The History of Donkeys in America

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Mules were the main choice of riding animal for most of the pioneers of the West, as well as cavalry troopers and cowboys.
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“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.

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:

“The burro is the only living animal that can stand the hardship of the American prospector’s life. A horse or mule would die of privation and despair if he were to suffer half the hardships, grief and toil that the burro thrives under. If it were not for the burro, the American Desert today would still be an unreclaimed and unexplored waste. Thunder and lightning, intense heat or bitter cold, the sirocco sand storms and white dust of the alkali waste are all met with patience and courage by the burro.”

Spanish mules

The Spanish mule also proved valuable to the early settlers and became an important part of their culture. Several histories maintain that the mule played a more significant role in the development of the West than did the horse. Perhaps most famous are the twenty mule teams and the great wagons that carried thousands of tons of Borax from Death Valley to the railroad 165 miles away. This hot, dry and desolate desert region could not be worked by any other animal (camels were not used in the United States).

The hardy and strong mules, the offspring of mustang mares and Spanish jacks, also became popular with many cowboys for working stock. The mules were the main choice of riding animal for most of the pioneers of the West, the cavalry troopers as well as the cowboys, despite the fact that films invariably depict these iconic characters on horseback, presumably to give them higher status. Mules were also to become the backbone of the farming industry with large teams pulling great ploughs across the open plains, cultivating ground and harvesting crops.

Good ol George

The great success of the mule in the United States was largely due to the foresight, example and skill of George Washington, the country’s first president (1789-97). A keen farmer and owner of a large plantation, Mount Vernon in Virginia, Washington was always searching to improve agricultural procedures and products. He knew that progress for America depended on strong and hardy work animals, and was convinced that this meant the mule.

The problem was obtaining proper breeding stock. The best donkey jacks in the world resided in Spain. Of remarkable strength and proportions, the monarchy had long guarded these animals by prohibiting their export.

Nevertheless, by 1784, Charles III of Spain had arranged for two fine Andalusian jacks to be dispatched to the American president. One died during the voyage but the other, named Royal Gift by Washington, went on to sire many hundreds of high-quality mules, which as Washington had planned did indeed help to build America. Throughout his life, Washington bred mules and he was responsible for breeding what is today known as American Mammoth Jackstock.

The mule was used in farming, commerce, transportation, logging, mining and riding. Mules also towed great barges laden with farm produce along the Ohio canal system to markets in the south and east as settlers headed for new lands. Mules were in great demand and were imported from Catalonia, Malta, Andalusia, Italy and France.

Working Mules

A main reason for the extensive mule industry was the expansion of the cotton-growing industry. Breeding centres developed to provide work mules for the cotton fields of the Old South, while mule teams pulled the reaping machines over the vast fields of wheat on the prairies. Mule breeding increased dramatically between 1870 and 1900 and “nothing to compare with it in the world’s history has been seen.” In 1889, for instance, 117,000 mule foals were born and 330,000 mules were sold from the main breeding states of Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky for agricultural use in other states.

Although there was a serious decline in numbers when the tractor replaced the mule teams in agriculture, mules generally retain their popularity in the United States. There is renewed interest in mules for recreation and competition and at least one enthusiast believes that “While the mule contributes less than one percent of the nation’s work power today (as opposed to 79 percent in 1850), many dealers think the old mule breeders will soon return to business.”

Army Mules

Mules have also become the mascot of the US Army: carefully bred and beautifully cared-for mules are paraded at public occasions. Enthusiast and author William Long believes that the mule is “The most successful hybrid that man ever developed. Bred one generation at a time for more than 3,000 years his patient labour was essential to the development of the mechanized world that has made him obsolete.”

Wild Mules

In the United States, “feral” donkeys were reported in the Grand Canyon as early as 1884. By the 1930s they were a cause of concern to land resource managers in most western states. They were believed to be threatening cattle-grazing ranges, so Federal agencies and private citizens attempted to control or eradicate the wild donkeys by shooting or poisoning them. Hunters decimated the herds, but there was protest from some sections of the public. In 1952 legislation was passed making it illegal to shoot wild donkeys in Death Valley in California, where the greatest numbers roamed. A sanctuary was set up for their safety where they could live out their days in peace.

In 1971 the United States Senate and House of Representatives passed Public Law 92-195 which declared that:

“Wild free roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people… [and] they shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment and death.”

In fact, wild donkeys have been removed from a number of National Parks, most notably the Grand Canyon, and agencies for and against the donkey still battle in various states; but it would seem that those who wish to preserve the donkey as an important player in American history are winning with their “Adopt a wild horse or burro” scheme, run by the Bureau of Land Management. Despite attempts to revoke the protections afforded by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, it was reaffirmed unanimously in the House of Representatives in May 2006, with the passage of an amendment prohibiting tax payers’ money being used to sell or slaughter wild horses and burros. In March 2007 the Natural Resources Committee reported on this decision. The chairman declared:

“Americans have always championed their survival, and they expect that these creatures will be protected. To allow them to be sacrificed and slaughtered represents great disrespect to the will of the American people and is an affront to our nation’s history.”

Excerpted with permission from Donkey, by Jill Bough. Published by Reaktion Books, © 2011.