Manitoba History: The Burial Legend of Sam Steele

by Kevin D. Bell
Edmonton, Alberta

Number 89, Spring 2019

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Major-General Sir Sam Steele died in his sleep, most likely of complications from Spanish Influenza, at the age of 70, on 30 January 1919. His funerary cortège on 1 February proceeded with full military honours through the streets of London, England. According to his final instructions, however, his burial would take place in Winnipeg sometime later. From those bare facts a legend was elaborated that continues to inform the historical interpretation of the man.

Due to the logistical congestion of the immediate post-war situation, Steele’s corpse would have to wait a number of months in England before room could be found on a troop ship heading to Canada. As a result, the arrival of the body in Winnipeg coincided with the General Strike of 1919. This would have been an ironic enough situation considering the trajectory of Steele’s service in Canada. But more incredibly, the appearance of the body at a critical moment would affect the course of events in an almost supernatural fashion.

Samuel Benfield “Sam” Steele (1848–1919) came to Manitoba in 1870 as a member of the Wolseley Expedition. Three years later, he joined the North West Mounted Police. He served during the many seminal events in Canadian history, including the 1885 North West Rebellion, Yukon Gold Rush, and First World War, but he missed the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919.
Source: Library and Archives Canada

Steele’s burial in Winnipeg has been used by writers of popular histories since the early 20th century to tell stories. The fullest expression of the legend, although derived from an earlier version, comes from Robert Stewart’s 1979 biography, “Sam Steele: Lion of the Frontier.” Stewart’s story still forms a touchstone for most modern scholarly and popular accounts. But his own poorly documented sources contradict his story. Further, Stewart’s use of the burial has been given the benefit of the doubt by many for the past forty years despite the suspiciously coincidental nature, apocryphal claims, and the propagandistic message contained in the legend that he constructs. In light of this, and due to its influence on subsequent accounts of Steele, the story deserves investigation.

The Man

The Northwest Territories is an arctic territory between Yukon and Nunavut. In the late 19th century, however, it covered all that land plus what is now Alberta, Saskatchewan, and a large portion of Manitoba. In the last half of the 1860s Canada made a deal with the Hudson’s Bay Company, brokered and given the legal stamp of approval by the British Imperial government, to purchase the company’s monopoly rights in the region. In the middle of July 1870, Canada claimed the territory.

Within three years, Canada occupied Manitoba and three years after that “The North West Mounted Police” were formed at Fort Dufferin, south of Winnipeg, to assert the claim. It was the opening of the main act in Canada’s “Old West,” and the police, aside from being the long arm of the Canadian state in the territory, became the West’s, and the nation’s, heroic symbol. In the nation’s historical imagination the difference between the policies guiding western expansion in Canada and those in the USA were best represented by the men in the red coats.

With their cultivated image popularised in the press, literature, and movies, the Mounties also underwrote and facilitated the establishment of Canadian civilisation in the Northwest, and all that entailed. Sam Steele was an original of that force, and a leading figure in much of its early history. He was present in nearly every significant episode in Western Canada and Yukon during the transition of the Northwest. In fact, his autobiography, a work intended as a history of the period that Stewart would later assert as “self-effacing,” was called, aptly enough, “Forty Years in Canada.”

Alison Rukavina, professor of English literature at Texas Tech University and specialist in 19th-century British and colonial literature, provides a different perspective from Stewart’s. In her assessment of Steele’s autobiography, contained in the online exhibition “Sam Steele’sForty Years in Canada: History or Fiction?” she notes that, “Research shows Steele borrowed his colleagues’ letters, taking their first-person accounts and making them his own.” She goes on to assert that Steele did this “in order to place himself at the centre of the action, as well as to highlight significant experiences and moments in a Mountie’s life.” This is the exact opposite of “self-effacing,” and more like a very conscious attempt at self-promotion.

The construction of Steele as an icon of Canadian history continued after his death with the efforts of others. Aside from Stewart’s 1979 biography, in the 1990s, Historica Canada produced a “Heritage Minute” featuring Steele in which he faced down and deported a shady American desperado with the sternly delivered line, “Men don’t wear guns in Canada.” In a nation thirsty to define its character, Sam Steele was ready-made to fill the need. Unfortunately, Historica Canada also produced a lesson plan for educators which uses Stewart as a source, and which repeats his version of events almost verbatim.

Undeniably, Steele is an important historical figure who was active at a critical transitional time, both in a Canadian colonial and British imperial context, and the role he played deserves careful consideration. His impact has been significant, but for Stewart, amongst others, the available facts did not go far enough to support their versions of history.

