The History of Donkeys in America

Learn about the critical role donkeys played in America’s history. Donkeys served as major contributors towards building the country, providing labor in areas such as farming, logging, and mining.

  • burros in desert
    Mules were the main choice of riding animal for most of the pioneers of the West, as well as cavalry troopers and cowboys.
    Photo by Getty Images/dbvirago
  • donkey
    “Donkey” by Jill Bough takes a look at the historical role of the donkey across the world and the variety of social, cultural, and religious meanings that donkeys have embodied.
    Cover courtesy Reaktion Books

  • burros in desert
  • donkey

In Donkey (Reaktion Books, 2011) Jill Bough champions the donkey as one of the most useful domesticated animals throughout history. The book takes a look at the cultural history of the donkey to demonstrate why this humble creature is deserving of our respect and appreciation. The following excerpt is from Chapter 3, "Donkeys and Mules Colonize the Americas, Australia, and South Africa."

This book can be purchased with a 20 percent discount on the University of Chicago website using the discount code PRDONKEY, courtesy of Reaktion books.

There is a wealth of folklore associated with burros in the American West, where pioneers and prospectors told yarns about the feats performed by their animal companions. Burros reportedly saved their master's lives on many occasions by finding help when they lay injured, water when they were dying of thirst or by finding their way home when they were lost in the desert.

In 1896 Charles Lummis (1859-1928) quotes one prospector, George Harvey, and the wonderful stories he told of his six burros. Harvey obviously loved and admired them and received faithful service in return. He believed that although donkeys were:

"Lacking in the blue blooded lineage of the horse... unlike the horse, they have brains. A horse may be loyal and obedient but a burro is loyal and obedient and smart. He exacts only one condition from his owner; he wants him to show him what he wants done. Then he will do his best to do it."

Another prospector asserted in 1925 that:

Pauline Gettys
3/18/2019 7:06:06 AM

We adopted a couple of the burros thru the Bureau of Land Management --20 years ago. From those two we've raised a number of very smart, lovable, common sense donkeys. They have an incredible ability to take care of themselves--and you. I can call the three we still care for from anywhere on the mountain, and within a few minutes, they will appear. They have guarded stock, played with grand kids, walked with me in the pasture or even walked with me to pastures some miles off from home to stay with a small group of cows. Love them and this will always be their home. Donkeys are treasures!!! God's gift---

7/30/2018 8:12:25 PM

like Jack ass.Jeff Schwersinske

7/30/2018 8:09:00 PM

like Jack ass.Jeff Schwersinske

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