Before the Civil War, the United States was cut into three pieces: the east, far west California, and the middle piece. The middle was a problem. The “Great American Desert” west of the Mississippi was an enormous sea of grass with only a few rivers in the north, and the brutal Mojave (mo HAH vee) Desert in the south. West-bound wagon trains formed up in Missouri and rumbled for months across the dry prairie and wicked mountains. Folks in a hurry took Clipper ships from the East Coast, south around Cape Horn, and up to San Francisco—a miserable 3- to 5-month sea journey, and expensive ($100 to $300 then, $3000 to $9000 today).
A letter from Boston could take a year to arrive at San Francisco. Until the Pony Express! Businessmen in St. Joseph, Missouri, created fast east-west postal service to California. They invented a kind of relay race, positioning about 400 tough little horses (ponies) at 186 “swing stations” along the route.
Pony Express riders were special. An Express recruiting ad is apocryphal (never proven) but describes them well: “Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
Each rider was given the precious mochilla, a kind of sit-on saddlebag with four pockets holding the letters. He would ride hard for 10 to 25 miles between stations, where he would jump off one horse, throw the mochilla across a fresh horse’s saddle, and gallop away. Each rider covered 80 to 100 miles before he was replaced by the next rider. The exhausted pony-boy would eat and sleep at the station, then take the next day’s ride going the opposite direction. They faced enormous dangers with nothing but a water bag and a pistol.
Pony Express charged $5 for a half-ounce letter (more than $130 today), but it arrived in 10 or 11 days! The Express was celebrated as a first step toward uniting far west California with the eastern states.
The pony boys rode for only 19 months. On October 24, 1861, the first transcontinental telegraph line reached Salt Lake City, Utah, where existing lines ran to Sacramento and San Francisco. The Pony Express closed for business two days later. It had carried 35,000 letters but it was a financial disaster, losing $110,000 (about $3 million today) . Yet the heroic image of those young, wiry pony boys still seems fresh.
This illustrated map of the Pony Express mail route in 1860 was drawn by William Henry Jackson.
by William Henry Jackson
~ Courtesy the Library of Congress ~
The Pony Express mail route, April 3, 1860 – October 24, 1861; Reproduction of Jackson illustration issued to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Pony Express founding on April 3, 1960. Reproduction of Jackson's map issued by the Union Pacific Railroad Company.
Adkins new book is about the first drive in an automobile. The wife of the inventor took her kids to see their grandparents. Learn more about it here.
He is also a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "A Brief Flicker of Glory." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 13
June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
You’ve probably shivered over the tale of the headless horseman chasing Ichabod Crane through dark Sleepy Hollow. Maybe you’ve heard about Rip Van Winkle, falling asleep only to awaken twenty years later in a world all changed. You might even know that Washington Irving wrote those stories. But did you know that, when he was six, he shook hands with President George Washington? Well, he did, in 1789, in New York City, then the U.S. capital.
Did you know that young Mr. Irving traveled through Europe when Napoleon Bonaparte was Emperor of France? Well, he did, around 1805. And Irving survived an attack by pirates in the Mediterranean Sea!
And who originated the New York Knicks’ name? Washington Irving! His invented author, “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” wrote Irving’s history of New York, published in 1809. So New Yorkers and even their 1849 baseball team were called “Knickerbockers” or “Knicks.” In that history, Irving told about a stout, jolly St. Nicholas (patron saint of New York’s early Dutch settlers), who delivered children’s presents once a year. This inspired the famous 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” by New Yorker Clement Clarke Moore.
In 1811, Mr. Irving visited the White House, met President James Madison, and danced with Dolley Madison, the beautiful First Lady. Then he wrote those stories I told you about and became the first celebrity author, famous in America and in Europe.
He was a U.S. diplomat too, in Spain. Did you know he lived in Alhambra, former castle-home of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who financed Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage to America? He did. He wrote a Columbus biography too, in 1828.
He also hunted buffalo in present-day Oklahoma, met William Clark, Meriwether Lewis’s old explorer-buddy, and wrote about his travels in the American West. Then he helped design “Sunnyside,” his wonderful house in Tarrytown, NY, where he kept a pet pig named “Fanny.”
