Skip to main content


July 2024
19min read


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.

Before that Trail Lake made lots of holes looking for artesian water. Mules fell into the holes, struggled to get out, gave up and died before we learned how to pull them out, with a chain around their neck and pulling. It takes four mules. The holes were about five feet deep. That was before electricity on the farm and we wanted to find a flow well. If you don’t get help and pull him out, he’ll give up and not eat or drink and die. If you get him pulled out in a few hours he’ll still be no good for work the next day. It strains his nerves, takes more out of him than he can get back in two or three days.

When I’d get ahead on my crop I’d work day labor for the Trail Lake Company, hauling hay for mules, a dollar a day. The only way I could save was to put it in something. 1 saved the price of a horse, f 80. That was cheaper than a mule. Horses aren’t built for heavy work. After two crops as a share cropper I’d saved enough to trade that horse and got two little mules, Belle and Tom. After that I only paid the company one fourth of the crop.

In those days we didn’t use soda [sodium nitrate] and we didn’t use poison. The season would come just right. The crop would grow as tall as you and me. When I had that one horse I had to borrow a mule because it took two to carry the haul to the gin.

Then when I bought my own 40 acres it was alfalfa that gave me a boost in cash money. I planted 10 acres once and 15 the second time, cut it five or six times a year. My mule would cut it but my neighbors raked and baled it. I paid 25« a bale. In the, spring the alfalfa wouldn’t dry out too good and it bloated the mules. I’d drench them with salts.

By the 1920’s the Delta countryside was full of people. Their cabins spread wide across the fields, unbound by roads and scattered like fertile seed on the gray loam’s friable soil. The mule’s turnrow was man’s footpath when winter rains made mire of denuded fields and a mule himself might bog to the belly and die.

The people of this mule world consisted of the Boss Man, who owned the land or managed it; sharecroppers, also called half-hands, for whom the Boss Man provided land, mules, equipment, seed, fertilizer, poison, and management skill in return for half the crop; tenants, who, for a fourth of what they produced, rented the land but were responsible themselves for all else they needed (though they were also supervised by the Boss Man because they owed for land rental and advances); and day hands, paid by the day, who made the corn crop, baled the hay, and worked on special jobs and who might be drawn from the tenant or cropper category. As for the mule, he knew best the man who worked him and the hostler on whom he depended for most of the good things of life. The farrier shod him if he was to travel graveled highways, and the veterinarian checked his health and filed his teeth if any grew so long as to interfere with proper mastication.

The mule’s feed was corn or oats, and hay or grass. The landowner set aside land, mules, equipment, and day-hands’ wages to provide food for the cotton-field mules. Tenants had their own feed-stuff acreage or harvested grass from ditch banks. When a bad season killed a hay crop, or the farmer, gambling on a high price for cotton, put cornland into cotton, baled hay was bought from brokers in the cities.

The mule’s gear, like that of the horse, consisted of bit and bridle, by which man imposed his control, and the gear proper, by which the mule’s power was harnessed to do man’s bidding. Added to bit, bridle, and lines—frequently of rope—were blinders, because the less a mule sees, the less he has to react to. The gear proper consisted of a collar around the front shoulders, with tall hames rising like extra ears above, a bellyband with a ring at either side, and trace chains. The chains were fastened to the hames, passed along the animal’s sides through the rings, and finally connected to either side of the whiffletree, or singletree—the flat, twentyfour-inch-wide board that spread the traces apart and kept the mule’s legs from getting entangled in the chains. The singletree was where the mule’s power was transferred to plow or wagon. If more power was needed, as many as four whiffletrees, each attached to a different mule, could be fastened to a broad board, which in turn was connected with the equipment to be pulled.

For some mules, usually the heavier ones weighing twelve hundred pounds and more, the new crop year began before the old was over. Cotton, which begins ripening in August, might still be in the fields in March. The wise and lucky landowner was the one who got the cotton picked first from the heavy lands. These, so the planters believed, needed to be broken early so winter rains could run the clods together and mellow the soil. Old stalks had first to be cut, either by mule-drawn stalk chopper or by hand. On a dry winter night when the wind was not too strong, the ends of the rows of felled dried stalks were set afire and the flames moved briskly across the field to the turnrow.

