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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Journal of the American Military History Foundation
Vol. 2 No. 1 (Spring 1938), p55

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p55  Mule Ear Currency

The following story, like most Western reminiscences, probably has some truth as well as fiction. It is taken from a manuscript journal of anecdotes narrated some years ago by John Willis. Willis, who at one time was a guide for Theodore Roosevelt, spent a versatile youth. In the mid-seventies he had given up buffalo hunting and cow punching for mule skinning. The journal, based on shorthand notes taken by an interested listener, is in the possession of the society.

I hired out at Dodge City under government contract to drive six mules from the fort, loaded with baking powder, green coffee in sacks, bacon, cartridges and other stuff for Wichita. There were five six-mule teams in the outfit and twenty soldiers as an escort. Before we got there the wagon boss sold the stuff and pocketed the profits, which rather upset calculations. Some teams met us before we reached Wichita and got the cargo and took it into Colorado. So there was nothing to haul to Wichita. We all decided to take our teams to Wichita and sell them to a saloon keeper we knew. We sold the thirty mules for $3,000 and divided the money among us teamsters. The wagon boss couldn't do anything about it as we had him foul.

Selling other people's mules in those days was common practice. I guess half of old Major's mules were stolen, but I don't believe he stole them. I guess he paid good money for them. Why, mule stealing was so common that they used to hitch mules to a wagon wheel with thick steel bands.

When we left the fort the quartermaster told us something unusual; he said if a mule died to bring back his ears. He said this would prove that we had not sold the mule. So, when we went to driving teams for the government, if we found a dead mule we cut off his ears and sold one of the government mules we were driving for $100 or more in U. S. coin.

These ears would keep almost any length of time as they were salted. A man who ran across a pair of mule's ears would as soon think of passing 'em as he would of lighting his cigar with a hundred dollar bill. We put the ears in the cantina or saddle pockets as you couldn't pack 'em like money in a wallet or purse.

The price of a pair of mule ears was fixed all over the Southwest at $100 per. The mule was worth nearer $200, it is true, but it was considerable trouble cashing in the ears for the full value of a dead mule. Anywhere in the saloons the man who ran the game would give $100 in checks for the ears.

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Page updated: 26 Dec 09