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Josiah Gregg and the Catclaw

By Bill Sullivan


This article was originally published in The Sand Paper, the membership newsletter of the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association

One afternoon a few years ago, I stepped from the dense brush that surrounds Lower Willows and noticed some blood trickling from the back of my hand. I figured my bleeding was probably caused by catclaw, a shrub with sharp thin thorns on its branches that are shaped like the claws of a cat.

The Latin name for Catclaw is Acacia greggii. This acacia gets its name from Josiah Gregg, a 19th Century explorer, trader, author, and jack of quite a few trades who died in 1850 at the age of 44.

catclaw blossoms and longhorn beetles anza borrego

A pair of longhorn beetles feast on catclaw blossoms in Coyote Canyon - Photo by Bill Sullivan.

catclaw anza borrego

Catclaw is often given names like “wait-a-minute” because its thorns snag the packs and clothing of people who don’t know to avoid them. In truth, catclaw is not usually the first plant a person is likely to notice on a day in the desert, and that may be part of the problem. Photo by Michael Charter

Gregg’s accomplishments make him interesting, and his book, Commerce of the Prairies,is considered a classic.  It is well worth reading by anyone who has ever thought about the broad deserts and plains from Missouri to New Mexico and wondered what life was like before these places became states.

was a careful note taker. Commerce of the Prairies is a record of what he experienced and felt as he crossed the American frontier in the 1830s. On a summer day in the 21st Century, when it is too hot to venture out of doors for too long, Commerce of the Prairies might be a good book to read to appreciate what people went through to cross America back then. If you can’t find a copy to buy or borrow, it can be downloaded from the Internet for free.

When Gregg went West, there were no cities and highways. He writes of standing on a hilltop with a vista of 100 miles or more, and hills, plains, mounds, and sandy undulations in one direction and plains studded with occasional variegated peaks and ridges in the other. His words evoke thoughts of the great landscape paintings of his time.

His book is about such adventures as getting through country where there were no maps, finding food where there were no stores, and amputating an unlucky wagon driver’s arm when there was no surgeon. It is about tricks of the trail such as camping after you cross the river, not before. It is about the risks merchants took to do business on the early frontier. It is about local officials like tax collectors and sheriffs in the U.S. and Mexico.

Gregg describes the fear of never knowing if Indians were friendly or hostile, a feeling the Indians probably had for whites as well. He writes: “Often will the lonely traveler, as he plods his weary way in silence, imagine in each click of a pebble, the snap of a firelock, and in every rebound of a twig, the whisk of an arrow.” Sometimes the travelers’ fears were justified, sometimes not. They could only hope for the best.

Gregg was born in 1806. When he was in his early twenties, his health declined and his doctors advised him to take a trip west for a change of air and habits. He wrote: “The effects of this journey were in the first place to re-establish my health, and, in the second, to beget a passion for Prairie life which I never expect to survive.” Gregg became a trader and made four round trips across the prairies to Santa Fe in the next nine years. When not engaged in these crossings, he journeyed into Northern Mexico.

It was probably his passion for the prairie and his education (Gregg had studied medicine and law and taught math) that brought him to the attention of the noted biologist and physician George Engelmann. In the 1830s and 40s, Engelmann had botanists accompany some 30 prairie and desert expeditions to collect new plants and send them back to him. The names of the botanists are appended to the names of the plants they added to Engelmann’s collection and catalog. Besides Acacia greggii, Gregg’s name is on twenty-two other plants, most of them common to New Mexico and Northern Mexico. An exception is Salvia greggii which is sold in San Diego County nurseries.

Asa Gray, a noted biologist and close associate of Charles Darwin, worked closely with Engelmann. Gray described Acacia greggii as a new species. Engelmann’s collection became the foundation of the collection of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.

The last adventure of Gregg’s short life was to lead a squad of men on a walk through the redwood forests of Humboldt County to the chilly California coast in search of a seaport (other than San Francisco) for the northern California gold fields. It was a difficult journey hampered by cold, rain, lack of food, and dense forests. Tempers flared as Gregg focused on exploration and scientific study, even at the expense of survival. According to Paul Horgan, Gregg’s biographer, matters came to a head one day at the edge of a stream. The men got into their canoes to cross it, but Gregg wanted to pause with his instruments and take some readings. Gregg lost his temper and delivered his men a harsh tongue-lashing. Ever since, the stream has been known as the Mad River.


© Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association (ABDNHA), from The Sand Paper, ABDNHA Membership Newsletter.