No single mule was strong enough to cut out the cotton roots and open the heavier black lands. Four-up, they drew the middlebuster, with sixteen-inch flanges, down the middle of last year’s row, throwing the dirt to right and left and so creating halves of two rows. Ten teams or more in a single field worked in and through before moving on to complete a second cut of land. Then, while rains fell and the croppers scrapped cotton as they could, the heavy mules rested in the pasture or lot where the lighter ones had already been placed to await the coming of spring and the new crop’s work. Thirty days before resumption of plowing, their hay diet would be augmented with grain.

Day came not with the sun but with the rising of the hostler. It was he who got up by habit, without alarm clock, and pulled on his blue-denim overalls long before light.

An hour before the sun’s rising he rang the bell by the Boss Man’s house to waken croppers, tenants, and hands. Utilitarian as New England’s factory whistle, the bell spoke little of romance then; it conjured up, rather, cold darkness, sweat, and blinding sun, not magnolias and sweet-smelling jasmine.

Approaching the mule lot, the hostler could hear the chomping of the fifty or a hundred mules lined up along the trough of corn or pulling hay through the slatted sides of the barn. Perhaps the mules had lain down to sleep or had slept standing up for two or three hours. The hostler didn’t believe it. Working mules, he thought, ate the whole night through, storing energy for the day. From feed trough to water trough, a drink and back, they beat a hard path into the ground. Clean creatures, they were careful to foul only one corner of the lot, the privy spot of their choosing.


Lawyer Phillips, a hostler then, remembers: It took a long time to fill those long water troughs and every chance you had you had to pump. A small plantation would carry 50 to 60 mules easy. A mule would drink four to five gallons of water, keep his head down. When he’d pick up his head he’d walk away. Then he’d go to eating.

When the men went to the fields and I had milked the cows—my Boss Man had cows and I looked after them too—I’d fork the grain into the wagon at the corn house and bring it over and fill the troughs. You’d push the hay through the slats so the mule could pull hay. Whenever he didn’t have anything else to do he’d eat hay.

A mule that was hungry, thirsty or lonesome hollered like a hungry child. When he hollers it’s like a jack—a coarse hee haw once or twice if he sees you coming. Everything hollers at the hostler—mules, cows, everything.

Through the lot’s heavy gate the croppers soon followed the hostler, each to get his mule or mules, assigned to him for the crop year or for the special task that day. In the shadowed light from a single kerosene lamp the men removed from pairs of pegs driven into the gear-room wall the equipment the hostler assigned for their particular animal: the collar, bit, and bridle adjusted by the hostler to fit.

All those black hulks, all those thin legs—who could say for sure in the dark which mule was which? To make identification possible the men had tied pieces of cloth or rope in their mule’s tail and knotted it just so in their own particular way. Feeling, a man claimed his mule.

No knowing man approached a mule from the rear, A suspicious creature that not even blinders could always keep from envisioning danger, he would kick out at threats sensed but unseen. Hence the mule was always approached from the front, and during currying the man worked reassuringly from front to back, brushing the shoulders first and only at the end removing caked mud from the dangerous hind legs.

While it was coming light the cropper headed for his own cabin, where he kept the plow or cultivator charged to him by the plantation. ("Most mules,” one cropper recalled, “would let the man ride and these were the popular ones. Some never would.”)

The hostler rang the bell for the second time just as the sun came up.

By then the teams were in place in the field, to remain there from sunup to sundown, with two breaks in the day. The first was at nine, when the women brought their men a breakfast snack to be eaten in the shade of a tree or in the shadow from the mule’s body. The second was the “nooning,” when the hostler rang men and mules back to the barn.


