Steve Woods

A Stubborn American Icon

In What Day is it? on October 26, 2009 at 10:38 am

What is a Mule?

The Mighty Mule

The Mighty Mule

Today is National Mule Day, a day to celebrate an animal that science says should never have happened.  Mules are the product of cross-breeding an ass (Equus Asinus) and a female horse (Equus Caballus,) two animals whose genetic disposition scientifically works against actually producing offspring.  All males (Jacks) are born infertile, and most females (Hinnies) are as well.  Fertile females are known as Mollies, and are extremely rare (only 60 documented cased since 1527.)  Because female horses come in a variety of sizes (all the way up to Clydesdales,) mules can be produced from light-weight to heavy duty size, ready for a variety of tasks.

Mules can pack up to 20% of their weight in a load, or up to 30% of their weight in passengers.  They are lb. for lb. stronger than a horse, require less food, and can travel up to 26 km. without the need to rest.  They are largely disease resistant, have stronger hooves than horses, and tend to not give up in situations where something big has to be moved (hence “stubborn as a mule.”)

Mules in Ancient Times

Due to their docile nature and ease to train, Mules have been purposefully bred since early ancient times.  The Egyptians referred to the animal as being domesticated as early as 3,700 BCE.  The Ancient Greeks and Romans preferred mules over horses for transportation when heavier loads or greater distances were involved, as mules were noted to be surefooted, albeit slow. The Hittites held them in esteem, higher even than the horses which drew the chariots of their leaders.  In Biblical times, Israelites cherished the additional courage the mule possesses, noting that many celebrated figures, including the Kings of Israel, rode mules.  Christopher Columbus brought domesticated mules on his journey to the New World.

George Washington’s American “Compound”

George Washington, a renown breeder of Mules, wrote to King Charles V of Spain, seeking to purchase some Spanish asses.  Two females and a male named “Royal Gift” were sent over, arriving in December of 1785 at Mt. Vernon.  From France, the Marquis de Lafayette sent a Maltese Jack named “Knight of Malta” to Washington, and crosses of the two breeds began in earnest.  Animals produced from the cross-breeding of Washington’s early stock were known as “compound,” and by 1840 could run as much as $5,000 each.  Mules from Washington’s stock “…helped build our country,” as the motto of the American Donkey and Mule Society states.

The Santa Fe Trail and the Civil War

Mule Team, Civil-War Era

Mule Team, Civil-War Era

In the 1820s and 1830s, the Santa Fe Trail emerged as a major trading route, with mule-drawn wagons pulling a variety of products across the West, while riders kept a watchful eye for thieves and tribes angered by the encroachment.  The mules were so appreciated for their strength and endurance during these runs, that county fairs across the West and Mid-West began to have mule-breeding contests and shows.

During America’s Civil War era, thousands of mules were enlisted in both the Union and Confederate armies, typically by force, many dying along with the soldiers in battle, and it took many years for the population of the pack animal to recover during the Reconstruction period.  The recovery of the mule population post-Civil War runs parallel with the slow re-emergence of the cotton industry in the South.  The British Empire became embroiled in the Boer Wars of 1898, and the mule industry, particularly in Missouri, exploded, supplying 115,000 animals to the Brits.

Origin of the Famous Twenty Mule Team Symbol

Original 20 Mule Team

Original 20 Mule Team

The famous 20 Mule Team formation made famous by the Borax cleanser brand has its origins in the heat of California’s Death Valley.  William T. Coleman began mining for borax there in 1881, finding one of the World’s richest deposits, and formed a company, Harmony Borax Works.  Borax was used in those days for a variety of reasons: as a digestion aid, to sweeten old milk, to clean their faces and wash their hair.  It was used to scrub a variety of household objects and even as a curative for a variety of medical needs, including epilepsy.

Sensing opportunity, Coleman’s superintendent of operations J. W. S. Perry wanted to find an efficient and fast method of getting the mined borax moved 165 miles out of the desert valley and over the mountains to the nearest railroad junction, which was in Mojave. Perry talked with a local mule skinner, Ed Stiles, and they decided to move from the typical 10 mule hitch to double that amount, a train of animals and cargo that stretched over 100 feet.  Special, extremely sturdy wagons were created for the journey at a cost of over $900 each, an enormous sum in those days.

The trips began in 1883, took 20 days to accomplish, and moved 10 tons of borax over grinding sand and gravel (1/10th the capacity of a modern freight car.)   Over the next 6 years, over 20 million lbs. of borax was hauled out of Death Valley.  Making only 17 miles per day, the wagon train made constant stops on the steep and narrow mountain trails, shifting donkeys in order to keep them from trying to move in a straight line (and thus over the precipices.) Wagon train members earned $100 – $120/month, a very good wage for the time. During this time not a single mule was lost, and not a single wagon broke down.  The spread of railroads closer to Death Valley relieved the men (and mules) from such dangerous duties.

The Pacific Coast Borax Company registered the 20 Mule Team symbol in 1894, and began imprinting the famous wagon train on their boxes of cleaning products in 1894.  Borax no longer recommends medicinal use of the chemical borax; however it is widely used in the glass, porcelain, ceramic, detergent, cosmetic, building material, electronics and agriculture industries.

Modern Use Today

Enjoying a mule ride, Grand Canyon style

Enjoying a mule ride, Grand Canyon style

Of course, modern agricultural machinery (tractors, trucks, etc.) have supplanted the mule as the top  performer in modern American farms; however they are still used in more rugged areas of the wilderness, including the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.  The Grand Canyon is among the many recreational locales using mules to cart people and supplies within its magnificent (but dangerous) geography.  America’s Amish population still use 6- or 8- mule teams to pull their farming implements.  The Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California still trains our soldiers how to best use the multitude of mules found in Afghanistan to bring supplies deep into the Afghan mountains.  China is the chief user of mules in the World, followed closely by Mexico, Central and South America, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

There are a variety of mule appreciation societies, still carrying out breeding programs and displaying the best of the result at shows nationwide.  And, as for everything else, there exists a cable channel, dedicated to the raising and training of both donkeys and the mighty mule.

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