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Mount Vernon had the chance to speak with Rinker Buck, the bestselling author of The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey.

In 2011, Buck and his brother Nicholas spent four months crossing the original Oregon Trail, the first wagon travelers to make an unassisted crossing in a century. Buck mixed his narrative of the journey with long sections on the history of the trail, covered wagons and the importance of the mule in American history. In this interview, Mr. Buck talks about George Washington's important role in establishing mules in the United States and how mules powered his and our western migration.

How is it that you decided to follow the 2,000 mile Oregon Trail in a covered wagon?

As a writer and a historian, I have always been fascinated about the versions of our past that we teach our children—right on through college—as opposed to the harder and more complex truths that are really there. We teach history almost as myth, a form of promotion for our democracy. For example, we rarely hear that George Washington was not only the largest landholder in America (with roughly 60,000 acres under his control) but the nation’s wealthiest individual. Like him, many of the constitutional founders were heavily invested in lands on the western frontier. How did that affect their decision to fight a war of independence from the British crown? You can’t understand that important question about the origins of our country if you don’t ask it.

Several years ago, after discovering a set of ruts for the Oregon Trail in Kansas, I became fascinated by the 19th century avenue of migration west and ran across the same quandary. The history of the trail was so different from the version we were taught in school, much less what is depicted by Hollywood westerns and television shows. Women played a seminal role in developing the trail. The native American tribes on the plains were extremely friendly at first and just wanted to trade. Religious squabbles in small-town America played a critical role in driving families west. The pioneers were awful environmentalists.

I became interested in the trail for all of those reasons. While pondering a revisionist history of the trail, I came across this line in a history book: “The last documented crossing of the trail by covered wagon was in 1909.” That would form the narrative spine of a much better book, I thought. I grew up on a horse farm in New Jersey and we were horse-and-buggy fanciers, so it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t do this. So, with a brother who is even more accomplished a horseman than I, I bought a restored 19th century prairie schooner from a wagon shop in Kansas and a team of mules from the Amish in Missouri. We left on our trip across the trail in May, 2011, and that formed the basis for my book.

Rinker Buck and his team of Percheron mules, Beck, Jake and Bute, at the summit of Nebraska’s California Hill, one of the steepest ascents on the Oregon Trail.  (Photo: Rinker Buck)
Rinker Buck and his team of Percheron mules, Beck, Jake and Bute, at the summit of Nebraska’s California Hill, one of the steepest ascents on the Oregon Trail. (Photo: Rinker Buck)

The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck: Purchase Online

You ended up using three mules for your journey. Why mules and not draft horses or oxen?

As I explained in the book, draft horses are too highly-bred and, at almost a ton apiece, too heavy for long wagon journeys. They have stamina for only about 10 to 15 miles a day, have tremendous appetites and cannot last very long without water or in the extreme heat of the deserts. Draft mules, however, weigh about 700 pounds less, can go long distances without water and barely perspire in the heat. That is why they were the preferred beast for pulling wagons not only during the pioneer period before the Civil War but afterward during the stage coach era.

Mules can pull a wagon at sustained speeds of about 4.5 miles per hour—you can easily make 25 to 30 miles a day. Draft oxen travel at about 2 miles per hour, and must be driven from the ground. That was fine—if arduous—for the pioneers, but too slow for me.

Tell us more about your mules Bute, Beck, and Jake. Did they prove to be a good team?

Yes, in the end, our team of black Percheron mules (so called because they were bred from a Percheron draft horse mare) did a fine job getting us to Oregon. They each had quite distinct personalities.

Buck watering his mules from the Snake River in Idaho. (Photo: Rinker Buck)
Buck watering his mules from the Snake River in Idaho. (Photo: Rinker Buck)
Our nickname for Bute was “Kate Hudson.” She was smaller than the other mules, with an adorable, Morgan horse head and cute legs and rumps. She knew she was pretty and just wanted to sit around all day on a chaise lounge in Malibu in her bikini. But Bute proved vital for the team because when there was work to do—a steep hill ahead—she bowed into her harness and pulled hard, just to get the work over with in a hurry. The other mules couldn’t stand it when “prom queen” Bute raced ahead, and then pulled harder themselves. So, cute, cute Bute delivered a herd instinct advantage for the trip.

Beck was an enormously attractive, jet-black mule, with long, athletic legs and a muscular chest. She loved to work, and her trace chains were always tight. She had to be first in the team, always ahead of the others, the so-called lead mule. But she was also fantastically crazy in the head. If a mailbox door was open, or a piece of plastic was blowing on a barbed wire fence line, she “shied,” dancing in her harness, trying to run away, pushing the rest of the team over the center line of the road. Man-hole covers or an expansion joint on a bridge? Just another excuse to pull her crazy-girl. Beck decided even before we left on the trip that she despised me and wouldn’t let me harness her in the morning. My brother Nick had to do that.

