Honey Means Money

inside a beehive

Money Bees (c) Meirion Harries

In the last post, I meant to add that stores changing the tempo of their canned music to influence the pace of shoppers moving through their aisles are doing nothing new. In the 11th century, Ibn al-Haytham, the father of modern optics and a pioneer of experimental psychology, showed that the speed of a camel could be influenced by music.

But on to this post ….

By 1848 Americans had taken “ownership” of what was to become the United States. But their new and vast land – particularly west of the Mississippi – was still, in 1863, virgin territory in terms of European industrial development. To the east of the river, there was a solid infrastructure of railways, roads and canals, but to the west, there was none. Here lay a hostile (to Europeans) vastness of plains, deserts and mountains – only lightly limned by a handful of wagon trails and the network of pathways created and used by the perhaps 400,000 or so remaining Indigenous people who lived in the vastness.

(In parentheses, the Indigenous population numbering perhaps 100 million before Columbus had declined to approximately 600,000 in 1800 and was on its way to just 237,000 by 1900. In California, genocide reduced the Indigenous population of 310,000 at the time of Spanish colonisation to just 30,000 at the end of the Gold Rush.)

Not until the trans-continental railway got up steam could non-Indigenous people travel to California easily. Unless, that is, you sailed from a Pacific Rim country: the 1870 census records California’s population as 161,478 (Indigenous people not included) of whom 49,733 were from China.

But if you started on the East Coast, the ways were hard – and fatal for many. One route was long and endangered by the gales, towering waves and icebergs of Cape Horn: but if you wanted to bring anything heavy to San Francisco – such as cannon and shot to ward off Confederate raiders – that was your only option.

Less-burdened travellers could sail down to Panama City and walk across the Isthmus through hostile jungle on the old Spanish trail that had connected the Manila Fleet to the galleons carrying treasures back to Spain. The crossing became easier with the opening of a US-built railway in 1855 – though the dangers of the Isthmus, particularly disease, are illustrated by the cost in lives: perhaps as many as 10,000 workers died building the 47-mile length of track.

Eliza Burhans Farnham’s bad moment (imagined by an artificially intelligent illustrator)

And, on reaching the Pacific, you had to take ship north to San Francisco. Now you were at the mercy of unsafe ships – and unscrupulous captains. In her book, California: Indoors and Out, Eliza Burhans Farnham, an imperious, possibly unpleasant woman describes how she fell out with her captain, and was rewarded with the sight of his ship carrying off her children – “a phantom vanishing so swiftly and surely, with the fresh, steady breeze filling her hollowed sails, that the hope with which I first caught sight of her died out of my heart in a moment, and a sickening, terrible conviction that she was gone, settled down on me like the chill of death”.

Or you could walk from the Mississippi with your wagon stacked high. On the 2,000 mile trek, which could take six months, across plains, deserts, rivers and mountains, a deadly matrix accompanied you – cholera from water fouled by other pioneers, smallpox, dehydration, malnutrition, drowning in river crossings, robbers, occasional attacks by Indigenous people, accidents, storm and snow. Of the estimated 350,000 men women and children who stepped onto a pioneer trail in hope, some 30,000 died en route. And the diseases and guns they carried, the game and grazing they and their animals consumed and the ecological devastation they caused took care of a further unknown number of Indigenous people.

Horace Greeley followed the California Trail during the Gold Rush years. He tells of passing “legions of faint and weary gold-seekers” in the arid desert: “The dearth of water is fearful … We have not passed a drop of living water in all our morning’s ride … Even the animals have deserted us. No buffalo have been seen this year within many miles of us … the prairie dog also wisely shuns this land of starvation … A dead mule bitten in the jaw this morning by a rattlesnake lies here as if to complete the scene … all is dreary solitude and silence”.

Altitude added to the peril of the overland routes. To cross the Rockies required ascents of over 8,000 feet. At the South Pass, the favoured route over the Continental Divide, the percentage of oxygen in the air is around 16.5% – while, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the minimum concentration required for human breathing is 19.5%.

This relative isolation of the west coast, coupled with its rapid enrichment after the discovery of gold, gave entrepreneurs opportunity in a largely unexploited market. One such was John Harbison, whose wealth came from a surprising venture – the production of honey.

Harbison was in the bar at the Occidental the other night – badgering Jerry Thomas to make more honey-based cocktails. Jerry already makes a very peculiar mix – one egg yolk, a spoon of honey and three dashes of curaçao stirred into red wine at boiling point (sprinkle cinnamon and cloves to serve). I’m not sure that Harbison got his way: the only other honeyed cocktail Jerry will ever offer is rather nasty – a jigger of peach brandy with honey stirred in.

Jerry Thomas in his pomp (imagined by an artificially intelligent illustrator)

Harbison had an additional advantage – there were no honey bees (of any significant number) in California then. Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, explains that: “The honey-bee is not a native of our continent …. The Indians concur with us in the tradition that it was brought from Europe”.

And the Indigenous people soon realised that they were an ominous harbinger: “The bees have generally extended themselves into the country, a little in advance of the white settlers. The Indians therefore call them the White Man’s Fly, and consider their arrival as indicating the coming settlements of the whites.”

