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Pick a momentous event in the history of the Canadian West, from the Gold Rush to the building of the railway to the Red River uprisings, and Sir Sam Steele was there, like a law-enforcing Zelig. Now, one of the country's most famous Mounties is finally coming home, or at least his journals, letters, sword and uniform are.

A remarkably rich, previously unseen trove of materials, this is "the Holy Grail of archival collections," according to Robert Desmarais of the University of Alberta, which bought the collection from Steele's family.

The Steele archive - thousands of letters, journals, maps and photos - will be handed over in London today in a ceremony at Canada House presided over by Prince Edward. The Prince is the honorary Deputy Commissioner of the RCMP, and Steele was the prototype Mountie, having been the third man to enlist in the North-West Mounted Police.

Highlights from the collection (which, in its entirety, was kept by Steele's descendants in 84 boxes that once contained bananas) were being installed at Canada House a couple of days ago. Steele's major-general's uniform from the First World War was carefully checked for moth holes and his numerous journals and letters - he kept up a daily correspondence with his wife no matter where he was stationed - were given the white-glove treatment.

"He had an uncanny ability to be at the most important moments in history," says Desmarais, the U of A's rare-books librarian, pointing to a picture of Chief Sitting Bull. Steele had been one of the Canadian officials who tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Sitting Bull to return to the United States after the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Steele, born in 1849 in Canada West (now Ontario), was a military man from the start: He attended Toronto's Royal Military School and was appointed to the Red River expedition sent West to put down the Riel uprising. His journals, letters and maps from that campaign, as well as documents he held onto from fellow soldiers, are now available to scholars for the first time.

In 1873, he joined the newly created North-West Mounted Police; the archive contains numerous portraits of him as a fresh young recruit and as an increasingly stern-faced senior law-enforcement officer. (In one photo, he wears the broad-brimmed hat that he helped to introduce, which Mounties wear to this day.) "He certainly did like to have his picture taken," Desmarais says. He also enjoyed keeping copious notes, which reveal a commander who could be fierce but inspired loyalty in his men. "He was a hard taskmaster," Desmarais says, "but he was adored by the people who stuck with him. He went through a lot of recruits, but if you passed muster, you had a career for life."

There was a softer side, though, evident in the letters to his wife, née Marie Elizabeth de Lotbinière Harwood: "My darling Marie," he writes in his heavy cursive in one letter from 1898. "It is now 1 a.m. and I have been writing for hours, but I must not retire until I write to my own darling wife."

That letter was written when Steele was trying to keep order in the Klondike, where prospective Gold Rushers fell prey to conmen and thieves. While briefly stationed in Skagway, Alaska, he once saw bullets rip through his cabin and didn't even get up to investigate, the occurrence was so common.

"This was one of the high points of his career," Desmarais says, pointing to a photo, dated around 1887, of railway workers on a handcart. Steele was charged with keeping the peace as the Canadian Pacific Railway was built, struggling with American whisky traders and the lawless society of labour camps.

Steele's presence at the centre of history-defining events meant that he became a celebrity during his life: Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, penned a pseudonymous novel about a heroic policeman named Steele. When Steele and his wife arrived for their honeymoon in New York City, 60 fire engines were on hand to greet them.

Says Ernie Ingles, vice-provost of the University of Alberta, "You had to believe that he had a sense of the importance of the events he was witnessing and he had an ego that said, 'I've got to save everything to do with my life.' "

It seems he did save almost everything: not just letters but chequebooks and logbooks and photos of his infant daughter, Flora, wearing a pith helmet. The treasure chest of documents and photos, never before seen by the public or historians, was maintained by Steele's descendants in England after his death from influenza in 1919. Upon hearing that Christie's auction house was selling the archive for $1.8-million, the University of Alberta sent researchers to examine it and immediately snapped it up.

The U of A plans to make the documents available digitally. The military artifacts, including Steele's spurs, ceremonial sword and the lantern he used for sending messages in Morse code during the Boer War, will go on display at Calgary's Glenbow Museum, which contributed $300,000 toward the purchase of the collection.

Sam Steele died in England at the age of 70, just weeks after being knighted. His body was returned to Winnipeg for burial. It arrived during the General Strike - Steele's last brush with history.

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