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Mapping a Spanish Donkey’s Long Journey

By Mary Wigge
January 29, 2015

Mary is a Research Editor with the Financial Papers Project.

It’s not every day that you sit at your office desk, contemplating the journey of a Spanish donkey, even if it did belong to George Washington. But last week found me hunkered down looking at various maps, trying to identify and pinpoint cities and towns through which this prominent creature journeyed. It’s this type of research that brightens my work-day, actually seeing and applying small pieces of history – locations, people, and, in this case, animals – to a physical map.

At the request of an individual who wished to learn more of Royal Gift, GW’s Spanish jack, we began investigating the letters and financial documents that referenced this noteworthy animal. Many of these documents have already been transcribed and published by the Papers, but we wished to dig deeper, especially relating to the southern tour that the noble donkey embarked on.

This particular Spanish donkey was a gift to GW from the Spanish King Charles III. GW had desired to breed mules in Virginia – he considered them superior as draft animals to horses or oxen. Mules could live longer than horses, did more work with less feeding, and withstood the potentially harsh handling of farmers’ hands.

mule etching 1700

Mule etching from 1700. Image courtesy of mule historian Deb Kidwell.

At the time, one required the permission of the Spanish king to acquire and import the high-bred stock from Spain. However, upon hearing of GW’s request, the Spanish king accommodated and sent him two jacks: one was lost at sea and the other, Royal Gift, arrived safely to Mount Vernon in 1785.

Reading some of GW’s letters that discuss or reference Royal Gift reveal a side to Washington – his enjoyment in animal husbandry and a lightened sense of humor – that’s uncommonly seen. Though often serious in voicing his concerns and directing attention to the maintenance of the jack, GW at times displayed a comic tone when discussing Royal Gift’s performance (or lack thereof) in breeding mules (see GW to Bushrod Washington, 13 Apr. 1786 or GW to William Fitzhugh, Jr., 15 May 1786). Over time, however, Royal Gift became a reliable stud that bred with jennies (female donkeys) and mares to create donkeys and mules. GW advertised Royal Gift for further breeding purposes and to generate interest in mules amongst farmers. In 1791, GW agreed to send Royal Gift on a southern tour to South Carolina where he would reside at John Freazer’s plantation for breeding, under the official care of William Washington, GW’s second cousin. Washington, who lived in Sandy Hills, South Carolina, hired James Allen to transport Royal Gift to South Carolina; Allen and Royal Gift began traveling southward in the early fall of 1791.

Acct & Papers.Royal G.pg1

Accounts and Misc. Papers Relating to Royal Gift, 1792-1795, photocopy, Mount Vernon.

It’s this journey that we chose to focus on and detail. By using the financial documents (from the Chicago Historical Society) that detailed payments Allen spent, we found numerous towns and locations mentioned. This information provided a window into their journey and gave us the means to map out where they went and stayed. Starting at Mount Vernon, for example, Allen had  “expences @ Colchester,” rested shortly at Dumfries and Stafford Courthouse, and stayed “2 Nights at frederigsburg.” Moving on, he stays in Bowling Green and Hanover Courthouse, followed by “5 Nights & 4 days at Richmand”. He later stays at “Mr olifers”, then “Mr kings”, and “Mr Slauters.” In such cases when only names are given, the path grows foggy, and it requires more digging to determine who these individuals are and where they live. Once found, we plan to map these locations and the overall route on a web-based visualization for viewers and researchers to study and explore.

These financial documents literally create a road map that offers greater understanding and visual clarity of a unique, fascinating past event. And, digital tools grant us the chance to display this imagery. Not to mention, it’s exciting to unravel and piece together a trip that occurred over two centuries ago! We look forward to unfolding and sharing Royal Gift’s journey with you soon.

30 Jan. 2015: As an addition, we wish to mention that Royal Gift was advertised to stud as early as 1786. You can find more information and resources on Royal Gift here. It includes links to letters and documents, published works, and newspaper articles referencing the prized jack.