Contrary to Hollywood’s horsey version of the West, mules played a big role. Gen. George Crook preferred riding a mule, so did William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Gen. O. O. Howard. Perhaps filmmakers assumed soldiers, cowboys, gunslingers and lawmen looked more formidable straddling horses instead of mules.
Despite their willful stereotype, mules have served as pack animals since ancient times. Hybrid offspring of a horse and a donkey, the mule inherits valuable traits from both. Their admirers respected the mule’s athletic ability, intelligence and endurance. Narrower hooves make them more sure-footed than horses. A mule-team was valuable, and the Vancouver Independent related the Proebstel brothers received $1,000 for a four-mule team in 1880. Even larger teams brought wagons full of goods to local merchants.
Barracks troops deployed mules as pack animals and mounts. Army quartermasters were always on the lookout for mules. The Independent reported in 1878 that the post received 18 mules. Two years later, Captain J. Q. Adams, depot quartermaster, went to Oregon to buy 38.
In 1904, the Army built a mule barn as part of the artillery barracks and stable. It stood near today’s intersection of East Reserve and Fifth Streets, not far west of Pearson Air Museum. Each battery maintained 80 mules and four Vickers 2.95-inch Quick Fire mountain guns.
While barracks soldiers used some mules to carry supplies, rations, sundries and ammunition using a typical pack, they hitched mules up with four specialized leather packs for carrying artillery gun pieces.
Each Vickers gun broke down into four segments quickly, and each part — artillery wheel, elevation section sighting mechanism and barrel — required a mule with a specialized pack to carry it.
After WWI changed warfare, soldiers at the Vancouver Barracks tore down their mule barn in 1919. The demolition meant the post started decommissioning mules, although West Point adopted the animal as a mascot about 20 years earlier.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com