Feed on

There are quite a few pieces of sheet music in the Sam Steele papers held at Bruce Peel Special Collections Library at the University of Alberta. One piece of music recently caught my attention, because Marie Steele refers to it a few times when writing her husband Sam who in in South Africa fighting in the Boer War. The particular music is titled “Soldiers of the Queen”, and in her letters written in 1900 Marie mentions how their two youngest children, Gertrude and Harwood, are forever singing this song. The sheet music is in the collection, and I have scanned the front cover of the music, and part of a letter in which Marie mentions the children singing the song.

In researching the origin of the song, words and music written and composed by Leslie Stuart, I learned that the tune was originally composed as a march celebrating the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894. In 1895, lyrics were added and the title changed, and it has been played and performed in many contexts since. The title is sometimes referred to as “Soldiers of the King” depending on the reigning monarch at the time. and has served as a regimental march for many military units, including the Lord Strathcona’s Horse – hence our connection to Sam Steele and the Steele children cheerily learning the lyrics to sing at home in Canada while their father is leading the Lord Strathcona’s Horse in South Africa. The song, interestingly, has also been used in entertainment media including the musical comedy An Artist’s Model (1895); as the musical theme to the film Breaker Morant (1979); and was used in a BBC Radio 4 comedy programme The Harpoon.

The chorus lyrics are as follows:

It’s the soldiers of the Queen, my lads

Who’ve been, my lads, who’ve seen, my lads

In the fight for England’s glory lads

When we have to show them what we mean:

And when we say we’ve always won

And when they ask us how it’s done

We’ll prouldly point to every one

of England’s Soldier’s of the Queen

You can listen to the song on Youtube right here.

Happy Family Day!

It is Family Day in Alberta, as well as in many other places in Canada, so I wanted to post a picture of the Steele family to honor the occasion! This particular picture was taken in 1916 when the family was living in Kent, England. At this time, two of the Steele children – son Harwood and eldest daughter Flora were serving in the military. Harwood enlisted with the Canadian Infantry in May of 1915 and saw active service in France, while Flora served as a nurse in hospitals in both England and France. Sam Steele in 1916, was the commanding officer of the Southeastern District of England, which included the principal Canadian training camp, at Shorncliffe, Kent, England.

The Steele family, throughout the years and notwithstanding the great distances that separated them at various times from one another, remained close through the regular exchange of letters, photographs, and when possible – visits.

Happy Family Day everyone!


Waking up in the Edmonton area today, we were greeted with temperatures hovering near 29 degrees below zero – not so unusual for January in Alberta! It always strikes me, when working with historical documents, how obsevations and comments about weather strike a truly common chord. As humans, we seem to have a need to discuss, comment (and in our case today – commiserate) about the weather! And observations about the weather abound in the Sam Steele family papers housed at the University of Albera’s Bruce Peel Special Collections Library. Sam Steele was a faithful keeper of personal journals and diaries, and almost without fail his entries begin with a short observation about the weather – fair or foul! In a previous blog entry I quoted from a letter  a teenaged Flora, Sam and Marie’ Steele’s oldest child, wrote to her father on his birthday in January 1909. Flora was writing from her home in Calgary to her father who was in Winnipeg, wishing him many happy returns for the day. In a later part of this letter, Flora writes this about the weather.

The weather was very cold yesterday, & today the cold is even greater. It is reported to be severe in the Yukon & Victoria. Edmonton is said to be extreme too.


Her comments about Edmonton ring so true today! Stay warm everyone – January is almost behind us.

Sam as a baby

Today (January 5th, 2013) marks the 165th year since Samuel Benfield Steele’s birth on January 5th, 1848 in Medonte Township, Upper Canada to parents Elmes Yelverton Steele and Anne MacIan Macdonald. An earlier blog entry focussed on the deliberate confusion Sam encouraged about the year of his birth – he appears to have always portrayed himself as being younger than his actual age. However, in our library holdings we have a copy of Sam’s baptismal record, and know for a fact that he was born in the year 1848! However, birthdays, to Sam, never appear to be a big deal. He rarely discusses anyone’s birthday in his diaries, and letters, or if he does, the comment is brief and to the point. For this blog entry, I thought I would look at correspondence sent to, as opposed to from, Sam on his birthday, and so have scanned a letter sent to Sam on his birthday from his daughter Flora in 1909. Flora, seventeen years old at this time, was living in Calgary and writing to her father who was in Winnipeg. “My own dear Father”, writes Flora, “Today is your birthday & it is with a heart full of joy that I wish you many happy returns in happiness & strength.”

