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By Clay Coppedge

Let’s talk about mules. Horses are quick to grab history’s glamour and glory, leaving little attention for their homelier, obstinate cousin. Can you imagine the Lone Ranger charging to the rescue on a mule? While acknowledging the mule’s notable lack of charisma, old-timers are quick to point out that the horse/donkey half-breed is a forgotten hero.

“A lot of people never think about it, but mules made the United States,” says Clements W. “Speedy” Duncan in the book Harder Than Hardscrabble, an oral history about growing up on lands now occupied by Fort Hood. “They [mules] built all the railroads, and they did all the farming, and they pulled them wagon trains across the country. They don’t get their just credit, mules don’t. The cotton-picking old mule is the most unappreciated thing that ever happened to this country.”

Muleskinner and one of the mules of the twenty mule team used to pull combine. Photo courtesy Library of Congress Photo Archives.

Christopher Columbus appreciated mules enough to take some on a 1493 voyage to what is now Haiti. George Washington bred horses, but started the mule industry in this country when the King of Spain gave him a mule as a gift. Washington felt that horses “ate too much, worked too little and died too young” to be of much use.

To early Texans, buying mules was as important as buying a car or truck today, but mules did not come with a 100,000-mile warranty or cash-back rebates. Texas led the country for years in the production of mules—well over a million of them in 1926 about the time the newfangled internal combustion engine started catching on.

In Harder Than Hardscrabble, T.A. Wilhite described the traits he looked for back in his mule-trading days. “You wanted them to have muscle, and you wanted them to have the right kind of disposition,” he said. “You might get scalped many times ‘til you learned what to look for.”

The U.S. Army recognized the value of mules early on. Mules served in every conflict between 1820 and 1945. They were essential to both the North and the South in the Civil War. A thousand marching soldiers required at least 25 wagons to carry supplies and haul heavy artillery from one battle site to another, and mules pulled most of those wagons.

When told that Confederate soldiers had captured 40 mules and a Union general, Abraham Lincoln reportedly responded, “I’m sorry to lose those mules.”

In Shavetails and Bell Sharps: History of the U.S. Army Mule, author Emmett M. Essin wrote that the Army found mules to be stronger and more agile than either a horse or a donkey, about to carry heavier loads longer distances over more difficult terrain.

“Mules were also sensitive, intelligent animals, more so than their parent stock. They quickly recognized approaching danger and knew by instinct how to avoid it,” he wrote.

On the battle lines, however, mules often became conscientious objectors, recognizing the high probability of death the battlefield presented. Maybe that’s why you never saw a lot of mules charging into battle.

Gradually, tractors replaced mules on the farm, leaving them nothing more than a reputation for being stubborn. But a few places still pay homage to the mule’s contribution. Texas is one of those places. The National Mule Memorial is in—where else”?—Muleshoe, Texas. It was financed with private donations, including 25 cents from a mule driver in Uzbekistan. The mule gets its first credit.

The mule is recognized also in the Coryell County town of Topsey, which is named for an early Texas farmer’s favorite mule. In the Chisos Mountain of West Texas, Mule Ear Parks is an easily recognizable and aptly named geographic feature.

Still, even with its own monument, even with towns and landmarks named in its honor, the mule remains the Rodney Dangerfield of the animal world—getting no respect. To make matters worse, it is often confused with other equine critters, like donkeys.

Remember: a donkey is just a donkey; a mule is a cross between a horse and a donkey, usually a male donkey and a female horse, but not necessarily. A cross between a male horse and a female donkey is called a hinny.

Just don’t be a jackass and call a mule a donkey. Mules deserve a little more respect than that.

A twenty-mule team-drawn combine. Walla Walla County, Washington. This outfit gets to work at six in the morning. Knocks off at eleven for rest, food and water for mules and men, go back to work at one and work till six. Photo courtesy Library of Congress Photo Archives.


CLAY COPPEDGE has worked in Central Texas as a sportswriter, feature writer and reporter. His work has appeared in a wide range of magazines and newspapers both inside and outside of Texas. He lives and writes near Walburg in Williamson County, Texas. Reprinted by permission of the author. 

This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of the Ranch Record.  Would you like to read more stories about ranching life? When you become a member of the Ranching Heritage Association, you’ll receive the award-winning Ranch Record magazine and more while supporting the legacy and preservation of our ranching heritage. Become a member today.