Plante, Antoine (ca. 1812-1890)

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 11/07/2010
  • Essay 9606
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The life of Antoine Plante -- voyageur, trapper, mountaineer, and ferry keeper -- spanned the period from the fur trade era to the white settlement of the Inland Northwest and the resulting tribal displacement. He worked for the Hudson's Bay Company in the Columbia, Snake, and Fraser river drainages before settling on the Spokane River, where he established the first commercial ferry service in Eastern Washington. Plante's Ferry became an important landmark for fur traders, miners, Army officers, and other travelers moving through the Spokane region.  Renowned for his keen knowledge of the geography of the Intermountain West, Plante guided several parties of surveyors seeking routes for wagon roads and railroads between the Missouri and Snake rivers.

Family Background

According to family tradition, Antoine Plante’s father was a French-Canadian fur trader who married a Gros Ventre woman from the upper Missouri River. This trader was probably the same Antoine Plante who was recruited in Lower Canada in 1810 to join Wilson Price Hunt’s (1783-1842) overland expedition for the Pacific Fur Company. After arriving at Astoria in late winter 1812, Plante was stationed on the Thompson River, then transferred to the Northwest Company in 1813.

The younger Antoine Plante was born around 1812 in British Columbia, and it seems likely that he was the son of the man whose name he shared. Family sources recorded that the lad was “well versed in white man’s habits and ways of living,” and he spoke fluent English and French, which would make sense for a child reared near a trading post manned by English and Scottish clerks and French-Canadian voyageurs.

Young Manhood

The first written mention of the younger Antoine (pronounced An-twine by his descendents) appeared in the Hudson’s Bay Company employee roster for 1828 at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. The teenaged Plante was listed as a “middleman,” a voyageur who usually paddled near the center of a cargo canoe. He sometimes was assigned to drive groups of horses from Fort Walla Walla downstream to Fort Vancouver, and in 1830 and 1832 he accompanied trapping expeditions to the Snake River and across the Continental Divide into the Bitterroot Valley and the headwaters of the Missouri River. For the next two decades, he continued to work for the company as a voyageur, trapper, and deroineur (an itinerant field trader), usually headquartered at Fort Colvile (Watson, 782). 
In 1834, Antoine Plante married a Pend Orielle woman named Mary Therese; they had two children, Julia (b. 1836) and Francois (b. 1838). Around 1840, while working on the Clark Fork River, Antoine decided to leave Mary Therese behind when he returned to Fort Colvile. “The parting was made amicably,” the granddaughter related. “Antoine arranged to take his daughter, Julia, with him, and let the mother have the baby boy Frank or Francois” (Spokesman Review, December 10, 1933).

Later that year, Antoine married Mary, a Flathead woman, who gave birth to a son, Charles, the following year. During the 1840s, Antoine apparently worked between Fort Colvile and the Bitterroot and Flathead rivers in western Montana. Around 1849, he left the Hudson’s Bay Company and journeyed to the California gold fields along with two brothers-in-law and a group of mixed-blood families. His wife, Mary, and three children (he had regained custody of Francois at some point) went along as well. His daughter Julia later recalled helping to pan for gold by pouring water over the earth that Antoine shoveled into a placer rocker, which was worked by little Charles. The men’s panning enterprise proved successful, and the women augmented the profits by fashioning buckskin clothing to sell to other miners. When most of the party contracted a severe fever, Julia remembered her stepmother measuring gold dust from a buckskin pouch to pay for medicine, and recalled that “Antoine lost all of his hair and was perfectly bald” for a while (Spokesman Review, December 17, 1933).

Farming By the Spokane River

By 1852, the Plantes had returned to Washington Territory, where they settled on a horseshoe bend of the Spokane River, beside a placid stretch of water with a shallow ford. The family of Plante’s brother-in-law Camille Langtu lived nearby. Plante began farming a plot of rich land on the north bank and grazing cattle on the abundance of native bunchgrass that grew nearby. Staples such as flour, sugar, and tea were purchased at Fort Colvile, where Antoine traded the furs he trapped during the winter.

