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Antoine Etienne: First Local Black Settler – 2/2/2024

Written by Chris Rader

History buffs in the Wenatchee Valley have probably heard of the large numbers of Chinese miners who looked for gold in the Columbia River and Peshastin Creek (along the Blewett Pass highway) in the 1860s and beyond. There were Caucasian miners, too, but few are aware of a Black miner named Antoine Etienne who worked a claim on a tributary of Peshastin Creek which now bears his name.

A card for Antoine Etienne appears in the Oregon Pioneer Index.

A card for Antoine Etienne appears in the Oregon Pioneer Index. It was probably filled out in the early 1900s.

Don Schaechtel of Leavenworth, former president of the Washington Native Plant Society, became interested in Etienne Creek and its namesake after watching an online “diversity in the outdoors” panel discussion sponsored by the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center and the Wenatchee River Institute in 2021. The creek’s name had been formally changed in 2009 from Negro Creek (after being changed from Nigger to Negro in the mid-1960s), and rumor had it that Etienne was a Black man. Panel member Karen Francis-McWhite noted the name and said she would like to learn more about Antoine Etienne. So Schaechtel started to do some research.

Don Schaechtel

Don Schaechtel

He found several anecdotes about Etienne – but,
unfortunately, they were inconsistent. Some sources
said he came to Washington (then part of the Oregon Territory) before the Civil War; others said he came afterward. Some said he was born in Louisiana; others said England; some said he had been enslaved. Given the war’s impact on record keeping, this is not surprising.

“The anecdotes did, however, have five themes in common: he was educated; he was skilled with languages, which helped him interact with different tribes; he served in the military; he mined gold on the creek that now bears his name; and he became a skilled orchardist,” Schaechtel wrote in a WNPS blog published earlier this year (1).

Another WNPS member, Cindy Luksus, checked into Etienne’s genealogy and turned up an index card for him in the Oregon Pioneer Index. It gave his date of birth as March 28, 1832 and said he was born in Lincoln County, Missouri, and was of African, Spanish and French descent. At age 17 he apparently left Missouri and crossed the Great Plains to Oregon Territory (likely in a wagon train), arriving in 1849.

Etienne in Oregon and Washington

In 1856 Antoine Etienne joined Wilbur’s Company B of the Oregon Volunteers during the so-called Indian Wars. Nothing is known of his activities there, or how he was received by whites and Native Americans. But a few years later he evidently headed north, perhaps briefly to Canada but definitely to Washington Territory (formed in 1853; Washington became a state in 1889), to search for gold. An 1897 article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, looking back on the history of the Blewett mining district, stated that:

“Mineral was first discovered in this district about 1860 by a party of miners returning from Fraser River, but they only worked the placers and gradually drifted away; one of them, a negro, who took out $1,100 in a season from the bars at the mouth of Negro Creek, giving that stream its name.”

All sources agree that this man was Antoine Etienne. Even before Oregon Territory had been formed, Oregon settlers had created a provisional government which passed a Black exclusion law in 1844. The territorial legislature later amended the law to permit “negro or mulatto” people already living there to remain. Oregon banned slavery but also, in 1862, imposed an annual tax on Blacks, Chinese, Hawaiians and mulattos.

Those unable to pay had to perform road maintenance. By this time Etienne had moved to Blewett, so he was likely unaffected by the repressive Oregon laws. It is unknown whether he experienced hurtful racism in Washington; indeed, we know little about his daily life or personality other than that he was a large man.

Etienne Creek

Photo by Chris Rader. Etienne Creek (formerly Negro Creek) joins Peshastin Creek above the Ingalls Creek junction. Peshastin Creek appears at left, during low water in September. The remnants of a bridge leading to an old road alongside Etienne Creek can be seen at right center.

Mines gold and raises peaches in Entiat

Schaechtel’s research indicated that, in 1868, Antoine Etienne had moved to the Entiat area. He was placer mining again, and growing peaches.

He lived near Chilcosahaskt, the Chief of the Entiat Tribe. Chilcosahaskt’s great-grandson, Wendell George, relates a story told by his father, that Antoine took too much interest in Chilcosahaskt’s daughters.

 

The Chief felt his daughters were too young for such attention. As a result, the Chief told him to leave, so Etienne moved 30 miles upstream on the Columbia River to what became known as Antoine Creek (near the Wells Dam)(2).

A conflicting source says the name of that creek comes from another Antoine, who had been chief of a Native American band living in the area. He and his wife Catherine or Katherine farmed in the valley.

“Chief Antoine’s date of death is given as March 5, 1914 with burial in the Ellisforde Mission Church Cemetery now known as the Ellisforde Indian Cemetery.”(3)

Yet another source, Hettie B. Martin writing in the early 1900s, confirmed that our “Big Antoine” was living in Entiat in 1868, but did not go north to the Wells Dam area. (This writer tends to agree that he was not the “Antoine” of the creek near Wells Dam.) Martin describes a few men coming up the Columbia River to the Entiat River.

