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Pony Express December 13th, 2020 by

From April 1860 to October 1861, a private mail service, called the Pony Express, carried letters by horseback. By running at full throttle day and night, horses and riders could relay a mail pouch, called a mochila, from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento California, by way of Salt Lake City, Utah: over 1,900 miles (3,100 km) away in ten days. Depending on the terrain, “swing stations” were placed about ten miles apart, where a stock tender kept a corral full of small, swift horses. The rider would gallop into the station, swing his mochila over the saddle of a fresh horse, and ride off. After some 70 miles, he would hand his mochila to the next man at a “home station” where the riders ate and slept.

The riders were just boys; “orphans preferred” said one classic ad (perhaps written to entice teens with the thrill of danger). Riders were small men, who could weigh no more than 125 pounds (57 kilos), to be light on the ponies.

As a teenager, I also worked briefly on the Pony Express, not riding it, but digging it. I was 19, about the same age as the riders had been. I worked as an archaeological laborer for one of my professors, Dale Berge, under a government contract to excavate the Pony Express home station at Simpson Springs in the Great Basin, southwest of Salt Lake City.

The sagebrush stretched for miles, rimmed by distant mountains, a bit like it must have looked when the ponies still ran. The ruined station was easy to spot. The lower walls of a three-room cabin and a corral were clearly visible.

For all its originality, the Pony Express did rely on some earlier endeavors, especially existing roads, like the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City. Some of the stations were already in place, including the one at Simpson Springs, founded in 1859 when entrepreneur George Chorpenning set up a tent on a stone foundation to serve his mail freight line from Utah to California. In 1860, the Pony Express simply bought Chorpenning’s station after the government conveniently cancelled his mail contract that same year.

The Pony Express built the stone cabin and installed a station keeper named George Dewees, to cook the bacon and beans, and to bake bread for the boys. No booze was allowed on the Pony Express.

In spite of the lure of sudden death, the Pony Express was well organized and dependable, operated by the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company. Yet expenses were high and the Pony Express never made money. The enterprise stopped taking mail two days after the transcontinental telegraph was completed on 24 October 1861, linking the Eastern USA with California. The ponies’ last letters were delivered in November. The Pony Express was killed by the telegraph, a faster information and communication technology (ICT).

Bits of the Pony Express system lingered for a while. The telegraph was like the email of the 1860s. It carried text, but parcels had to go by snail mail, or in this case, by stage coach. Wells Fargo kept delivering mail to California in wagons along the old Pony Express route until the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. A family named Mulliner was living at Simpson Springs in 1890, operating a local stage line. But by 1891 even the station was abandoned.

For all its originality, the Pony Express only lasted a year and a half. The Western Union telegraph that replaced it lasted for 145 years, until 27 January 2006. A communication technology that is carried on by many actors, like book publishing, can evolve for centuries, but a complex system like the Pony Express that is centrally controlled, complicated, and serves a narrow, localized demand, can end as suddenly as it began. Still, any enterprise as romantic and audacious as the Pony Express may stay in the public memory for a long time.

Further reading

My main source of information was Dr. Berge’s site report on Simpson Springs. Ever the gentleman, in his acknowledgements Professor Berge was kind enough to mention me, although I was just a 19-year-old student.

Berge, Dale L. 1980. Simpson Springs Station Historical Archaeology in Western Utah 1974-1975. Salt Lake City: Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Cultural Resource Series No. 6. https://digitallibrary.utah.gov/awweb/awarchive?type=file&item=45926

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Pony Express Route by Jkan997 source: http://sharemap.org/public/Pony%20Express%20Route

Pony Express recruitment poster from Berge (1980).

Book rate November 29th, 2020 by

Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first Postmaster General of the United States, during the second Continental Congress. He had experience, having been Deputy Postmaster General for all the American colonies under the British (1753-1774). But even in 1775, Franklin was one of the most respected of the founding fathers, and older than most of the others; he could have rejected the mail job. But he took it in part because he saw that a postal service would knit the States together. As a printer, writer and publisher, Franklin also understood the strategic advantage of the post for newspapers, and he established a special, low rate for publications. Newspapers could be sent through the mail for just a penny, or a penny and a half, while a letter could cost the fat sum of 25 cents. For its first 50 years, the post office was largely a newspaper delivery system, owned by the federal government, but financed by the sale of postage.

