The Cremation of Sam McGee

    "There are strange things done in the midnight sun
               By the men who moil for gold
    The Arctic trails have their secret tales
               That make your blood run cold;"

The opening words of the Robert Service poem, "The Cremation of Sam McGee," set the scene for this humorous ballad of death, cold, and Cap's dedication as he fulfills his promise to the dying miner Sam McGee. A real campfire story and one of my favorite poems I first read it when we lived on Eastern Upper Penninsula of Michigan at Kincheloe AFB near Sault Sainte Marie. Although there was daylight every day and we could see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) it wasn't unusual for the sun to go down as early as three in the afternoon. The scenery was beautiful but the long, drawn-out winters were arduous. It was cold there and the poem resonated with the familiar experience of bitterly of cold weather and what it can do to a person.

Originally a bank teller, Robert Service's life changed when he found himself transferred to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. Like everybody else, Service was smitten by the gold rush. Only Service mined words, not gold, and within five years was famous as the poet who had captured the essence of the fever, the adventure, the men, and the women. Tall Tale at relates the local tale best:

    "Robert Service’s classic poem is generally dismissed as pure fiction. However, a Sam McGee really did exist. He worked for a transport company in Whitehorse but the tale gets stranger still. The boiler of the Alice May, where the fictional Sam McGee was cremated, is based on a derelict steamer named Olive May. Service wrote the poem around a real experience relayed to him by a Dr. Sugden from Whitehorse (who Service lived with at one point). Dr Sugden was once sent out to tend to a sick prospector, but when he arrived at the cabin he found the man dead and frozen stiff. Sugden had no tools to bury the man, so he cremated him in the Olive May’s boiler and brought the remains back to town."

Printed privately for his family and friends the composition date is not known; it was first published for the public in The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses (New York: Barse & Hopkins, 1907): 50-54. (Also published as Songs of a Sourdough). The rhyme is in abcbdefe from or an heptameter which lends itself well to balladry; there's also a touch of cheerful bloodthirstiness about this melodrama.

Robert Service published this poem and its companion another rollicking ballad, The Shooting of Dan McGrew while he was working in the aforementioned bank. Service's first verse collections, Songs of a Sourdough (1907) and Ballads of a Cheechako (1909) were tales of hard-bitten prospectors and grim trappers were woven throughout improbable-but-true Yukon of humor and pathos, were an instant hit, and Service became famous. He published a number of subsequent volumes, but they never quite achieved the popularity that Sam and Dan brought him.

Mr.Service was often called 'The Kipling of the North' and his fans avidly read every line he ever wrote adoring his average-joe perspective, understanding of human nature, and his wry wit which shines through this bone-chilling story of a man named Sam McGee.

Work Robert Service published prior to 1922 is in the public domain in the United States.

More fun?
McGee, Samuel: consultation report from the marge of Lake Lebarge


The Cremation of Sam McGee

Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner

Robert W. Service (1874-1958) The Cremation of Sam McGee

CST Approved

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