The farm lay just upstream from a boulder patch known to Coeur d’Alene and Spokane people as Coyote Rocks. Dropped by the Lake Missoula floods, the boulders marked a river crossing that had been used by generations of Plateau tribes. Well-worn trails led north to the Colville Valley, south to the Palouse and Snake River country, and east to Lake Coeur d’Alene, the Pend Oreille and Clark Fork rivers, and on to the buffalo grounds on the upper Missouri. An important Coeur d’Alene winter village lay about eight miles upstream, and an encampment of Upper Spokanes about three miles down. The Plante homestead soon became a regular stopping place for fur traders and tribal travelers.

Guide and Interpreter

Antoine Plante continued to roam the region. He was at Fort Walla Walla in July of 1853, when Lieutenant Rufous Saxon (1824-1908) of the Pacific Railroad Survey arrived enroute to Fort Benton to meet the westbound party of Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862). Saxon recorded:

“I employed an old voyageur of the name of Antoine Plante to guide us to Fort Benton. He is a quarter breed -- French and Indian. His life has been spent in the mountains trapping beaver for the Hudson’s Bay Company” (Report, I: 254).   

Saxon explained that although Plante was related to the Blackfeet people through his mother, he bore a “mortal enmity” to the entire tribe, as one of them had tried to kill him many years before. Saxon went on to note:

“He is a rich Indian, above want. And I doubt if money could induce him to take the field. But when told that he was wanted to guide our party into the heart of his old enemies’ country, faithful to his Indian instincts, his eye brightened, and he was ready to mount his horse”  (Report, I: 254). 

As the men and packers made their way across the Continental Divide, Saxon wrote that Plante’s

“services are invaluable. Though it is eight years since he was here, he knows every hill and stream, and guides our little band through this unbroken wilderness, without a trail, as true and unwavering as the needle to the pole” (Report I: 261-62).

After rendezvousing with the main expedition at Fort Benton, Plante led a party including Governor Issac Stevens and artist John Mix Stanley (1814-1872) across the mountains. Upon reaching the Spokane River in mid-October, Plante escorted his charges to the main falls, where Stanley sketched the scene that was later reproduced as a lithograph in the final report on the railroad survey (Report, XII: Plate 35). The next day, they reached a Spokane village near the mouth of the Little Spokane River, and the governor called on his guide for help: “Antoine’s services were immediately put into requisition to obtain information,” Stevens wrote (Report, XII: 136).

In addition to his services as guide and interpreter, Plante helped with transportation logistics and supplied horses when needed. According to one early source, he built his herd by trading one healthy horse for two worn-out animals from travelers passing through the area. An army officer who visited the Spokane Valley in 1854 observed that Plante was grazing numerous cattle and horses on the bunchgrass plains along the river, and reported that “in the course of the evening I succeeded in hiring ten fresh horses from Antoine, and in engaging his personal services as guide to Wallah-Wallah” (Report, I: 512).

Hospitality and Diplomacy

Around the spring of 1854, the prosperous Plante built a new home on a fertile flat above the crossing. According to his granddaughter Maggie McDonald, "the house was large as houses went in those days. It had several  rooms and an attic. There was a circular sort of painted effect on the ceiling of the living room” (Spokesman Review, December 17, 1933). 

Maggie McDonald recalled a number of outbuildings, an extensive vegetable garden and orchard, and mounds of grain and potatoes. She fondly remembered being treated to several varieties of apples stored in the attic.

For many years, Plante’s house served as an important landmark and stopping point. Major John Owen (1818-1889), who ran a trading post in the Bitterroot Valley, frequently stopped to exchange news on supply runs to Walla Walla. On one occasion, he was camping near the Plante farm when he received “a visit from Madam Plant with a present of a can of Butter and a Kettle of Lettuce” (Owen, I: 104). Several overland groups, such as the Sinclair Party from Canada in 1854, took advantage of Antoine’s hospitality to winter in the vicinity.

