Many Old West historians like to tell the story of the tenderfoot who objected to riding a mule down an almost perpendicular cliff. “Don’t worry none,” said an old timer, “that mule thinks too much of itself to fall and break its neck.”
Even in the mining towns of Nevada back in the days of the Comstock Lode and the follow-up strikes in Austin, Eureka, White Pine County, Pioche, and Delamar, the tough, sure-footed mule played an important part in winning the West and keeping the local economy surviving.
Flop-eared and sad-eyed, it was not handsome, but certainly deserved its reputation for stubbornness.
Originally brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1520s, mules probably came into present-day New Mexico with the Conquistadors. Then they were taken to Missouri and bred there for many decades. By 1822, Captain William Becknell led the first trading caravan on the Santa Fe Trail using pack mules. Historians note that Missouri became a famous center for breeding first-rate mules and pack animals. So, by the time of the gold and silver booms in Nevada in the early 1860s, pack trains were instrumental in opening up the American West. Some of the animals could carry up to 250 pounds of supplies and equipment, survive on rough forage, did not require feed, and could operate even in the arid elevations of the Rockies. They were equally instrumental in the heyday of the North American fur trade.
Not only did the settlers come in the great American westward migration, but the long-suffering mules were there too, carrying the packs of the prospectors and miners who roamed about the mountains and mining towns of the southwest, Nevada included.
Oxen were preferred for those traveling on the Oregon Trail, but men involved in mining operations, who wanted to get their ore to railheads, more often than not hired mule express companies. Business owners, too, in the frontier towns of Nevada wanted quick delivery of luxury items and feed, so they also hired the mule express teams.
Tireless, they were, but tricky. A conniving mule might learn to hold its breath while a pack was being tightened, then shed the heavy load instantly by letting out its breath. Aggravating!
One particular mule working the mines in Pioche even learned to count. Normally, mules were hitched up to three more cars to be pulled out of the mine to the loading areas. But this mule, if she sensed four more cars were being hooked up, refused to move until the extra car was removed. Happened more than once.
Some townspeople in the pioneering communities of Nevada also owned a mule or two for their own needs. In Pioche, for example, when the mines finally closed in the early 20th century, the remaining mules were simply turned loose to roam the hills around town for the rest of their days. Great fun though for the local boys and catch and ride them.
And it should be noted that mules served faithfully in the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars in the west, before and after the Civil War. General George Crook, one of the Army’s best Indian fighters following his Civil War service, and who might have saved General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn had his regiment arrived from the south in time, rode a trusted mule he called “Apache.” Crook also used mule trains to supply his troops when serving in the rough Arizona country fighting Geronimo.
Thus, the significance of the mule simply cannot be overlooked in whatever capacity it was used in the rough and ready days of the Old West.
Today, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that China was the top market for mules in 2003, closely followed by Mexico and many Central and South American nations.