Jake, our gelded “john” mule, was the gentle giant of the team. Immensely tall and strong (he was almost 18 hands tall), he was imperturbable and affectionate. He calmed the other mules down when they were spooking about something and loved nuzzling his head under my arm. In the morning, when the other mules ran away in the pasture and refused to be caught, Jake walked right over and poked his nose in my sweatshirt pocket for an apple. We sold the team at the end of the trip to a rancher who now keeps them in a retirement meadow, and I was in tears saying goodbye to that fellow.

Seems that most Americans today think of mules as dim and stubborn beasts. Do mules fit these modern stereotypes?

I write about this in the book. Mules have a larger cranial capacity and thus larger brains than horses—a gift from their feral, burro side—and they ponder things a lot more. A horse will pretty much respond like a dog to a master’s request; their first instinct is to obey. A mule says, at a difficult stream crossing or a narrow gate opening, “Now wait a minute here, let’s consider the safety of this.” That too comes from the burro side. Mules have a very strong feral instinct to protect themselves. Thus, the mule’s reputation for “ornery” behavior. By coaxing them and showing them that the situation is safe, a good driver moves them along without trouble. But there have been an awful lot of bad drivers over the years who grew impatient and whipped the team. It is only then that the mules act out and become difficult. The trick with a mule is to get them to decide that moving forward around an obstacle is their idea.

Infographic: Mules at Mount Vernon

In your book you call George Washington the "maharajah of mules". Why is he deserving of this title?

The American Revolution has been called “the shot heard ‘round the world,” a reference to the idea that liberating a society from a European monarch and establishing a republic was such a bold, new step at the end of the 18th century. The outcome of this played out in many practical ways.

To breed the superior farm beast known as the mule, a female horse was mated with a highly developed, exceptionally tall burro or donkey male stud called a “Mammoth Jack.” The British, blessed with relatively level terrain, rarely used mules, so the best source of mammoth jacks was France and Spain, where hilly farmlands and rocky soil had long made mules the preferred farm animals. (The original burro stock of male sires, originating in the Mideast, was probably introduced into Europe by armies returning from the Crusades.) But during colonial times the French and the Spanish had outlawed the export of mammoth jacks to North America, to prevent their rivals in the British colonies from receiving a superior farm animal.

King Charles III of Spain by Francisco Goya - BBVA Collection, Madrid, España (Wikimedia)
King Charles III of Spain by Francisco Goya - BBVA Collection, Madrid, España (Wikimedia)
At the conclusion of the American Revolution, however, General George Washington was a global hero, appreciated by the French and Spanish monarchs for having trounced their old British foes. So, in 1785, King Charles of Spain shipped a mammoth jack named Royal Gift to Mount Vernon. Washington’s French ally during the revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, also sent a stable of mule breeding stock to Mount Vernon. The original breeding jacks sent to Mount Vernon were derived from the popular “Maltese” and “Andalusian” lines, and their distant descendants can be seen at mule auctions and on Amish farms today.

Animal husbandry and horsemanship were major status symbols in colonial times and the early 19th century. (Among Virginians, Thomas Jefferson was respected as a great equestrian and collector of blood lines; Washington is credited with developing the American foxhound.) At his “compound” for mule breeding at Mount Vernon, Washington set to work breeding in two directions at once. First, he mated his mammoth jacks to the female jennies, to produce a large breeding stock of male jacks. Simultaneously, he began breeding the jacks to female draft horses to produce the hybrid mules. By the time Washington died in 1799, there were 63 working mules at Mount Vernon alone, and other plantation owners and breeders soon joined the mule boom. By 1810 there were over 800,000 mules throughout the south and west of the Appalachian frontier. This population became the foundation for the millions of mules used to build 19th century America—dredging canals, pulling wagons and stagecoaches across the western trails, and hauling the artillery and military supply caravans during the Civil War.

Were there any other traits of the mule that made them superior to horses?

Three traits were particularly important and contributed to mules playing a vital role in the development of America. Wild burros are very long-lived, and the working life of a mule can often extend more than 30 years, while horses are usually played out by 20. From their feral, burro side, mules also acquire a wide peripheral vision, making it possible for them to see their hind feet, and thus contributing to their sure-footedness. (Horses cannot see their rear hooves.) From their feral side, mules also acquire exceptionally strong senses of smell and hearing. They tend to slow down or halt at what they perceive to be the approach of a distant threat, which they can sense even miles away. This proved vital on the great American plains. Mules could often hear or smell buffalo herds, other wagon trains or parties of native Americans before they could be seen by their human drivers, and would stop and point their long ears in the direction of the threat. This allowed the pioneers to mount their horses and ride off on a hunting party for game while the rest of the wagon train halted until the threat had passed.

