Carl’s Library: Mary Schäffer Warren

108 years ago…

A Merry Christmas

My darling brother: If you had only not been a boy I could have thought up O so many things to have sent you. But being a boy (however I am very glad you are) you will have to put up with a book. I do not know how good this book is for I have not read it. But the notice said many fine things about it.        ~ Sister Julia

In many of the vintage books I have acquired over the years, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover reminders of the people who owned those books long ago, such as Julia’s handwritten note found in my copy of Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies by Mary T. S. Schäffer.

Mary Schäffer’s husband, Dr. Charles Schäffer, had a passion for botany. His playground was the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia, and shortly after their marriage, Mary made her first trip to western Canada with Charles, acting as his scientific assistant. She was awestruck by the magnificent scenery all around her. With her husband’s guidance, Mary quickly became a talented amateur botanist and enjoyed the work they did together. She collected and identified specimens, captured photographs, and painted beautiful watercolor illustrations of the alpine flowers. For Mary, this was the genesis of many annual transcontinental journeys via the Canadian Pacific Railway, from her home in Pennsylvania to the wild country known as Banff & Jasper National Parks.

Charles died shortly after their 1903 visit to the mountains. By that time, Mary was thoroughly in love with the Canadian wilderness, and as a tribute to her dear husband, she wished to complete the botanical guide of mountain flora that they had dreamed of writing. Mary enlisted her husband’s colleague, botanist Stewardson Brown, to co-author the project, and they set out for Alberta in the summer of 1906; the book, Alpine Flora of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, was published the following year.

That great task now completed, Mary was eager to plan her next westward journey, with a desire to make it a grander adventure than any before…exploring new territory and spending more time in the wild. Over the winter months, Mary and her friend Mollie Adams began their preparations.

Old Indian Trails is the story of the 1907 and 1908 expeditions made by Mary and Mollie, along with guides Sid Unwin and Billy Warren.

To anyone who quizzed the group about the purpose of their travels during those two summers, they explained that they were looking for the sources of the Athabasca and Saskatchewan Rivers. In truth, they were happy just to be roaming through this beautiful wilderness, wherever the trails may lead.

But there was indeed one specific goal very much on their minds: to locate a mysterious lake which the Stoney Indians called Chaba Imne. Working from a sketch made by their local friend, a Stoney named Sampson Beaver, they finally found the lake in 1908. Its current name, Maligne Lake, was affixed by Mary, and she is credited with its “official” discovery.

From her earliest travels, Mary approached Indigenous Peoples with warmth and friendship, and showed an eagerness to understand their way of life. She had great affection for Sampson Beaver and his family; Mary looked forward to visiting them whenever she was in the area. The Stoney Indians referred to Mary as Yahe-Weha (“Mountain Woman”).

After so many years of enduring long train trips to see her beloved mountains, Mary realized there was no longer any point in maintaining the life she knew in Philadelphia. She finally made Banff her year-round home and married her long-time mountain guide, Billy Warren.

With her writing, her lectures and her lantern slide shows, Mary worked to publicize the beauty of this region. Even so, a part of her was saddened to see the peace and tranquility fade a little as more and more visitors arrived each year, and opportunities for trailblazing and discovery existed only in her memory.

Like many other titles in my library, I discovered this book due to its reference in another book (and once again, I can’t recall which one). That is one of the joys of nonfiction; I’ve enjoyed many books that I likely would never have found—and my library has grown—simply due to authors referencing earlier works on the subject at hand.

Of course, it’s hard for me to pass up any old book that happens to include a folding map…

Speaking of mountains: I know that a similar early edition of this book resides on the shelves of the Rocky Mountain Land Library, and I can’t think of a more appropriate home for it. I want to take this opportunity to mention that December is a great time to make a donation to the RMLL, as they are currently raising funds to support their 2020 workshops and restoration projects. Find out more about the Land Library and make a contribution by visiting landlibrary.wordpress.com.

Companion book: I recommend the biography No Ordinary Woman: The Story of Mary Schäffer Warren by Janice Sanford Beck, published in 2002. The book provides a great deal of illuminating information, from Mary’s Quaker upbringing in Pennsylvania to her final years with Billy Warren in their Banff home, and in between, we learn of her early travel experiences and her growing appreciation for wild beauty, her first trips to the Canadian Rockies with Charles, her fascination and fondness for the Indigenous Peoples she encountered, the botanical work with her husband and Stewardson Brown, her government-backed survey expedition of Maligne Lake in 1911, her journeys to other parts of the globe, and her environmental activism. Additionally, this book contains several of Mary’s previously unpublished articles and manuscripts, and many more photographs from her mountain adventures.

Photographs and text: Copyright 1911 by Mary T.S. Schäffer.

(Posts about my library are archived through this link: ridingwithcarl.wordpress.com/tag/library.)

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