American Mule Museum

History of the Mule

Someone once wrote that a mule is "without ancestry and posterity".  Well, quite the opposite is true.

The exact origin of the mule may be somewhat difficult to determine, but its ancestry must begin with the origin of its parents - - the wild ass (donkey) and the horse. Mules, therefore, must have been bred in the wild in areas where both the wild ass and horse occupied the same territory.

Mules in Ancient TimesMare and newborn mule.

The mule has been deliberately bred by man since ancient times. The breeding of a jackass (male donkey) with a female horse (mare) is the most common and oldest known hybrid. A somewhat less common hybrid, the hinny, was also bred by crossing a female donkey with a male horse.

  • The inhabitants of Paphlagonia and Nicaea (the northern and northwestern parts of modern day Turkey) are said to have been the first to breed mules.
  • Mules were known in Egypt since before 3000 BC and for some 600 years - between 2100 BC and 1500 BC - - the Pharaohs sent expeditions into the Sinai to mine turquoise. The miners marked their route with carvings on rocks showing boats and mules (not camels!). Mules were, at that time, the preferred pack animal. Also in ancient Egypt, while the Pharaohs were carried about in fancy litters by servants, the common people often had the use of mule drawn carts. An Egyptian monument from Thebes depicts mules yoked to a chariot. Mule remains are frequent in the archaeological record, suggesting that mules had become a "mainstream" animal early on, used primarily for pulling wagons or transporting burden.
  • To the north in Asia Minor, the Hittites were the most powerful of the early horse-people - - but they considered the mule to be at least three times more valuable in price than even a good chariot horse.
  • Sumerian texts from the third millennium BC stated the price of a mule was 20 to 30 shekels, seven times that of a donkey. At Ebla, the average price for a mule was 60 shekels.
  • In the kingdom of Mari in northern Mesopotamia, the story was told that the King was reprimanded and asked to "Please …use a mule instead of the common horse", as his royal position demanded.
  • People of ancient Ethiopia gave the mule the highest status of all the animals.
  • The mule was highly valued in ancient Greece as well, for use as pack animals and to draw carriages. While boats were used when traveling long distances in ancient Greece, as the country was partially a group of islands, the average citizen rarely left their home area and depended upon the mule as the most common mode of transportation. Mules had much harder hooves than horses and were better suited to cover the rocky terrain found in Greece. Also, the mule was easier to train than the horse, and could cover a 50-mile area in a day and need only four or five hours of sleep.
  • The mule was well known to Homer in 800 BC Greece. He reported in the Iliad, the arrival of mules from Henetia in Asia Minor, where breeding them was a local specialty. Mules were also bred in Greece in Homer’s time to be used as draft animals and in farming. Later on, mules were raised in Peloponnesus and Arcadia, and harness races for mules began in Olympia in 500 BC. Such races were run throughout a period of more than 80 years.
  • In ancient Rome, mules were used for transport and their amazing strength and endurance was known to all. Roman soldiers were known to carry great quantities of equipment, armor, and rations over great distances on foot. When General Darius was called upon to defend Rome against the invading barbarians, he trained his soldiers to undertake amazing physical feats. Those soldiers became known as “Darius’ Mules”, a tribute to the mule's physical stamina.
  • When Hannibal crossed the Alps in 216 BC, he had mules with him as well as elephants. He may even have ridden a mule in the rough terrain, where elephants could not easily maneuver.

Mules in the Holy Land

  • Mules have been known in the Holy Land since about 1040 BC, the time of King David, when the mule replaced the donkey as the “Royal Beast”, the “riding animal of princes”.
  • The Law of Moses (Leviticus 19:19) declared that the breeding of hybrid animals was forbidden. The Hebrews were not forbidden to use mules, but they had to purchase and import - - either from the Egyptians or the people of Togarmah (Armenia), who brought mule from the far north to Tyre for sale or barter.
  • At King David’s coronation, food was transported by mules and David himself often rode mules. Considered as an indicator of social status during David and Solomon’s time, mules were ridden only by royalty. A hinny that belonged to David was ridden by Solomon at his coronation.
  • Considered as extremely valuable, mules were sent from the “kings of the earth” as gifts for Solomon. All the King’s sons were provided with mules as their preferred means of transportation. After his unsuccessful attempt to take the throne, Absalom was captured and killed while making his escape on a mule.
  • When the Israelites returned from their Babylonian captivity in 538 BC, they brought with them silver and gold and many animals - - including at least 245 mules. Two Hebrew words referring to a mule or hinny are found 17 times in the Old Testament but there are no references in the New Testament - - perhaps suggesting the popularity of the mule had declined in that region.