Here they found a very large and very black negro, Big Antoine, washing gold by means of a ditch from the Entiat….

He told his unexpected visitors that he had quantities of gold dust, and feared someone would kill him to get it. Big Antoine appeared to have been an Islander and educated in England to be the valet of some man of distinction. He could speak English, French, Spanish, and Indian. He had been in the country of the Red River of the North, probably with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

He had run away coming to the Entiat Valley from San Francisco. He had not been to any outside point in two years and did not know that the Civil War was ended. His only food was a plentiful supply of field peas and cured salmon. Indian Silico (Chilcosahaskt), who had been born at Entiat about the year 1800, and claimed all the country, disliked the presence of the negro and complained to the fort Commander at Lake Chelan, which resulted in orders to Big Antoine to leave. This he did, taking with him to Wenatchee half of the peach trees he had planted (4).

The peaches on the trees he left in Entiat were savored for decades to come by explorers, early settlers, and steamboat passengers and crews.

The ledger books of the Miller-Freer Trading Post note sales of goods to “Mr. Antoine” and “Antoine
Entienne” (5). This establishment, Wenatchee’s first business, was located at the confluence of the Wenatchee and Columbia Rivers from 1872 to the 1890s – so if Antoine traded there, he must have been living nearby in the 1870s.

The late Daniel Meschter, a respected mining engineer and writer, quoted a correspondent for a Seattle newspaper who wrote about Negro Creek in 1877.

“Negro Creek was first worked by Antoine Etienne, a negro who for the past 40 years [?!] has been among the Indians. He is now working on what is called Hidden Treasure Bar, some 17 miles above the Wenatchee on the Columbia River, near the big earthquake fissure” (6).

That would be the Entiat area.

However, in another discrepancy, the national census of 1870 reported Antoine Etienne living near The Dalles, Oregon, and working as a farm laborer. This seems hard to explain, if the Seattle reporter in 1877 and the Miller-Freer ledger are correct.

The only Antoine Etienne in the 1880 national census, said to have been born around 1835, lived in Louisiana! No one with that name appeared in the 1890 census, but the 1900 census has Antoine Etienne living in Mabton, Wash. (southeast of Yakima), and working as a farmer.

Prosser pioneer Harry Fisher wrote in his journal in 1905 that Etienne had a fruit orchard about six miles west of Prosser and would walk those six miles to sell his peaches, carrying two buckets of peaches by a yoke over his shoulders (7).

Antoine Etienne died October 3, 1904 and is buried in the Tahoma Cemetery in Yakima. A simple stone with his name marks the place where he lies.

Etienne was buried in a Yakima cemetery. Source: www.findagrave.com

A sign proclaims “Federal Mining Claim” at a still-worked gold claim on
Peshastin Creek, just below the mouth of Etienne Creek. Photo by Chris Rader

ENDNOTES
1. Don Schaechtel, “Antoine Etienne: The Man, His Namesake Creek, and Its Flora,” www.nwps.org blog, January 31, 2022.
2. Ibid.
3. Okanogan Borderlands Historical Society’s Facebook page, January 12, 2016.
4. Lindley M. Hull, A History of Central Washington, 1929.
5. Maureen E. Brown, Wenatchee’s Dark Past, 2007.
6. Daniel Y. Meschter, “History of the Blewett Mining District, Chelan County, Washington, Part II,” unpublished manuscript, 1982.
7. Schaechtel, op. cit.

Etienne Creek was Negro Creek

A small creek that empties into Peshastin Creek, which flows northward from Blewett Pass to Peshastin next to U.S. Highway 97, began to be known as Negro Creek (or sometimes Nigger Creek) in the mid-1800s. The creek, one drainage south of the better-known Ingalls Creek, was named after a Black man who placer mined for gold there in the 1860s (Antoine Etienne).

Geology graduate student Jamie MacDonald was doing field work in this area during the summers of 2001 to 2005. He needed a name for the geological formation he was studying but was uncomfortable with the racist connotations of the name Negro Creek (as used by the U.S. Forest Service on its maps). MacDonald petitioned the U.S. Board of Geographical Names to change the creek name. Knowing that neighboring creeks were named after explorers or early pioneers (Ingalls, Hansel, Shaser, King), he proposed the name Etienne Creek.

The board formally approved the name change in 2009. There is no sign, maintained trail or bridge at Etienne Creek. It flows through a steep valley alongside western red cedar, grand fir, abundant shrubs, ferns and wildflowers.

Members of the Washington Native Plant Society in 2010 compiled a plant list of 173 species in the
Etienne Creek drainage; additional trips have expanded that list to 210 species. They include white shooting star, mountain lady’s slipper, nightshade, elegant rein-orchard and other wildflowers.

This story was originally published in Confluence Magazine in the Summer edition of 2022. In an effort to preserve these stories, the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center will be posting these stories on the museum’s official blog.

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