It is fitting that the Peace River Country and points north on the Alaska Highway recognize her as a friend and benefactor.
Mary Henry was not the first woman to leave a dainty footprint in the as yet unexplored parts of the Rockies, nor was she the first to make a contribution to the botany of the region. Coincidentally, two other Mary’s had “become the first white women to see the many outstanding attractions in today’s Banff and Jasper Parks,” including Mount Robson.
The botanist Mary Schaffer (nee Sharples) was no feminist but she was certainly a liberated lady. Before the 1880’s many fortunes were being made in the United States. Among the wealthy class, every correct young daughter — after attending a select finishing school — completed her education by being taken on the Grand Tour of Europe including the Swiss Alps, always chaperoned by her mother, or some other mature responsible woman. A “companion” always attended her, for no respectable young woman ever went out alone. In the voluminous and all concealing costumes of the day, mountain climbing was simply not on the program.
By the late 1880’s when the Canadian Pacific Railway was finished and the company began advertising the luxury and exclusiveness of the Banff Springs Hotel, some adventurous females had already departed from the stereotyped itinerary. Three years after the railway was finished a Mrs. Sharples from Philadelphia had brought her eighteen-year-old daughter Mary on an extended tour of the Rockies. There they met an eminent American botanist, Dr. Charles S. Schaffer, whom Mary married the next year. When he died in 1903, she compiled his work into a book for which she did all of the watercolor and photographic illustrations. In the meantime, with her companion Mary (Adams) Vaux, she had never done anything more venturesome than accompany the famous mountain guides and explorers of their day to the railway station at Laggan (Lake Louise Station) to bid them “God Speed.” In 1906, then three years a widow, Mary Schaffer took a giant leap forward in a long, full-skirted black gown, over which she wore, as a concession to the rugged country, a buckskin jacket. In the preceding three years she and the other Mary had been taking lessons in riding astride, jumping over logs, swimming their horses over icy flood-swollen rivers, and climbing mountains.
Apparently they had not capitulated to the unladylike example of the dainty little Englishwoman, Mrs. Evelyn Berens who, in 1901, had adopted the revolutionary fashion of wearing her husband’s best golfing breeches for a climb of Mount Sir Donald. It is recorded that during the climb she found herself unconsciously grasping them delicately between thumb and forefinger as though they were a gown.
Being modest Quaker ladies, the two Mary’s started off on a four-month packtrain expedition in their discreet costumes, on June 20, 1907. This was the first of several more annual trips to become — again and again — “the first white women I’ve seen around these parts”. In 1915 Mary Schaffer married “Billy” Warren, noted Banff outfitter and her long-time mentor and guide.
It is possible that in Mrs. (Schaffer) Warren’s home, furnished with beautiful 18th century heirlooms from her gracious Philadelphia mansion that Mrs. Mary Henry (nee Gibson) first heard of the legendary Liard Hot springs. The mysterious northern “Tropical Valley” story had been brought back from the Yukon and Alaska gold rushes and had a strong, romantic pull. It is equally possible that Miss Mary Henry had heard of the adventures of the two inseparable mountain-climbing Mary’s in the drawing rooms of fashionable Philadelphia. Mary Gibson’s mother, like the two Mary’s, was a Quaker. All were wealthy, and undoubtedly traveled in the same social circles.
It is no surprise that ladies of the Quaker sect were in advance of their times, for the Quaker religion liberated women long before anyone else gave that bold step even a passing consideration. A Quaker lady preacher’s sermons were as valid as any man’s and as well respected, for among them the sexes were equal. True — modesty, simplicity, self-control and piety were rules of life. But theuse, not the abuse, of wealth was not discouraged. Such a culture was fertile ground for women to cultivate personal ambitions. Even though there were protests from the horrified relatives and friends in the drawing rooms of Philadelphia, they were on account of the dangers, not the deportment or conduct of the adventurers.
By the 1930’s even the shock of women wearing men’s pants had died down, and from the pictures in her autobiography we see that Mary Gibson Henry posed comfortably in trousers.
Nothing said here is intended in anyway to detract from the bravery of Mary Henry’s leading a packtrain expedition into the unknown Canadian North. It was an area where many had perished in the gold rush days, and where large areas on maps showed huge white areas labeled “unexplored” or “unsurveyed”.