A friend of mine got a couple mules not long ago, Big John and Katie Elder. They’re big and friendly and come when you call them. John is the bigger, seems to take the lead. I think they’ve been a team for a long time, hang out well together and I’m looking forward to riding them, maybe down by the Mississippi.
I remember my dad had a team of work horses, Bob and King, who were big, friendly, worked well together, let us kids ride them bareback holding their mane and get off by sliding down their neck and over their head. John and Katie remind me some of Bob and King. Like it! On the other hand, grandma had a couple donkeys, a jackass (male) and a jenny (female) and they were not big and friendly, didn’t have much personality, and were kind of aloof. I like workhorses and mules.
So out of curiosity I decided to check into the history of mules. Their ancestry begins with the wild donkey and wild horse who occupied the same territory and bred. The male donkey (jackass) bred the female horse (mare) and, alas, out came a mule! Man saw a good idea, tamed some, and since ancient times, bred some. “It’s the most common and oldest known manmade hybrid, common in Egypt by 3000 BC.” Between 2100 BC and 1500 BC the pharaohs sent expeditions into the Sinai to mine turquoise, marking their routes with carvings of boats and mules (not camels). The Hittites of Asia Minor, the most powerful of the early horse-people, considered the mule three times more valuable than a good chariot horse. Hannibal crossed the Alps in 216 BC with mules and elephants, trusting the mules on mountainous terrain, elephants on flat ground. King David of Holy Land fame had mules as his Royal Beasts, the riding animal of princes, ridden only by royalty. Homer the Greek talked about mules in his epic poem, The Iliad, in 800 BC, though I don’t think the Trojan Horse used in sacking Troy was a mule. I think it was a horse. Just a thought. In Medieval Europe, mules were the preferred riding animal of gentlemen and clergy. By the 18th century Spain, Italy and France made an industry of breeding mules, with some 500,000 mules bred each year. That would take a lot of jackasses and mares, and developing a larger and stronger breed of donkey was at the forefront of the mule-making industry.
Christopher Columbus brought four jackasses, two jennies and some horses to the “New World.” George Washington became the first objective American mule breeder, thanks to a gift from King Charles of Spain … “two fine jennies and a 4-year old Spanish jackass named Royal Gift.” So George’s royal stock became the forerunners of mules that would be the backbone of southern U.S. agriculture for generations, along with tobacco, cotton and slaves … One farmer with two mules could plow 16 acres a day. By 1808, there were 855,000 mules in the U.S. worth $66,000,000! By 1840 a fine breeding Kentucky jackass brought up to $5,000. Kentucky in those days was a famous mule-breeding state.
During the westward expansion, the mule was the brute beast of choice, pulling a loaded wagon 30 miles a day while horse or oxen averaged five miles a day. During the California Gold Rush there were over 31,000 mules delivering supplies to miners and gold to banks.
During the Civil War, the Union Army used about 1,000,000 mules purchased from reputable mule dealers while the South used about half that many that the Confederate soldiers had to provide themselves or confiscate from southern farms. A few historians speculate that the South’s shortage of mules may have helped lead to their defeat. Others just point to a lost cause.
During WWII on a 300-mile forced march in the jungles of Burma, Merrill’s Marauders were confronted by an overwhelming enemy force. The frightened mules made such a commotion that the enemy thought they were vastly outnumbered and ran off.
Finally, the mule was at the very beginning of the “space age” when a team pulled the first jet engine to the top of Pike’s Peak to be tested ... successfully!
So that’s a little bit on the history of mules. They’ve come a long way since wild donkeys and wild horses roamed the countryside, an ass and a mare mating, and a mule making its mark on the world stage.
Now we have Big John and Katie Elder and maybe a relaxing mule ride along the Mississippi.