Sir Sam Steele: Letters From The Past
Context is everything, particularly when judging historical figures such as Sir Sam Steele.
The purpose of the following article is to inform and educate, and not to remark on commemoration or legacy.
There are always new discoveries related to our local history.
Imagine the excitement when in 1999 Orillian Sheelah Robertson contacted OMAH member, RCMP Chaplain, history buff, Gerry McMillan and invited him to look at handwritten original letters that her grandfather had received from Sir Sam Steele. Sheelah was aware that Gerry had a keen interest in the history of the (RCMP). Upon seeing the letters, he knew that this was an invaluable historic record. For Gerry, reading these letters was like reliving history.
Samuel Benfield Steele, his family and their link to Medonte Township and Orillia
Sir Samuel Benfield Steele and his family feature prominently in the history of Medonte (now Oro-Medonte) and Orillia. In fact, OMAH is housed in the Sir Samuel Steele Memorial Building named in his honour. There is an installation near the Steele family home at the 11th Line in honour of Steele and his family.
Steele was born on January 5th, 1848 in Medonte at Fairvalley. He was the eldest child of Elmes Steele’s second marriage to Anne MacIan Macdonald. Sam was nine years old when his mother died and he was thereafter raised by his older half-brother, John Steele. Sam attended school in Orillia.
Steele’s Colorful Career in the Police and the Military
Steele had a colourful career as an officer in the North West Mounted Police and in the Canadian Military. Following his involvement with the North West Mounted Police, he served overseas as a high-ranking military officer.
In 1899, Canada, as a part of the British Commonwealth, was obligated to send troops to South Africa when war broke out between the Boers and the British. Steele would command a Canadian contingent to South Africa. Donald Smith (Lord Strathcona), the individual who had hammered the last spike at the completion of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad financed Steele's troop. In Smith's honour, the contingent was named “The Lord Strathcona Horse.” Steele would remain in South Africa after the war at the request of Lord Baden Powell (founder of the world-wide Boy Scout Movement). Steele assisted in establishing a police force modelled after the North West Mounted Police. Then upon returning to Canada he commanded the Canadian Militia units between the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains.
Outbreak of the First World War
When the First World War broke out, Steele was stationed in England. As a high-ranking officer, he would be responsible for the training of Commonwealth troops. Steele made a profound mark on British Military leaders and politicians alike. In 1914, he published his autobiography, Forty Years in Canada.
Letters from the Past Discovered
In recent years many artifacts and letters have been discovered relating to Steele. We are fortunate that Thomas Blaney’s granddaughter Sheelah Robertson recognized the importance of her grandfather’s correspondence with Sir Sam Steele. These two men corresponded with each other in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Letters retained by Blaney's descendants provide a first-hand glimpse into Steele’s character, his concerns and his experiences during that time.
Who was Thomas Blaney?
Thomas Blaney, a father of nine, was a sheriff, a bailiff, a constable and a butcher. He operated a butcher shop in Coldwater. He lived on the 12th Concession of Medonte.
John Steele, Sir Sam Steele’s half-brother, was a clerk at the Division Court. Sir Sam’s father Elmes was a magistrate. It was inevitable that Blaney maintained contact with the Steele family.
Steele’s Brother John Passes - Steele’s request to Thomas Blaney
Samuel Steele wrote Blaney from Fort Osborne Barracks in Winnipeg. John Steele had recently passed away. Sam was asking Blaney to look after his brother's tombstone.
Steele wrote, "You may be able to find me the cost of a nice solid tombstone... anxious that nothing should be undone. You could place a brass tablet inside the church. My father gave land there, so there should be a good-sized plot to set aside for other graves.”
"My father also built the first old wooden church which served for many years and the least the rector and the church warden could do would be to see the grave would be properly kept in good state of repair don't you think so?"
Elmes Steele purchased the property and he built the Anglican Church in Medonte. When the original structure burned down it was rebuilt, and that building, St. George’s Anglican church is located on the same property at Fairvalley today.
St. George’s Anglican Church, Fairvalley
Steele’s Concerns About the Family Burial Plots at Fairvalley
August 13, 1917
Samuel was concerned about the family plots. In a letter he dispatched to Blaney on August 13, 1917, Steele wrote,
“My great-grandmother Catherine Bond died in the old home and when I went there, I could not find the grave nor I think anyone can. They must have a register of the death. I would be glad if you could drop parson a note asking him to look it up as I want to put up a tablet to her memory. She died about 1849 not before 1848 and was about 93."
Concerning the situation with the grave plots, Steele wrote Blaney,
"It's kind of you to let me know that you have been up to Fairview to see the graves and I'm indeed grateful.”
Steele family gravesite (British flag marking the spot)
Steel Reminisces about the Family Farm at Fairvalley
January 12, 1917
Steele wrote Blaney, "On the quiet, do you think the old farm would be bought and at what price? I had inquiries made at the time and it would have been bought then."
February 16, 1917
Steele was still concerned with the property in a letter dated February 16, 1917.
“Many thanks for all the trouble you have taken about the place. It seems to be a fair price. Is there much water in the creek? There would be plenty of trout in the fall but of course that was when there was a large flow of water. I suppose if it were dammed up a pond could be made. It was a good place for fruit, there were good crops of all sorts. It was somewhat stony land. How many acres are there? What do you think of it as a farm? You who are a good judge."