John Harbison took maximum advantage of the absence of both bees and competition in California. On the East Coast, commerce in honey, wax and propolis had been thriving for at least two centuries: in 1770, for example, exports of beeswax alone totalled 128,000 pounds (62,000 pounds to England; 50,500 to other European countries; 10,000 to Ireland; and the rest to the West Indies and Africa). But on the West Coast, there was no such productive capacity – until Harbison landed 67 colonies on 30th November, 1857 and a further 114 colonies in 1858.

The following year he sold $30,000 worth of hives and his enviable profits set off what The California Culturist called a honeybee gold rush: “Just now there seems to be a perfect mania on the subject of bees. Hardly a steamer arrives from Panama that has not its hundreds of hives of bees, and in all conditions from fair to worthless; but the greater part we are quite sure will prove to be the latter quality.”

The long journey from the East by ship, rail across Panama, and steamer north to San Francisco – from temperate zone to tropics and back to temperate – put an extraordinary strain on honeybees. A manifestation of Harbison’s brilliance was his ability to keep his alive: he designed special aerated and insulated boxes for their transport – and he stayed on deck caring for them during the whole trip.

Speculators who saw honey as money had no such skills: they simply had boats in the east loaded with workaday hives and hoped for the best. So, as tens of thousands of dead bees were tipped on arrival into the Bay, the speculators cut their losses and left Harbison in peace – to become, within a decade, the world’s largest producer of honey.

California’s relative isolation brought other opportunities – not least a chance to reinvent yourself. Adah Isaacs Menken was one who took the chance (please see the post I Stand A Wreck on Error’s Shore). Another such cooked us supper last night – a woman whom we know, from our twenty-first century perspective, to be hiding in plain sight.

Mary Ellen Pleasant aged 82

The cook, Mary Ellen Pleasant, is actually very, very rich, probably the first female multi-millionaire of African American descent. She may well also be a runaway slave. She hides both attributes here in San Francisco – enabled by her skin being light and by feining modesty as a domestic while making millions of dollars from her businesses – boarding houses, laundries, dairy farms, restaurants – even, for a time, a brothel or two. Later, her wealth will help found the Bank of California.

But she has had to keep a low-profile since her arrival in San Francisco in the Gold Rush years because people are hunting for her. Back East, she was a committed abolitionist, heavily involved conducting slaves to freedom through the Underground Railway. And she gave John Brown a million dollars (in today’s money) to fund his assault on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal to arm a hoped-for uprising of slaves. When he was captured, they found a note from Mary in his pocket: “The axe is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck, there will be more money to help”.

Being persona non grata with both slavers and the authorities, Mary fled to escape arrest but has remained an abolitionist. The western branch of the Underground Railway is her creation – and when escaping slaves arrive, she finds them jobs and places to live, sometimes using her own network of boarding houses.

W.E.B. du Bois recognised her importance in his book, The Gift of Black Folk. She was, he wrote, “strangely effective and influential …. Here was a colored woman who became one of the shrewdest business minds of the State. She anticipated the development in oil; she was the trusted confidant of many of the California pioneers … and for years was a power in San Francisco affairs. Yet, she held her memories, her hatreds, her deep designs and throughout a life that was perhaps more than unconventional, she treasured a bitter hatred for slavery and a certain contempt for white people.”

As for her future, when the Civil War ends, Mary will come out into the open and be a major campaigner for civil rights: her activism in housing and education and her war with Jim Crow will win her the epithet “Mother of Human Rights in California”. She will personally fight injustice – including taking the North Beach and Mission Railroad Company to the Supreme Court of California (and winning) for their refusal to allow her and other African-Americans to ride their streetcars.

Her life, later, will unfortunately become mucky – losing much of her money and being accused of blackmail and voodoo practices. But she will remain clear about what has been important to her. When she dies in 1901, at her request, her gravestone will read simply – “A Friend of John Brown”.


Trails: https://web.archive.org/web/20080411060329/http://www.octa-trails.org/index.html

John Harbison and Beekeeping:

There is no film of John Harbison that I can find.

His biography is told in John S. Harbison: California’s First Modern Beekeeper by Lee H. Watkins Agricultural History, April 1969, Vol. 43, No. 2 pp. 239-248

Chapter 1 The Evolution of California Agriculture 1850-2000 by Alan L Olmstead and Paul W Rhode in California Agriculture – Dimensions and Issues (ed Jerry Seibert, published by the California U Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, 2003)

The Beginnings of Agriculture in California: Innovation vs. Continuity by Rodman W. Paul in California Historical Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Spring, 1973), pp. 16-27 (California UP in association with the California Historical Society)


Harbison’s own book for apiarists – An improved system of propagating the honey bee – can be read here – https://archive.org/details/improvedsystemof00harb/page/6/mode/2up




Beekeeping in California 1936https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/113384#page/1/mode/1up

For current stresses on bees in California – https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/15/magazine/the-super-bowl-of-beekeeping.html

Mary Ellen Pleasant:

YouTube – Rediscovering Mary Ellen Pleasant, California’s first Black millionairehttps://youtu.be/Qww6AW9-DNM?feature=shared


 And, as always, Wikipedia – https://donate.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ways_to_Give