Sam Steele was introduced to the West during the first major crisisto erupt after Canadian confederation in 1867. When the Hudson’s Bay Company completed the sale of Rupert’s Land to the Dominion government in 1870, William McDougall (1822–1905) was appointed governor, but never established authority because Louis Riel (1844–1885) and his Métis formed a provisional government and arrested many Red River settlers. Thomas Scott (1842–1870), one of the men imprisoned at Upper Fort Garry, was put on trial and executed by firing squad, an act of summary justice that incited the government of Ontario to offer a substantial reward for the capture of Riel.
The Canadian government sent an armed expedition of Canadian militia and British regular soldiers, led by Colonel Garnet Wolseley (1833–1913), to enforce federal authority in the province of Manitoba. Captain Daniel Hunter McMillan (1846–1933) of the First Ontario Rifles recruited Steele for the expeditionary force, and offered him an officer’s commission. Steele chose instead to serve as an enlisted man to share the hardships faced by regular army soldiers. They had a difficult journey from Toronto to Fort Garry, but Steele took every opportunity to learn about life on the prairies and the rigours of military duty. When the expedition finally reached Fort Garry, it was deserted; Riel and his men had fled. Steele remained only briefly in Fort Garry, where he was promoted to corporal, before returning to Ontario. The Steele archive is rich in documentation for the Red River Expedition, including several extensive diaries of militia officers who served under Wolseley’s command.