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), Abraham Lincoln’s postmaster general, Montgomery Blair, added to Franklin’s ideal by guaranteeing mail delivery at a uniform rate of postage, even to the new, distant states out west. Blair was clearly a visionary who also proposed the first international postal conference (held in Paris in 1863) and created the postal money order, to cut down on cash going through the mails, to avoid robberies. In recognition of these achievements, on 12 July 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early burned down Blair’s home in Silver Springs, Maryland.

During the Great Depression, president Franklin Roosevelt introduced a special “book rate,” endowed with a subsidy from Congress in 1933, to allow anyone to mail any publication at a special, low fee. A book could go across the country for a few cents.

I had my first brush with the book rate as a little boy, when my mom sent me to the post office alone with a package. “Be sure and tell them it’s a book, and they will charge you less,” mom said.

I handed the clerk the book, wrapped in brown paper. I hesitated and added, “It’s a book.”

“Alright dear,” she said. “Then that will be …” and she quoted me some ridiculous price, low enough to surprise even a kid.

The book rate lives on in the USA, now called the “Media Mail Service”, in recognition that a nation should promote information and learning.

Now, in 2020, educational materials are increasingly shared online, not through the postal system. Millions of smallholders in Southern countries now have a smart phone, and are online for the first time, getting an unprecedented amount of information, from sports, and science to nonsense.

Fortunately, there is a lot of free educational material online. Wikipedia is well written, by citizen scholars. Respected British newspaper, The Guardian, posts online stories for anyone to read, as does the BBC, the Smithsonian Institution and many others. And Access Agriculture has posted over 200 well-researched training videos for farmers, for free, in over 80 languages. The spirit of the book rate lives on.

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Further reading

Boorstin, Daniel J. 1958 The Americans: The Colonial Experience. New York: Vintage Books. 434 pp.

For some history of the US postal service, see: https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/

Photo credits

Benjamin Franklin. Colored aquatint by P. M. Alix, 1790, after C. P. A. van Loo. From the Wellcome Library. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4f/Portrait_of_Benjamin_Franklin._Wellcome_L0017902.jpg

Smallholders reading, by Paul Van Mele, Bangladesh, 2013.


Thanks to Keith Andrews for suggesting the book rate as a topic and for reading an earlier version of this story. Thanks also to Paul Van Mele for his insightful comments.

Spanish chocolate October 11th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

When Columbus dropped anchor in the Bahamas that October day, he actually had Arabic interpreters on board, because he was so unsure who he would meet on his trip. The people he came across actually spoke Taino, an Arawakan language. The Spanish soon learned the Taino words for New World devices, like hammocks and canoes, but also for American crops, like maize (maĂ­z, in Spanish, from the Taino mahĂ­s).

Thirty years later, in Mexico, the conquistadores learned about a bean that made a nasty, but uplifting drink. The Aztecs called it xocoatl, from xoco (bitter) and atl (water). The word became chocolate, first in Spanish, and then in dozens of other languages. The language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, was also the source of the words for tomato (tomatl) and chili (chilli), also funneled through Spanish (tomate, chile) into most of the languages of Europe.

In South America, the Spanish learned the names for quinoa (Spanish quinua, from the Quechua kinwa) and for sun-dried meat, jerky (charque, from ch’arki).

Two hundred years after the Taino discovered Columbus lurking off their coasts, the words for Native American crops and foods were still finding their way into English, through the Spanish connection. In 1697, a British pirate with a flair for writing, William Dampier, published the bestseller A New Voyage Round the World, which introduced his readers to the avocado, from the Spanish aguacate, from the Nahuatl ahuacatl (testicle), named for its shape. For good measure, Dampier also passed on the first recorded recipe in English for guacamole (Nahuatl ahuacamulli, or “avocado sauce”).

The Native Americans gave the world so many of our favorite crops and foods. It’s fitting that some of the names for these crops are also Native American. It also makes historical sense that some of these terms were filtered through Spanish, a bittersweet reminder that these crops arrived on the global stage through conquest and colonization.  

