Wildcat Trooper.  (Although actor Kermit Maynard remains one of my favourite Mountie actors -- he seemed to love being a Mountie, had a sincerity that made him believable and likeable -- and, man, could he ride a horse!  What it comes down to is that Kermit seemed to have a sense of honour that he reflected in the characters he played.)

The retired Mountie Bruce Curruthers was the technical adviser on the Shirley Temple classic Susannah of the Mounted, a movie based on Winnipeg author Muriel Denison’s first of four Susannah books. The book was reasonably accurate and Curruthers did his best with the movie. The little pillbox hats are accurate for 1883, but the attack on the wagon train came straight out of American, not Canadian, history. After Curruthers left the set, the director added a scene where the Blackfoot chief burned the Mountie hero at the stake...

In the mid-1940s, Russel Hayden played a number of Mountie characters although he was more famous for playing Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick. 

Among the most popular Mountie movies were Susannah of the Mounties, starring Shirley Temple; Cecil B DeMille's North West Mounted Police, with Gary Cooper; Rose Marie with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy; Northern Pursuit starring Errol Flynn; The Wild North, with Wendell Corey and Mrs Mike, with Evelyn Keyes and Dick Powell.

Hollywood never let historical accuracy get in the way of good story telling.  And the portrayal of the Mounties has shown the same factual errors.  For instance, the rank of Captain has often been bestowed on Hollywood Mounted Police officers, although that rank never existed in the real Force (Superintendent Richard Burton Deane of the North West Mounted Police liked to be called "Captain" in deference to his earlier Royal Marines ranking).

The 1987 movie The Untouchables, starring Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and Robert De Niro, had its historical gaffes in dealing with its portrayal of the Royal Canadian Mounted in the age of Prohibition.  In the 1920's and '30's, the Mounties had their own cars and trucks, just like most North American police forces.  They also had motorcycles, planes and boats.  By then, they only used horses for wilderness patrols (wherever motorized vehicles couldn't reach), ceremony and the popular Musical Ride.  So the ineffective mounted charge on horseback on a border bridge and highway would have been as out of place as it would be today -- although it made a dramatic image.  And, yes, Ness called the Mounted Police officer in command "Captain."

But The Untouchables got the uniforms of the time right.  Hollywood usually gets the Look right.  The only gaffe there was the image of the Maple Leaf.  During a raid, Elliot Ness and his team discover barrels of Canadian whiskey.  We can see that it's from Canada because there is a large Maple Leaf emblem on each barrel.  Nothing wrong with that -- the Maple Leaf has been used as a brand image by various Dominion companies, institutions and government departments since Confederation.  But -- the Maple Leaf on these barrels is the stylized image used on our flag -- that flag and that stylized image (designed by Jacques Saint-Cyr) weren't introduced until the new flag was proclaimed in 1965.  During Prohibition, the Maple Leaf image in wide use was more naturalistic, a real leaf with pointed edges (see the hockey sweaters of the time worn by the Toronto Maple Leafs).

But, as I say, Hollywood usually got the image right.  Cecil B DeMille's North West Mounted Police may have suffered from a poorly written and researched script, but the 1940 film got the Mountie uniforms, detachment and procedures right.  And in glorious Technicolor!


SOURCES: MacBride Museum, Pierre Berton's HOLLYWOOD'S CANADA, personal research and opinion.

- Brian Alan Burhoe



SAM STEELE OF THE MOUNTED: The Greatest Mountie of Them All

"Sam Steele of the Mounted."  The very name sounds heroic.  Superintendant Samuel Benfield Steele, "The Lion of the Yukon," had his detractors, but not very many.  A man of enormous strength and courage, he actually lived the life of the Mythic Mountie as first envisioned by Commissioner French.  Sam's story is the story of the North-West Mounted at its best.

Sam Steele (1849-1919) was born in Medonte Township, Upper Canada.  He was the son of Royal Navy Captain Elmes Steele and Anne Macdonald. As one writer put it, "Men of action had run through the Steele clan like water down Niagara Falls."  Sam's predecessors had fought on the Plains of Abraham before Quebec in 1759, at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and at Waterloo in 1815.  Sam 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.

In 1866, with the coming of the bloody Fenian raids into Canada from American bases, Steele joined the Militia.  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. The big, burly Mountie helped rid the west of whisky traders.  Among other activities, Steele was part of the team negotiating between Sitting Bull and General A H Terry of the United States Army, during the Lokota medicine man's exile in Canada, following the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

In 1880, Steele was promoted to Inspector and given his first independent command at Fort Qu’Appelle. Up to this point, his responsibilities had mainly been dealing with the First Nations.  But with the coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway, he was charged with negotiating settlement and construction disputes, and with policing the rail line. Steele also laid out the NWMP post at Regina.

When the railhead of the CPR reached Fort Calgary in 1883, he was sent there as commanding officer. The North-West Rebellion prompted Steele to return to Saskatchewan. Given a leave of absence from the NWMP, Steel joined the Alberta Field Force and, as a major, commanded a paramilitary unit which had been organized at Fort Calgary in April. Known as "Steele’s Scouts," the unit was composed of twenty members of the North-West Mounted Police, twenty American (mostly from Texas) cowboys from local ranches, and twenty-two members of the Alberta Mounted Rifles. They departed northward from Calgary on April 20, and pursued Cree chief Big Bear until his surrender in July.

