Thursday, January 16, 2014 3:54:58 MST PM
Lake Saskatoon was a bustling community in 1914, rivalling Grande Prairie in many respects. It was the headquarters for the Royal North West Mounted Police, the home base of Sgt. Charles Harper, the officer in charge of the search for Asa Hunting and Mildred Shaw.
No news was feared becoming bad news in early January 100 years ago, but just as the Royal North West Mounted Police were forming a search party to head south into the bush in the dead of winter to seek two of their own, the “lost” arrived back home safe and sound—and, in storied Mountie tradition, not empty-handed.
Tracking the whereabouts of Asa Hunting and Mildred Shaw in the rough foothills southwest of Grande Prairie was a tale combining adventure and romance – and near tragedy – in the late fall and early winter of 1913. Ultimately, in mid-1914, it had a happy ending.
It conceivably all began in 1911 when Bob “Pegleg” Shaw, his wife Fern and his 13-year-old step-daughter Mildred travelled into the Peace Country, taking a break from the rigours of the Edson Trail at Asa Hunting’s stopping place at the west end of Sturgeon Lake.
Hunting was a 37-year-old U.S.-born widower who had ventured north to forget the raw deal life had dealt him: One account has it that he had been a successful engineer in the States but a dam he’d worked on had burst. Among the victims of the ensuing flood were his wife and young family, number of children unknown.
The Shaws were homesteaders bound for a quarter section one-mile north of what became Halcourt, southwest of Beaverlodge.
Hunting’s stopping place was just that. A contemporary account describes it as consisting of one building, mainly a stable but with a section partitioned off for human use.
It wasn’t much: No furniture, hay strewn around the earthen floor for sleeping on if you chose to stay over, and a basic fireplace for heating and cooking.
Hunting was described as “looking like Rip van Winkle with his long straggly hair … he wore a big black Stetson …he moved around in a slow, morose manner and scarcely talked …”
Two years later, he was staying at the Shaw homestead, most likely as a hand hired by the one-legged settler. Some accounts say he was a neighbour but there’s no record of him homesteading in the Halcourt district unless he’d bought a quarter from an original settler.
In any event, everything was seemingly hunky dory – until July 1913 when Asa, now 39, and Mildred, 15, disappeared.
Mrs. Shaw subsequently accused Hunting “of the grave misdemeanour of inducing Mildred to leave her home.”
It didn’t make major headlines in the weekly Grande Prairie Herald until December when the newspaper reported that, acting on a tip, RNWMP Sgt. Charles Harper, Constable Stephenson and guide Richard “Diamond Dick” Harrington had set out for the Nose Mountain area southwest of Grande Prairie almost two months earlier and nothing had been heard from them since.
Nose Mountain, along the old Hinton Trail, was usually a 25-day round-trip. They were four weeks overdue. It was feared they’d met with foul play.
But just as Mountie searchers were gathering in January, the Harper party returned – riding in with Asa and Mildred.
They’d covered 800 miles since they’d headed out.
A hearing on a charge of abduction was held Feb. 7 at the RNWMP barracks at Lake Saskatoon.
Harper testified they’d found Mildred alone in a makeshift camp, not much more than a flimsy teepee covered with spruce boughs and a tarp, along the Muddy River near Nose Mountain. They later surprised Asa on Dec. 22 at a trapline camp further along.
He and Harrington didn’t think the couple would have survived the deepening winter in the middle of nowhere. Hinton was the closest community, a 10-day ride at best.
Hunting did not testify. But Mildred did, and to everyone’s surprise said she had not been abducted.
She wanted to leave what she called an unhappy and abusive home and had induced Hunting to take her with him when he’d gone to set up his trapline.
Nevertheless, Justices of the Peace Milton White and Alex Craig ordered him to trial at Grouard.
Three days after that hearing, a warrant was issued for Pegleg Shaw on a charge of rape laid by Mildred. A subsequent seven-hour trial found him not guilty.
In April, Mildred was committed to two years at the home for delinquent children in Edmonton. I don’t know her step-father’s ultimate fate but her mother later was a well-known Lake Saskatoon resident involved with local restaurants.
There was a happy ending: At Hunting’s trial at Grouard in July, attended by both Mildred and her mother, Justice William Simmons suspended sentence and released him pending further investigation.
Said Simmons: “As this girl and this man wish to be married, I think, Mrs. Shaw, that you will appreciate that though the accused is guilty of taking the girl away from your home and as they have evidently been living as man and wife, that this is the best cause to pursue.”
Asa and Mildred were reportedly married that very day. Could Justice Simmons have put his jurisprudential stance into effect and performed a civil ceremony himself? I don’t know.
In the 1916 national census, the Hunting’s and their 11-month-old daughter Cora were living in the Valleyview area.
There is no record of them in the 1921 census.
It seems the Nose Mountain lovers had disappeared again.