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Philip Greenspun's Weblog » George Washington, Mules, and …

I m reading The Oregon Trail[1]Philip Greenspun's Weblog » George Washington, Mules, And ...and the author reminds us that real estate speculator-to-president is not an entirely new path:

George Washington was America s original maharaja of mules. Historians have long been squeamish about acknowledging that General Washington, like many of the American founders, was a voracious land speculator. Few academics and high school history teachers want to risk their careers by suggesting to their students that the father of their country worked the same day job as Donald Trump. Washington was a land developer, often described as the richest of his generation. By the end of the American Revolution, General Washington controlled about sixty thousand acres of land, more than half of it in the promising frontier country west of the Alleghenies, in what we today call West Virginia, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania. Wresting clear title to this rich bounty of soil from the English crown may not have been a principal motive for fighting the Revolutionary War, but Washington knew that he would profit mightily if independence was achieved. How does this relate to mules? It seems that Washington needed a way to get around and collect rent:

The traditional draft horses imported from Europe or bred on colonial plantations were magnificent equine specimens, weighing up to a ton apiece, their marbled thighs glistening under the sun as they pulled plows and farm wagons over the flat corn and tobacco fields of eastern Virginia or Pennsylvania. But these agrarian mastodons were enormously hungry at the end of the day, and, like so many purebred species, suffered the common defects of animals mated too often within the same bloodlines. The big, beautiful drafts were prone to lameness and chipped hooves, they lacked stamina, and essentially they could perform only one job yanking a plow or a wagon across level cropland. Heavy draft horses were notoriously ungainly on the kind of steep slopes and rocky ground that would be encountered while conquering the Alleghenies. Washington and his fellow Virginia planters had long known about the plucky, kick-ass little mules developed for pack trains and for pulling light freight wagons in the Spanish territories of the lower Mississippi and Texas. These crosses were bred from horses and small Mexican donkeys, usually producing a mule that stood only four feet at the withers, the part of a horse or mule where the neck joins the body. What the young republic needed now was something much bigger sturdier, draft-quality mules that stood at five or six feet. In Spain and France, where farming required pulling loads up the steep paths of terraced vineyards and wheat fields, mules of this size had been bred for centuries out of tall donkey sires called Mammoth Jacks. Mammoth jacks were any of several long-legged, large-boned studs selectively developed for draftlike qualities, probably from Middle Eastern donkeys brought back from the Crusades. The mammoth jacks had eventually branched off into several discrete European breeds: the Andalusian, Catalonian, Majorcan, and Maltese lines. But the courts of France and Spain, reluctant to share such prize breeding stock with the colonies of their rival Britain, had always banned the export of mammoth jacks to America. After the American Revolution, however, Washington was a global hero, and the Europeans were glad to help the man who had trounced their old British foes. In 1785 the king of Spain, Charles III, dispatched to Mount Vernon a shipment of mammoth breeding stock that included an Andalusian jack named Royal Gift. The shipment included two jennies, or female donkeys, suitable for mating with Royal Gift to create more mammoth studs. In the meantime, Washington s old fighting companion during the Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, had shipped from France his own gift, a Maltese jack named Knight of Malta and four jennies.

By 1810 the region s initial breeding stock had yielded an estimated 800,000 mules distributed throughout the South and beyond the Allegheny frontier.


  1. ^ The Oregon Trail (www.amazon.com)

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