Mary Schaffer Warren – Hunter of Peace
By Debbie MacRae
It was the spring of 1908, when a small party of six ascended a ridge of mountains at 8,750 feet, over what is now known as Mount Unwin, to view beautiful Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park, Alberta – the first white persons ever to have witnessed its allure.
Mary Schaffer, her female companion, Mollie Adams, a botanist, three guides, 22 horses, and a dog, were on a quest to locate the mythical lake spoken of by the Stoney Indian Band of Morley, most of whom had never seen it themselves.
Depicted in poetic post-card perfection, Lake Maligne now presents on the covers of travel magazines and brochures – luring tourists to shores once guarded sacredly only by the native hunter. Mary, with her drawings, her camera, and her colored slides, opened the world that lay “away from civilization… lost so far as the world was concerned, in a sea of mountains to the north.”
The paternal branches of her family tree traced back to 1682, as Quaker refugees who had fled from Britain to America, having suffered the persecution of their religious beliefs. British society rejected them and they journeyed with their children to pursue a new start along Pennsylvania’s Ridley Creek.
Each of Mary’s parents married “outsiders”, and their unconventionality and determination formed a foundation of strength for their girl-child, traits, which coupled with her curiosity and rebellious nature, would carry her through the many trials she would suffer in her lifetime.
From a privileged upper-middle-class Quaker family life, Mary received a strong formal education, with enriched extracurricular classes in flower painting, geology, minerology, archaeology, sciences, botany, and natural history. Consequently, she developed strong interest and respect for nature, the indigenous people of North America, and their culture.
After eaves-dropping on a particularly heart-wrenching story told by her “Cousin Jim” in the US army, Mary learned of the advancing tide of white settlement, and the carnage wrought by the removal of western native populations from their land. He spoke of a baby peeping out from under the body of its fallen mother and her horror was so profound, she cried out, and was discovered, and sent to her room. Her introspection led to a love of the native people and the friendship which would eventually lead her to explore the Rocky Mountains on horseback, year after year.
Mary’s first opportunity to explore the “wild west” came when she was 14-years-old. Her father, remembering his own first rail travel at the age of eight, endeavoured to provide his daughter the same experience – across the great plains. Eager to explore the wild and free lifestyle of the western frontier, and its intriguing indigenous populations, Mary was dismayed and saddened to witness instead, the condescension and mistreatment of her “friends.” Yet even at a very young age, she was able to convey a message of affection, compassion and understanding for a very misunderstood race of people.
In 1880, on a steamer trip she made to the Alaskan coast, she explored Native settlements at every opportunity, even against the counsel of her chaperone. Her courage and acceptance led to a lifelong intrigue and fascination with the indigenous lifestyle and she embraced the people with an open heart and mind.
As a young adult, she expanded her travel after the 1885 completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. She would be accompanied by a chaperone, Dr. Charles Schaffer, who would later become her husband, despite being 23 years her senior. As a physician, and an avid scientist, her husband was devoted to the natural sciences, and in 1889, Mary agreed to accompany her new husband to a scientific gathering in Toronto. On her arrival, she was enthralled by a series of images of Lake Louise, which captivated her imagination. She had to travel there, and only a few short months later she would once again accompany her husband on her first visit to Canada’s wild west.
On that trip she witnessed vestiges of Colonel Wolseley’s boats, abandoned after the 1869 Riel Rebellion. She met Sitting Bull’s brother and his wife, and sought permission to take his picture. She was rebuffed by his request for money, and turned away – regretting her missed opportunity later.
Her first glimpse of the mountains would be from the tiny railway station at Gleichen, Alberta at 4:00 a.m. and that first impression would be indelibly carved in her mind for the rest of her life.
Mary would spend the next several years until her husband’s death, assisting him with his scientific research; studying plants, identifying, pressing, drying, painting, and photographing rare and beautiful botanical specimens. She became known as the “painter of slides,” and was eventually granted a life membership in the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, despite threats of strong opposition due to her gender. At one point, she travelled with Dr. Schaffer on the top of a boxcar, forty miles, to camp outdoors on the shores of Lake Louise!
In 1903, Mary met Sir James Hector, surgeon to the famous Palliser Expedition. Sadly, he would return immediately to his home in New Zealand, after the death of his son to appendicitis. Within a few short months, she too, would lose her mother, her husband, and her father. Mary’s life would plunge into despair; Philadelphia society would shun her; her family would take advantage of her. She would learn the “bitter lesson, to count the pennies, to lean on no one, and make the best of crumbling fortunes.”
But the brief encounter with Sir Hector stimulated Mary to seek solace in the mountains, their majesty and their mystery. She resolved to compose and illustrate the Guide to the Flora of the Canadian Rockies that she and her husband had dreamt about but never started. And so she returned to Lake Louise, entrusted to the care of a young Boer war veteran and guide, by the name of Billy Warren. Under his guidance, she developed the outdoor skills required to complete her mission, and in so doing, became the first non-aboriginal woman to explore the areas encompassed by Banff, Yoho, and Jasper National parks.
In 1911, the Canadian government approached Mary to survey Maligne Lake, a task previously assigned only to men. Her accomplishment as an artist, photographer and writer stood her in good stead. Her survey resulted in the inclusion of Maligne Lake within the confines of Jasper National Park.
Despite being 20 years his senior, Mary would eventually marry her guide and mentor, Billy Warren, to whom she always referred as “Chief,” out of respect for his skills as an outdoorsman. He would build her a home in Banff, which stands to this day as a symbol of the respect she garnered as an accomplished “Mountain Woman,” the name given her by the Stoney people.
In an excerpt of a letter to Raymond Zillmer of Milwaukee from Mary [Schaffer] Warren, on April 12, 1928, she wrote:
“No one may know I went among those hills with a broken heart and only on the high places could I learn that I and mine were very close together. We dare not tell those beautiful thoughts, they like to say ‘explorer’ of me, no, only a hunter of peace. I found it.”