The Scouts were disbanded in August. Sam Steele, returning to the NWMP, was promoted to Superintendent. Steele returned to patrolling construction camps adjacent to the Canadian Pacific Railway and was present at the driving of the last spike. He was then posted to Battleford where he spent most of his time training recruits. 

In 1887, he led 75 Mounties to British Columbia to settle a dispute between that far western province and the Kootenai Indians. The policemen built a post, Fort Steele, and stayed about a year. In December 1888, Steele was given command of Fort Macleod.

In 1890, Steele married Marie Elizabeth Maye de Lotbinière Harwood of Vaudreuil, Quebec. They had two daughters and one son. The son, Harwood Elmes Robert Steele, would follow his father's footsteps into military service and would later write POLICING THE ARCTIC (1935) and a number of novels and short story collections based on Mounted Police cases.

By the mid-1890's, the Canadian West was becoming settled.  Sam was starting to consider retirement from the Force and seeking new adventures.

But the discovery of gold in the Klondike changed that. The Dominion of Canada needed someone to control the thousands of miners, mostly American, who flooded the Yukon. They also needed someone to hold the territory for the Dominion. The man for the job was Sam Steele.

Steele arrived in the American port of Skagway, Alaska in February 1898. Skagway was a wide-open town, dominated by a suave killer named Soapy Smith. Smith controlled the saloons and dance halls, where gamblers and prostitutes parted miners from their gold. Steele was determined to keep Smith and his type of corruption out of Canadian territory.

He scaled the passes of the St. Elias Mountain that terrible winter. With parties of Mounted Policemen, he set up border posts flying the Union Jack. The Mounties collected custom duties, confiscated handguns, and arrested men who mistreated their pack animals. It was clear that Steele was in charge. Soapy Smith's desperadoes were met at the border by Winchester rifles and Canadian law.

In the spring, Steele moved down to Lake Bennett, a tent city of more than 10,000 people. Here, prospectors saw two sides of Steele. He was known to lend his own money to men down on their luck, and to write personal letters to the families of those who died in the territory. But he could also be tough. One American caught with marked cards protested that he had rights as a U.S. citizen. Steele confiscated all of his goods and had a Mountie escort him on the 100 mile climb to the border.

Once the ice cleared, Steele and the other stampeders of Lake Bennett rode the wild Yukon River down to Dawson, with many hazards and fatalities on the way. Dawson was a chaotic boomtown of saloons, gambling dens, dance halls and a population of 14,000, including a number of veterans from Soapy Smith's gang. With a force of only 13 men, Steele cleaned up the town. He knew that he could not prevent the gambling and other vices, but he made sure that the games were honest, and he dealt swiftly with those who disturbed the public order. He also formed a board of health that stemmed a raging typhoid epidemic.

Unfortunately, it was political corruption that ended Steele's career as a Mountie.

With the arrival of steamboats down the Yukon River after spring thaw, came Eastern government clerks and business opportunists -- many of them looking for quick money through graft and corruption -- "business as usual" for the civilized Easterners. Politicians in Ottawa wanted their friends to get a share of the Yukon gold.  But Sam Steele stood in their way. Steadfast in his oath to "Maintain the Right," Sam refused to bend and turn a blind eye to the corruption. His reply to his critics was simple: "The Law applies to all."

In September 1899, the crooked government Minister in charge of the Mounted Police relieved Steele of his command.  When word of his firing reached the citizenry of Dawson City, there was an uproar. 

When Steele tried to leave Dawson quietly, the prospectors, gamblers, ragtime piano-players, and dancehall girls of Dawson poured down to the wharf to give Steele "such an ovation and send-off as no man has ever received from the Klondike gold-seekers," in the words of a local newspaper. They cheered Sam Steele until his steamboat was out of sight.

In 1900, he was offered command of Lord Strathcona's Horse, a British Army regiment to serve in South Africa during the Boer War.  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, a mounted police unit.  Steele went home to Canada in 1907, after a short stay in England. He eventually assumed command of Military Division No. 10 in Winnipeg, where he spent his time in regrouping Lord Strathcona's Horse, and in starting his autobiography.

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, Sir Samuel Steele died of influenza just after his 70th birthday and was later buried in Winnipeg.

Sam Steele wrote an autobiography: FORTY YEARS IN CANADA: Reminiscences of the great North-West, with some account of his service in South Africa.  FORTY YEARS is a detailed account of his life and experiences.  But readers who want a more intimate look at the character of the man and his heroic accomplishments should read the biographical novels written by Sam's son, Harwood Steele: SPIRIT-OF-IRON and THE MARCHING CALL.


Articles on Mountie History and Northwestern Literature by Brian Alan Burhoe... - History


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==>> A Note From Brian Alan Burhoe:

With the RCMP Veteran's Association, I am part of the creative team putting together "SCARLET GLORY: Honouring the Heritage of Canada's Mounted Police" -- a multi-media project created and produced by Mel Shaw of Nashville.

Mel started out as the manager/producer of the Western rock band, THE STAMPEDERS. He is the Founding President of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences and the Juno Awards. With his wife, Fran, he now runs Mel Shaw Music Platforms, Nashville, Los Angeles, New York and Toronto. My part in SCARLET GLORY will include podcasts and material about the portrayal of the Mounties in history, literature, pulp fiction and Hollywood.



Scarlet Glory - Canadian Mounties Tribute



SCARLET GLORY is a part of the
"Dreams of Gold: The Klondike"
a Work Now in Progress.
See Mel Shaw's Intro to the Project:







"Oh Canada, we stand on guard for thee!"


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