The Cremation of Sam McGee

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The Cremation of Sam McGee is among the most famous of Robert W. Service's (1874–1958) poems. It was published in 1907 in Songs of a Sourdough. (A "sourdough", in this sense, is a resident of the Yukon.[1]) It concerns the cremation of a prospector who freezes to death near Lake Laberge,[2] (spelled "Lebarge" by Service), Yukon, Canada, as told by the man who cremates him.

The night prior to the death of the title character, who is from the fictional town of Plumtree, Tennessee, asks the narrator "to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains". The narrator knows that "A pal's last need is a thing to heed," and swears he will not fail to cremate him. After McGee dies the following day, the narrator winds up hauling the body clear to the "marge [shore, edge][3] of Lake Lebarge" before he finds a way to perform the promised cremation. Robert Service based the poem on an experience of his roommate, Dr. Sugden, who found a corpse in the cabin of the steamer Olive May.[4]

A success upon its initial publication in 1907, the poem became a staple of traditional campfire storytelling in North America throughout the 20th century. An edition of the poem, published in 1986 and illustrated by Ted Harrison, was read widely in Canadian elementary schools.

The reality behind the fiction[edit]

There are strange things done in the midnight sun,
by the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

— The poem's opening and closing stanzas

Although the poem was fiction, it was based on people and things that Robert Service actually saw in the Yukon. Lake Laberge is formed by a widening of the Yukon River just north of Whitehorse and is still in use by kayakers. The "Alice May" was based on the derelict stern-wheeler the "Olive May" that belonged to the Bennett Lake & Klondike company[5] and had originally been named for the wife and daughter of Albert Sperry Kerry Sr.[6] It was abandoned after it struck a rock near Tagish, which is about 50 kilometres south of Lake Laberge. Doctor Leonard Sugden used its boiler to cremate the body of a miner who had died of scurvy, because the ground was frozen too hard for burial. (Although a boat named Alice May sank on Lake Laberge, that happened a decade after the publication of the poem.)[7]

William Samuel McGee[8][9][10] (b 1868, Lindsay, Ontario, - d 1940, Beiseker, Alberta) was primarily a road builder but did indulge in some prospecting. Like others, McGee was in San Francisco, California, at the time of the Klondike Gold Rush and in 1898 left for the Klondike.

In 1904, Service, who was working in the Canadian Bank of Commerce (not the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce; a frequent error) branch in Whitehorse, saw McGee's name on a form. He talked to McGee about using his name and received permission, which is confirmed by correspondence between McGee and his family.[citation needed] In 1907 the publication of the poem, along with the others contained in Songs of a Sourdough, made Service famous and McGee the subject of ridicule.[citation needed]

In 1909 McGee traveled south of the Yukon to build roads, including some in Yellowstone National Park. Eventually, McGee and his wife moved to live with their daughter outside of Beiseker. However, in 1930 McGee returned to the Yukon to try prospecting along the Liard River, but met with no success. He did however return with an urn that he had purchased in Whitehorse. The urns, said to contain the ashes of Sam McGee, were being sold to visitors.

McGee spent the rest of his life at his daughter's farm where he died in 1940 of a heart attack.

There is a town named Plumtree in North Carolina, only about twelve kilometers (but twenty-two kilometers by road) from the border of Tennessee.


The poem was anthologized in the Oxford Book of Narrative Verse (1983).

Johnny Cash's reading of the poem was National Public Radio's song of the day on May 9, 2006. Cash's "The Cremation of Sam McGee" was released along with a vast collection of personal archive recordings of Johnny Cash on the two-disc album Personal File.[11] Cash misreads the occasional word (such as "toil for gold" instead of "moil for gold") and accidentally transposes a few lines.

Canadian folksinger/songwriter Stompin' Tom Connors created an uptempo song summarizing the tale in the early 1970s on his album "Stompin' Tom Meets Big Joe Mufferaw."[12]


  1. ^ "Definition of "sourdough"". Retrieved 26 March 2012. 
  2. ^ "Lake Laberge, Yukon". The Encyclopedia of Earth. Retrieved 29 March 2011. Lake Laberge is best known for the poem written by Robert Service, entitled "The Cremation of Sam McGee". 
  3. ^ "Definition of "marge"". Retrieved 26 March 2012. 
  4. ^ Strange Things Done Under the Midnight Sun. "The Cremation of Sam McGee". Discover - Fascinating Yukon Trivia. Tourism Yukon. Retrieved 29 March 2011. 
  5. ^ Explore North - The Stern-wheeler Gleaner
  6. ^ Tiger Mountain & Grand Ridge
  7. ^ Enid L. Mallory, Robert Service: Under the Spell of the Yukon, Heritage House, 2008
  8. ^ Up Here - My Search for Sam McGee by Randy Freeman
  9. ^ The REAL Sam McGee by Nancy Millar
  10. ^ [1] Fascinating Yukon Trivia: Strange Things Done Under The Midnight Sun from Accessed April 13, 2010
  11. ^ Beyond the Grave, a Morbid Tale
  12. ^ Retrieved 5 November 2014.  Missing or empty |title= (help)

External links[edit]