It was December 24, 1801, when bundled-up Philadelphians bought their 25¢ tickets and entered Peale’s Museum on Fifth Street. Once inside, they saw the owner’s paintings. And I’ll bet you have too—even if you’ve never heard of Charles Willson Peale. This one, for instance, of his fellow Revolutionary War soldier:
Visitors to the museum had seen Peale’s collections of butterflies, too, and other nature specimens, such as the fossilized teeth of mysterious beasts. (Who knew then that animals went extinct? Hardly anybody!) But on this extra-special Christmas Eve, people probably hurried past Peale’s handmade dioramas, with the lifelike bodies of birds and mammals that he’d stuffed and posed. Today, Mr. C.W. Peale himself was introducing his NEW ATTRACTION. People had paid an extra 50¢ just to see it! Now they looked up, up, UP at it, and were astonished.
What animal’s skeleton was eleven feet tall? Seventeen and a half feet from its bony tail to the tips of its giant, curving tusks? It was a mastodon.
No one had seen a live mastodon in more than ten thousand years. So how did one’s bones get to Philadelphia? Mr. Peale and other naturalists such as Thomas Jefferson, the new President-elect, wrote to one another about their studies, collections, and the latest discoveries, such as like these huge, mysterious bones in southern New York state. Some of North America’s long-gone mastodons ended up there, by the Hudson River. As soon as he heard about them, Peale hurried to see them. Then he not only figured a way to dig up the bones, but he also painted a picture of the huge excavation!
Peale’s son, Rembrandt helped to draw and assemble the bones:
For years, people paid to marvel at the enormous, sensational skeleton. Later on, after Mr. Peale’s death in 1827, his museum slowly went broke. P.T. Barnum, the circus showman, bought a lot of his exhibits. Later still, they were destroyed in a fire. And the mighty bones of the mastodon wound up lost for a hundred years, until the skeleton turned up in Germany, where you can see it today.
In Thomas Jefferson, her sixth presidential biography for National Geographic, Cheryl Harness illuminates the many sides of Thomas Jefferson: scientist, lawyer, farmer, architect, diplomat, inventor, musician, philosopher, author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and third president of the United States. Readers meet this extraordinary man of contradictions: a genius who proclaimed that "All men are created equal" and championed the rights of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," while at the same time living a life that depended on the enforced labor of slaves.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "The Big Deal in Mr. Peale's Museum." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 18 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Curiosity queen: writing science, history, and everything in between
Two hundred thirty-one years ago today Thomas Jefferson celebrated his 44th birthday riding a mule over the Alps on his way to Italy. Jefferson’s first official federal position after writing the Declaration of Independence was serving as Minister to France under President George Washington. Jefferson’s job was to grow America’s economy, which he did by forming trade agreements to sell whale oil and tobacco overseas. He also looked for new crops that could be grown in the U.S. and sold in Europe.
One thing he noticed was that the French ate a lot of rice, but they didn’t buy rice grown in America. The French preferred dry or upland rice. American farmers grew “swamp” rice and suffered with mosquitoes and malaria. Jefferson thought that if American farmers switched to upland rice they would not only be able to sell it abroad, they would also be healthier.
Jefferson asked for samples of upland rice from friends, farmers, ship captains who traveled to far off lands, and even the seven-year-old prince of Cochin China. The most prized rice, however, was grown in Italy and banned from export.
Determined to help America, Jefferson rode over the Alps and found the unhusked grain. “I could only bring off as much as my coat and surtout [overcoat] pockets would hold,” he wrote a friend. Under penalty of death, he smuggled it across the border.
Back in France, Jefferson sent rice to farmers in South Carolina and to his farm manager at Monticello, his home in Virginia. He even grew samples of rice in pots on his windowsill when he returned to New York to be Secretary of State.
Unfortunately, the upland rice didn’t grow well in the South and didn’t become a big export for the U.S., but Jefferson was not discouraged. He had already set his sights on another amazing plant that he hoped would be “the source of the greatest wealth and happiness.” Olive trees.
Many years later when Jefferson listed his achievements, along with writing the Declaration of Independence he included his attempts to bring rice and olives to the United States. “The greatest service which can be rendered any country,” he said, “is to add an useful plant to its culture.”
Celebrate his birthday with a salad made from some of the useful plants he brought to our culture— kale, tomatoes, peppers and chickpeas with a splash of olive oil.
Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson!
Peggy Thomas is the author of Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation
Among her other books are:
* For the Birds: the life of Roger Tory Peterson
* Snow Dance
* Farmer George Plants A Nation
* Joshua the Giant Frog
* Forensic Anthropology: the Science of Talking Bones
MLA 8 Citation
Thomas, Peggy. "Happy Birthday Thomas Jefferson - Smuggler!" Nonfiction Minute,
iNK Think Tank, 13 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
When she was a girl in Scotland, Frances or “Fanny” Wright fell in love with America, a new nation “consecrated to freedom.” On September 3, 1818, the 22-year-old writer set foot on that actual land of her dreams. She and her little sister Camilla, a pair of wealthy orphans, spent the next two years touring the young U.S. Young females did NOT go traveling without a man in those days, but Fanny believed that freedom should apply to women too!
Her 1821 book about her travels won her the friendship of another freedom fan, the Marquis de Lafayette, who’d helped free America from the British Empire. In 1824, the old Frenchman made sure Fanny met his friend, 81-year-old Thomas Jefferson and his friend, 73-year-old James Madison.
But wait – maybe you already see a fly in the soup. To Fanny, “slavery was revolting everywhere.” Slaves in the Land of Liberty was sickening! As much as she admired the two former presidents, she hated that they lived in slave-built mansions, waited on by people who had no choice but to do so. But slavery really did trouble them, too. Slavery trapped everyone in its evilness. With so much money tied up in costly human property, owners couldn’t afford to let them go. Could blacks support themselves, after lifetimes of being fed, housed, and denied education? Madison and Jefferson thought no; emancipation had to be gradual. Really, centuries of racial division had them and their countrymen thinking that the races could never live together. Surely blacks must go back to Africa! (In fact, many had already been sent there, to Monrovia, but that’s another story for another day.)
So Fanny planned farms where blacks could learn while they earned their freedom money. It was her way of freeing her beloved America from the curse of slavery. She published her idea and tried to make it work on Nashoba, her own farm in Tennessee, but her experiment failed. Then, in the late 1820s, she went around the eastern US, making speeches about all of her freethinking ideas and shocking the daylights out of people. A public-speaking woman was unheard of! Going around, talking about abolition, day care for working mothers, the rights of women and factory workers? SHOCKING! That’s the thing to know about Fanny Wright: She was one stubborn radical, WAY ahead of her time, imagining freedoms she never lived to see.
Cheryl Harness has written (and illustrated) short, spirited profiles of twenty women who impacted life in America by speaking out against injustice and fighting for social improvements. The book spans over two hundred years of American history and includes time lines for such important social movements as abolition, woman suffrage, labor, and civil rights. Readers inspired by these fiery women can use the civil action tips and resources in the back of the book to do some of their own rabble-rousing. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Shocking Fanny Wright." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 1
Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/