It was early fall 1948 when the name of Dr. Josiah Gregg came to my attention during a session of Dr. L. Kinard's U. C. graduate history study. Dr Gregg was present at a mountain man rendezvous on the southern end of Bear Lake in the early 1830's (then Mexican Territory). Bear Lake, being on the northern border of Utah, is split by today's boundaries of Utah and Idaho. The Doctor had in his possession instruments to find his position on the Earth's surface and drafting materials to make maps.
I thought this Gregg fellow must be a U. S. Army spy, so I went to the Bancroft Library and studied the 35mm film listing U. S. Army personnel in the west. I found nothing. Thinking he might be from Canada, I then wrote Hudson's Bay Company. They denied me access to their archives; Dead end! Since Mexico then owned the area of their rendezvous, I felt I would have no luck there either.
While studying Humboldt County history, I read more about Josiah Gregg and his trip to the coast. During a casual conversation with Lewiston Lions member Jo Ryan, she mentioned that she had a book about her grandfather, L. K. Wood. Wood had been badly mauled by a grizzly bear on the Eel River and one of the Gregg party members, a local Rich Bar Indian, had told a group of forty miners at Rich Bar about a bay located about eight days hike to the west.
At Rich Bar on the Trinity River in October of 1849, those forty gold-seeking miners did not have enough food to get through the winter. The general condition of the group as told by L. K. Wood: "I was there without provisions, poorly clad and worst than all, in this condition at the commencement of a California winter. (There was no chance of incoming supplies! October '49 saw hard rain and snow.) The idea was conceived of undertaking an expedition with the view of ascertaining if the bay really existed."
Dr. Gregg knew that Trinidad Head, discovered in the early 1600's by a Spanish sea expedition, existed due west of their camp. If the bay the local Indians described and Trinidad Head were contiguous, perhaps a ship could be found there. If there was no ship, they hoped to walk down the beach to San Francisco Bay.
L. K. Wood described how Dr. Gregg was chosen leader: "Among the first and most active getting up the organization and expedition was a gentleman by the name of Josiah Gregg, a physician by profession, formerly of Missouri. He had implements necessary to guide us through the uninhabited, trackless region of country that lay between us and the point to be sought...Upon him therefore, the choice fell to take command."
Twenty-four of forty available men decided to join up. Two Indians were loaned by the local Chief to guide the expedition, which was to head down river in November 1849. The scarce food was divided up. Rain and intermittent snowfall continued. On November 5 the two Indian guides withdrew, saying that the snow in the mountains would make them impassable.
Soon sixteen of the twenty-four expedition volunteers withdrew, citing the raging rivers and snowed-in passes as impediments to the passage west. Only eight were left to journey with their horses, their gear and all the divided food. These eight left the camp at Rich Bar in a pounding rain of the fifth day of November, 1849.
Being that the Trinity River was in flood stage from the recent storms, the band of eight headed west up the nearest mountain. "Before us", wrote L. K. Wood, "Stretching as far as the eye could reach, lay mountains high and rugged, deep valleys with difficult canyons now filled with water by recent heavy rains."
"As I gazed upon the wild and rugged country spread before us...I could hardly refrain from giving expression to the feelings of doubt with which I was impressed...but the time for reconsideration had passed."
The ridges they gazed upon ran to the north and south along their route to the coast. Trinidad Head and the large bay described by the Indians lay to the west.
His narrative continues, "Nothing beyond the ordinary routine of constant traveling by day, and stretching our weary limbs upon the snow or cold, wet ground by night, occurred during the next four days worthy of notice."
On their fifth evening, as they reached the top of a ridge, "we heard what happened to be the breaking of the surf upon the distant shore, or the roaring of some waterfall." They stopped and set up camp.
Early the next morning, Mr. Buck left the camp alone. He returned later in the day describing a torrent of water, rushing with terrific speed and violence. The hope of finding a pounding ocean surf was dispelled. That stream became known as the South Fork of the Trinity River.
Following the water, the group proceeded downstream until it intersected with the Trinity River, and there they succeeded in crossing. "We reached the top of a steep bank...where we came suddenly upon an Indian rancheria (village)...But the scene that followed for the moment wholly divested our minds of all apprehension of danger, for as soon as they saw us (white men on horses with mules), men, women and children fled in the wildest confusion, and in every direction; some plunging headlong into the river not venturing to look behind them until they had reached a considerable elevation on the mountain on the opposite side of the river, while others sought refuge in the thickets and among the rocks, leaving everything behind them."
