The novelist and commentator Wallace Stegner has written of the American West, "For in a region only three generations from the total wildness of buffalo and horse Indians, everything, including history, must be built from scratch. Like any other part of human tradition, history is an artifact. It does not exist until it is remembered and written down, and it is not truly remembered or written down until it has been vividly imagined."
As with so much of his writing, Paul Hargan has contributed to the creation of that artifact in his new biography of Joshiah Gregg. Gregg, a young man trained in the law but plagued by ill-health, set out from Missouri in 1830 for a trip West in the hopes of regaining his well-being. The prairies and high plains agreed with him, and he spent the next decade as a Sante Fe trader, traversing the Sante Fe Trail eight times. Gregg found little to recommend New Mexico other than is climate, but he reveled in the prairies, noting the Indians, the weather, the flora and the fauna.
In 1884 he published the volume for which he is remembered under the title "Commerce of the Prairies." The book was popular; it enjoyed four printngs in subsequent years and was used extensively by anyone interested in the West or in traveling the Sante Fe Trail. His map of the Sante Fe Trail and environs was unsurpassed for some time and quided thousands of travelers to what soon became the New Mexico Territory.
The bleakness of many of Gregg's observations reminds us that the lands between the Mississippi and the Rockies were once thought to be useless. He writes of driving rains and withering suns and the mirage of water. While he respected the Indians, he reports perfidies and hostilities by men both white and red. And yet he had a vision for this country in which he found personal comfort. "The high plains seem too dry and lifeless to produce timber; yet might not the vicissitudes of nature operate a change likewise upon the season? . . . May we not hope that these sterile regions might yet be thus revived and fertilized, and their surface covered one day be flourishing settlements to the Rocky Mountains?"
Still and all, Gregg would probably have scorned the growth of town and cities on his prairie. In spite of his education and literary gifts, civilization suited him poorly. He was unhealthy in Missouri, restless in Sante Fe, and unhappy in the eastern cities he visited. He spent a year studying medicine in Louisville, Ky., and then journeyed to Mexico, traveling at first with the American army and later on his own. He stayed nowhere more than a few months but continued to record studiously the habits of the people and characteristics of the countryside. Horgan writes, "Among the cheerful, the lusty the rascally, occasionally criminal characters of our frontier century, with its necessarily muscular values, he was often regarded as a crank."
By the winter of 1850 he had found his way to northeren California and joined an exploration party. The party became lost, Gregg's health deteriorated, and he died and was buried along the trail at the age of 44. The notes from his travels in Mexico and California were never published and were only discovered 90 years after his death. Horgan and others have put them to work, another artifact to help reconstruct American frontier.
Which leads to why the life of Josiah Gregg and Paul Horgan's interpretation of it are valuable. The West is important to us -- no longer simply because of its romance or the symbolism of the frontier. The West is critical to America because of its energy, its resources and its space. It is fast developing a new self-consciousness and a regionalism that parallels that of the South in the 19th century. We need to look beyond the cliche and understand the West and its origins. The wanderlings and writings of Josiah Gregg help us to do that.
"Gregg was of the order of men," Horgan tells us, "who create literature out of their most daily preoccupations, that is, without a transfiguring act of the imagination." Where the mortar of imagination is necessary to hold the story of Josiah Gregg together, Paul Horgan is there skillfully working his craft, putting the artifacts together so that we may all appreiciate them.