A word about jerky

Just to set the record straight, I’ve read in two books recently that ch’arki is freeze dried. It’s not; it’s just sun dried. You can make it in warm or cold weather, as long as the sun shines.

Further reading

Preston, Diana & Michael Preston 2004 A Pirate of Exquisite Mind. The Life of William Dampier: Explorer, Naturalist and Buccaneer. London: Corgi Books. 512 pp.

For the etymologies I have generally followed the spellings in the 22nd (2001) edition of the Diccionario de la Lengua Española, by the Spanish Royal Academy. Although published in Madrid, this outstanding dictionary also respectfully documents the various Latin American versions of the Spanish language.

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Jeff Bentley, 8 de octubre del 2020

Cuando Colón echó el ancla en las Bahamas ese día de octubre, tenía intérpretes de árabe a bordo, porque no sabía con quién se toparía en su viaje. Resulta que la gente que encontró hablaba en taíno, un idioma arahuaco. Los españoles pronto aprendieron las palabras taínas para los artefactos del Nuevo Mundo, como hamacas y canoas, pero también para los cultivos americanos, como el maíz (del taíno “mahís”). Del español, el “maíz” pasó al inglés, alemán, francés, italiano, holandés y varios otros idiomas europeos.

Treinta años después, en México, los conquistadores aprendieron sobre un grano que hacía una bebida con sabor feo, pero con efecto agradable. Los aztecas lo llamaban xocoatl, de xoco (amargo) y atl (agua). La palabra se convirtió en “chocolate”, primero en español, y luego en docenas de otras lenguas. La lengua de los aztecas, el náhuatl, fue también la fuente de las palabras para tomate (tomatl) y chile (chili), también canalizadas a través del español hasta la mayoría de las lenguas de Europa.

En SudamĂ©rica, los españoles aprendieron los nombres de la quinua (del quechua kinwa) y del charque (ch’arki, en quechua), que terminĂł como jerky, en inglĂ©s.

Doscientos años despuĂ©s de que los taĂ­nos descubrieran a ColĂłn acechando en sus costas, las palabras para los cultivos y alimentos de los americanos nativos seguĂ­an entrando al inglĂ©s y los otros idiomas de Europa, a travĂ©s de la conexiĂłn española. En 1697, un pirata británico con talento para la escritura, William Dampier, publicĂł el bestseller, Un Nuevo Viaje Alrededor del Mundo, que introdujo la palabra avocado al inglĂ©s, de “aguacate” en español, del ahuacatl (testĂ­culo) nombre que pusieron en náhuatl por la forma del fruto. Además, Dampier dejĂł la primera receta escrita en inglĂ©s para el guacamole (el náhuatl ahuacamulli, o “salsa de aguacate”).

Los indígenas americanos dieron al mundo muchos de nuestros cultivos y alimentos favoritos. Es apropiado que algunas de los nombres para estos cultivos también sean indígenas. También tiene sentido histórico que algunos de estos términos llegaron a los demás idiomas europeos gracias a los españoles, un agridulce recuerdo que algunas de las contribuciones más valiosas de las Américas eran frutos de la conquista y la colonización.

Sobre el charque

Solo una aclaración, he leído hace poco en dos diferentes libros que el ch’arki es liofilizado, o sea que es secado en frío, congelado. Pero no es cierto. El charque es secado así no más, a sol, en tiempo frío o caliente.

Para leer más

Preston, Diana & Michael Preston 2004 A Pirate of Exquisite Mind. The Life of William Dampier: Explorer, Naturalist and Buccaneer. Londres: Corgi Books. 512 pp.

Para la mayoría de las etimologías he usado la ortografía en la 22a (2001) edición del Diccionario de la Lengua Española, de la Real Academia Española. Este magnífico diccionario es publicado Madrid, pero también documenta el vocabulario y usos latinoamericanos, con amor y respeto.

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Digital African agriculture September 6th, 2020 by

In the report Byte by Byte, seventeen African and international experts shed some optimistic light on the digital future of agriculture in Africa. In many ways, the continent is ahead of other regions of the world.

