Today, we think of George Washington as the father of the country. Revolution-era General, first President of the United States. It may surprise some to learn, that he’d have described himself as a farmer.
Washington’s early work in agriculture was driven by the need to make a living. He would constantly study and experiment, always on the lookout for new and innovative methods and materials. From his 16-sided treading barn at Dogue run to innovations in crop rotation, fertilization methods and animal husbandry, Washington’s innovations benefited not only the five farms of Mount Vernon, but much of American agriculture.
132 horses worked the Mount Vernon estate in 1785, when Washington became interested in mules. A working mule has a productive life expectancy of 30 years, while a horse is generally played out in 20. A mule is capable of more work with less feed than either horses or donkeys, and more intelligent than a horse. A mule is capable of seeing its own back feet, making it less likely to “spook” at unseen hazards, and far more sure footed than a horse.
During the age of westward expansion, mules would stop along wagon trails, pointing their ears toward an approaching buffalo herd or Indian band, long before humans or other animals were aware of the threat. This tendency to stop and assess leads to the perception that mules are stubborn, but the experienced mule handler understands. There is a cognitive process at work in these animals. It’s best to work with it.
Mules are hybrid animals, the offspring of a male Equus Africanus Asinus, and a female Equus Caballus. A jackass and a mare. From the sire, the mule inherits intelligence, toughness and endurance, while the dam passes down her speed, conformation and agility.
Charles Darwin once wrote: “The mule always appears to me a most surprising animal. That a hybrid should possess more reason, memory, obstinacy, social affection, powers of muscular endurance, and length of life, than either of its parents, seems to indicate that art has here outdone nature.”
A “Hinny” results from crossing a female donkey and a male horse. The result is a far less desirable animal, possessed of the lesser traits of both parent species.
Mules and hinnies have 63 chromosomes, resulting from the horse’s 64 and the donkey’s 62. For this reason, there is no historical record of even a single fertile mule stallion. Only a miniscule number of mule mares have bred successfully with purebred horses or donkeys.
Such an event is so rare that it was considered an ill omen in ancient days. Herodotus describes such an event as an ill omen during Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480 BC, culminating in the Battle at Thermopylae. “There happened also a portent of another kind while he (Xerxes the Great, 4th “King of Kings” of the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia), was still at Sardis, a mule brought forth young and gave birth to a mule”.
The English isles are for the most part blessed with flat farmlands, rarely having need of mules. France and Spain possessed some of the finest breeding stock in the world in the Andalusian and Catalonian Jacks, though it was illegal to export them to the new world for fear of advantaging historic rivals.
Desiring a breeding Jack of his own, Washington reached out to Spanish King Charles III in 1780, through the Cuban merchant Don Juan de Miralles. Miralles died unexpectedly and the transaction never took place, and Washington tried again in 1784. This time, American chargé d’affaires at the Spanish court William Carmichael reached out to the Spanish King, who was more than happy to provide two Spanish Jacks. One died in transit, while the other arrived with its handler in Gloucester, Massachusetts, on October 7, 1785. He was gray in color with a strong, stocky, build, standing just short of fifteen hands.
This original donkey stallion would come to be called “Royal Gift”.
John Fairfax, Washington’s overseer at Mount Vernon, was dispatched to Boston to meet Royal Gift and his handler, and escort them back to Virginia. So solicitous was he of the animal’s health, that the donkey was provided with blankets, and never required to walk more than 15 miles in a day. Royal Gift arrived at Mount Vernon on the evening of December 5.
The Marquis de Lafayette sent Washington a black Maltese Jack called “Knight of Malta” the following year, probably illegally, along with several “Jennies”. An ad ran in the Maryland Journal in March 23, 1787, advertising Mount Vernon’s Jacks for stud at five Guineas for the season.
Royal Gift came up lame in 1793, after being driven far too hard by an ignorant handler. He would live another three years, but his stud career was all but over. On July 23, 1796, William Washington wrote to the President informing him of the passing of his prized Spanish Jackass. Royal Gift had succumbed to “farcy”, a form of Cutaneous Glanders nearly always fatal in horses, donkeys and mules.
By the time of George Washington’s death in 1799, there were 63 working mules at Mount Vernon, and an untold number working the farms of the young nation. By 1808, there were 855,000 mules throughout the south, west of the Appalachian frontier, and at work in countless American farms. Even today, many American donkeys and mules can trace their lineage back to Royal Gift. And to George Washington. The Father of the American Mule.