The extraordinary life of josiah gregg

Salvia greggii, or autumn sage, the mainstay of many desert hummingbird gardens, is among some forty plants named to honor Josiah Gregg (1806–1850). The plant was first described and named by botanist Asa Gray, in 1873, based on a specimen collected by Gregg, in 1848, in the mountains of northern Mexico near Saltillo.

The illustration here, published in the 1885 volume of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, was painted by Matilda Smith (1854–1926). The salvia specimen used for her painting flowered in October of 1884 at the Cambridge Botanical Garden. (Other paintings by Smith are in past issues of Desert Breeze—the saguaro (June 2013) and the titan arum lily (January 2018).

Josiah Gregg’s importance in the history of the American West was not secured through his botanizing, but rather by his 1844 book, Commerce of the Prairies, a narrative compiled from the notebooks he kept for nine years traveling the Santa Fe Trail. The book’s title certainly isn’t very enticing, so it’s a nice surprise to find that it is less about commerce and more about the culture of the trail, the people who braved its hardships, and the unspoiled land with all its inhabitants. Gregg’s book was very successful, with 5 reprintings in 10 years, as it had become a valued guidebook for pioneers and adventurers wanting to travel west.

Gregg grew up in western Missouri, eventually settling near Independence, the departure point for merchants en route to Santa Fe. He was largely self-taught and had a mathematical bent with a curious, roving, disciplined mind. When looking for a profession, he considered the law but after a few years found that it didn’t appeal to him, to the point of causing his health to deteriorate.

He became bedridden, and his doctor’s only suggestion was to send him west to the prairies. In the spring of 1831, he set out with a group of traders in a wagon train bound for Santa Fe. Initially, he was unable to sit up, let alone ride a horse, but his health and spirits improved quickly. Gregg remained in Santa Fe until 1833, working as a merchant’s bookkeeper. The following spring, he returned, this time as partner of the merchant.

For nine years this was Gregg’s life. He made four trips to Santa Fe, after which he devoted his time to compiling his memoirs and getting them published. He had traded his invigorating life of travel for the confined life of the writer. As he noted, “Scarcely a day passes without my experiencing a pang of regret that I am not now roving at large upon these vast western plains.”

At some point, either during his prairie years or while writing his book, Gregg became acquainted with Dr. George Engelmann in St. Louis. While we have later correspondence from Gregg to Engelmann, the beginnings of the relationship aren’t documented. But obviously Engelmann, at some point, encouraged Gregg to begin collecting plant specimens from his many travels.

After getting his book published, Gregg spent a year in Louisville, Kentucky, studying medicine. His brother John wrote posthumously that Josiah began these studies “to gratify his passion for science; and in the belief that it might add to his standing in Mexico, where he intended traveling.” So after only a year of studies, Gregg became Dr. Gregg, and he did indeed travel to Mexico. In 1846, at the beginning of the Mexican-American War, he was hired as a general guide and interpreter to accompany U.S. troops into Mexico. After the war, he remained in Mexico and established a medical practice in Saltillo where he also devoted considerable time to collecting plant specimens for Engelmann.

In 1849, with his health beginning to fail, Gregg traveled to California to see the gold rush first hand. He was in San Francisco briefly, where he left his diaries with an friend from his trading days before heading to gold mining settlements on the Trinity River. His family believed him to be working on a government commission to find an overland route from the settlements to the Pacific coast. He headed up an exploratory party of eight men who endured months of horrendous winter weather, difficult terrain, and lack of adequate food. During all this time, Gregg had become increasingly frail and was often the subject of taunting by the other men, who had no interest in taking scientific measurements or collecting specimens. In February of 1850, in a much weakened state from the continued lack of food, he fell from his horse and died soon after. The remaining party buried him under rocks. His belongings, including his diaries and specimens, were either lost or destroyed by the party.

While Gregg’s diaries of his California travels did not survive, the records that he left in San Francisco were eventually returned to relatives, and, in 1944, they were compiled in a two-volume collection of letters and diary entries spanning the years 1840 to 1850.

What little we know of Gregg’s California travels and his death comes from an account by one of the men of the Trinity party that was not published until 1856. This account by L. K. Wood, The Discovery of Humboldt Bay, gives general details of Gregg’s death, but leaves the reader wanting to know much more about his final excursion. — Cindy Hartwell

A version of this article appeared in the September 2018 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.