When Governor Stevens decided to convene a council of Inland Northwest tribes in November 1855, he sent messengers to leaders of the Spokanes, Coeur d’Alenes, Pend Oreilles, and Okanogans to meet him at Antoine Plante’s place. Although there is no record that Plante was involved in the council’s deliberations, he did sometimes play a diplomatic role. In August 1856, he traveled to Walla Walla as an envoy from the Spokanes to Governor Stevens, who was opening a second peace council there for the Plateau tribes. “Montour and Antoine Plante came in from the Spokanes and reported that, although the tribe possessed a friendly disposition, they would not attend the council” (Stevens, II: 210).

Plante's Ferry

Meanwhile, Plante had not given up his interest in gold mining. Arriving at the Coeur d’Alene Mission in June 1855, Isaac Stevens “met two of my old voyageurs, Antoine Plante and Camille, who had with them specimens of gold which they had found on Clark’s Fork” (Report, XII: 201).

Around this same time, probably inspired by the influx of prospectors and miners heading for the gold discoveries on the upper Columbia and Pend Oreille rivers, Plante constructed a toll ferry across the Spokane River in partnership with his brother-in-law, Camille Langtu, who conveniently lived directly across the river. Referred to occasionally as Camille’s Ferry but most often as Plante’s Ferry, the service provided an enormous convenience for loaded pack trains crossing the river. A few years later, Captain Mullan noted that “the ferry at the Spokane is a good one, consisting of a strong cable stretched across the river, and a boat forty feet long” (Mullan, 30).

Battle, Fire, the Shooting of the Horses

By all reports, the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene bands who lived along the river were on friendly terms with the Plantes and Langtus. But up in the Colville area, there were clashes between white miners and the tribes, and after the U.S. Army established Fort Walla Walla in 1856, tribal leaders throughout the Plateau became increasingly concerned about the white presence in the region. John Owen, passing through the Spokane Valley in late April, 1858, was visiting with Antoine Plante when Spokane Garry (ca. 1811-1892) arrived and reported that rumors were afloat of troops moving north from the Snake River. Within two weeks, news of the battle near the site of present-day Rosalia reached the ferry landing.

Three months later, Colonel George Wright (ca. 1801-1865) began his retaliatory march through Eastern Washington. By October 1858, he was camped on the Spokane River, where his troops rounded up and shot hundreds of tribal horses grazing in the valley. Neither Wright’s reports or any of the other first person accounts of the incident mention Antoine Plante, but members of his family later conjectured that some of his horses might have been among those killed by the soldiers.

Later that winter, Antoine was away from home on a trapping expedition when “for some reason his family became alarmed and fled into the hills, taking what gold they had in the house. While they were away, everything was burned, crops and all” (Spokesman Review, December 17, 1933). The Plantes apparently suspected a group of Coeur d’Alene Indians of setting the fire, which Antoine estimated destroyed $1,300 worth of property, but any possible motive was not mentioned.

Guiding and Ferrying

Canadian physician Augustus Thibodo (1832-1929) arrived at Plante’s home around Thanksgiving of 1859 and described beautiful scenery, a few Indian tepees, and a great many fat horses and cattle. He was offered lodging “in a new house they are building to replace the one the Indians burnt last year” (Thibodo). The next morning, Thibodo traded his rifle and saddle to Plante for a fresh mount, and his traveling companions purchased provisions for the trail -- 100 pounds of coarse flour for $16 and bacon for $1 per pound.

