Steele's Network

Steele Collection MS 2008.

Portrait of NWMP officers, c.1898-1899

Forty Years in Canada would tell of Steele’s heroic role in “civilizing” the West and upholding law and order in both Canada and South Africa. A novice author, the former Mountie relied on a transnational network of former and current colleagues, friends, and family to assist in the production of the memoir that he hoped would secure his legacy. While friends and family assured Steele that his prodigious memory and storytelling abilities would help him to write the book, he was less certain of his capabilities. Steele wanted to be accurate and felt he could not simply rely on memory, so he asked members of his network to send him their reminiscences so that he could produce a comprehensive and accurate history. He also solicited the advice of friends like author Roger Pocock on how to organize the memoir and how to find a publisher, as well as how to seek the best possible venue for publication.

Steele’s social network largely consisted of former and current military and NWMP officers and Western pioneers like Henry Joseph Woodside and Roger Pocock who communicated with him about the good old days. Hundreds of letters in the Steele Collection testify to Steele’s active correspondence network and how he used it to fill in the blanks in his own records when he started to write the memoir. While Steele had notes and diaries dating from 1885 to 1909, he lacked material for the period 1870 to 1885, which included the Red River Expedition, the founding of the NWMP, and other key events. Steele particularly wanted documents from this early part of his career, not only to help him piece together his own actions but also so he could provide a historical overview of important events in Canadian history. When Steele started to send requests for information few denied or disappointed him. Letters in the collection demonstrate Steele was held in high regard and members of his network saw it as their job to provide information, to fact check his information, and to bolster his confidence.


Steele Collection MS 2008.

Woodside to Steele, 1 September 1910

Henry Joseph Woodside (1858-1929) was a friend who had been a journalist and editor in the Yukon when Steele had been stationed there. In a letter dated 1 September 1910, Woodside wrote to Steele about the “pleasing rumor” that he was writing his memoir and added that he hoped this rumor was true, as any book of Steele would prove to “be interesting."

By 1910 Woodside was working for the Canadian government in the Ministry of Militia, and he offered to help Steele with his project. He also wrote in the letter about other books either being written or about to go to press that would cover some of the same ground as Steele’s proposed book. It seemed Steele was entering a crowded marketplace of military and policing memoirs, but Woodside and others strongly felt Steele’s attendance at every major military event in Canada’s short history as a country and his time in South Africa would make his memoir stand apart.


Steele Collection MS 2008.

Pocock to Steele, 8 March 1909

Roger Pocock (1865-1941) would become a friend of the Steele family long after he had left the force due to a bad case of frostbite.[1] Pocock would find success as a journalist and writer who entertained readers with his exciting adventures in the Wild West, as well as with his fiction about Mounties who often bore a close resemblance to individuals like Steele.[2]

When Steele told Pocock he had doubts he could produce a memoir, Pocock reassured him in the 8 March 1909 letter that he was more than capable of writing an entertaining yarn that would be “a work of great importance and historical value.” Pocock wrote, “[y]our service covers the whole period of the ‘Conquest of the Plains.’ You had unique opportunities of getting accurate information, and your memory is an extraordinary gift which I have never seen equalled [sic]. A man who can remember as you do, the personalities and regimental numbers of horses can be trusted to produce a work of history which will be all the more fresh and vigorous because you will not, like the dry-as-dust historian, need to rely upon grubby manuscripts.”

Later in the letter, Pocock teasingly admitted, in a sentence that is crossed out, that Steele’s “literary style is damnable,” but above this sentence in the margins, he notes his comment “was exaggerated.” Still, the replacement sentence bluntly states, “[y]ou have no literary style so don't worry about it.” What Pocock attempted to do was to convince Steele that his memoir was not a literary text and therefore he should not worry about trying to write it as one. Moreover, Pocock recounted a tale of a badly written cowboy's memoir he had read years ago that he clearly remembered better than much of the literature he had read because its “massive blunders” revealed it to be “the work of a man of action, frank, direct, honest, clean, and from its truth, its utter sincerity, a greater book than that of a more literary person.” 

Pocock tried to convince Steele that his memoir would be a better memoir if he did not worry about writing a literary text. While Steele’s initial letter to Pocock does not survive, from the content and tone of Pocock’s response it seems Steele wanted advice on how to write and whether it would be worth his time. Pocock stressed the value of the book for Steele both in terms of its “documentary value” and its pecuniary one. Pocock confidently predicted the book would be a “profitable venture” for Steele as long as he gave up any literary aspirations. Still, Pocock reassured Steele that, unlike the cowboy’s memoir, his book would have natural polish because Steele had “profound knowledge as a soldier and pioneer, and the point of view of an Administrator.” Pocock argued if Steele wrote the book from memory and only checked his sources afterwards, any potential problems or “blunders” would only “convey to the reader a sense of your personality which would be lost if the text were tampered with.”



[1] Pocock details his struggles as a NWMP constable in his 1885-1886 journals that are part of the Steele Collection.

[2] For more information on Pocock’s life see Geoffrey Pocock’s Outrider of Empire: The Life & Adventures of Roger Pocock. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2007.