I have also scanned the earliest photograph in our collection, admittedly of poor quality, of Sam Steele. Sam is but a young child in this image, sitting on what is presumed to be his mother’s lap. His mother died when Sam was just a child, and this is the only photograph of her in the Steele papers housed at the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library at the University of Alberta. Despite the grainy quality of the photograph, it is fitting to have a picture of baby Sam with his young mother, to honor his birthday.

Happy Birthday Sam!

Interesting items fill the Steele family archives housed at the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library! In honour of the Christmas season, I thought I would share a few of the items that bring this season to mind.

Honey Gingerberad

First, is a recipe for “Honey gingerbread”, hand-written on a scrap of paper, but quite legible (and the recipe sounds delicious)! My home will be the test kitchen for this recipe, because I plan on making it sometime this month.

Christmas Card

Second is a lovely small Christmas card that was sent to the Steele family and saved with their papers.

Christmas letterFinally, I have scanned part of a letter Sam sent to nine year old daughter Flora in 1901 while he was in Pretoria during the Boer War, and Flora was with the rest of the family in Montreal. Sam mentions who he ate Christmas dinner with, tells Flora that it was very hot, and describes the dinner:

We had chicken, roast beef, plum pudding, tea & coffee, [fine] wine for the others and enjoyed our dinner.

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and happy holidays! (and good eating too)

With November 11th rapidly approaching, I thought it would be interesting to look at what Sam recorded in his diary on this historic day in 1918. Sam, at this point in time, was not at all well. He was bedridden with the flu and other ailments that would end his life in only a short two months following this Armisitce Day. His diary entries for most of the days in the four or five months before his death often contain only one phrase: “sick in bed”.  However, he rallied with the end of war news on November 11, 1918 and his diary entry reads: “The terms, of the Armistice with the Central Powers proclaimed at 10:30 AM. All wild with joy. Foch is a great soldier.”

Foch refers to French General Marshal Ferdinand Foch who accepted the German request for an armistice, and prophetically declared: “This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years“.

Sam recorded a second entry related to the end of the war the next day, and on November 12th, 1918 writes: ”Still sick. The peace has virtually come. The enemy is whining about the severe terms of the Armistice. It could not be too severe. The wretches had almost ruined the world.”

Lest we forget!


In the third Sam Steele Video Blog, tour guide Samantha investigates an escape note from Steele’s time with the NWMP in the Klondike.

Law and Order: Sam Steele Edition from Sam Steele Collection on Vimeo.

In the second installment of the Sam Steele Video Series, tour guide Paul takes you to the eve of the Boer War with an interesting letter from a couple young volunteers for the Lord Strathcona’s Horse. If you want to see the letter for yourself the exhibit is open until September 30th at the Enterprise Square Gallery (10230 Jasper Ave) in Edmonton, Alberta.

Sam Steele Goes to the Boer War from Sam Steele Collection on Vimeo.

Welcome to the Sam Steele Video Blog Series!
The end of the Sam Steele: Journey of a Canadian Hero is fast approaching and we wanted to make give everyone interested in Steele but unable to visit Edmonton a chance to see a little bit of what is on display.
The first video comes from our tour guide Julie and it is about her favourite part of the exhibt, Sam the family man and the letters and photographs of his wife and children.

Sam Steele VideoBlog – Sam the Family Man from Sam Steele Collection on Vimeo.

*This was originally posted on Active History.

Portrait, Samuel Benfield Steele, 1891. Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta (2008.