The Legend

A 2015 popular biography by Norman Leach contains a version of the legend. In “Sam Steele: An Officer and a Gentleman,” he describes the funeral procession in Winnipeg,

Police officers, including members of the R.N.W.M.P., were in pitched battles with strikers, who were demanding better working conditions. Rioters controlled the streets. But when the mayor of Winnipeg asked for time to bury the old policeman and military general, the strikers quietly agreed.

But Leach’s account is a more prosaic version of Stewart’s 1979 account. That version, contained in the final two paragraphs of his book, states:

Steele had left a request to be buried in Winnipeg, where it all began. His body did not arrive until almost six months later, in the middle of the Winnipeg general strike of 1919. Riots were raging on Main Street. Several of the Mounted Policemen called in to restore order were badly beaten up. Rescuers dragged them in to safety in a nearby building. One young constable named McQueen was taken unconscious into an undertaking parlour, where he was laid out on a slab in the back room. There beside him, in the still majesty of death, lay the embodiment of all that was great about the Mounted Police—the body of Sam Steele.

The rioting went on into the evening. The strike was still in progress the next morning when the largest funeral western Canada had ever seen was held. It brought a lull in the violence. Strikers with bare bowed heads lined the streets as Steele’s cortège passed by. Mounted Policemen rode behind the riderless black horse with Steele’s boots reversed in the stirrups. The strikers who had battled these men in hatred the day before did not so much as raise a voice against them...

Earlier versions of the legend exist, but they are more restrained. In 1938, a McGill University archivist, journalist and author of several First World War regimental histories named R. C. Fetherstonhaugh gave an account of Steele’s corpse during the Winnipeg General Strike in his book, “The Royal Canadian Mounted Police.” Describing the melee during the charge of the Mounties on “Bloody Saturday”, Fetherstonhaugh tells us about Constable McQueen, who, unhorsed and beaten by strikers, is pulled,

... by a strange coincidence, into a funeral parlor (sic), where, silent and majestic in death, lay the body of that old stalwart of the force, Major-General Sir Samuel B. Steele.

Fetherstonhaugh goes on to invoke the “disciplined spirit of the lion-hearted old veteran” to describe how the decision to fire on the crowd was made only “as a last resort.” He has unadmitted bias, and his story has an obvious purpose, a justification of the decision to fire on the crowd (which resulted in 30 casualties and one death). But aside from inserting Steele’s corpse, “draped in the folds of the Union Jack” as a totem for the embattled Mounties, in his version it is still only an inspirational corpse, and there is no procession.

In Stewart’s 1979 account, Steele is elevated into a legend. Stewart first goes baroque with the funeral parlour scene, writing that Constable McQueen, now unconscious, was laid on a slab next to “the embodiment of all that was great about the Mounted Police—the body of Sam Steele.” In one line, Stewart imbues the corpse with potency; it becomes a relic akin to the body parts of saints revered by the ancient Christians. Then he adds a new element of a distinctly political nature. While the potency of Steele’s corpse inspires discipline in the Mounties for Fetherstonhaugh, Stewart instead magnifies and redirects its power onto the strikers.

According to him, the riotous events continued into the next day, at which point the procession appears. It pacifies the workers who are humbled by the appearance of the cortège. The violence Stewart describes stops, and the rioting masses part like the Red Sea.

... with bare bowed heads lined the streets as Steele’s cortege passed by ... (t)he strikers who had battled these men in hatred the day before did not so much raise a voice against them ...

Like the moralists of old, Stewart does not hesitate to interpret the story he tells. He finishes the paragraph, and the book, “... Even after his death Sam Steele was on the stage of Canadian history—and fulfilling his destiny of bringing order to a disorderly world.”

The premiere issue of the 28-page graphic mini-series “Steele Vs” imagines Sam Steele as a larger-than-life hero. In it, a party of hikers is mauled to death and Steele is sent to investigate. While all signs says a bear attack, he grows skeptical as he tracks the killer through a blizzard. Copies are available in digital and print formats from the publisher, Pistol-Whip Press.
Source: Scott Schmidt, Pistol-Whip Press

Perhaps only Vladimir Lenin, entombed in his mausoleum, could compete with such idolisation. This article is not the place to elaborate on how Sam Steele brought order to a “disorderly world” waging colonial wars, strike-breaking, and the racist policing of indigenous people in Canada and South Africa. It is, however, the place to debunk political fictions offered as historical facts.