The frightened Indians refused to return even after the eight men signaled that they meant them no harm. The "savages" had heard of the existence of white men, but had never laid eyes on one until that time. "Their being thus suddenly in contact with a race of beings so totally different in color, dress and appearance from any they had ever seen or heard of, is attributable to the overwhelming fear they betrayed."
After searching the huts of the Indians, a large store of dried salmon was found. It was determined they would take a quantity of the salmon and leave some venison in exchange. Pushing west down river, they found a camp site.
"We had hoped the Indians would not care to become better acquainted with us, and allow us to pass on unmolested. Imagine our surprise then, when we were out camping for the night, there came marching toward us some seventy-five or eighty warriors--their faces and bodies painted, looking like so many demons--armed and prepared for battle...Our guns were available at this moment for no other purpose than to use as clubs." Their gun powder was wet.
The advancing Indians halted about one hundred yards away. "Two of our company now advanced toward them, holding up to their view beads and other fancy articles which we fortunately had in our possession." These gifts appeared to please them as they became quiet and friendly.
By this time, the Indians believed they had the group under their control. (This is not part of the narrative, but evidently Dr. Gregg convinced them to wait until morning for a demonstration of the firepower of their rifles, as the group had guns that could kill any number that stood in a line, and the incredulous Indians were eager to witness this.)
It was determined they would start out early, but the Indians appeared with a number of women and children prior to their planned departure, anticipating the promised firepower display. Fortunately, some of their gun powder had been dried overnight.
An Indian was told to place a two and a half inch piece of paper on a tree about sixty paces distant. The Indians lined up on each side of the line of fire. With the sound of the discharge and upon seeing the smoke, the Indians fled the scene. After determining that no one was injured, they returned to look at the hole in the paper and the hole caused by the bullet which had passed through the tree. Awed and humbled by the display, the Indians became friendlier to the travelers.
The group was prepared to move Northwest along the Trinity. The Indians had informed them that there were several tribes down river who would not let them pass. They took to the river nevertheless, and missed the chance to follow the route of what is now highway 299. When Dr. Gregg finally determined that the river was flowing northward, they struck out for the west.
They were in desperate straits upon reaching the top of a mountain; their food supply was gone and their horses and mules had grown weaker from lack of grass. Pressing on for two more days with no food brought them to a prairie opening in the seemingly endless forest of fir trees.
Deer and elk were spotted. The men tied up their animals, then separated to approach their prey from different directions. Our narrator, L. K. Wood heard three shots, hurried toward the sound and found Van Duzen near two dead grizzly bears with the third wounded close by. It's back was broken. "Two others stood nearby, grinning and snarling...I concluded to venture a shot and advanced toward them...Van Duzen called me to stop. I approached slowly until within fifteen steps of one of them when I stopped and fired. The shot was a fatal one. At the same moment, Wilson, attracted to the spot, sent a ball through the heart of the remaining bear with a similar result...I felt indifferent to danger. Our situation had become so desperate, recklessness and indifference had become second nature with me."
That day, a number of deer were killed and the men remained several days at that prairie eating, smoking venison, and resting with the horses and mules munching on much-needed grass.
With renewed energy, they continued west through Fir forest to Redwood forest averaging seven miles per day at the point of meeting the Redwoods. "Through this forest we could not travel in excess of two miles a day. The immense quality of fallen timber that lay upon the ground in every conceivable shape and direction, and in many instances, one piled upon another so that the only alternative left us was to literally cut our way through. To go around them was often as impossible as to go over them. We were obliged... to keep two men ahead with axes who would chop into and slab off sufficient to construct a sort of platform. The animals were driven over the log and forced to jump off the other side."
On the third day away from their "bear camp", as they called it, "our ears were greeted with the welcome sound of the surf rolling and beating on the sea shore." On the next day, Wilson and Van Duzen proposed going in advance of the company to find a route for the animals. That evening they returned noting a shoreline approximately six miles away.