There is an historical marker indicating the original Steele property, Purbrook. Eleanora, daughter of the first rector of St. George’s Church, Fairvalley died in 1846 at the age of 23 and is buried in the church graveyard.
Photo of Steele family homestead at Purbrook (Framed photo is in stone memorial) the pencil sketch of the Steele home is the work of 13-year old Eleanora
May 10, 1917
Steele found it hard to see the old homestead that he loved in his youth. On May 10, 1917, he wrote,
"I did not like the style of the house very much but the barn seemed good. I like the life in the country and I think perhaps it could be made into a nice place for the summer and I suppose then there would be some game or likely to be. We used to hunt partridges but if it is stony it would take a good deal of trouble to make it presentable."
Steele’s letters to Blaney about his Command in England and his Concerns about the War
June 12, 1917
Steele wrote Blaney on June 12, 1917,
“I have British Troops under me, also the School of Musketry at Hytte and other schools as well. I was to have the command of all Canadians In England and Sir Hughes (Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia) had called to the Militia Department in Ottawa to this effect, that I had been appointed.'
Steele went on to say that nothing was done, then he added, “So much the worse for the Canadians, for I am well acquainted with the needs of my country and they understand me."
Through his correspondence Steele would let Blaney know some of his thoughts concerning the war. It was a great disappointment to Steele that he did not get the opportunity to see battle during the First World War. Some of the Canadian superiors thought he was now too old. Yet Steele was very loyal to his country and would continue undertaking the task of training Commonwealth troops in England.
In another letter, Steele wrote to Blaney,
"The news is good at the front, but a great number of fine men have fallen. Some of my personal friends. I have my name down to serve the British as the Canadians have decided not to keep me."
Ironically, it would be the British government that would honour Steele and knight him with the title "Sir." The Canadian government did not give Steele similar recognition after serving his country so faithfully for so many years.
May 31, 1917
Steele wrote to Blaney,
"The fighting is devilish and many men have died. As written in history, many died and there was much glory. Canada has done marvellously. Very fine troops. In fact, all the British and French troops are good. I see there is conscription talk in Canada and I hope it will carry."
Steele writes Blaney about his concern for his son Harry
Thomas Blaney's younger son, Harry was in the army. Harry was married to Muriel Yeo of Orillia. Brock was their son. After the war, Harry would become a jeweller for the Woods and Yeo Jewelry Store in Orillia.
Blaney asked Steele in his correspondence to send words concerning the welfare of his son.
February 16 1917
Steele wrote, "I wrote your son's colonel and asked him to help him get a post in England and then I asked at your son's request if they would transfer him to the motors. But I hear that he has been sent to the front on a draft of reinforcements. I am sorry I could get nothing done about the matter. You see that I have the British Command only and have consequently less influence with the Canadians. I will keep my eye on him all the same and will let you know about him."
May 10, 1917
Steele reported to Blaney in a letter May 10, 1917, "Your son is over in France. He wrote Mrs. Steele to say how he is. I hope he finds things satisfactory. He shall do well."
June 28, 1918
Unfortunately, Harry was wounded during battle. Steele wrote on June 28, 1918,
"I just received your letter with reference to your son who is in hospital. Lady Steele has been keeping in touch with him and he's getting on first rate. The shrapnel wound is not serious. I think he will soon be fit to leave the hospital... I have already written to his wife in Orillia, who by now must have received my letter and will be able to give you all the news."
Steele’s Retirement and Plans to return to Canada
In his book Samuel Steele - Lion of The Frontier, Robert Stewart related that Steele was placed on the retirement list on July 1, 1918. After years of service, the Canadian authorities were forcing his retirement.
The British desired that Steele remain in his position. However, they did not want to upset an allied country. Stewart said that though Steele had so many achievements he felt he had been used. It weighed on his mind and his health was affected.
A tremendous benefit for Steele was having his family stationed with him in England. The Steele family would move from their residence in Folkstone, England to a home in the London suburb of Putney. Steele did not let his spirits keep him down for long. He was excited about the prospect of moving back to Western Canada.
Stewart said this was, 'the scene of his greatest happiness.'
January 30, 1919
Steele wrote a friend in Calgary asking him to find a home for his family. However, in the early hours of January 30, 1919 Samuel Benfield Steele passed away. Steele had left a request that he be buried in Winnipeg, where his career began. Today Steele's grave can be viewed in St. John's Cemetery in St. Boniface (Winnipeg) Manitoba.
Plaque honouring Sir Sam Steele at Fairvalley Memorial.
Gerry McMillan said that reading these letters was fascinating. The ones quoted here are but a few of them. In a small way, the letters share the heart and the soul of this notable character of Canadian history.
Confiding in Blaney reveals in a small way the makeup of Steele. Blaney no doubt was a true and loyal friend.
McMillan was so honoured that Sheelah Robertson, Thomas Blaney's granddaughter, gave him the wonderful opportunity of reading these marvellous letters and sharing them in this article. This was an invaluable discovery about our local history and the letters have been given their due respect.
Notes and excerpts from an article published in the Orillia Packet and Times, written by Gerry McMillan, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Chaplain and member of the Orillia Museum of Art & History (OMAH).
Photos and editing by Dave Osborne, OMAH History Committee.