Mules

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The low-lying Delta—six and a half million acres of land rich with soil left by the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers in flood—was first opened to a cotton-hungry world in the mid-1820’s. The price of cotton was high. The profitable bluff country along the Mississippi had already been pre-empted. Second sons and questing newcomers were pressing for a chance of their own.

There were Indians then from whom to force treaties and land. No sooner had Choctaws put their mark on treaties at Doak’s Stand and Dancing Rabbit Creek than caravans of white men swarmed westward from the tired lands of Georgia and Alabama. Families and bachelors floated down the Mississippi from Kentucky and Tennessee to claim the low alluvial shores or the high-banked bayous shooting off from the unleveed river. They brought their labor with them or acquired more as needed from New Orleans or Memphis. The units of labor were slaves and oxen.

These firstcomers cut oak and cypress and gum, burned cane along the waterways, and planted their corn and then their cotton. To protect their cleared land against the river’s rise they plowed a deep furrow around the homeplace and moved man and beast into the compound for safety until the swollen river returned to normal.

By the 1850’s the planters no longer had to make do with oxen. They could afford to buy and did buy mules. The mules, requiring little food, highly resistant to heat, flies, and disease, faster than oxen, stronger than horses, proved in the hands of plantation labor to be the most efficient and economical of all available machines.

The legendary cotton country called the Delta, covering eighteen counties in Mississippi, became a microcosm of a world that was for a hundred years the mule’s world. During that century man and mule conquered a wilderness and laid the foundations on which a new economy was built. In the process the mule—a hybrid born of a mare, with a jackass for a father—contributed so much to changing the environment that finally he was superfluous. He had worked himself out of a job.

Steamboats had first brought the animals from Memphis’ mule barns. Later, when dirt roads linked the country behind the levees, gypsies drove herds south, trading along the way. Later still, mules by the carlot were delivered to sidings of the pea-vine railroads that followed the meandering contour lines through the river-built land.

Following the Civil War, which had stopped expansion, the problems of the Reconstruction era were compounded by years of unusually high water in the Mississippi. Levees built by man and mule to keep the river out were topped heartbreakingly often. The first priority was to hold old land rather than to develop new.

In 1903 the world price of cotton ran so high as to precipitate a new quest for land. But this time there were no Indians to treat with. The Delta planters created a frontier within the established political boundaries. They took land not from man but from forest and swamp.

At the beginning of the century there were thousands upon thousands of heavily timbered acres in the Delta backwater lands. Within twenty-five years the sawmill that had whined above the birds’ songs had moved to other parts, the plow had etched straight furrows across stump-pocked fields, and snowy cotton reflected the sun that dark fever swamps had once hid.

 

As moss-clad oaks and broad-based cypress fell into clearings in the swamp, four-mule teams snaked the primeval trees to movable sawmills or to eight-wheeled carts, drawn by six mules, that carried the timber to the railroads.

Men and mules then dug drainage canals, with the mules fastened to slips, huge trowellike scoops that were the world’s biggest earth movers. The following summer young boys followed them down the ditch banks to whack the weeds that, in such virgin soil, would quickly have obliterated man’s efforts. Man and mule cleared the land, drained it, held it.

To find labor for the new cropland the Delta planters sent mule-drawn wagons south toward Natchez. Near there in 1907 the boll weevil, which had crossed the Mississippi River on its eastward trek from Mexico, had all but wiped out the crop. Black people with their scanty belongings all tied into red bandana kerchiefs climbed hopefully aboard the wagons and left the stricken fields. The new land had its workers.

Robert Collins, born on Trail Lake Plantation near Arcola in 1903, remembers: My first job was water boy to bring water from the hand pump to the men clearing the land. At 15 I got to piling brush. At 20 I was toting logs with handsticks. It takes four men, a hand-stick at each end of a log and two men to a handstick, one on each side. We piled them to a heap and burned them. Mules snaked the larger brush to the pile. They hooked the end of a log and pulled it. That was when we were finishing up Trail Lake. After that I made six crops on Trail Lake.