Looking Back: The real Sam McGee

“Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.

Why he left his home in the South, to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.”

Robert Service

Robert Service’s most famous poem tells the tale of Sam McGee, a southerner who meets his fate on a frozen Christmas in the North.

Little did his readers know that the famous Sam McGee was a real person, but one who did not resemble Service’s character in any way.

Service, who was in the Klondike as an employee of the Canadian Bank of Commerce (now CIBC) stole the name for his character after the real McGee made a deposit at the bank.

The two men never knew each other.

McGee was born in Lindsay, Ontario (north of Toronto) in 1867, but came to the Yukon by way of San Francisco, California.

Like so many brave, gold-starved individuals, he made his way over the Chilkoot Pass as part of the Gold Rush of 1898. His path diverges pretty sharply from the standard Stampeder story from there.

McGee didn’t make the long journey up to the Klondike, opting instead to do his prospecting in the Whitehorse area.

The decision paid off handsomely.

In 1899, McGee built and settled into a little cabin in Whitehorse, where he proceeded to live with his wife, Ruth.

Later on in that same year, he staked the War Eagle copper mine, which went on to make him a very wealthy man.

Over the course of its run, the War Eagle produced over $20 million worth of copper, gold and silver.

McGee became a very significant figure in the history of the Whitehorse Copper Belt. While he was not the first to lay claim to copper deposits near Whitehorse, he was certainly among the very earliest.

His greatest contribution to the development of the area was through the development of roads.

During his time in the North, McGee was responsible for creating the Whitehorse-Carcross wagon road, the Conrad-Carcross wagon road, the road to War Eagle, and sections of the Whitehorse-Kluane Road, among others, all of which were completed in the period from 1904 to 1906.

In 1907, McGee moved into a two-story log cabin in Whitehorse, and found himself a wealthy and prominent citizen.

His daughter, Emil, and son, Barney, were both born in Whitehorse, and McGee had the opportunity to appreciate some of the spoils of his hard work.

By 1909, McGee was ready for a kinder climate and moved the whole family south to Summerland, British Columbia, where he took up fruit farming.

Sam McGee “at home”
Sam McGee “at home” in Whitehorse. (Undated).

Of course it was after the man left that the legend of Sam McGee began to grow.

“The Cremation of Sam McGee” was published in 1907 as part of Service’s collection The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses. The poem became an enormous hit, and is still one of the works most commonly associated with Service and with the North in general.

While McGee lived out his life in southern Canada and the United States, his namesake became more well-known than the man himself could ever hope to be.

McGee made two more trips to the North in his lifetime, returning in 1916 to check on War Eagle, and again in 1938 for a final prospecting trip.

It was on this second trip that McGee realized the extent to which his name had grown.

He found his fellow passengers on the steamship journey north buying “genuine ashes of Sam McGee” as souvenirs.

(It’s not just anybody who gets the chance to buy parts of their cremated selves.)

Only two years after this trip, the world would lose McGee for good. He died of a sudden stroke on September 11, 1940. He was 73 years old.

Though his name will forever be associated with the word “cremation”, he was not cremated.

Instead, McGee was buried in a plot next to his wife in Beiseker, Alberta.

His name lives on in verse. Sam McGee will always be remembered as one of “the men who moil for gold.”

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