"The name Joshua tree was given by a group of Mormon settlers who crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century. The tree's unique shape reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer."
That's the version of the Joshua tree's naming origin story that shows up on Wikipedia, as succinct a version of the story as I have read. It's a pretty story, and very widespread. But is it true?
The story does have variations. Some say that the Mormons' first glimpse of Joshua trees along the trail marked the halfway point of their journey. Others, such as this person, say things like "Mormon settlers gave the Joshua tree its distinctive name when they were traveling westward toward their promised land."
Let's dispose of that second quote first, though it's hardly sporting. To travel westward toward the Mormon's Promised Land of Deseret, one must necessarily be somewhat to the east of Deseret. East of Deseret there are no Joshua trees outside of botanic gardens, of which there were none along the Mormon Trail during the Mormon Migration from 1847-1869.
The writer may have his or her trails confused. Mormon migrants did see big tree yuccas in the course of their 19th century travels, but they saw them along a different trail altogether. Mormon Battalion soldiers returning to the Salt Lake Valley brought with them descriptions of survivable routes through the desert to the Pacific coast. Brigham Young sent settler parties to occupy lands to the southwest starting in around 1850. In 1851, one such colony was founded in San Bernardino, California. A string of settlements grew between San Bernardino and Salt Lake, most of them along the Old Spanish Trail, which Mormon Battalion soldiers had helped improve for wagon travel a few years before.
Among those settlements was Las Vegas, founded at the site of verdant freshwater marshes at the base of the Spring Range, which aside from a rest stop along the trail served as a base from which to proselytize the local Natives.
Saint George, founded in 1861 as a cotton-growing outpost in a region still known locally as "Dixie," was another settlement on the Spanish Trail. It was founded in what is now the southwest corner of the state of Utah. The southwest corner of Utah is the northeast corner of Joshua tree country. Along the trail south from just a few miles past St. George to just a few miles north of San Bernardino, Mormon travelers were afforded many opportunities to view specimens of Yucca brevifolia passing them at approximately the speed of a mule.
So the popular story about the naming of the Joshua tree sounds plausible, on the face of it. But there's something off about it. In two decades of tracing the origin of the name I've come across a number of sources who state with some authority that there's no evidence whatsoever to support the folkloric version. In his book "Believing in place: a spiritual geography of the Great Basin," Richard V. Francaviglia states baldly:
The name Joshua tree did not enter the region's vocabulary until the twentieth century[.]
Mass Mormon migration along the Spanish trail ended in 1857, when Brigham Young called the settlers back to Salt Lake as the Utah War started. The ranks of the Mormon settlers included devoted diarists who described conditions along the trail, including Native inhabitants, other settlers, animals, plants, and topography. None that I've found used the term "Joshua tree" to describe these rather notable and conspicuous inhabitants of the Mojave.
Not that there weren't colorful, evocative terms used to describe the tree. Gwin Harris Heap, the newspaperman who came up with the fabled idea of drafting camels as reliable Mojave Desert transport for the military, accompanied his cousin Edward F. Beale on a 1853 railroad survey expedition commissioned by Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and chronicled the trip. Emerging from the Mojave River bed onto plains that were probably somewhere around Helendale, Heap wrote:
Where we crossed the Mohaveh it was a rapid stream, twenty-five yards in breadth and one foot in depth, but its water was too warm to be drinkable. Passed several fine meadows near the river and saw bands of antelopes, also hares and partridges.... The road leading up to an extensive plain thickly covered with cedars and pines, intermingled with palmyra cactus and aloes.
"Palmyra cactus," though botanically inaccurate even by the standards of the day, is itself nicely Biblical. The tree had other names as well. In Edmund C. Jaeger's The California Deserts, published in 1933, the author says:
As was the case with the Washingtonia palm this yucca was given the name of cabbage tree by the pioneer travelers, and today it is often erroneously brigaded with the palms under the name of "yucca palm."
The name "yucca palm" was indeed common at one time, though you never hear it anymore. The city of Palmdale, in the Antelope Valley in California's Mojave Desert, was founded as "Palmenthal" -- "palm valley" -- in 1886, so named for the forests of Joshua trees that covered the floor of the valley in those days. (The phrase was not, it would seem, restricted to Joshua trees, as witness this photo of a Mojave yucca in the Imperial Valley.)
Jaeger does use the term "Joshua tree." Still, his statement that at the time of writing that the name "yucca palm" was common is interesting. It would seem that the name Joshua tree, a strong and iconographic name, had not yet been around long enough to outcompete the other names in its ecological niche.
In "Yucca Palms," a 1911 work by Arizona notable Sharlot Mabridth Hall, the poet describes the trees in explicitly Biblical imagery.
Gray pilgrims without pouch or staff,
Or dust stained robe, or cockle-shell;
Seek ye the path to some lost shrine
Here in the desert grim as Hell?
