"Raft Baby of the Peace River"
Trapper Blackfoot Jean had been paddling upriver all
morning and he was ready for a break. His mission on the Peace River that late
spring morning in 1872 was two-fold; he was looking for beaver sign and he hope
to meet his sister and her husband, Edward Armson, heading downstream with
their fur catch from their winter trapline somewhere up the south Pine River in
British Columbia. Seeing an open spot on the left back, Jean turned his dugout
canoe toward it, and soon had water for tea boiling merrily. As he reached out
to dump a handful of tea into the pot, his hand stopped in mid-air. Upstream he
spotted what looked like a raft of some sort with a red rag on a stick waving
over it. Intrigued, he hastily put the tea back in its container, pushed his
canoe into the river and swiftly paddled out to intercept.
As he drew near he saw it was a raft, right enough. Moreover it carried a strange cargo – wrapped in a blanket was a tiny baby, obviously more dead than alive. Thus began an 18-year sequence of tragedy, mystery and amazing coincidence.
For instance as Jean picked up the nearly dead baby he had no way of knowing that it was his niece, or at that moment his sister whom he had hoped to meet was trying to comfort her dying husband and was herself dying of starvation as she knelt beside him.
Eighteen years later when their remains were discovered the
raft baby was a beautiful young woman about to be married. Unknown to anyone,
however, was the fact that her fiancé was a close relative. Only the discovery
of a diary with the Armson’s remains prevented another tragedy. It revealed
that Edward Armson was the father of both.
But as he paddled shoreward with the starved child, Trapper
Jean was more concerned with saving her life than with wondering who she was.
Once ashore he quickly dressed a mallard duck he shot that morning and dropped
it into the water he had boiled for tea. When it appeared done enough, he
clumsily set about getting the baby, a girl he estimated to be two months old,
to swallow some of the broth. To his surprise she accepted each spoonful
greedily, indicating with tiny whimpers she wanted more. Jean remembered that
earlier that morning he had passed a Beaver Indian encampment downstream a
ways. So when the infant seemed sufficiently recuperated to travel, he took her
aboard his canoe and set off.
Fortunately the Beaver encampment was still there.
Moreover, a young mother willingly took the emaciated infant and began to nurse
her. With the little one in good hands, Jean could do no more. He thanked them
and continued on upriver. But not before an older woman pointed out to him a
scar on the baby’s left foot, which she said was “older than the baby”.
The summer before Jean’s startling discovery, Edward Armson, an Englishman, along with such well-known characters as Nigger Dan Williams, Twelve-Foot Davis and others, had been seeking gold along the river near Fort St. John. Armson had come to the Peace with his Blackfoot wife from diggings along the North Saskatchewan River. Mrs. Armson was a beautiful woman said to have but one physical imperfection – a vivid scar on the second toe of her left foot she had inflicted on herself while splitting wood in the Fort St. John mining camp.
Toward fall the gold sands near Fort St. John began to peter out and the miners began an exodus to more lucrative locations. Armson and his wife were among the first to leave, stating that they planned to spend the winter trapping along the South Pine River. In the spring, they said, they intended to return to the North Saskatchewan River via the Peace, Lesser Slave and the Athabasca River. That was the last anyone saw of the Armsons while they were alive.
Seven years later (1879) the Reverend C. Garrioch, Anglican missionary to the Peace River country from the 1870’s to the 1890’s, was on his way to Montreal. Sent by his superior, Bishop William Bompas, on a combination holiday-business trip, he was to acquire supplies for Unjaga Mission he had established on the Peace River, a couple of miles upstream from Fort Vermillion. Bishop Bompas had also asked him to try to locate a farmer interested in starting a mission farm at Fort Dunvegan, also on the Peace, some 300 miles upstream.
On the stage run from Winnipeg to St. Paul, Minnesota (the C.P.R. through Northern Ontario hadn’t yet been built), Rev. Garrioch met a young couple named Vining who invited him to stay a few days with them as their hotel guest in St. Paul. He accepted, and while there learned that Mrs. Vining was Canadian. He also learned that their pretty, olive-skinned daughter, Lily, was not their progeny. They had adopted her from a free-trader who said he had got her from an Indian family while trading along the Peace River.
Garrioch could not help wondering at the identity of the little girl, . . .