The Northwest Boundary Commission, deployed to survey the boundary between the United States and Canada, used Plante’s Ferry regularly between 1858 and 1862 as they drove pack trains from Walla Walla north to way stations at Fort Colvile and Sinyakwatin on the Pend Oreille River. George Gibbs (1815-1873) met Plante on his way to Lake Coeur d’Alene in 1858 and wrote to his superior officer: “I would recommend Antoine Plante as a person capable of guiding the main party through the country and possessed of perhaps a better knowledge of it than any other” (Gibbs).

Two years later, in the fall of 1860, the territorial legislature granted Plante a license to operate his ferry for six years, beginning January 28, 1861:

“Antoine Plante, his heirs and assigns to establish and keep a ferry across the Spokane river, at or near the point where the military road from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton crosses the Spokane River ...
Price schedule:
For each wagon, carriage or vehicle with two animals attached   $4.00
For each pleasure wagon, with two horses   3.00
For each additional animal    .50
For each cart, wagon or carriage with one horse   2.00
For a man and horse  1.50
For each animal packed   1.50
For each footman   .50
For loose animals, other than sheep or hogs   .25
For sheep, goats or hogs each head   .15

The license required that Plante pay an annual tax to the county not to exceed $25.00 for his right to run the ferry (Mullan, 29).

Apparently the ferry did not lack business, for a surveyor working in the vicinity in October, 1860, commented that “there is a great deal more travel on this road now than I expected to see. Since we struck it 5 days ago I suppose we have seen on an average 5 teams with 8 animals apiece a day. Almost all of them are loaded with goods for Pinkneyville the town of the Colville Valley. At a low estimate, $30,000 worth of goods has passed up in these 5 days” (Letters, 225).

That same fall, the Boundary Survey’s young artist James Madison Alden (1834-1922) climbed Coyote Rocks to paint a scene he called Plant’s Crossing. He captured the Spokane River winding across the valley from Lake Coeur d’Alene, and a well-traveled road across Rathdrum Prairie from Sinyakwatin.

In May 1861, Lieutenant Charles W. Wilson (1836-1905), another artist with the survey, was camped on the banks of the Spokane when he decided to go for a ride. “The ground was in excellent order for riding,” he wrote in his diary. “I galloped down to a house about one mile and a half from camp, where an old Trapper by name Antoine Plant, a Canadian half-breed, lived; he has been living there for nine years amongst the Indians and had some cows and a small farm, so that we were able to get some milk and butter to carry off to camp” (Wilson, 146). Later, Wilson took out his sketchbook and focused on the bulge of cliffs above Plante’s home place, adding the delicate shades of the spring bloom of bunchgrass and wildflowers. Wilson titled his painting Spokane Plains near Plant’s House Camp.

Mullan Road's Ferry

A few days after Wilson completed his sketch, Captain John Mullan (1830-1909) arrived, in the process of scouting a new portion of the wagon road he was overseeing between Fort Benton on the Missouri and Fort Walla Walla. He was planning to route the road through the Spokane Valley, and the ferry across the river there was an important consideration. “It is kept by a very worthy man, Antoine Plant, a half-breed Flathead Indian, who speaks both French and English; he has a small field under cultivation on the left bank, near the ferry landing, from which he obtains corn, wheat, and vegetables; these, with the salmon found in the river, form an abundant supply for his Indian family” (Mullan, Report, 30).

When Mullan’s surveyor reached the Spokane River that fall to lay out the exact line for the new section of road, his first stop was the ferry landing: “Having heard of Antoine Plante as a man who, from his long residence in this neighborhood, was well acquainted with the mountains and trails leading through them, I deemed it best to proceed to his residence and procure his services as a guide” (Mullan, Report, 157). Plante spent several days showing the surveyor an easy route around Lake Coeur d’Alene and eastward. After the Mullan Road was completed in 1862, thousands of emigrants, hunters, miners, adventurers, and packers followed its path through the Spokane Valley to Plante’s Ferry, where the river crossing was marked by the initials “M.R.” (Mullan Road) emblazoned on a large pine.