Sam Steele was the Forrest Gump of Canadian History.  He was involved in some way with the Fenian Raids, the Long March West, the 1870 Riel Uprising, the establishment of the North-West Mounted Police, the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the 1885 Northwest Uprising, the Klondike Gold Rush, the Second Boer War, the First World War, the Spanish Flu epidemic, and the Winnipeg General Strike. None of the first five Prime Ministers could  make claims to have experienced that many of the key events of the country’s first fifty years!  Today Steele is a relatively unknown figure of Canadian history.  Aficionados of RCMP history know of him and there are corners of the country where his life is celebrated – like Fort Steele, BC, Fort Macleod, Alberta, and Dawson City, Yukon.  If you walked up to the average person on the street and asked “Who was Sam Steele?” they would probably give you a blank look and respond “Sam who?”

For those who remember the Heritage Minutes of the mid-1990s, Sam Steele is the stern-faced Mountie who responds to an American prospector, pointing a pair of pistols at him, with “In that case I’ll be lenient, we’ll keep this gambling gear and you’ll be back in the United States by sundown.”  At the end of the Heritage Minute, the prospector, with two Mounties escorting him back to the US, states “I coulda shot that guy right there.  Who was he anyway?”  The response: “Superintendent Sam Steele, North-West Mounted Police.”

Steele was a quintessential hero and the embodiment of Victorian masculinity at a time when Canada was striving to create a country from sea-to-sea and trying to emerge from the shadow of Great Britain.  His life parallels the major events of opening and settlement of the West, and his distinguished career with the NWMP and the military ensure his reputation was well known.  It is this reputation that led men from all corners of the country, and the US, to apply to serve in South Africa under Steele as the first contingent of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse.  Of the 2,000 men who applied in 1900, only 500 were accepted for service.  Nineteen years later when Steele’s funeral procession wove through the streets of Winnipeg, it brought the Winnipeg General Strike to a halt as workers paused in silent respect of his life and legacy.  There are few people whose passing could produce the a similar effect today.

Lord and Lady Strathcona group portrait with Steele (centre) and Officers of Lord Strathcona’s Horse

What is striking about the story of Sam Steele is that he went from national hero to relative obscurity in less than a century.  This decline presents an interesting opportunity to revive Steele’s legacy, not as a hero but as a means of conveying the first fifty years of Canadian history to the public.  The potential of the repatriated Steele collection to teach Canadian history through an individual is clear in how the University of Alberta Libraries have designed their digital and physical exhibitions of the collection.

Small sample of the Sir Sam Steele Collection

The website for the Sam Steele collection breaks Steele’s life and the collection into six sections: the Red River Expedition (1867), the Northwest Mounted Police and the March West (1873), Sam and Marie (1890), the Yukon and the Klondike Gold Rush (1898), the Boer War and the South Africa Constabulary (1899), and World War I (1914).  Each section corresponds with a notable period in Steele’s professional and private life and, as the titles indicate, each is a significant event in Canadian history.  The correlations are reiterated in the 100-foot long timeline that is a central feature of the Sam Steele: Journey of a Canadian Hero exhibit currently on display at the Enterprise Square Gallery in downtown Edmonton, Alberta.  The top of the timeline gives the key events of Steele’s life and the bottom give major events in Canadian history to clearly show when, and how often, these two lines intersect.  The rich collection of documents and photographs that is the Sam Steele Collection provides the evidence necessary to connect these two timelines and create a narrative of the past.

Through these parallel timelines, Steele becomes a tool for telling the story of Canada’s first fifty years in a way that gives it a human face.  Because Steele is no longer a well-known figure,  means when people encounter his life as a means of conveying Canada’s history it is without many of the preconceptions that come with historical figures like Louis Riel or Sir John A Macdonald.  This does not remove all political bias from the events – Steele’s advancement in the NWMP was often blocked by virtue of his Conservative political affiliations at times when the Liberals were in power – but it avoids the overt politicization of Canadian history that comes with many of the better-known individuals.  I would also challenge Canadian historians to find another person who was involved in as many significant events and has a rich archival collection comparative to Sam Steele.

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »