General George Washington, hero of the American Revolution, was world famous in the 1780s, which was exactly the clout he needed to get what he was really after: Spanish ass.
The best donkeys in the world came from Spain, but because of their equine superiority, the Spanish monarchy made them illegal to export without royal exemption, a source of great frustration to Washington. Mules—a cross between a male donkey and a female horse—could do an equivalent amount of work as horses with less food and water, and Washington was convinced they were the future of American farming.
While he had retired from public life after the war (spoiler: it wouldn’t stick, and he’d go on to become the first president of the United States), he still wished to quietly contribute to the infant nation’s success—and his own. Mount Vernon, the Virginia plantation where he enslaved hundreds of people, had suffered from wartime scarcity, inflation and crop failure during the eight years he’d spent away, and mules would help him get back on track.
But Washington faced two big problems. He knew of only one path to get a donkey out of Spain, at least legally: By order of Spain’s Charles III, and the process wasn’t cheap. So Washington, who was cash poor and operated from a penny-wise, pound-foolish disposition, had gone about procuring one like a somewhat shameless modern day influencer would, working his mutual connections.
At first, Washington’s gambit looked promising. Don Juan de Miralles, one of Charles’ agents in the nascent U.S., seemed eager to satisfy Washington, but then he died. Washington struck out for the next four years until William Carmichael, the U.S. chargé d' affaires at the Spanish court, let Charles know about his mule mania. According to Thomas Jefferson, then U.S. minister to France, the king was thrilled to order “two of the very best to be procured & sent you as a mark of his respect.” It was an ideal conclusion: Washington was going to get his mules, and he didn’t have to spend a dime to do it.
The donkeys (the “Jacks,” as Washington referred to them) were set to arrive in Boston with Spanish handlers, and Washington sent his overseer at Mount Vernon, John Fairfax, to ensure the trip down to Mount Vernon went smoothly. But Washington, ever the anxious person, didn’t stop there; he micromanaged Fairfax with lengthy instructions:
- “The Jacks must not be hurt by travelling them too fast, or improperly.”
- “Settle all the necessary points for your journey: that is, your hour for setting out in the morning, which let be early; taking up in the evening—number of feeds in the day, & of what kind of food—also the kind & quantity of Liquor that is to be given to the Spaniards in a day....I would not debar them of what was proper, any more than I would indulge them what is not so.”
- “Let the Jacks be put separate & with no other Creatures, lest they should get kicked, & hurt themselves or hurt others.”
- “If it is necessary they should be cloathed, (which you must know before you leave Boston) provide Blankets or such other cloathing as their keepers think best, at that place.”
- “If there is a Stage which passes thro’ Hartford in Connecticut, & so along the post road to Boston; it will be better to pursue this rout than to go by the Stage-boat from New York to Providence.”
- “As soon as the Stage gets to its Quarters at night, immediately engage your passage for the next day—lest you may be too late & thereby detained a day or two for its return.”
When Fairfax arrived in Boston, he discovered that only one of the donkeys had survived the voyage across the Atlantic, but luckily for him and the ass, the nearly month-long journey to Mount Vernon was without incident. Washington, who tended to favor surprisingly silly names for his animals—his dogs answered to Sweetlips, Drunkard and Madame Moose—went literal when it came to the mule, who he called Royal Gift.
Washington was eager to share his present far and wide, and ran ads in papers offering the stud’s services. He had plenty of takers who were, at first, disappointed by Royal Gift’s lukewarm libido. America’s mares just didn’t seem to do it for the donkey because, Washington joked to a nephew, Bushrod, “he seems too full of royalty, to have anything to do with a plebeian race.”
But Washington believed in Royal Gift, and after careful study, figured out what got the donkey off: Female Donkeys, two at time. If Royal Gift had a clear view of them together, “by way of stimulus, when he is in those slothful humours,” he would successfully perform with female horses. For a small price, of course; ever the capitalist, Washington charged five guineas a season.
Royal Gift wasn’t long for the New World. He arrived in 1785, but by 1793, he’d been left stiff and lame after being driven too hard by a handler, and he died three years later. He left behind a son, Compound, who Washington found to be a bit easier to please. Fifteen years after Royal Gift arrived, boasted a herd of nearly 60 mules who spent their days pulling wagons and plowing the fields of Mount Vernon. While they never took off in the North, where farmers preferred horses and oxen, mules remained the draft animal of choice in the agricultural South, where they could plow 16 acres a day.
Alexis Coe is the author of You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington.
A Note to our Readers
Smithsonian magazine participates in affiliate link advertising programs. If you purchase an item through these links, we receive a commission.