Read an Excerpt
Josiah Gregg was a sickly intellectual who decided to travel the Santa Fe Trail in order to restore his health. He ended up journeying back and forth along the trail four times in the next nine years, and he compiled Commerce of the Prairies from the experiences of these years as an explorer and trader. It is considered one of the most valuable and interesting chronicles of early American history, and covers a wide range of topics, from buffalo hunting and Indian fighting to gold mining and Mexican agriculture. While this book is used for reference by historians of the old West, it is highly entertaining as an adventure story as well:
"...imagine our consternation and dismay, when, upon descending into the valley of the Cimarron, on the morning of the 19th of June, there suddenly appeared before us an imposing array of death dealing savages! There was no merriment in this! It was a genuine alarm - a tangible reality! These warriors, however, as we soon discovered, were only the vanguard of a 'countless host,' who were by this time pouring over the opposite ridge, and galloping directly towards us..."
Along with his own adventures, Gregg relates historical information he has gathered, as well as stories he has heard about other groups of travellers, some of which are quite horrifying:
"The forlorn band were at last reduced to the cruel necessity of killing their dogs, and cutting off the ears of their mules, in the vain hope of assuaging their burning thirst with the hot blood. This only served to irritate the parched palates, and madden the senses of the sufferers. Frantic with despair, in prospect of the horrible death which now stared them in the face, they scattered in every direction in search of that element which they had left behind them in such abundance, but without success...[they] would undoubtedly have perished in those arid regions, had not a buffalo, fresh from the river's side, and with a stomach distended with water, been discovered by some of the party, just as the rays of hope were receding from their vision. The hapless intruder was immediately dispatched, and an invigorating draught procured from its stomach."
When not in the midst of some exciting exploit, the author is very conscientious about recording the details of custom and costume in the lands he travels through, some of which can be quite entertaining as well as informative:
"As we were proceeding on our march, we observed a horseman approaching, who excited at first considerable curiosity. His picturesque costume, and peculiarity of deportment, however, soon showed him to be a Mexican Cibolero or buffalo-hunter. These hardy devotees of the chase usually wear leathern trousers and jackets, and flat straw hats; while, swung upon the shoulder of each hangs his carcage or quiver of bow and arrows. The long handle of their lance being set in a case, and suspended by the side with a strap from the pommel of the saddle, leaves the point waving high over the head, with a tassel of gay parti-colored stuffs dangling at the tip of the scabbard. Their fusil, if they happen to have one, is suspended in like manner at the other side, with a stopper in the muzzle fantastically tasselled."
While the author's observant nature is beneficial to historians and to us as readers, it was not so well appreciated by the members of his expeditions. It is purported that Gregg drove everyone nuts by constantly stopping to take measurements and record observations. The members of one of his parties considered murdering him and depositing his body and his instruments in the river so they could make it to their destination before they ran out of supplies. However, he survived and continued to lead groups of emigrants until he died in 1850 guiding a prospecting party across the Coast Range in winter.