Interestingly, the group's attitude toward their elected leader, Dr. Gregg, had grown increasingly hostile. As noted previously, the doctor was an accomplished map maker and had in his possession a number of navigational instruments that aided the men on their journey. He had also taken quite an interest in this "new world" of the mighty Redwood forest, much to the consternation of the others. "Dr. Gregg frequently expressed a desire to measure the circumference of some of these giants of the forest, and occasionally called upon some of us to assist him. The men were not willing to stop and help him do this...We not infrequently answered his calls with shameful abuse...(which) in one or two instances, resulted in success. One Redwood tree was measured and found to be twenty two feet in diameter, and it was not unusual...to find these trees to be three hundred feet in height."
Shooting the sun at noon was done whenever the sun could be seen. Setting up equipment took time and it caused conflict among the men who wanted to keep moving. These feelings of growing resentment would only worsen over time.
With their venison supply exhausted, they at last stood on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. The date was December 20. A bald eagle, a raven and part of a dead fish were cooked and eaten that day. They then ventured northward the following day but decided to go south again when they encountered a lagoon and the men were unwilling to enter the Redwood forest in order to circumnavigate the lagoon on the eastern side.
Two mules had died on their trek from "bear camp" to the ocean. The company and the animals were in desperate condition. Upon the discovery of Trinidad Head, they rested and ate mussels and dried salmon bought from Indians in the area.
By this point, feelings of unity in the group had been greatly diminished. They determined to push southward past the Trinity headlands, where they found a large and swollen river; the Indians on that river were hostile, however. It was clear that these natives had been exposed to ship visits which had obviously left them with a very negative feeling toward white men.
Despite their inborn animosity, the Indians agreed to transport the men across the mighty river. What was paid for this service was not mentioned in L. K. Wood's narrative. Elected leader, Dr. Gregg began to set up his instrument to "shoot the sun" for a noon reading of the river location flowing into the ocean.
When the others in the party had loaded goods into and boarded the canoes, Dr. Gregg, realizing he had been stranded on the north shore, hastily gathered his equipment, ran to the water and boarded a canoe. "His cup of wrath was now filled to the brim, but he remained silent until the opposite shore was gained when he opened upon a perfect battery of the most withering and violent abuse." During the doctor's tirade upon his companions, several of them retorted that he and his instruments would be thrown into the river were he to persist. Fortunately for the 49 year old gentleman, the conflict subsided. In commemoration of this incident, the stream would later become known as Mad River.
The party proceeded southward along the beach until arriving at a peninsula they dubbed "Trinity Bay" which is now recognized as Humboldt Bay. The Indians they met there convinced them to continue back around the north bay which took two days of hard labor before they emerged at a plateau and set up camp at an area now called Arcata Plaza. An elk was killed and they enjoyed good eating on Christmas day, 1849.
The next day, they followed a faint Indian trail and emerged that evening on a bluff where Fort Humboldt was later erected just south of Eureka. They called the area Bucksport after a party member who set up stakes for a land claim there.
Continuing south, they traveled over a low ridge of mountains and came to a valley where a great river was flowing. They came upon two elderly Indians carrying baskets on their shoulders. The Indians immediately fell to the ground in fear of death. Eels were discovered in the baskets and a feast ensued. The river was named Eel River.
The Indians returned to the river with the group and ferried them in their canoes to the south shore. Northeast of the camp, a river flowed into the Eel from the east; it was named Van Duzen fork in honor of one of the men.
A question arose within the group: Should they continue up the Eel River, or head west to the Pacific and proceed down the shore to San Francisco? The argument grew heated and the group decided to split up. Wood, Seabring, Buck and Wilson were determined to take the path of the river, while Gregg, Truesdell, Southard and Van Duzen set out for the coast.
The Wood group, which the narrative follows, went up river three days. Steep ridges entering the river forced them to turn south. They searched for a ridge that might lead them southward. Snow fell to such depths, they then returned to Eel River.
One small deer was shot, and food later became so scarce they resorted to boiling the deerskin with buckeye nuts and eating that. A number of grizzly bears was sighted, but most escaped.
