Donkeys were utilized to breed mules for work on the Mount Vernon plantation, by mating with female horses. George Washington received his donkeys from some notable sources. Royal Gift was a donkey that was gifted to George Washington in 1785 by Charles III, the King of Spain. The most prized mules in the eighteenth century world were sired by Spanish donkeys, which the Spanish crown would not permit to leave the country. When Charles III learned of Washington's desire to own one of these animals he sent two Spanish jacks across the Atlantic Ocean. However, only one of these animals, Royal Gift, survived the trip and arrived at Mount Vernon.1
Advertisements about Royal Gift stated that he was of "the most valuable Race [breed or type] in the Kingdom of Spain."2 An official in Massachusetts, where the ship carrying Royal Gift landed, sent Washington a letter announcing the arrival of this long-awaited donkey who was described as, "a fine Creature, just fifty Eight Inches high, & the largest that I beleive ever came into this Country."3
Several months later, a more precise description was given in an advertisement offering the donkey’s services as a stud: "four years old...between 14 1/2 and 15 hands high, and will grow, it is said, till he is 20 or 25 years of age. He is very bony and stout made, of a dark colour, with light belly and legs." The notice pointed out that Royal Gift was "the first of the kind that ever was in North-America." Royal Gift was not the first donkey in America, but rather was the first donkey of this Spanish breed in British North America.4
According to an advertisement from 1788, Royal Gift had continued to grow since his arrival in America. Because of his "Weight and great Strength," the advertisement explained, Royal Gift and his offspring were best-suited for "slow and heavy Draught" work.5
Knight of Malta was a gift to George Washington from the Marquis de Lafayette in 1786, originally from the Mediterranean island of Malta. At the age of four, Knight of Malta was described in an advertisement as being from "the best Breed in the Island of Malta," and was "about Fourteen Hands high, most beautifully formed, for an Ass, and extremely light, active and sprightly; comparatively speaking resembling a fine Courser."
Knight of Malta was noteworthy for his "Activity and Sprightliness for quicker Movements," making him more suitable "for the road" when pulling carriages.6 In addition to this male donkey, Lafayette also sent two "very fine" female donkeys from Malta, "which, tho' not quite equal to the best Spanish Jennies, will serve to establish a valuable breed of these animals in this Country."7
Washington also imported at least one other donkey, "undoubtedly one of the best kind that could be procured," from Surinam on the northern coast of South America.8 Washington was told that Surinam was a valuable source for donkeys that were "very good, though not of the first race of these animals."9
Mary V. Thompson
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
1. John H. Rhodehamel, "Of Horses, Mules and Jacks," Fairfax Chronicles (February–April 1982), 2.
2. Annapolis Gazette, "13 March 1788" (photostat, PS-622, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, Research Notebook Number 7, "Barns, Stables, and Livestock," section on "Jacks, etc.").
3. "Thomas Cushing to George Washington, 7 October 1785," The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, Vol. 3, ed. W.W. Abbot (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 297.
4. John Fairfax, "Advertisement, 23 February 1786," The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, Vol. 3, 571-2.
5. Annapolis Gazette, 13 March 1788; "George Washington to Charles Carter, 10 January 1787," The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, Vol. 4, 508.
7. "George Washington to Richard Sprigg, 1 April 1787," The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, 5:118; "George Washington to John Jay, 3 March 1788," Vol. 6, 138.
8. "George Washington to Samuel Branton, 20 November 1786," The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, Vol. 4, 388-9.
9. "George Washington to Diego de Gardoqui, 1 December 1786," The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 4, 413-4.