During the noon hour the men rested and talked. The mules, freed of their gear, wallowed in the barnyard’s mud or dust, rolling, legs up, from side to side, then struggled awkwardly to their feet and shivered their skin as clean as they could. They then took long drafts of water before beginning on the grain in the feed trough. (“Grain at midday, not hay.”)

Then men and mules returned to the fields. If the crop was behind, the day ended not at sundown but at dark. (“Dark is different from sundown. We never let them stop until sundown. If they start stopping a little ahead it will be a longer little the next time.”) Similarly, if the day was excessively hot, the nooning was extended and the time made up byworking until dark. At the summer solstice a day was fourteen hours. A work week was usually five days unless rain brought up an excessive amount of grass. (“We wanted the mules to rest over the weekend.”)

Hostlers as well as field workers had to be on the alert for early signs of heat prostration in the mules. A whistling, sniffly sound meant that the mule would never be as good again. The treatment was ice applied to the animal’s head and several days of rest. The hostler also checked the animals for galled shoulders and applied blue lotion or asked the Boss Man to call the veterinarian.

March 1 was Limit Day, the end oi old dreams and the beginning of new for the people on the plantation. If the past year had been a failure, it meant food finally for the hungry. Tenant and cropper drew the new year’s first advance, or furnish, consisting of a dollar per acre per month. With this he bought the foodstuffs to supplement his garden patch. A man and wife usually worked ten acres, with a few extra thrown in for children big enough to help in the fields. On Limit Day a tenant who owned his own mules might deck them out in leather harness to drive his family in a wagon to the company store for his furnish. For so special an occasion he would have polished the brass rings on the haines and the studs on the blinders and added bright tassels and brass balls to the mules’ collars.

By Limit Day it was time to break the lighter lands and knock down the rows to flatten them to receive the seed. As soon as the fields were dry enough, the mules, two-up or threeup, would break the land and then draw the heavy section harrow, weighted with iron along the tops, working in and through until a single whole field was finished.

Not until the ground had been opened in the spring was the cropper assigned “his” mule, his to use and come to know, as the mule would come to know him. The intimacy might be one in which a whistle brought the animal from the feed trough and right into the outstretched bridle, or one that the cropper could demonstrate by attaching only one of the two lines to the bridle or, best of all, by exerting control by calls of “Gee,” “Haw,” and “Whoa” to turn the animal to right or left or to stop.

For some mules it was the beginning of a hell that scarred more than the hide. (“I’d see mules with sores the size of my hand. They’d put pads on them and keep them working. And I’d see men take the leather lines and hit them ’til the hide popped open. You could kill them with the leather line—hit him under the chest. Some folks are just cruel.”) Such mules were subsequently called stubborn, mean, dangerous.

At the same time the cropper got his mule he was assigned his implements to keep at his cabin: the fivetooth cultivator—five little plows assembled as one—which was used to break the soil, gently, around young plants; the double shovel, whose two sweeps on one plow stock cut weeds out of the furrows and rows when the plants were safely larger; hoes for the hoe hands; and a file to sharpen the hoes.

Just before the rows were planted, man and mule and five-tooth cultivator traveled the tops of the fertilized rows to crumble the soil and make the seedbed just right. Then, in turn, each cropper got the use of the planter, and man and mule walked along the top of the rows, one pulling, the other steadying the planter. Out of the hopper and into the nozzle, which cut into the soil, the seed would fall in beadlike flow. Buried then in the earth was the purpose of it all, the only reason for a cotton mule’s life. From that day on a mule would not willingly walk on top of the row. (“When, in 1933, Mr. Wallace—the secretary of agriculture—came to watch the plowing-up, mules balked. We had to bring out the tractors to do the job.”)


Eight days after the seed was planted, the young plants would break through to form a stand. (“Sometimes it’s a stand; sometimes it makes you sick to your stomach.”)