In the 1840s, Washington Irving met U.S. President John Tyler and young Queen Victoria of England? He helped settle a war between the U.S. and Great Britain over the U.S.-Canada border. And when he died in November 1859, all the flags were lowered in New York City, a.k.a. “Gotham City,” particularly in Batman comics. Did you know Mr. Irving gave the city that nickname? Well he did.
Cheryl Harness is a formidable storyteller in her own right and she's also an amazing artist. In this book, The Literary Adventures of Washington Irving, she pays tribute to America's first celebrity author.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Mr. Irving: Literary Adventurer." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 12
June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature's Animal Ambassador
If I asked you what grain is the most harvested in the world, you’d probably answer either wheat or rice. But the answer is actually corn, more accurately called ‘maize.’ This nutritious crop that originated in Mexico feeds not only people but also animals around the world. We’re used to the wonderfully tender sweet corn harvested in late summer and early autumn, but most maize is actually field corn, more starchy than sweet and used as animal feed or to make cornmeal and flour.
For a long time, biologists puzzled about the origins of this important crop. There is no wild plant that looks anything like modern corn, which is actually a giant grass. The closest relative is a scrawny branching plant with hard dark seeds called teosinte. It seems a huge jump from teosinte to corn, yet geneticist George Beadle found in the 1930s that corn and teosinte have the same number of chromosomes and could be crossbred to produce hybrids. With the limited tools available at that time, Beadle deduced that only about five genes were involved in creating the differences between teosinte and corn.
Fast forward to modern times, when scientists can look directly at DNA and analyze every detail of its structure. We now know that Beadle came very close to the truth—about five regions in the DNA seem to control the major differences between teosinte and corn. For example, these two plants look so very different, yet just one single gene turns a branched plant into a single stalk, like a stalk of corn. Another single gene controls one of the most dramatic and certainly most important traits for farmers—the nature of the seeds and their stalk. In teosinte, each seed has a hard covering. Just one gene eliminates the hard covering and produces a stalk bearing exposed seeds, like an ear of corn.
Scientists now use maize as a perfect example of two major ways evolution happens. One way is through major sudden jumps, like the change from a branching plant to a single stalk. The other is the more gradual kind of change that has led to the thousands of different kinds of maize grown by farmers today. There are probably hundreds of varieties of sweet corn and thousands of varieties of field corn. Think about that the next time you bite into a nice crunchy taco made from a corn tortilla.
Corn was a very important crop for homesteaders in the American West, used both to feed themselves as well as their animals. Read about it in Homesteading: Settling America's Heartland, revised and expanded edition, Mountain Press, 2013.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. "Amazing Maize." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8
June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/Amazing-Maize.
Nonfiction is the new black
Early in 1980, Mt. St. Helens in southwestern Washington state began showing signs that it was about to erupt. Part of the state’s Cascade Range, the mountain was an active volcano that had been dormant for 123 years.
The possibility of seeing the “fireworks” prompted many people to head for the mountain. The sightseers included Ron and Barbara Seibold and their two children, who parked about 12 miles north of the mountain. That was well beyond two danger zones that scientists had established.
En route to the mountain, the children—Kevin, aged 7, and his 9-year-old sister Michelle—made a cassette tape. They asked questions and the parents answered. “They were goofing around—asking whether or not they would see lava coming out of the mountain,” said a state emergency management official. “One asked if it was dangerous, and both parents cheerfully reassured their kids that they’d be safe.”
Exploding on May 18 with a fury far beyond what scientists had expected, the blast generated the largest landslide in U.S. history and flattened millions of trees. Uncounted tons of ash rose as high as 15 miles into the atmosphere.
The Seibolds never had a chance. Ash almost instantly buried their vehicle. They suffocated.
The eruption claimed 53 more people, making it the deadliest-ever on the US mainland. One was Harry Truman, who had run the inn at nearby Spirit Lake for more than 50 years. Truman had become somewhat of a folk hero for his refusal to move despite the danger.
Twenty-year-old newlyweds Christy and John Killian were camping nine miles from the volcano. Christy died of massive head injuries, her arm around her pet poodle. John and the couple’s retriever were never found.
Terry Crall and Karen Varner, both 21, died when a tree fell onto their tent, 14 miles away. Four people outside the tent were unharmed.