Mules in the Middle Ages

  • Mules were common in European cities long before the Renaissance. As early as 1294, Marco Polo reported on and praised the Turkoman mules he had seen in central Asia.
  • In Medieval Europe, when larger horses were being bred to carry heavily armored knights, mules were the preferred riding animal of gentlemen and clergy.
  • By the 18th century, the breeding of mules had become a flourishing industry in Spain, Italy, and France. For many years the French Province of Poitou was the primary European breeding center, with some 500,000 mules bred each year. Heavier draft mules were demanded for farm work and a local breed of stud donkey became most popular. Soon, Spain was at the forefront of the mule-breeding industry as Catalonia and Andalusia each developed a larger and stronger breed of donkey.
  • Mules were not as prevalent in Britain or America until the late 18th century. The chief demand for mules in Britain was for service in India and elsewhere abroad.

Mules in the New World

  • In 1495, Christopher Columbus brought four jack donkeys and two jenny donkeys to the New World, along with horses. These animals would be instrumental in producing mules for the Conquistadores in their exploration into the American mainland.
  • Ten years after the conquest of the Aztecs, a shipment of three jacks and twelve jennies arrived from Cuba to begin breeding of mules in Mexico.
  • Female mules were preferred for riding while the males were preferred as pack animals throughout the Spanish Empire. Mules were not only used in the silver mines, but were very important along the Spanish frontier. Each outpost had to breed its own supply and every hacienda or mission kept at least one stud jack.

Mules in the Developing United States

  • George Washington played the major role in the development of the mule population in America. He recognized the value of the mule in agriculture and became the first American mule breeder.
  • Donkeys were already in America, as they came over with the early explorers, but they were quite small. Washington wished to breed the very best mules, but he faced a major obstacle - - the Spanish government at that time prohibited the acquisition or exportation of the famous Andalusian donkey. Washington wrote to King Charles of Spain requesting permission to purchase good quality breeding stock. In October of 1785, a ship docked in Boston harbor carrying a gift from King Charles for George Washington - - two fine jennies and a 4-year old Spanish jack named, appropriately, “Royal Gift’. That "royal gift" from the Spanish king is today credited with the development of the American mule which began a dynasty that “reshaped the very landscape of the country”.
  • In 1786, the Marquis de Lafayette sent Washington a black Maltese jack called “Knight of Malta”, along with several jennies. These animals bred with the Andalusians, and the crossing of the Spanish and Maltese strains created highly valuable stock known as the “compound” - - the beginning of the “American Mammoth Jackstock”.
  • After the Revolutionary War, Washington started a program to develop a larger, stronger mule to be used on farms - - to replace horses in the field. In less than fifteen years Washington had 58 mules working at Mount Vernon. In 1786, Washington advertised the “compound’s” services in a Philadelphia journal. The stud fee for serving horses was a third less than it was for serving donkeys. It is said that mules from Washington’s stock became the forerunners of mules that were the backbone of American agriculture for generations in the southern U.S.
  • By 1808, the U.S. had an estimated 855,000 mules worth an estimated $66 million. Mules were rejected by northern farmers, who used a combination of horses and oxen, but they were popular in the south - - where they were the preferred draft animal. One farmer with two mules could easily plow 16 acres a day. Mules not only plowed the fields, but they harvested crops and carried the crops to market. On tobacco farms, a mule-drawn planter was used to set the plants in the ground. Harvested tobacco was pulled on wooden sleds from the fields to the barns.
  • By 1840, a quality jack used for mule breeding could fetch up to $5,000 in Kentucky, then a leading mule-breeding state.
  • A large number of donkeys were subsequently imported from Spain and in the decade between 1850 and 1860 the number of mules in the country increased 100 percent. More than 150,000 mules were foaled in the year 1889 alone, and by then mules had entirely replaced horses for farm work.
  • By 1897, the number of mules had expanded to 2.2 million, worth $103 million. With the cotton boom, primarily in Texas, the number of mules grew to 4.1 million, worth $120 each. One-fourth of all the mules were in Texas and the stockyards at Ft. Worth became the world center for buying and selling mules.
  • In 1923, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued Farmer’s Bulletin No. 1311, titled “Mule Production”. The publication explained the attributes of mules, and gave instructions on how to successfully breed good stock, as was learned in the 1800's.
  • The farm mule left the farms about the same time as draft mules left the Army, and for the same reason - - the combustion engine. But, during World War II, civilians faced gas rationing, so farmers reintroduced their reliable farm mule, at least for the duration of the war.