Africa is leading the world in cell phone finance. In Kenya in 2007, Vodaphone started M-Pesa for the mobile network operator, Safaricom. M-Pesa, (from “M” for mobile, and “pesa,” the Kiswahili word for money) offers simple financial services on the phone. Customers go to a small shop to exchange cash for online money which they can save or send to anyone else in Kenya who has a mobile phone. It is an effective way for rural and poor people to send and receive money. People in the city can send cash back home, to invest in agriculture, for example.

M-Pesa was so popular that mobile money has been replicated in Malawi, Uganda and many other African countries. Rural Africans who were underserved by banks were able to make use of the little shops that sprang up all over the small towns and in peri-urban neighborhoods.

Mobile finance is not the only innovative digital service in Africa. Other companies are offering tractor services online. TROTRO Tractor is a platform in Ghana that allows farmers to hire a tractor (and a driver), like getting a ride from Uber. Other companies use cell phones to sell agricultural supplies, or to connect farmers to buyers of agricultural produce. The largest telecommunications company in Zimbabwe has been providing weather insurance to farmers on a mobile platform since 2013. The National Network of Chambers of Agriculture of Niger (RECA) has been providing commodity price information online to farmers since 2011.

The Third Eye project in Mozambique has used drones to get an aerial view of farmers’ fields, and make recommendations on irrigation for 2,800 smallholder farmers, mostly women.

Digital technology makes sense for Africa, which has a young population. Young Africans like digital technology as much as youth on other continents. One advantage is that phones are also relatively inexpensive in Africa. I’ve seen smartphones for sale in Kenya for under $40. There are some limitations. Airtime tends to be expensive in Africa, and only about half of the population is on the electric grid.

Many Africans work around the lack of electricity, paying to charge their phones at weekly markets, barbershops or other small businesses when shopping in town. The popularity of cell phones has sparked a growing demand for small solar panels that are becoming a common site, propped up in the bright sunshine outside of an earthen house.

African farmers need appropriate new agricultural technology as well as digital devices. As more African households get online, it will be easier to reach them with digital extension, including videos.

Further reading

Malabo Montpellier Panel 2019. Byte by Byte: Policy Innovation for Transforming Africa’s. Food System with Digital Technologies, Dakar.

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A video is worth 1000 words August 9th, 2020 by

A farmer learning video often does have the proverbial thousand words, but can technical information be shared through images alone? A recent study set out to see how much rice farmers in southern Benin would learn from a video if they couldn’t understand the words.

PhD candidate Lauréano Bede and colleagues created an experiment using a video about urea fertilizer. Over-use of this nitrogen fertilizer wastes farmers’ money, pollutes waterways, and contributes to greenhouse gases. The video shows how to cut urea use by two-thirds, by making large, “super-granules” of fertilizer and pressing them into the wet soil, where the rice plant can absorb it, instead of scattering the urea all over the surface.

In the study, six groups of farmers watched the super-granule video. In three villages, they watched the video in their own language, Adja. One of the villages saw the video once, another watched it twice, and another saw it three times. In comparison, another set of three villages also watched the video once, twice, or three times, but they had the disadvantage of seeing it in a language they didn’t understand: English.

As expected, villagers who only saw the video once learned more if they understood the soundtrack. But the difference narrowed after several screenings. Farmers who saw the video three times, without understanding the words, learned more than farmers who saw a single screening in their native Adja language. The more people watch a video, the more they learn, especially as community members discuss it among themselves, and share their observations, even if the language is foreign.

In this particular case, the super-granule video was expertly filmed to convey information to reduce the use of chemical fertilizer. Sloppy videos may not get their point across as well. A ten-minute video has about a thousand words. If the content and images are well-chosen, the video may be able to carry its messages, even without the words.

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Further reading

Lauréano Bede, Florent Okry & Simplice D. Vodouhe 2020 Video mediated rural learning: effects of images and languages on farmers’ learning in Benin Republic. Development in Practice, DOI: 10.1080/09614524.2020.1788508

Watch the video Watch or download Urea deep placement in Adja, English or one of 29 other languages.

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