How we ran the nation before it became mechanized.

Here is the history of the American mule in numbers. In 1786, there were zero—at least none on record in the new United States. In 2007, there were 28,000. But in 1925—the very peak of American muledom— there were nearly 6 million mules in the United States, most of them in the South, most of them in harness, most of them plowing. They had their century, the mules, and a glorious one it was, no matter how humble or forgotten the creatures may seem to us now. Mules first came into wide use in the 1830s, and by the 1930s they were vanishing quickly, replaced by the tractor. In that century of animal traction, there is a lost music—the legendary cursing of mule teamsters, the urging words spoken by farmers and sharecroppers, the songs sung as they and the mules went about their work. There were men who said more to their mules than they ever did to their mates.

Tractors weren’t the only reason the number of mules fell off so sharply after 1925. Biology itself has something to do with it. In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant recalled the herds of wild horses in southern Texas—as numerous, he wrote, as the herds of bison farther north. Turn horses and donkeys—the parents of the mule—into the wild, and you’ll soon have far more horses and donkeys than the wild can sustain. But turn a herd of mules into the wild, and it will last no longer than the lifespan of the longest-lived mule. A mule has 63 chromosomes instead of the donkey’s 62 and the horse’s 64. That difference makes the mule sterile.

If another creature’s numbers fell so sharply, we would say that it was drifting toward extinction. But can an animal that is already unable to reproduce itself become extinct? Here we wander into surprisingly deep philosophical waters. Mules are not a species or subspecies. They’re not even a breed. Or rather, each individual mule is a breed unto itself. Mules come in broad types that depend on the genetic lottery and the breeds of their parents. Some are tall, some short, some iron gray, some nearly black or chocolate brown with fawn-colored trimmings, as if a light mule had borrowed a dark-colored mule skin that was just too small for it. Some mules look like a cross between a jackrabbit and a Great Dane, and some are creatures of astonishing dignity, worthy of the riders in most equestrian statues. But no matter what they look like, they regard you with their ears as much as their eyes. A mule’s ears are no more mobile than a horse’s. There’s just so much more ear to mobilize.

In one sense, the mule is simple—it is usually, preferably, the offspring of a jack (a male donkey) and a mare (a female horse). Jack plus mare equals mule. Nothing to it—or so it would seem. But mares abound, and good jacks never have. Thus, the mule-making business—a former mainstay of the South—requires the subsidiary business of making good jacks and jennets, which is the name for female donkeys. Dr. L.W. Knight, a 19th-century “jackologist” from Murfreesboro, Tenn., called a female donkey a “jennet jack.”

In the United States, getting good jacks meant importing them at first, beginning with an Andalusian jack and jennet the king of Spain gave to George Washington in 1787. (Lafayette gave Washington a Maltese jack.) Nineteenth-century jack breeders like Knight became serious students of all foreign breeds, including the Catalonian and the Poitou, a large, heavy-boned French jack with profuse, curling hair, as well as what Knight calls “celebrated premium jacks” and “renowned sweepstake premium jennet jacks.” Jack breeding still goes on, of course, under the auspices of the American Mammoth Jackstock Registry. Otherwise where would we get mules?

Donkeys and horses diverged from a common ancestor around 2.4 million years ago. Both are members of currently extant, entirely successful but completely separate species. Imagine a world in which you could create a human version of the mule, a half-human hybrid. To do so, you would need to have on hand another currently extant, entirely successful hominid species, one that evolved after we both diverged from a common ancestor some 2.4 million years ago. In those days, long before the Neanderthals, Homo habilis was alive. If humankind is the horse, some collateral descendant of Homo habilis would be the donkey. Or vice versa.

It would be an interesting world. We would be sharing the planet with another hominid species prospering right alongside us—no more and no less evolved than we are, physically similar but visibly different. We would be largely repugnant to each other. We could interbreed, but only if coerced by a third, more dominant species that liked the result of our interbreeding. The offspring would be incredibly useful, superior in some ways to either of their parents. But they would be sterile, and probably doomed to a life of hard labor and prejudice.