Mules and the Western Expansion

  • In the 1840's, as Anglo-Saxon settlers from the east moved west, the mule was by far the favorite pack animal. Even during the years of Spanish influence in the Southwest, when horses, burros, llamas, dogs, and even camels were used, the Mexican mule was preferred. The Mexican breed was soon replaced by the American variety - - most of which came from Missouri.
  • On the historic Old Spanish Trail that connected Santa Fe and Los Angeles, trains of pack mules were used from 1829 to 1849 - - mainly to carry wooden goods. High quality woolen products from New Mexico Territory were often traded for good mules. The 2,700 mile long trail was considered the longest, most crooked and difficult trail for pack mules in the history of America. The first group ever to travel over that trail consisted of 60 men and 100 mules.
  • On wagon trains across the plains, mule could cover 30 miles a day, while wagons drawn by horses and oxen could average only five miles a day. Thousands of mules were used to pull the pioneer’s wagons westward, and when families found a place to settle and build their homesteads, the mules were there to haul the logs for the houses.
  • Stage coach lines also preferred mules to horses. Stage coaches were pulled by large mules that could travel six to ten miles per hour over flat, dry land.
  • Towns throughout the country often used mules to pull fire-fighting equipment, and many western towns were originally laid out with extremely wide streets to allow mule teams to turn around.
  • Western explorers and trailblazers knew the benefit of choosing a good mule and taking care of it. In choosing a mule, most figured it called for more thought than in choosing a wife. As for taking good care of a mule, which could mean life or death in the unexplored regions, one mountaineer wrote: “live on intimate terms of brother-explorer with your mule”.
  • During the Indian wars in the American southwest, mules set a number of endurance records. In 1882, a company of scouts and one pack train, loaded 200 pounds on a mule and left the San Carlos agency in Arizona on a three-day march. In those three days, the mule had covered 280 miles. Another pack train covered 108 miles in 16 hours - - while a third had traveled 85 miles in desert heat in just 12 hours.
  • General George Crook, in the late 1870's, preferred to ride his mule “Apache”, which he considered much superior to the horse, and he continually stressed the importance of having healthy pack mules under his command. He believed that the success of any campaign, to a great extent, depended upon them. General Crook’s mules easily carried twice the load the Army manual stipulated because he allowed only the best equipment to be used on the best mules - - and each pack saddle was tailored to fit each mule. Crook’s troops always had the ammunition they needed because his mule trains never failed.
  • When gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in CA, pack trains soon became indispensable in hauling supplies from the port at San Francisco to the gold fields on the western Sierra slopes. By 1852, more than 16,000 mules, valued at more than $800,000, were concentrated in the northern counties. About 1,800 mules operated out of Shasta alone. By 1855, the California mule population swelled to over 31,000. A “Pack-Mule Express” business not only carried special delivery mail to the mining communities, but it also transported gold from mines to banks.
  • With the discovery of borax in Death Valley, CA in the early 1890's, William Tell Coleman’s company used the famous 20-mule teams to haul the product to the nearest rail junction - - Mojave, CA. Two 10-mule teams were hitched together to form a 100-foot long 20-mule team. Between 1883 and 1889, Coleman’s teams hauled two 16-foot long wagons loaded with borax, plus a 1,200 gallon water tank (with a total weight of over 36 tons) from the Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek in Death Valley to Mojave - - some 165 miles away. During those years, the 20-mule teams hauled over 20 million pounds of borax out of Death Valley. On those 20-day round trips, over treacherous, mostly water-less terrain in extreme high temperatures, not a single mule was lost - - a tribute to the stamina of the mule. The "20-Mule Team" symbol was first used in 1891 and was registered in 1894.
  • In the Sierra Nevada from 1868 to 1873, John Muir rode his mule “Brownie” throughout the region - - from the Kings River to Yosemite.             
  • Mules were also very useful in the western mining operations. The Silver Queen Mine in Bisbee, AZ, as did others, would bring mules into the mine and stable them underground.

