On the trail of the real Sam McGee

On the trail of the real Sam McGee

The subject of the famous Klondike poem immortalized by Robert Service was actually a farmer from Beiseker, Alta.

Robert Service made him famous in his 1907 Klondike poem titled The Cremation of Sam McGee. However, the real Sam McGee was not from Tennessee, he did not perish in the Yukon winter, and he was not cremated on the “marge of Lake Lebarge” in a derelict stern wheeler.

William Sam McGee was an actual farmer hailing from Beiseker, Alta. He died of natural causes in 1940.

A decade ago, I was flipping through an old magazine and I read about Robert Service and his famous character, Sam McGee. I spotted a few references to McGee’s real life: his occupation, his stint in the Yukon and where he was laid to rest. The article gave only minimal clues, yet it stuck with me — a mystery I needed to solve. Where could I find Sam’s grave?

On a beautiful June morning six years ago, I met up with an old friend and we headed out of Calgary to find Sam McGee. Ken Greenfield didn’t expect anything other than an excursion into the country, and maybe afterward, an entertaining tale of a “wild goose chase.” He loved the poem, though.

The Beiseker village office, 60 kilometres northeast of Calgary, was our first stop. The clerk said she had heard rumours of the gravesite, but she had no ideas. We drove onward.

My sketchy clues suggested a sunken marker at the back of a church cemetery near a border of bushes. Trouble is, that describes almost every rural countryside cemetery.

Three hours and three cemeteries later, we were in Rosebud, better known for its theatre productions than for harbouring the earthly remains of a poetic folk hero. We pulled into a tea and gift shop to rest and rethink this fruitless trek. I had actually thought this search would be easier.

The tea lady chatted us up, so I asked her about the grave. She too claimed to have heard of it. “Oh, if you find it, let me know,” she said, flipping me a business card. “I’m curious.”

Ken glanced at his watch and figured we should head back. I did too, but unspoken was the thought that we had failed. Sam had eluded us.

Our consolation would be a scenic backroads shortcut through gently rolling green fields. Ken drove. I pouted. Maybe I should just leave the McGee lore alone, undisturbed. The people of Tennessee likely have a statue of him already, and are charging admission.

And I was mad at Robert W. Service. The Bard of the Yukon should have told us the truth in the poem. McGee maybe did moil for gold. He did toil in farm fields though … around here … somewhere.

Ken sped onward. What? A clump of trees, a glimpse of a white tower, a steeple. It’s got to be attached to a church. The gravel flew as Ken made the turn north. We’d try one more stop.

We pulled up to a cemetery beside a country church. I spotted the gate and the row of bushes at the back. I ran. Ken tried to keep up, but his adrenalin hadn’t kicked in yet. Mine had.

I scanned a row of gravestones along the back. Nothing. But wait, this marker should be sunken. I looked again, this time walking slowly behind the last row of gravestones.

A small square of concrete only slightly larger than my size 12 shoe spelled out “W.S. McGee” and his year of birth, 1868 — a year after Canada’s.

Ken came up beside me.

“You found it,” he deadpanned.

Relief superseded excitement. I could hardly talk. I cleaned away dried grass clippings. Ken took photos.

Then I recalled the attitude of the church preacherman, as told in the old article. He didn’t want visitors to the grave, he didn’t want pilgrimages out from the city and he didn’t relish “wanna-be poets” reciting the famous lyrics above Sam’s bones. He wanted Sam to be left alone — to rest In peace.

“Let’s scram,” I said.

Ken agreed.

Our stop took about as long as it takes to recite the poem — all 15 verses.

Ken Greenfield helped the author with his search for Sam McGee’s grave. | Mark Kihn photo

On the way home, I recounted McGee’s history. Sam McGee arrived in the Klondike in the late 1800s as young man. Along with wife Ruth, he came seeking flecks of gold, but he had other skills too, and put those to use. McGee gets credit for road building in the Whitehorse area. He staked a claim for a copper mine, which later made him wealthy. After 10 years, he returned to the farm life in the Beiseker area.

Sam did return to the Klondike years later, by which time the poem had become famous. Robert Service’s work, along with his secondary one, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, had defined the Klondike Gold Rush. The rush evaporated quickly. McGee had the mixed emotions of “buying his own ashes” at a tourist shop.

McGee died in 1940 (born in 1867 says a new grave marker), at age 73. At the burial, a foreigner stood among the mourners. Some believe Robert Service, now rich and famous, had come from his villa in Provence, France.

And how did McGee’s name come to be in the poem? Service worked as a bank teller in Dawson City. After scribbling out the poem, Service struggled to rhyme the word “Tennessee.” While scanning bank records, he spotted McGee’s name and matched it up.

I have escorted a few poetry lovers out to the gravesite. All have been astounded. A retired farmer from the area commented, “I never even knew.”

Ken and I agreed we’d keep the site confidential. “But that was one of the best mornings of my life,” the 84-year-old said.

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