The Reality

Stewart places the procession on the day after “Bloody Saturday.” But there is no evidence that the violence of the 21st spilled over into the 22nd, meaning the events he describes are his invention. And this is the heart of the problem of getting to an honest account of the life and death of Sam Steele. Stewart’s book has been influential, and it is the funeral procession narrative that is retained, in some form or other, by accounts written in the decades after Stewart’s version.

Even if we generously assume that Stewart just made an error and actually meant the procession took place on “Bloody Saturday,” and not the day after, we know that his account is still wrong because it was reported in the press at the time that Steele was buried on 3 July 1919, after the strike was over. Stewart ignores this, and he is cherry-picking his facts as his own sources for the book contain the news of Steele’s burial.

Steele’s death in January 1919 is a matter of public record, as is his burial in Winnipeg nearly a week after the strike ended. This begs the question of whether Steele’s body was even present in Winnipeg during the strike, or if it arrived after it was over, closer to the date of the interment? If it had arrived during the strike that would be an interesting coincidence. Stewart’s claim aside, an archivist at the University of Alberta dealing with the Sir Sam Steele Collection, advised that following the body, presumably in transit with the family on their return to Canada, would be a good starting point for the investigation.

She located several telegrams in the collection which place the body on board the Canada-bound troop ship, the SS Melita, along with living members of the Steele family. Work in the Library and Archives Canada confirmed, via the passenger manifest, that the Steele family was listed aboard the Melita, leaving Liverpool on 3 June, arriving in Montreal eight days later on the 11th.

The Montreal Gazette reports the ship’s arrival on 12 June. It confirms that at 7 a.m. the Melita docked at Montreal, and mentions that the body was transferred from the ship onto a carriage. The article then notes that Steele’s corpse was taken, with full military honours, to Windsor Station and kept under guard until departing for the west that day. The article also notes that the remains would be accompanied by Lady Steele and her daughter.

From there the media trail goes cold. Given the travel time of the CPR Transcontinental from Montreal to Winnipeg, the trip would take about two days, which means the body should have arrived on Saturday, the 14th. The Monday, 16 June edition of the Manitoba Free Press notes that soldiers who also arrived aboard the Melita detrained in Winnipeg on the morning of Saturday, the 14th. Regardless, Lady Steele was in Winnipeg by the 21st, according to a telegram she received there from the International Order of the Daughters of the Empire petitioning her to have Sir Sam buried in the Brookside Cemetery’s Field of Honour. Her correspondence with Major-General H. D. B. Ketchen, commanding Military District 10 based in Winnipeg, starting before 21 June—the day known as “Bloody Saturday”—also places her there.

Steele’s grave marker in the St. John’s Cathedral Cemetery lists his many accomplishments.
Source: James A. Burns

Most probably, the body did arrive in Winnipeg during the strike along with Lady Steele. Questions remain, however, as to where his corpse lay in storage for three weeks before burial. A more likely location than an unsecured funeral parlour in the middle of downtown during a general strike would be the city morgue which was, perhaps surprisingly, particularly empty when compared to the period before the strike. Or, even more secure would have been a cold storage room at one of the city’s armouries or barracks. But where it was kept prior to burial is unknown. Further archival research might tell us what really happened.


Through research into the public record and publicly available archival sources, we have confirmed something of the legend of Sam Steele’s journey in death, and provided evidence of an interesting bit of historical coincidence: Sam Steele’s body was in Winnipeg during the General Strike. Robert Stewart got that much right in his biography of the man. More importantly however, it has been shown that Stewart’s biography is deliberately incorrect, and contradicts his own sources. His classist depiction of humbled and pacified workers doffing their caps as the corpse rolls past has no basis in historical fact. The problem is that he has been taken seriously.

It is the fictional procession that has been retained by many later accounts, parroting the worst of Stewart. Some simply repeat the invention, while others openly cite Stewart’s book as a source. Accounts that leave out speculative details and simply report that Steele was buried in Winnipeg can be found online. But the lack of research into the subject of Sam Steele, and a hole in the critical evaluation of Stewart as a source, have allowed his account to become pervasive. Serious attention has only recently been directed towards Steele as a historical figure, with a biography recently published by the University of Alberta Press.* But the influence of Stewart on the historical lexicon describing the life and death of Sam Steele requires a careful second look at the perspectives informing the historical interpretation of the man, and his role in history.


* MacLeod, Rod, 2018. Sam Steele: A Biography, Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 432 pp.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 25 April 2021