From then on until the crop was laid by, man and mule were in the field daily. First through the field came mule and cultivator or double shovel. The hoe hands—members of the family, women, and extra men—followed to flat weed, that is, to cut finer the grass and weeds shaken loose by cultivator or double shovel. The next time through the hands thinned the six-inch-high stand of cotton, blocking it down to three or four sturdy stalks to a hill and just so far apart. By chopping time children could help as hoe hands. (“School was always out by chopping time.”) And still the mules and cultivators traveled the rows. Behind them the hoe hands cut vines and grasses that stubbornly persisted until just before the cotton’s own thick foliage shaded out lifegiving sunlight from the weeds.

And then at last the crop could be laid by, cultivation ended. Laid by while the cotton blossomed, put on squares, made bolls, and finally started to pop white and open. Laid by, if all went well, by the Fourth of July. The hoe hands had done their all; the mules’ hard work was over. It was a time for people to go fishing and for some of the mules to be put out to pasture.

But that was when the boll weevils’ long snouts sought out the squares, punctured them, and so destroyed the nascent bolls. For part of the work force the battle to protect the crop began. (“We’re poisoning all along about then—boll weevil and army worm. The mule went down the furrow and the man had a stick across the croup with a bag of poison on either end, shaking it onto the leaves. Just before we started dusting by plane we used a windmill poison machine on the pommel. Two spouts, one to either side of the mule, and the black man in the saddle turning the crank.”)

It was also in these hottest weeks of the year that wood for winter’s fires had to be chopped and brought in. The mules were hitched to the wagons to go to the woods that skirted the fields. A cropper was entitled to what wood he would need for his fuel and his cookstove. (“We’d go to hauling wood the first of August. We’d let them have a load of wood. If a tenant left, he left his wood. In-coming tenants were mighty glad to get that wood. You couldn’t get wood in the winter—too muddy.”)

Cotton bolls bursting white brought men, women, and children back to the fields in midsummer. Along the rows the pickers bent, trailing six- or ninefoot-long white cotton sacks behind them, strapped over a shoulder, the open end at waist level on the left. Using both hands, they reached into the hard-shelled brown bolls, avoiding if possible the sharp edges, pulling out the white lint filled with seed. A man averaged up to three hundred pounds a day. Sometimes a woman could beat him.

The picker brought his filled sack to a waiting wagon or to the little tenfoot-square “cotton house” in the field if the wagon was at the gin. From the wagon or house extended a strong two-by-four from which scales were hung by which the pickers, paid by the pound, learned how much they had picked.

When enough cotton for another bale had been accumulated—fifteen hundred pounds or more—the wagon, drawn by two mules, was driven to the gin. The cropper or tenant from whose fields the cotton had been picked waited while the cotton w-as ginned to receive into his own hands the ticket recording the weight of the lint that had gone into the bale and how much seed had come out.

This was a happy time, the harvesttime, the cotton season. But no time for rest. Fast, while the cotton was at peak quality, before rain had damaged it, pick, pick, through September, through October, through November, fast, if rain didn’t come to stop the picking, and then start again, through December if cotton remained, in January, in February, in March in the bad years and if anything worth scrapping was left.

In the cornfields and hayfields another harvest was in progress in late summer and early fall, that of feed for the stock. Day hands—usually unmarried men living on the plantation- worked the corn crop ahead of the cotton in the spring, at the owner’s expense of seventy-five cents a day, using mules specially set aside for the feed crop or during the harvest using some of those available when the cotton was laid by. The tenant who worked ten acres of cotton would also rent an acre or two for hay and five acres for corn, for his family and his stock. (“That way we didn’t have to keep track of what they used. We took care of the croppers’ mules and we fed those at the barn along with ours.”)

But the cotton plantations’ sole mission was to grow cotton. The feed crop was incidental though vital—as vital as the gasoline delivered today to the plantations’ pumps.