The Buck wagon crossing the plains in eastern Nebraska. The brothers camped each night at old pioneer wagon camps, ranch corrals and on the open plains. (Photo: Rinker Buck)
The Buck wagon crossing the plains in eastern Nebraska. The brothers camped each night at old pioneer wagon camps, ranch corrals and on the open plains. (Photo: Rinker Buck)

Out on the trail how hard was it controlling your mules? What did you have to learn to be a good mule driver?

The biggest threat was a new obstacle that the mules had never confronted before. (They had spent all of their lives on an Amish farm in Missouri.) The Union Pacific and Burlington Northern lines frequently parallel the trail closely, and the mules spooked the first few times crossing railroad tracks and hearing the whistles and screeching brakes of the locomotives. They shied and a couple of times attempted to run away at manhole covers and expansion joints on bridges. Approaching Scottsbluff, Nebraska, on a remote mountain road, we passed through mountain lion country. Beck in particular was terrified of that smell and tried to run away, frothing at the mouth for several hours. My brother and I had to take turns handling the lines because our arms tired quickly holding her back. Mules are very fraternal and terrified of being separated, and our team would rear and try to bolt if we led one of them away from the others for a corral or pasture, so we learned to always un-harness them together at a gate, or take them for water as a team. Most of these problems went away after the mules became “settled” after a few weeks of travel.

The biggest trick to handling mules is understanding that they are very emotionally intuitive. If you are upset and scream at them, they will act threatened and skittish. The Amish trainer we bought them from told us to whip Beck once and a while if she acted out. We never did that and she usually calmed right down. Reassuring words, lots of kindness and good care helped the mules to learn to trust us.

I felt that our trip across the Oregon Trail actually taught me a lot about mammal behavior—all mammals. If you scream at a child, what do you get? A screaming, misbehaving child. Spanking or verbally abusing a child is completely nonproductive, because the child will remember the spanking or the harsh words and not the behavior that brought on the punishment. Mules are the same way and I began to think of them not as our draft animals, but companions on the journey whose behavior and sensitivities were very human. I learned to think like them, not ask them to think like me.

At one point in your journey you blurt out "Thank you George Washington of Mount Vernon. Thank you Royal Gift." What caused this great outburst of praise and thanks?

George Washington, painted by Rembrandt Peale, 1830. Gift of Sarah Potter Tatham in memory of her husband Edwin Tatham, 1934 [H-54]
George Washington, painted by Rembrandt Peale, 1830. Gift of Sarah Potter Tatham in memory of her husband Edwin Tatham, 1934 [H-54]
I actually called that out a few times on the trip, usually at particularly difficult obstacles on the trail. The first time was at California Hill near Brule, Nebraska, where we had to ascend a very steep grade that we weren’t sure the mules could get up. The second time was at a place called O’Fallon’s Bluff, also in Nebraska, where we had to climb up through the South Hills along the Platte River in a blinding, very violent sand storm. We had been warned not to try and get through these original pioneer routes along the trail, but bumbled into this terrain anyway. But the mules remained calm and just put themselves to the task ahead.

My calling out thanks to George Washington and the original blood line carried to America by Royal Gift was a fusion of feelings—about myself, and these powerful, sensible descendants of the Adalusian mammoth jacks. I had erred and steered the team into an unsafe place. But I quickly recovered and managed to convey with reassuring words and a firm grip on the driving lines that I would work to protect the team. The mules responded by pulling blind, uphill, through a raging sand storm. Even crazy Beck was well-behaved and worked with me as the lead mule to keep the wagon steady on the edge of the ruts, which we could barely see in the blowing sand. I wrote in the book, “I felt secure, neurologically fused to the mules through the lines.”

So I gave thanks to George Washington, the originator of such a sensible line of animals.


Buck and his mules along the Oregon Trail in the Owyhee Mountain range of eastern Oregon.  (Photo: Rinker Buck)
Buck and his mules along the Oregon Trail in the Owyhee Mountain range of eastern Oregon. (Photo: Rinker Buck)

About Rinker Buck

Rinker Buck, author of the New York Times bestseller The Oregon Trail, began his career in journalism at the Berkshire Eagle and was a longtime staff writer for the Hartford Courant. He has written for Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, Life, and many other publications, and his stories have won the Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Writing Award and the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award. He is the author of the acclaimed memoirs Flight of Passage and First Job. He lives in northwest Connecticut.

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey:  Purchase Online