No arched cathedral dome bends down;
The earth is iron, the sky is brass
'Tis ages since these blistered sands
Forgot the touch of flower and grass.
Stern penance do you for old wrongs
Mayhap, or saintship seek from pain;
With suppliant hands that never win
The benison of cooling rain.
In beggar rags like that wild throng
That once in Perugia stood,
Ye bear your serried scourges high,
A flagellante brotherhood.
Poets have their impenetrable motivations. Still, I find it hard to believe that given this rather emphatically religious imagery, Hall would not have entitled her poem "Joshua Trees" if she had ever heard the name.
All that said, even though Francaviglia may be literally correct about the name "Joshua tree" not showing up in the Great Basin until the 20th Century, there's truth to the name origin story. Mormon pioneers may not have named the tree as a result of their treks along transcontinental trails, but the Mormon colony in southwestern Utah actually did come up with a name for Yucca brevifolia that was very much like what we call it now. They didn't name it the "Joshua tree," but they did start calling it "the Joshua," and it would seem they did so shortly after Brigham Young called the faithful back from San Bernardino. By the time botanist Charles Christopher Parry arrived in the southwest corner of Utah in the early 1870s, the name was apparently well-established locally.
Parry was attached to the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey in mid-century. He's now best known for the plants named after him, including Agave parryi; larger contributions by Parry include the first scientific descriptions of the Torrey pine and Engelmann spruce. Parry published a description of his Utah travels in the March 1875 issue of The American Naturalist. That article contains the earliest "Joshua" reference to the trees I've yet discovered:
Near the close of the day in ascending the last sloping ridge, leading down on the opposite side to the wide desert plain through which the Muddy courses to unite with the Virgin, we first recognized one of the principal objects of our journey in the singular forms of that remarkable desert production, Yucca brevifolia Engel. This is universally known among the Mormon settlers under the name of "The Joshua."
When and how the tree's common name made the subtle shift from "The Joshua" to "Joshua tree" isn't clear. It seems to have taken a while for the biblical monicker to have caught on outside Dixie. Even after it started spreading, well-read poets like Hall, above, seem to have missed the memo for a couple years.
The above is a graph of the frequency with which three of the most common names for the tree, common and scientific, appear in Google Books' entire library. The phrases are "Joshua tree" (in blue), "tree yucca brevifolia" (red), and "yucca palm" (yellow.) As you can see, "yucca palm" was the most-often-used common name for the tree in print for about 15 years after its first appearance in 1875, with "tree yucca" gaining prominence after that until about 1910. "Joshua tree" doesn't even show up until 1886. In 1910, it goes the pre-Internet version of viral. Within just a couple years the name by which we now know the tree seemed familiar to the point of use beyond explanation. At the outset of "Joshua tree's" leap to popularity, in 1910, California botanist Willis Linn Jepson felt obliged to point out that "tree yucca" was the more commonly used name in California. A handful of months later that was no longer true.
What caused the sudden growth in popularity? Who knows? Maybe the name just felt right.
Whatever the reason, the evocative name seemed to demand an origin story, and one popped up within a decade of the name's wide acceptance. In 1919, Southern California nature writer Francis Fultz wrote an update on California's members of the lily family, to which the Joshua tree was then considered to belong, for the Scientific American Supplement (Vol. 88 No. 2275). In that piece, Fultz offers an intriguingly Mormon-free first draft of the folklore:
Just how and when this desert yucca came by Its name of “Joshua-Tree” no one seems definitely to know. The name dates from the earliest emigrant trains’ that crossed the deserts, and it is claimed by some that these early argonauts saw in the grotesque yuccas signs which pointed to a land of promise.
Was the bit about the Mormons was added after Fultz wrote that version? We don't know.
Here's what we do know: the name "Joshua" got attached to the tree sometime in the mid-19th Century as a common name, "The Joshua," but was used only in southwest Utah for a few decades. That name was still familiar enough a century later that novelist Maurine Whipple used that phrase -- and not "Joshua tree" -- in "The Giant Joshua," her 1941 novel about polygamous Mormon colonies.
We also know that people in California and Arizona didn't catch on to the name for at least 40 years after it was created, and then only after tweaking it slightly to its modern form, after which it spread like viral wildfire.
Did the original version of the name come from Mormons traveling along a trail? Maybe not. The trees were and are common just west of the city of St. George, Utah, and ranchers and homesteaders would have seen them frequently without hitting the long trail. It may well be that the folkloric version of the origin story was embellished by some raconteur in California, who thought that saying "Mormons near St. George named them" lacked a little oomph.
We may never know. But the folkloric version of the story of how the Joshua tree got its name is just as evocative as the name itself. It spread almost as quickly as the name did, seeming to answer a question nobody knew they wanted to ask.
And it's unlikely to stop being repeated anytime soon.