George Washington’s heart was never far from his beloved plantation
George Washington made his considerable mark and everlasting fame as a soldier, but his dearest love was Mount Vernon, his Northern Virginia plantation, situated just a stone’s throw from the Potomac River. Even Thomas Jefferson, the lifelong agronomist and botanical experimenter, considered Washington a superb planter.
Once he inherited the then-modest plantation from his half-brother and married the wealthy Widow Martha Custis, he spared no expense or detail in making the site a thriving showplace. Different crops, different sub-industries, different trades were all explored. If a new or novel idea for making agriculture easier, better or more profitable was suggested, Washington was a ready audience. One of his best innovations at Mount Vernon was producing a fine “stable” of mules.
GW: Proponent of Mules
It is said that mules were first bred in North America via the Spanish Conquistadors, by mating a horse and a donkey (or jackass, as they are sometimes called). But mules are hybrid creatures. They might enjoy the experience, but they are sterile and cannot reproduce themselves. They can reproduce other donkeys readily enough, but one needs to mate a male donkey with a female horse to create a mule. (Mating a female donkey with a male horse creates a “hinny.” Close, but not quite.)
By the late eighteenth century, mules had gained recognition and respect for the considerable benefits they brought to agriculture – and to mankind itself. Mules are almost as large as a horse. They are almost as strong as a horse. But they do not eat as much, usually live longer, and are not as susceptible to most equine diseases. True, they are not speed demons, but when speed is not essential, they are wonderful haulers. While commonly said to be stubborn, they are generally not skittish or fractious with other mules, and can tolerate tiresome or repetitive functions easily. Thus there are many functions on a plantation where a mule is not only useful, but the animal of choice.
Even as a General, George Washington’s heart was never far from Mount Vernon, and he corresponded regularly with his plantation managers. Some of that correspondence mentioned his desire for a good “jack” (jackass) in order to breed some mules. The best and largest “jacks” were reputed to come from Spain, and Washington investigated the option of purchase. Complications arose from the technicalities and legalities of selling-shipping animals, but once Carlos III, the King of Spain, learned of the Great General George Washington’s personal interest, he sent two prize jacks and their “handler” as a gift.
One of the donkeys died en route, but the other, a four-year-old Andalusian Jackass survived, and was immediately and fittingly named by Washington himself, “Royal Gift.” Unfortunately, the ship bringing “RG” wound up in Boston, rather than along the Potomac. It is said that Washington took great pains and care in bringing Royal Gift to his new home
The Bad-Ass Royal Gift
George Washington had grand plans for his new “Gift”. The huge Andalusian donkey stood about 15 hands high, promising strong offspring! First, Washington planned to mate him with some of his best mares to produce several mules for Mount Vernon. Then he planned to offer stud services to his neighbors, and even friends down the Peninsula, a hundred miles away. Washington demanded a hefty fee and had no shortage of takers throughout the South for RG’s services.
Unfortunately no one consulted the jackass, who was obviously very very picky. No matter what Washington or his plantation experts tried, they could not get the animal “in the mood,” so to speak. RG had some mild interest in “jennies” (female donkeys), but Washington’s finest mares and fillies only rated a ho-hum. Stud was becoming a dud.
But men, being smarter than donkeys (maybe), Farmer George finally resorted to the old switcheroo! He brought a jennie to RG’s stall, and when things began to look promising, they swapped Jenny for a mare, believing that the donkey was too hot and bothered to know the difference – or care.
It was a handy hint they were happy to pass along to the plantation owners who were seeking RG’s siring services: Put a couple of jennies in the stall with the jack, and bye and bye, switch them with the lady of choice.
It came to pass that Royal Gift, picky or not, was indeed prolific, and went on to sire more than fifty mules – just for George Washington. About a year after the Andalusian arrived, the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington’s loyal young friend and ardent admirer sent the General a Maltese Jackass, along with a couple of other excellent jacks and jennies, perhaps more romantically inclined, and Mount Vernon became a virtual nursery for mules.
Always a precise record-keeper, George Washington kept a detailed inventory of his newfound additions to the plantation. In 1785 his inventory listed 130 horses and zero mules. At the time of his death nearly fourteen years later in 1799, the general/planter listed 58 mules and only 25 horses. Even today, many of the mules at Mount Vernon can trace their lineage to Royal Gift.
Considered among the pioneers of plantation management, George Washington’s interest in mules proved to be prescient. Mules were arguably the unsung beasts of burden that helped open the West. And the US Army became their greatest patron, purchasing thousands upon thousands for tough and backbreaking work in the Civil War.
Then of course, when they needed an emblem, their beloved utility animal, the mule, became the Army’s beloved mascot! General Washington would have liked that!
Randall, Willard Sterne – George Washington – Galahad Books, 2000