1500s: In addition to bringing the first horses to what is now the United States, the Spaniards also brought over the first asses, or donkeys. Breeding a male ass (a jack) with a mare produced the mule: resilient, strong, sure-footed—and stubborn. In 1844, American trader Josiah Gregg wrote that the mule was “invaluable for the transportation of freight over sandy deserts and mountainous roads.” Mexican wranglers, called arrieros (muleteers), were justly famous for their handling of their animals and their dexterity and efficiency in packing their loads.
1820s: After trade opened with Santa Fe in 1821, Missourians got a firsthand look at the mules of New Mexico and liked what they saw. Mules quickly replaced horses as the draft stock of choice for traders’ wagons, which created a demand for mules in Missouri. Traders returning from New Mexico typically brought back mules, jacks, and jennets (female donkeys). One returning caravan in 1829 drove a herd of 2,000 horses, mules, and jacks across the Great Plains to Missouri. Because of their hardiness, mules became the favorite riding animals of traders and mountain men like Kit Carson, William Bent, and “Uncle Dick” Wootton.
1830s: Mules got some stiff competition when oxen were introduced to the Santa Fe Trail in 1829. Each animal had its advantages. Oxen were cheaper and could pull heavier loads (three tons on average) than the same number of mules. Oxen were also harder for Indians to drive off, and a freighter didn’t mind eating them if necessary. Mules, however, traveled faster, tolerated the summer heat, and required less water and grass. But no clear winner prevailed on the overland trails; ox and mule teams were both used continuously until replaced by the iron horse.
Turn of the century: The mule became the working brute of the U.S. Army, pulling army wagons and comprising pack trains across the West. And with the Army’s expanding role in the Indian Wars, along with the ever-increasing demand for draft stock by freighters on the overland trails, Missouri’s mule industry exploded. Mule buyers traveled throughout Missouri, and auctions in Kansas City and St. Louis drew buyers from across the country. After the start of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Army bought thousands of mules (at about $100 each) at the St. Louis stockyards, spending as much as $75,000 each day. By 1922, Missouri had an estimated 440,000 mules.
20th Century: The U.S. Army used thousands of mules during World War II, and mules continued to plow hilly Missouri farm fields. The invention of the automobile, however, signaled the end of Missouri’s remarkable mule industry. Once known as the “Mule State,” Missouri sought to honor the animal’s historic contributions in 1995, when Governor Mel Carnahan signed a bill making the mule Missouri’s official state animal. Today, mules are mostly owned and bred by hobbyists (except for Amish communities, where the mule remains an essential draft animal) and are used for recreational pack trips, hunting, and trail riding.
This article appears in the American Cowboy’s Great Trails of the West Collector’s Edition.