Mules in War

  • Mules have played an important role in military action throughout this nation’s history. Pack mules provided unlimited mobility to cavalry, infantry, and artillery units. The mule is, of course, the symbol of the U.S. Army.
  • Mules were used during the Black Hawk War of 1832, but the US Army first used large numbers of mules in the Second Seminole War of 1835-1842.
  • During the Mexican War of the mid-1840's, the U.S. army used mules to pull supply wagons, and during the Spanish-American War, newspapers reported that there were 3,000 mules with the Army at Tampa, FL, waiting to be assigned to ambulances, baggage wagons and to carry packs.
  • During the Civil War mules were depended upon to transport artillery and supplies. The Union Army used about one million mules - - which they purchased from dealers. Union Quartermasters purchased over 75,000 mules just for the forces at Chattanooga and Sherman’s Atlanta campaign. In 1864 alone, the Union Army purchased 87,791 mules. The South, on the other hand, used only half as many mules - - which the soldiers had to provide on their own. Mules, therefore, were taken from Southern farms for military use, making work at the farm much more difficult. Some historians have speculated that the shortage of mules might have contributed to the South’s ultimate defeat. It was reported that President Lincoln, when reviewing Union army troops, paid more attention to the comfort of the mules than of his officers.
  • In both World Wars, mules were again called to active duty, though to a lesser extent in World War II. Mules were better adapted to dense jungle trails and steep mountainous terrains that were inaccessible to motorized vehicles. They carried food, supplies and ammunition into the battle zones, and often carried wounded soldiers out. Some 8,000 mules were killed in those wars, and supply ships carrying mules were prized targets for enemy submarines - - because they were not only destroying needed supplies, but they were destroying transportation as well.
  • World War I is said to be the last major war in which the U.S. Army used mules in any significant numbers. Mules were used for hauling wagons which weighed 2,000 pounds and loaded with 3,000 pounds of cargo (including feed for the mules). Each wagon was pulled by six mules. In mountainous country, however, the wagons were useless, so a train of 50 or more mules, each carrying 250 pounds, would move in single file and cover 60 miles a day.
  • Also in World War I, the British Army purchased a large number of mules from America, as the mule was able to endure the terrible conditions on the front lines and their stamina was much greater than the horse. By the end of the War, the British army owned 213,000 mules.
  • By the start of World War II the U.S. Army had become more mechanized, horses had lost their ranking as a mode of transportation, but the mule continued to be of great value - - because of the superior ability to negotiate areas inaccessible to tanks and other vehicles, such as the mountains of Italy and the jungles of Burma. Mobilization actually began in 1930, with an authorization for 3,500 mules. By 1944 and 1945, some 14,000 mules were used by the 10th Mountain Division in northern Italy.
  • Mules were used with great effectiveness by Merrill’s Marauders in the jungles of Burma. Once, following a 300-mile forced march, Merrill’s troops were confronted by an overwhelming enemy force. The mules made such a commotion that the enemy thought they must be outnumbered and withdrew.
  • In Asia, the Chinese Army used more than 20,000 mules in their battles against the Japanese.
  • The terrain encountered in the war in Korea during that war, resembled that of the mountains of Italy during WW II, therefore the Army employed mules for use where trucks and jeeps could not reach. Since the Chinese and North Koreans used mules for transportation, it was only a matter of time before the allied forces began to capture many animals. In the spring of 1951, communist forces used pack mules to carry supplies for attacks on UN forces north of Seoul. When they were forced back, the communists abandoned their mules, and the US 1st Cavalry Division captured many of the animals.
  • The mules were found to be thin and sick, but were quickly restored to health by candy, sugar, and cereal from the soldier’s rations. One of the captured mules was of particular interest, as it was found to have a US army Brand (a Preston Brand) number 08K0. When that brand was located in the Army records, it was found that he had been originally dispatched to the China-Burma-India theater during WW II. Following that war, the mule was transferred to the Chinese Army. He must have been later captured by the Communist Chinese, and then moved to the fight in Korea. After more than six years, that mule ended up back in the hands of the US Army - - then returned to work on a pack train.
  • On February 15, 1957 the Army officially deactivated the last two operational mule units at Ft. Carson, Colorado. That did not mean, however, that the military would never again call upon the mule for service.
  • When the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan in the 1980's, the CIA purchased thousands of mules for the Afghans, to help maintain supply lines.
  • Most recently, at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center northwest of Bridgeport, California, Marines are trained to use mules on combat missions in Afghanistan and other high altitude regions. Mules can be used in the historic Afghan method of packing animals as an alternative to using Humvees or helicopters in steep mountainous terrain.
  • In an Army Manual, “Special Forces Use of Pack Animals”, it states, “Animal transport systems can greatly increase mission success when hostile elements and conditions require the movement of combat troops and equipment by foot”. The Manual goes on to describe the characteristics of the mule as having intelligence, agility and stamina, which make them excellent and necessary pack animals.

Other Contributions by Mules

  • At the beginning of the 20th century, mules were used to build roads, railways, telegraph and telephone lines, as well as most of the large dams and canals.
  • Mules were also instrumental in one of the nation’s greatest engineering feats - - the Panama Canal.
  • They pulled canal boats along the Erie Canal in the early 19th century.
  • Mules helped build the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
  • They even assisted in the beginning of the “space age”. Teams of mules pulled the first jet engine to the top of Pike’s Peak to be tested - - a successful test that led to the creation of the U.S. space program.