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An open stagecoach outfitted with mules at the JA Ranch. Courtesy of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, Texas. The Mule: The Worker that "Can't Get No Respect" Watson C. Arnold* Though they were the dominant domesticated animal in the United States for over a century, mules have received little attention from historians for an unusual reason. The history of horses is one of warriors, speed, and graceful beauty. The history of oxen is one of peaceful agrarian tranquility and gentle, slow comfort. However, the history of mules reminds one of poverty, hard work and sweat, of muddy fields, and dusty roads. In addition, mules have a reputation for being stubborn and contrary. These images have made mules an unpleasant topic avoided whenever possible. Fortunately, a few historians have documented the importance of mules in the southern agricultural economy and in the Indian wars of the Southwest. Yet, no other animal has had as profound an impact on American agriculture, particularly the southern cotton culture and in the West. Because of the mule's ability to endure heat and abuse as well as to subsist on poor fodder while carrying heavy loads over hard roads in hot climates , it became the animal of choice for pulling plows and wagons on southern farms. In the cotton culture, mules became an important social symbol whose ownership distinguished sharecroppers from tenant farmers. In the West, freighters and stagecoach owners preferred mules to other beasts of burden for pulling heavy wagons over the dry, rocky trails. The United States Army came to depend on mules to pull the wagons that transported military equipment, and pack-mule trains helped to defeat the Apache and southwestern Indians. Mules dominated the livestock economy for almost a century, but as the agricultural economy became mechanized, they rapidly declined in number and importance and now have virtually vanished from American farms. For over one hundred years Americans considered mules more valu- * Watson C. Arnold has an M.D. degree from the University ofTexas, Soudiwestern Medical School and a Ph.D. degree in history from Texas Christian University, where he currendy teaches history of medicine. He has published widely in bodi medical and historical publications. Vol. CXII, no. ? Southwestern Historical QuarterlyJuly 2008 36Southwestern Historical QuarterlyJuly able than horses, and despite the difficulty of breeding them, the number of mules increased steadily. Cotton farmers usually got their supplies of mules from local breeders and a few larger commercial breeders. The military, freighter companies, and other large-scale buyers came to depend on regional stockyards to supply their needs. In 1808 the United States Department ofAgriculture listed 855,000 mules valued at $66 million. By 1897 the count had increased to 2.2 million mules valued at $103 million. By 1910, during the so-called cotton boom, the number of mules in the United States had grown to 4.1 million, worth about $120 each. Horses during the same period decreased in number and were valued at less than $90 apiece. By 1880 South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama—the largest cotton growing states—had more mules than horses. In i8g7, prior to the cotton boom, Texas had 1.1 million horses worth about $18 each and 261,000 mules valued at $30 each. By igio the number of mules in Texas had increased to over 1 million animals. By ig26, Texas, the home of cowboys and cattle drives, contained more mules than horses.1 The mule is a fascinating creature. It is a sterile hybrid—a cross between a male donkey (jack) and a female horse. Hybrid vigor predicates that mules have a larger body size and greater endurance than either of their parents. They survive better on poor forage, and live and work longer than either donkeys or horses. In coat, height, and shape they look like a horse. But, one can always tell a mule from a horse by the tail. Horses have a short tailbone with long hair. Donkeys and mules have a long tailbone with a tassel tail. And, a mule brays more like a donkey while horses and hinnies neigh.2 Hybrids of the equine species, mules and hinnies have been common since early civilization. Sumerian...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9560
Print ISSN
0038-478X
Pages
pp. 34-50
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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