The Burgess Shale

Mary M. Vaux: A Picture Journal

Born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – July 30, 1860
Died Saint Andrews, New Brunswick – August 22, 1940

Mary Vaux was the third wife of renowned Burgess Shale explorer Dr. Charles Walcott. She was an accomplished nature photographer and capable field assistant in her own right.

Mary Vaux Walcott standing in front of the Burgess Pass, photographed by Charles Walcott, date unknown.
Mary Vaux Walcott standing in front of the Burgess Pass, photographed by Charles Walcott, date unknown. © SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION ARCHIVES

Background

Starting in 1887, Mary M. Vaux made many trips through the Canadian Rockies, usually with her family. A noted artist, photographer, and naturalist, Vaux was taken by the scenery and wildlife she saw. Vaux even had a mountain named after her, Mount Mary Vaux in Jasper National Park, Alberta. (This is not the same as Mount Vaux near the Burgess Shale, which was named for William Vaux, a British Museum antiquarian.)

In an article for the Canadian Alpine Journal in 1907, she related some of her experiences in the mountains. It was during her travels through the Canadian Rockies that Mary met Dr. Charles Walcott of the Smithsonian Institution (on August 16, 1907) and grew to share his interest in the geological history of the mountains.

With Walcott in the Rockies

As an experienced photographer, Vaux often assisted Walcott in the field by developing his negatives in camp. When they were not in the field, Vaux and Walcott corresponded. After the tragic death of Walcott’s second wife, Helena, in a train crash in 1911, their mutual regard turned to love. (Though as a proper Quaker, Vaux used the formal “Thou” and “Thee” to refer to Walcott in her early letters.) The two married in 1914.

Legacy

Mary Vaux took hundreds of photographs which captured her travels through the Rockies. Many of her photographs are kept in the collections of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, Alberta. Her pictures and writings give a unique glimpse of the great mountains as they would have appeared to the first generation of tourists to visit the area.

Photographs and Writings

This “Picture Journal” offers a selection of Mary Vaux’s photographs depicting various aspects of life in the field, supported by her own written words from 1907 and 1912.