The year ended officially on Settlement Day after all the cotton was in. But there was always at least a first settlement by Christmas. In a bad year there was little left after the crop year’s furnish advances were paid. In a good year there was money for bolts of cloth for the women, new overalls for men and boys, shoes, barrels of flour and cans of lard, coffee, chewing tobacco, Babv Ruths for the children, and a soda pop all around. The settlement, principally in paper money, included usually a few “Beau dollars,” the heavy silver cartwheels that gave a special feeling of well-being. (“We always paid the last five dollars or so in Beau dollars.”) By the late igao’s Settlement Day was when used-car salesmen shined up their wares and managed to bump over the rutted roads to the plantation. Joy rides to the next plantation began. (“We put a gallon in the tank and another in a can. When the tank ran out we poured from the can and headed home. If we went too far, everybody got out and pushed.”)

By 1931 some of the bigger planters were experimenting with all tractorcultivated cotton crops. Others watched and waited. Banks and finance corporations recognized mules, not tractors, as capital. (“I asked for a crop loan. They asked how many mules I had. I said I was going to farm with tractors. They turned me down. No mules, no loan.”)

When the plowing up of cotton came in the Depression, the Delta and Pine Land Company’s plantation, which had been experimenting with three thousand acres of all-tractor crop, plowed up that acreage so tenants and croppers could have the additional allotment. Minor Gray, later general manager of the big plantation, remembers: For several years thereafter the food crops for the mules were worked with the tractors we had bought for the wages crop. This was the pattern until the wartime exit of labor forced us back into the tractor-wages crop. No tenant was ever put off the property and no crop taken away from one. They continued as tenants until they left or found it uneconomic to be tenants and became day hands. We had some tenants until 1950. Around then we got rid of the last mules.

Tractors had been known in the Delta since the first generation of balky, twelve-horsepower keroseneburning Fordsons. (“You had to put a blowtorch to them in winter to get them started,” a farmer remembered.) In the late 1920’s larger plantations owned a single twenty-horsepower general-utility Farmall for breaking the land and heavy hauling. If it hadn’t been for the Depression, followed by World War n’s steel shortages, full mechanization would probably have come sooner.

What kept the mule in the Delta was the fact that the mechanical cotton picker had not yet been perfected, though the mule had little to do with the actual harvest. In order to have men, women, and children on the plantation in September to handpick the bolls, the planter had to provide enough employment yearround to keep his labor on the place.

After the war labor was slow in returning, and by then the mechanical picker had come on the market. The planter now had a man and a mechanical cotton picker to harvest his crop; crop dusters to scatter pesticides from planes; the same driver and tractor with a flame cultivator to burn the weeds; the same driver and tractor equipped with other specialized implements to cultivate the cotton, eradicate the grass, plant the seed, drill in the fertilizer, knock down the furrows, break the land. A tractor with a skilled driver could take the place of ten mules and ten men with their dependents.

Mississippi’s mule population in 1940 was 354,000. Ten years later it was 78,000 less. In the next three years it fell 57,000 more, while dog-food factories rounded up the mules of entire plantations, buying for two cents a pound animals that had been purchased for a hundred dollars apiece. The Delta and Pine Land Plantation; one of the largest, made its final decision so suddenly that in 1948 it sold a hundred two-year-old mules that had not yet even been broken.


Day wages replaced the sharecropper system. Feed-crop acreage became cotton land. Overproduction of cotton brought new federal controls. Landowners received government checks for not planting cotton. Workers without land to work and unskilled in all but the old mule technology sought survival on welfare rolls in Mississippi and in such distant cities as Chicago and Los Angeles. In 1968, when the organizers of the Poor People’s March on Washington sought to dramatize the plight of the voteless with a caravan of mules and cotton wagons, they were hard put in the rich cotton country near Marks, Mississippi, to find wagons and mules—and a farrier to shoe the animals.

Today the oil field, not the cornfield, is the source of energy for the plantation; roads and power lines grid the land. Petrochemicals keep the one-time virgin soil productive. Herbicides replace hoe and muledrawn cultivators. Insecticides assure security for the crop. Butane, some of it sold by gypsies, gives warmth.

The economy based on man and mule is ended. Cotton itself fights for its life against the oil world’s polyesters.

The mule’s world has ended.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.