This is a world right out of science fiction. This is the world of the mule. As the great Harvey Riley—author of The Mule: A Treatise on the Breeding, Training, and Uses To Which He May Be Put—wrote in 1869, the mule “is not a natural animal, only an invention of man.” Aristotle wondered about that, as did Darwin. “That a hybrid,” Darwin wrote, “should possess more reason, memory, obstinacy, social affection, and powers of muscular endurance, than either of its parents, seems to indicate that art has here out-mastered nature.”

The great event cutting across the history of the American mule was the Civil War. In the war’s last eight months alone, some 74,000 mules passed through the Eastern Branch Wagon Park in Washington, D.C., where Harvey Riley was superintendent. How many mules served in the war, North and South, is impossible to say, but the number probably approached half a million, most of them pulling the army’s livelihood in wagons. John Billings, the author of Hardtack and Coffee, or The Handwritten Story of Army Life (1888), says simply, “the South could not have been worsted in the Rebellion had it not been for the steady re-enforcement brought to the Union side by the mule.”

The Civil War introduced mules to tens of thousands of humans who had never met any of their kind before. For some—like the freed slaves who believed they would be given 40 acres and a government-surplus mule—this was a potential blessing. But for the mules it was a curse. Grant, writing about an earlier era, explains why. The soldiers who became mule drivers, he notes, “were principally foreigners who had enlisted in our large cities, and, with the exception of a chance drayman among them, it is not probable that any of the men who reported themselves as competent teamsters had ever driven a mule-team in their lives, or indeed that many had had any previous experience in driving any animal whatever to harness.” The result was frustration, abuse, inveterate hostility and a cancerous prejudice against mules.

Here, too, we are in deep philosophical waters. The prejudice against mules assumed that they were innately evil—stubborn, cunning and lazy, with a bone-rattling bray and a lightning kick. In reality, what most humans have seen in mules is what humans have planted there. Hence, Harvey Riley’s instructions to the new mule hand, gleaned from his experience with government mules in the Civil War: “Don’t spring at him, as if he were a tiger you were in dread of. Don’t yell at him; don’t jerk him; don’t strike him with a club, as is too often done; don’t get excited at his jumping and kicking.” Riley’s sovereign remedy was kindness.

Many people hated how the mule acted, but many also hated what the mule was—a mongrel. In what you might call the anti-mule literature, you come upon writers who talk about the mule as if it were the result of miscegenation—a violation, in fact, of a kind of racial purity. The American humorist Josh Billings makes a joke of it. “They only reason why tha are pashunt,” he writes, “is bekause tha are ashamed ov themselfs.” But it was no joke. Again and again, writers point out a supposed affinity between mules and American Indians, mules and Mexicans and, especially, mules and slaves. A person of mixed black and white ancestry even came to be known as a mulatto. This is racism written into the animal world.

But to people who understand the mule, it lives up to the words of Harvey Riley: “He is a true friend of humanity who does what he can for his benefit.” Some go even further. “If a man has a really good saddle mule,” writes one Texan, “he is like the kings and great men of old; he would not trade for all the horses in the country.”

I can grasp what that Texan means. Several years ago, riding after mountain lions, I spent four days— aching days—on mule-back. When you saddle up in the dark, you can’t tell a mule from a horse. But at  dawn, there I was, high in the Peloncillo Mountains on the Mexican border, riding a not-horse. That was how my mount seemed to me, who had ridden only horses. It was true mule country—dry, steep and pathless. On the off side, I could reach out with my hand and touch the rising slope. If I had stepped off on the near side, I would have stepped down 40 or 50 feet all at once into cactus and devil’s claw.

When we set out before dawn, the man I was riding with—Warner Glenn, a rancher, conservationist and consummate mule man—told me everything I needed to know. It boiled down to this: The mule knows everything you need to know. I learned quickly to let the mule make his way, to leave the reins loose, to support him only by keeping my weight balanced over his midsection. I trusted the mule, knowing it knew its work far better than I ever could. My job was to be nothing more than a pack the mule carried—a bag of salt for stock in the high country or a load of flour. I learned how the world looks when you see it between a mule’s long ears. It looks good.


Verlyn Klinkenborg is on the editorial board of the New York Times and is the author of The Rural Life.

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.