Finally, a group of grizzlies was spotted and Seabring, Wilson and Wood prepared to attack. Seabring withdrew by climbing a tree while Wilson and Wood approached their prey to within fifty paces. Wood fired what seemed a fatal shot. Wilson did the same with the second grizzly. The remaining bear sat looking at the downed animals, then at the men. As Wilson ran, Wood attempted to reload. Immediately, the third grizzly attacked Wood, who could not get the ball down the barrel of the gun in time. He fled to a small Buckeye tree, positioning himself behind it as the bear charged past. Wood had scaled about six feet of the tree when one of the other bears, thought to be dead but only wounded, attacked him from behind, pulling Wood from the tree. When the charging bear returned, one grabbed his ankle as the other bit into his shoulder and they proceeded to tear him limb from limb. Feigning death, Wood laid there as the grizzlies tore his clothing from his body. The unwounded bear finally wandered off, but the other sat a hundred yards away, glaring at the man. Believing his leg was broken, Wood moved and the irate bear was on him yet again. The animal placed his snout under Wood's side, rolled him over and gave three powerful roars before wandering away. Wood crawled back to the tree he'd been dragged from and re-climbed it (!). He brought along his rifle but once again was unable to get a bullet down the barrel.
When Wilson attempted to help the wounded man, Wood saw the bear in the distance and advised his friend to climb a nearby tree to safety, which he did. Though he had his rifle, he could not bring himself to shoot the bear, much to Wood's dismay. One can only imagine Wood's upbraiding of Wilson as the bear wandered off once and for all.
It was determined that Wood's flesh wounds were not fatal, but that he had suffered either a broken leg or a dislocated hip which caused him excruciating pain.
After setting up camp near the river, they feasted off Wilson's grizzly for the next ten days.
A group of Indians from a village three miles away discovered them and the men implored the Chief to take Wood under his care until they could return for him. As barter, the four offered all their personal belongings, minus the guns and horses, in return for Wood's care. In a blatant act of inhumanity, the Chief signaled for his men to collect all the trade goods and the Indians promptly turned their backs on the desperate men.
Upon seeing the natives disappearing with all their worldly belongings, Wood wrote, "My heart for a moment ceased to beat. My fate was sealed--that death awaited me."
While the able-bodied travelers contemplated their future, "a solemn and profound silence prevailed with all...I turned my face from my friends." Wood did not wish to hear the men determining his fate.
Wood had crawled to a litter and was away from the other three when he heard Wilson say in a loud voice, "No. I will not leave him. I'll remain with him if it is alone, or I'll pack him if he is willing and able to bear the pain." With this, the conversation was ended.
Seabring then approached the injured man. "We cannot pack you for you have never allowed us to touch you even. How then can you bear to be place upon a horse and packed?"
"You are not to consult my wishes in the matter," replied Wood. "If you have decided to not abandon me, you must do with me as you will."
The group then moved the litter to the river camp where a log canoe had been hacked out to cross the Eel River. Over ten days had passed since the kill of the grizzly. They had feasted and smoked the meat as was their wont to do at the earlier grizzly kill. They saved all the fat from the bear. It was boiled and stored in the cleaned-out entrails and substituted for food not found along the way.
For ten days they traveled down the Russian River, then struck out southeast toward Sonoma. "We arrived at the ranch of Mrs. Mark West about thirty miles from Sonoma on the 17th of February, 1850. Here I remained for six weeks until sufficiently recovered to proceed to San Francisco."
Wood continues, "I must tell you something of the four, Messrs. Gregg, Van Duzen, Southard and Truesdell (whom) we left on the Eel River within twenty miles of the bay or coast...They attempted to follow along the mountains near the coast, but were very slow in their progress on account of the snow on the high ridges...(Due to) the necessity to cross abrupt points and deep gulches and canyons...they concluded to abandon that route (They were in the northern area we now call "The Lost Coast", as no roads follow the coast north of Fort Bragg due to the rugged terrain.) and strike eastward toward the Sacramento Valley.
"...They came nigh to perishing from starvation and, as Mr. Southard related to me, Dr. Gregg continued to grow weaker...One day he fell from his horse without speaking--dead from starvation! He had had no meat for several days...They dug a hole with sticks...then carried rock and piled it upon his grave to keep animals from digging him up. They got through to the Sacramento Valley a few days (after) we reached the Sonoma Valley. Thus ended our expedition."
AUTHORS NOTE: It seems the Southard story of the death and burial of Dr. Gregg was not true. An Indian woman found the doctor alive near the Eel River and took him to her tribal village in the Clear Lake area. It was there that he died from his lack of food or medicine on the trip.
This narrative of L. K. Wood's appeared in the Quarterly of the Society of California Pioneers, volume IX, number 1, March 1932.