In 1865, John Mullan published a guidebook for miners and travelers using his road. He included an itinerary for those moving east from Walla Walla, with suggestions for good grazing and comfortable camp sites. For Day Eleven, he recommended: “Move to Spokane River, distance twelve and one-half miles, and cross (Antoine Plante), wood, water and grass at camp, good place to rest animals; charge for each wagon $4; for each man fifty cents” (Mullan, Guide, 11). Livestock could swim the river, he noted, or could be ferried for a fee, if preferred.

Last Years

A family crossing the ferry that same year noticed a large amount of fresh lumber on the ground near the landing, and soon a new settler named Isaac Kellogg was constructing a bridge just upstream. The new toll bridge, which was much more convenient than the ferry, soon became the preferred crossing, and the ferry business dwindled. An early settler in the Spokane Valley in the early 1870s recalled that Plante did very little business by that time, but that he continued to operate his ferry until at least 1875, “more as an accommodation to his friends than anything else.” By the mid-1870s, more settlers were coming into the area, bringing in livestock and occupying the grazing land that Antoine had always used. His friend recalled:

“Civilization was pressing Antoine pretty hard. He found his freedom of activity restricted on all sides and his means of existence were undoubtedly suffering accordingly" (Spokesman Review, December 31, 1933).

Plante continued to live in his home on the north side of the river until 1878, when railroad surveyors informed him that he would have to move. The family relocated to the Jocko Valley in western Montana, where many of Plante’s old fur trade compatriots already lived. In January 1890, Father Jerome D’Aste (1829-1910) of St. Ignatius Mission rode out to visit the Plante home near Arlee. “The old man at 3 o’clock was still fasting waiting for the communion,” Father D’Aste wrote (Peltier, 34). His communicant, Antoine Plante, passed away less than a month later, and was buried on February 15, 1890, in the St. Ignatius cemetery.

Antoine Plante’s role in the early history of Eastern Washington is commemorated by a granite obelisk above the gravel shoal of his ferry landing at Plante’s Ferry State Park. A statue of Plante by David Govedare and Keith Powell looks down on the ferry’s route, while its point of embarkation on the river’s south side can still be explored at Myrtle Point.

Sources: John V. Campbell, “The Sinclair Party -- An Emigration Overland along the Old Hudson Bay Company Route from Manitoba to the Spokane Country in 1854,” Washington Historical Quarterly 7 (July 1916), 187-201; George Gibbs to John G. Parke, November 15, 1859, Record Unit 7209, George Gibbs Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, D.C.;  Letters from the 49th Parallel, 1857-1873 ed. by C. Ian Jackson (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 2000); John Mullan, Miners and Travelers’ Guide to Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado via the Missouri and Columbia Rivers (New York: W. M. Franklin, 1865); John Mullan, Report on the Construction of a Military Road from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton, U.S.A. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1863); Jack Nisbet, “A Bend in the River,” Pacific Northwest Inlander, October 10, 2003; John Owen, The Journals and Letters of Major John Owen, Pioneer of the Northwest, 1850-1871 (Helena, Montana: Edward Eberstadt, 1927); Jerome Peltier, Antoine Plante: Mountain Man, Rancher, Miner, Guide, Hostler and Ferryman (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1983); Report of Explorations and Surveys to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economic Route for a Railroad from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, Vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: A.O.P. Nicholson, 1855), Vol. 12 (Washington, D. C.: Thomas H. Ford, 1860); Augustus J. Thibodo, “Diary of Dr. Augustus J. Thibodo of the Northwest Exploring Expedition, 1859,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 31 (July 1940), 287-347; “Valley of the Sun: Antoine Plante,” Spokesman Review, December 3, 10, 17, 31, 1933; Bruce Watson, Lives Lived West of the Divide (Kelowna, B.C.: University of British Columbia, 2010); Christina M. Williams, “A Daughter of Angus McDonald,” Washington Historical Quarterly 13 (April 1922), 107-117.

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