“… many people do not know how different the South used to be. In the case of the South, there are things to be proudly held up for praise, and there are things that we wish could be hidden. Both are integral components of a past in which mules were central.” Ellenburg, Mule South to Tractor South, p. 5.1
If you are tracing your family in the American South, you are almost certain to uncover some connection to the cotton economy. Regardless of how close or distant the ancestral connection may have been, the production of cotton fiber was so central to the economy and culture of the region that every family was touched in some way. And no other image is so closely related to cotton than that of the mule, with “its neck bobbing limber… lifeless ears and its half-closed eyes drowsing… apparently asleep with the monotony of its own motion.”2
But that was not always the case. Before the Civil War, the mule made up only about one fourth of the draft animal population South Carolina. Oxen and horses were widely used, particularly in the upstate region, with mules more common in the large cotton plantations of the lowcountry.
The Probate papers of Seth Petty Pool (d. 1837) listed five horses and two colts. There was a single “mule colt”.3 The presence of a horse and mule colt pair in the estate is interesting, since most Southern farmers preferred to purchase their mules rather than breed their own. Kentucky and Tennessee became centers of mule breeding, shipping ever increasing numbers through the Cumberland Gap after the Civil War.
Despite the continuing efforts of agricultural reformers, the practice of buying mules continued until the end of the reign of “king Cotton”. This article from the November 5, 1913 issue of the Laurens Advertiser is typical of the efforts of reformers to change the practice:
Every farmer should raise his own farm-work stock. It is true that millions are sent out of the cotton belt each year for mules and horses, but this is not the main reason why your attention is called to this subject at this time. Probably one of the two chief causes of poverty in the cotton belt is the one-horse plow. The small mule and a turning plow is a guarantee of shallow soil devoid of vegetable matter. A shallow soil devoid of vegetable matter means small crops and poor farmers.
Farmers who buy their work stock never have enough for the economical production of crops. We have about one-fourth the horse power and earn about one-fourth as much money as farmers in some other sections of the country. Farmers who buy food stuffs to feed plow teams never raise sufficient farm work stock to supply their needs. We buy feed stuff and this is the main reason why we have about fourth as many horses and mules as farmers in other sections of the country.
We can save the millions of dollars paid out for mules and horses each year and bring in millions from the sale of mules and horses, but a greater profit will come from securing in this way sufficient work stock for economical crop production.4
The Probate accounts of Berry Pool (d. 1847) listed only horses.5 Berry’s widow Mary “Polly” Pool continued to run the farm after Berry’s death, and the 1850 Federal Agricultural Census found eight horses and three mules on Mary’s land. At the 1860 Federal Agricultural Census, the horse count had decreased to four, but three mules remained.6
As the South shifted to a tenant farming agriculture to replace slave agriculture, the dominance of the mule as a draft animal accelerated.
George B. Pool had a more varied career than his father and grandfather, and did not farm extensively. Nevertheless, he was described as a farmer in the 1880 Federal Agricultural Census, and he tilled his 35 acres with two mules.7
His son, Thomas Pitts Poole, illustrates the ultimate dominance of the mule in post Civil War upstate agriculture. He ran an extensive tenant farming operation. He died on March 26, 1926, and as a part of his estate settlement, a sale was held on January 27th 1927 to dispose of twenty- five mules. John A. Franks, Dealer in Heavy groceries, Plantation Supplies, Buggies, Wagons, and Harness, had placed a lien on four of the mules for an unpaid balance on account.8
If you would like to learn more about the role of the mule in Southern Agriculture, the following are some references:
1. Mule South to Tractor South; Mules, Machines, and the Transformation of the Cotton South, George B. Ellenburg, The University of Alabama Press, 2007.
2. Cotton Fields no More: Southern Agriculture 1865- 1980, Gilbert C. Fite, The University Press of Kentucky, 1984.
3. Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures Since 1880, Pete Daniel, University of Illinois Press, 1986.
More information about the families of Seth Petty Pool, Berry Pool, George B. Pool, and Thomas Pitts Poole can be found at the Pettypool Family in America website.
1Mule South to Tractor South; Mules, Machines, and the Transformation of the Cotton South, George B. Ellenburg, The University of Alabama Press, 2007.
2William Faulkner, Sartoris , quoted in Ellenberg, Mule South to Tractor South.
3Laurens County Probate Court, Estate of Seth P. Pool, Box 58, pkg. 4.
4Diversification on Southern Farms, G. H. Alford, The Laurens Advertiser, November 5, 1913, p. 10.
5Laurens County Probate Court, Estate of Berry Pool, Box 104, Pkg. 19.
6United States Census: Original Agriculture, Industry, Social Statistics, and Mortality Schedules for SC 1850- 1880 CN615 (AD260), at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.
71880 Census Agricultural Schedules: Kershaw- Marion: 1880 S108086 CN 625 (AD273), at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.
8Laurens County Probate Court, Estate of T. P. Poole, Box 517, Bundle 3.