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Josiah Gregg: PrairieYears



"[In 1839] An unconquerable propensity to return to prairie life inclined me to embark in a fresh enterprise."

Commerce of the Prairies, Josiah Gregg, published in 1844

A large brass plaque outside Eureka City Hall celebrates the Josiah Gregg overland expedition, which "discovered" Humboldt Bay in late December of 1849. Two months later, 43-year-old Gregg — doctor, explorer, naturalist, merchant, surveyor, cartographer, photographer, author — died near Clear Lake after falling from his horse, having been weakened by starvation.

Sadly, he and his party are barely acknowledged here in Humboldt. Lewis Keysor Wood gave his name to a boulevard in Arcata, James Van Duzen to a tributary of the Eel, David Buck to Bucksport in south Eureka and J.B. Truesdale to Truesdale Street, south of the Bayshore Mall. In addition to Truesdale, the original plat map of that area includes the names of Thomas Seabring, Charles Southard and — finally! — Gregg himself.

Gregg lived what most people would consider several rich and fulfilling lifetimes, despite suffering from chronic dyspepsia (indigestion) and, probably, tuberculosis. Born in Tennessee in 1806, he grew up in Illinois and Missouri. In 1830, while living in Independence, Missouri, his doctor recommended he spend time in the great outdoors, specifically the southern prairies. He writes, "The Prairies have, in fact, become very celebrated for their sanative effects. ...Most chronic diseases, particularly liver complaints, dyspepsias, and similar affections, are often radically cured; owing, no doubt, to the peculiarities of diet, and the regular exercise incident to prairie life, as well as to the purity of the atmosphere of those elevated unembarrassed regions. ... An invalid myself; I can answer for the efficacy of the remedy."

Between 1830 and 1849, Gregg established himself as the most experienced "caravan master" of the Santa Fe Trail, leading huge wagon trains between Independence and Santa Fe. He also pioneered other routes across the prairies, including spearheading a supply line south to Chihuahua, Mexico, at a time when the French navy was blockading Mexican ports. In addition to successful business ventures, he pursued his love of geology, cultures of Native tribes and, in particular, botany; 47 species of plants bear his patronym greggii.

Love of the prairies led to Gregg's bestseller, Commerce of the Prairies (it's in the Humboldt County Library, great read!), published simultaneously in New York and London in 1844. The subtitle reads: "... or the Journal of a Santa Fe Trader during Eight Expeditions across the Great Western Prairies, and a Residence of Nearly Nine Years in Northern Mexico." It went through six editions within the next few years, not including translations into French and German.

In 1845, at age 39, he enrolled in the University of Louisville medical school for two semesters before joining another wagon train out of Independence. Apparently, he couldn't get enough of the prairies. When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, he joined the Arkansas Volunteers as an interpreter — he spoke Spanish fluently — and unofficial correspondent. In February of 1847, he sent his eyewitness account of the ambiguous battle of Buena Vista (near Monterrey, Coahuila), in which both sides claimed victory, to newspapers in the U.S.

In what would turn out to be the last chapter of his rich life, Gregg's days in California began shortly after discovery of gold at John Sutter's mill in January of 1848. That's a story for next week.

Barry Evans ( finds it enough of a challenge to live just one life well.

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