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Origin and History of Mules, an excerpt from The Book of Mules by myself - Donna Campbell Smith.

Updated on April 18, 2019
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Donna Campbell Smith is an author, freelance writer, and photographer. She has an AAS degree in equine tech and is a certified instructor.

Ancient Mules

Ancient documents tell us mules have been around for at least 3000 years. It is even possible that a crossing of the donkey and horse resulting in a mule foal may have occurred in nature where the two species lived in close proximity. Records show mules were used in ancient Asia Minor to turn the millstone to grind grain into meal, as pack animals, and for transportation. Ancient Egypt found mules a novelty, using donkeys for general work while horses were for racing and royal ceremonial occasions. The Greek and Romans valued the mule for its strength and stamina. The mule was also valued for its speed because ancient Greeks used mules as well as horses in chariot races. In these races two mules were hooked to a cart. The lineup of teams were driven twelve laps around the stadium to determine the winner.

In Greek legend King Midas of Phrygian is often portrayed in art with the ears of a mule or a donkey; some believe this was a punishment from the God Apollo, while others believe it was a sign of his royal status. The mule is also mentioned in The Iliad of Homer in a passage depicting the funeral of Hector:

[poem]“Waked with the word the trembling sire arose,
And raised his friend: the god before him goes:
He joins the mules, directs them with his hand,
And moves in silence through the hostile land.”

Mules are mentioned several times in the Old Testament of the Bible. In 2 Samuel 13:29 when King David’s son Absalom takes revenge and plans the murder of his brother, Amnon, who had raped his sister, the rest of King David’s sons fled on their mules. In 1 Kings 1:33 and 38 King David ordered that his son, Solomon, be given his own royal mule to ride when Solomon was to be anointed as the future king of Israel. In 1 Chronicles 12:40 mules were among the gifts brought to David from the people of the tribes of Israel as tribute when he became the king.

Mule - draft type from a Belgian dam.


Mules in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, while the great horse was used for heavy work like carrying knights and their heavy armor, mule trains were the most common mode of transporting goods across country. Roads, when they existed at all, were to rough in many places for wagons. In fact, the mule train was used until the twentieth century in Spain for commercial and military transport. Long trains of a hundred or more mules led by their muleteers carried burdens of two hundred up to four hundred pounds. The mule trains were easy targets for land pirates and enemies, so knights rode along with the trains to protect them.

Peter the Hermit, a zealous prophet of the first century, rode a mule through France to proclaim his doctrines and call to arms the salvation of Jerusalem, thus instigating the first Crusade. People became so enraptured by Peter that they clamored to touch him and even took the hairs from his mule as holy relics. Thus, Peter the Hermit’s mule may well have been the first, and perhaps last, holy mule.

Ladies of the Middle Ages were partial to fine bred mules for general riding. Some were gaited, and along with fine horses, were called palfreys. Mules of that day were small compared to today’s specimens.

Columbus and Napoleon had Mules

When Columbus negotiated with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for funding to make his famous voyage, he rode to court on a mule provided by the Queen as part of the travel expenses. He was denied the funding by Ferdinand, and Columbus left on the mule. But the Queen was not of the same mind as her husband and she changed his mind. Isabella sent a messenger after Columbus and when he turned around the mule around and rode back to court, he was granted funds for the voyage. The rest is history. [1.1]

Centuries later, trudging over the Alps in snow and ice, Napoleon Bonaparte rode a mule borrowed from a Swiss peasant, not the rearing stallion he is pictured riding in artists’ paintings. Napoleon did not go down in history as a gifted rider, so the mule was a better choice in terrain where surefootedness and care were necessary. Napoleon won the campaign to take control of Austria from Italy, when he crossed the Alps through the Great Saint Bernard Pass, using the element of surprise to defeat the Austrians in the Battle of Marengo. We can only wonder how things would have turned out had Napoleon not been riding a mule.

Packing a Mule with Supplies


Mules in America

George Washington is credited for bringing the mule to America, or at least improving mule stock in this country, even though there were some breeders in the New England colonies before the American Revolution. Mules were rare and expensive and, for the most part, mules raised in the colonies were imported back to the mother country. Washington’s breeding program was aimed at producing a larger and stronger mule to be used on the farm. He imported donkeys from Spain, the first being a gift from King Charles III.

On October 26, 1785 Washington recorded that the first jack, named appropriately, Royal Gift, arrived at Mount Vernon. Royal Gift was a shy breeder that first year, not being accustomed to mares. But he caught on by the following breeding season.

George Washington also received two jennets and a smaller jack from Marquis de Lafayette. The jack, named “The King of Malta,” began a line of unsurpassed saddle mules. These mules from Washington’s stock became the forerunners of quality mules that were the backbone of American agriculture for many generations of farmers.

Mules of early America were not only found working on the farm, but also in cities pulling wagons and trolley cars, in the forest working in the lumber industry, as part of building railroads, and even pulling barges along canals.

The C&O (Chesapeake and Ohio) Canal and many other canal systems used mules that were led along towpaths, often by children, to pull barges along their routes. The mules were stabled on the barge, along with the family that owned the barge, when they were not working. The average weight of the barge mule was 1,000 pounds, and they stood about fifteen hands tall. The mules proved better suited to the work than horses because their tougher hides resulted in fewer harness sores, as well as their hardiness and surefootedness. They were also cheaper than horses, averaging $125.00.

Mules were used to pull gravity-powered trains up hills in mining regions, and to pull street rail cars in cities. In Parker’s Grove, an amusement park on Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York, was a mule-powered merry-go-round.

Westward Movement

The mule proved to be invaluable to those who explored and settled the west. Mules were able to subsist on less food that oxen or horses, and proved to be more surefooted and agile in the mountainous terrain.

While oxen may have been stronger and could pull a heavier load than mules or horses, they were slow and could not manage on meager grazing and water available when crossing deserts. Horses were perhaps faster than the mule, but lacked their stamina and fell by the wayside when food and water were scarce.

One reason mules survived was that they ate almost anything when normal forage was not available. Zenas Leonard left St. Louis with an expedition of Mountain Men to trap and trade with Indians in the Rocky Mountains. By winter they were left with just two mules, all the horses having starved to death. Leonard wrote of the mules diet in his diary, “The snow was still deep on the top of it [the mountain]; but by aid of the buffalo trails, we were enabled to scale it without much difficulty, except that our mules suffered with hunger, having had nothing to eat but pine brush. At the foot of the mountain we found abundance of sweet cottonwood, and our mules being very fond of it, we detained two or three days to let them recruit from their suffering in crossing the mountains.” The expedition went ahead to Santa Fe to buy more horses and mules, leaving the surviving mules behind with four men to guard them, the furs, and supplies until their return.

Over six hundred mules, most from Missouri breeders, were used in the Jackass Mail Line, not donkeys, as the nickname would suggest. Civic leaders in the San Francisco and Sacramento area wanted the contract and the mail line to come to their cities. Showing their disappointment when they did not win the contract, newspapers in those cities called it The Jackass Mail as a slur or perhaps they did not know the difference between a mule and a donkey.

Mules played a big part in the westward movement and the growth of America as they as people, supplies and other goods were brought to the west by "mule power."

© 2019 Donna Campbell Smith


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    • Ellison Hartley profile image

      Ellison Hartley 

      9 months ago from Maryland, USA

      I just love mules. My Great Grandfather John Ellison farmed our family farm with mules. He always had one named John and one named Katie, after him and his wife!


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