While the exact origin story of the mule is unknown, we do know that they have been around since the dawn of human civilization.
Depictions of mules can be found throughout history worldwide, from ancient Egypt to the Spanish Conquistadors.
George Washington is considered to be the first American mule breeder. An avid student of agriculture, Washington realized the value of the mule, who was stronger than the donkey and hardier than the horse. In 1784, the King of Spain, King Charles III, sent two Spanish jacks to George Washington. Only one survived the trip overseas, and he was named "Royal Gift" after completing his voyage to the Americas. By 1799, Mount Vernon was home to 58 mules who were sired by Royal Gift.
The cotton boom in America drastically increased the demand for mules, and it is estimated that there were 2.2 million in America at that time. Trains of pack mules labored across the U.S. pulling and carrying supplies from destination to destination. There is no doubt that in this way the mule contributed heavily to the progress of early America, particularly the Western U.S.
Not only did mules bear the burden of transport, they also have also played an important role in military action throughout U.S. history. It is estimated that over 1 million mules served alongside soldiers in the Civil War. Mules went on to serve in both World Wars, carrying food and supplies, and even carrying wounded soldiers off the battlefield.
Mules also assisted in the beginning of the “space age”. Teams of mules pulled the first jet engine to the top of Pike’s Peak to be tested, which was successful and led to the creation of the U.S. space program.
By the late 20th century, the population of mules steadily declined as farming and transportation became more industrialized. Steam and then gasoline powered tractors and trucks became popular, and mules were no longer in high agricultural demand.