William Henry Steeves was a successful businessman as well as an able politician. As an advocate of Confederation and a loyal colleague of Samuel Leonard Tilley, Steeves was an important participant during volatile decades of political reform in New Brunswick.
William Henry Steeves was born at Hillsborough, New Brunswick, where his German great-grandfather, Heinrich Stief, had settled five decades earlier. He attended school and founded his business ventures in Hillsborough, and in time the Steeves Brothers firm grew into a lumber export company with representatives in Liverpool, England. Steeves relocated to Saint John, where he attained prominence in his commercial and political endeavours. He married another descendant of Heinrich Stief, Mary Steeves, and had six children.
Steeves was elected to the New Brunswick House of Assembly in 1846 and reelected in 1850. He supported political reforms that would bring responsible government to the colony, including specific measures to make members of the Legislative Council more accountable. He was unable to realize these reforms when he became a member of the Council in 1851, and refused to accept a position in the traditionalist government of Edward Barron Chandler. The government of Charles Fisher, which came to power in 1854, did advance the cause of reform and Steeves accepted a position as the government's surveyor general. He soon resigned, however, because his participation in the Legislative Assembly since 1851 had been by appointment, rather than by election.
In 1855 Steeves accepted a new appointment as the chairman of the Department of Public Works. This role lasted only until the following year, when the government of Fisher and Tilley was defeated. Another shift in power in 1857 returned Steeves to his position at Public Works, and he remained in place there until 1861. He continued to contribute as a member of Tilley's administration until widespread opposition to Confederation led to the fall of the government in 1865.
Steeves found value in both the Confederation and Maritime Union options, and he served as a New Brunswick delegate at the Charlottetown and Québec conferences. After Confederation, Steeves was appointed to the Canadian Senate, and became a spokesperson for improvements in the treatment of the mentally ill.