So were researchers Keith and Dorothy Stoffel, flying a small airplane less than 1,300 feet above the summit at the moment of the eruption. A cloud laced with lightning bolts billowed toward them. They managed to outrun it.
Today, much of the vegetation destroyed by the blast has returned. But the mountain—once compared in its graceful contours to Mt. Fuji in Japan—lost 1,300 feet of its height. Its former symmetrical cone shape is now topped by a horseshoe-shaped crater which stands as a mute reminder of the catastrophic eruption.
The top of Mount St. Helens two years after the eruption. The removal of the north side of the mountain reduced St. Helens' height by about 1,300 feet and left a crater 1 mile to 2 miles wide and a half mile deep. The eruption killed 57 people, nearly 7,000 big game animals (deer, elk, and bear), and an estimated 12 million fish from a hatchery. It destroyed or extensively damaged more than 200 homes, 185 miles of highway, and 15 miles of railways.
Volcanoes have been erupting for all of recorded history. More than 3,500 years ago, people on the Greek island of Calliste had a very good life. There was only one problem: Calliste was actually a volcano. Around 1650 BCE, the volcano erupted, blowing out the center of the island and creating a large bay. What was left of Calliste was buried under a thick layer of volcanic ash. Though the island was deserted for many years, people eventually returned. Several centuries ago, it was renamed Santorini. The island has reclaimed its beauty and allure, but the volcano below continues to reshape this little plot of land in the Mediterranean Sea. For more information on Jim Whiting's book on the Santorini eruption, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Deadly Eruption of Mount St. Helens." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 5 June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
This story happened in 1778, a time of terrible war. As General George Washington’s troops shivered in their winter camp in Pennsylvania, at Valley Forge, Daniel Boone was hunting out west, in the future state of Kentucky. Nearby, in the forest, his friends were boiling down mineral-rich spring water to make salt for their families in Boonesborough. It was a community of cabins in and around a log stockade, to protect the pioneers from attackers.
Of whom were they afraid? The First Nations, who’d been living in the so-called New World for countless generations. Specifically, Daniel Boone’s people feared the Shawnee and Cherokee peoples—and vice versa. The Native Americans were fighting an endless supply of white settlers determined to take their ancestral lands. All through and after the Revolutionary War years, American, British, and Native warriors fought throughout the wilderness west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River.
We know Daniel Boone as a frontier explorer and trailblazer. To the Natives, he was “Wide Mouth,” a leader of the invasion that threatened to end their ways of life forever. So it was a BIG deal when, on a winter day in 1778, Shawnee Chief Blackfish and his warriors captured him! Daniel used all of his wits to work out a trade: In return for making him and his salt-making friends their prisoners, the Shawnee would put off attacking Boonesborough.
For ten days, the captives were marched through the snowy woods to Chillicothe, the big Shawnee town in Ohio. The British paid bounties for colonial prisoners, so some of Daniel’s friends were sold. They and others were lost to history, but we know that Daniel had to prove his courage in the gauntlet, dashing between rows of Shawnee warriors, getting hit by clubs.
Now, he’d known Natives and studied their ways since he was a boy. To stay safe until he could get back to his family, he knew he needed to let Chief Blackfish do as he wished: adopt him into his tribe. Daniel got scrubbed. He got all of his hair plucked out except for a “scalp lock” atop his head. He got a new name too: Sheltowee or “Big Turtle.” But it was June before he got the chance to escape. Then Daniel ran, hid, hiked, and limped 160 miles home to Boonesborough, in time to prepare for the attack of the angry Shawnee.
But that’s another story for another day.
Once again, Cheryl Harness combines lively storytelling with vividly detailed illustrations to transport readers back to an exciting era in American history. During Daniel Boone's 86-year life, Colonial America is transformed into a revolutionary republic, trails morph into roads and highways, and Americans discover new ways to travel—by canal, and by steam-powered boats and trains. Readers journey through these formative milestones in America's great westward expansion with the aid of a time line running along each page, 200-plus illustrations, maps, sidebars, primary-source quotations, and resource lists. For information on The Trailblazing Life of Daniel Boone: How Early Americans Took to the Road, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Kidnapped!" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 4 June 2018,
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
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Remind me later