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#21. Lt. Saxton Reports

For readers who have missed earlier portions of this series, we are reviewing the final report of the explorations (1853-1855) made by and the teams under the direction of Isaac Stevens to determine the practicability of the northern route for a railroad to the Pacific.

We return to Lieutenant Saxton’s report to Isaac Stevens. Saxton’s assignment was to transport supplies from Fort Dalles to the Bitterroot Valley (Western Montana) and meet with Isaac Stevens. Saxton, as mentioned in the prior issue, had hired Antoine Plante as his guide, describing Plante as a “half-breed, who lived with the Spokanes near the prairie intermediate between them and Coeur d’Alenés.” [1]

Antoine Plante (1810/12-1890) was a large man, believed to be over six feet tall and weighing a little over 200 pounds (per lore). He was ¼ Blackfoot Indian and French and could speak French, English, and Indian dialects. 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. Plante was wealthy and while he would not “take the field” (fight) the Blackfeet, he was willing to guide the party into the heart of their territory.

Statue of Antoine Plante

(Sculpture by David Govedare)

Plante’s Ferry State Park, Spokane, WA.

Saxton’s survey team departed Walla-Walla on July 30th on a long march, without water for the first twenty-five miles, until they made a camp at the mouth of the Peluse river (a branch of the Snake). Awaiting them was a delegation of “fifty Peluse and Nez Percés warriors, who came in full costume and with great formality to have a great war talk.” Saxton notes the smoked, but he did not specific a peace pipe or other special ceremonial implement. He was asked questions as to why the group was traveling through their territory and with so many horses and merchandise. The chief said they had been warned by a Spaniard that the American soldiers were coming to cut them all off - to make war.

Saxton responded that “he had been sent by the President to meet the chief of the white men who was on his way there from Fort Benton; and that he, himself, was going there to see the Blackfeet, and to advise peace; that he had presents for them from the President, and would also pay them well for any assistance given to the expedition.” A younger member of the delegation gave an “eloquent speech” to Saxton and the others stating “his father was once chief of all this region; he had extended the hand of friendship to the first white man who was seen in the country, and that they must follow this example.” Saxton presented the delegation with gifts that included Sharpe’s and Colt’s rifles, making a very favorable impression with their rapid shooting and as a means of defense.

On August 2nd, they broke camp and crossed the Snake River. It was not an uneventful crossing, two animals drowned while swimming across. Loads of supplies and goods were ferried over in canoes by the Indians as the wagons could not carry them without sinking. After their safe crossing, the Indians who aided them were given presents to show the teams appreciation. In return, Saxton was presented with corn and potatoes along with the promise to kill a fat ox for them when Governor Stevens arrived.

From the 2nd to the 10th of August (1853), Saxton records several things of interest. The bad news was that their mercurial barometer was broken and they had to rely on the aneroid barometer. Mercurial barometers are delicate instruments as jostling the instrument can cause the mercury to slam the closed end of the glass tube and cause the tube to shatter; there is no air within or around the mercury to cushion its movement. The aneroid barometer is not as accurate and measures air pressure by the action of the air in deforming an elastic lid of an evacuated box or chamber. The more positive news appears to have been the geography. Over the three days of their journey, the country north of the Snake was superior to that of the south of the Columbia. Saxton describes the last forty miles as beautiful, open pine forest, the trees of immense size, and interspersed with fine lakes and ponds.

It was probably on the 5th or 6th that his team met with the Spokane, “the most noble tribe” he had yet seen. Their Chief, Garry, spoke fluent English as he had been educated by the Hudson Bay Company. I had to pause and reflect upon why Saxton considered them the most noble tribe. Was it their general appearance and behavior or was it because their chief spoke English? There was no description of the Spokane physical appearance or traits beyond “full costume”. When reading primary source documents you need to bear in mind who is writing about what or whom, and what their experience and/or point of view might be. Let’s get back to the journey.

Chief Garry, as with the Peluse and Nez Percés, had been warned that Saxton’s group was coming to wage war against them and was pleased to learn differently and to “find friends.” The chief had brought with him approximately 30 mounted warriors in full costume. Upon learning they were not intent upon warfare, Saxton’s group was greeted by a song of welcome that made “the hills re-echo with their wild music; and, as the setting sun shone upon the band, the scene was strikingly grand and imposing. [Saxton] left them with three disabled horses, to be taken care of until our return, and gave them a few presents, informing them that they were sent to them by the Great Father at Washington.”

August 10th found the group reaching the outlet of Pend d’Oreille (French meaning ear loop or hangs from ears) ”lake some sixty miles from the Spokane in what we know as the northern panhandle of Idaho.

Photograph courtesy of Pend d'Oreille Park.

Saxton describes the river as being a beautiful sheet of water among the mountains. They found an old batteau (a flat-bottomed boat with raked bow and stern and flaring sides) which they repaired to use to ferry things across the river. The river was about 600 yards wide and very deep. Several horses were lost (drowned) during the crossing. To spare the others, the heaviest articles were carried in the batteau along the river under the command of Lieutenant Arnold. When they finished crossing, they were met by a party of about 100 Pend d’Oreille (also known as Kalispels) Indians returning from a hunting excursion to the Missouri. All were well mounted and carrying the buffalo robes and meat to trade with more westerly tribes. Saxton describes the Kalispels as being “perfectly civil and seemed to feel proud, rich, and independent.”

1860 photograph of a Kalispel tule-mat tepee and canoes on the edge of Pend d’Oreille Lake. An American camp is visible on the opposing shore. (The Bonner County Historical Society Collection)

After a brief, civil exchange of greetings, Saxton’s group resumed their journey. They had to climb some very steep hills to avoid the fingers of the lake. Saxton reported that the whole region was covered with dense forest of pine, cedar and other forest trees that were reminiscent of New England. There were also many fine meadows covered with luxuriant grasses. Finally arriving at the upper end of the lake he was able to rejoin Lieutenant Arnold. Arnold reported that he had a “pleasant voyage up the lake, and spoke in the highest terms of the beauty of its scenery.”

[1] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853”


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