Professional Mule Packing
By Patricia Chambers
Eastern Washington University
Though little is said of the rugged, individualist trusted with the movement of goods and gold that moved forward the development of some of the most rugged country in America, the professional mule packer deserves more than a side note in history. These men were entrusted with expensive equipment and goods and had to have the highest integrity and loyalty to their employer since the exchange was not based on the greenback dollar, but on gold dust. Packers were also often challenged to pack in often expensive but needed supplies and goods on the backs of mules that defied what would reasonably be expected but was necessary due to the rugged terrain that could only be successfully navigated on foot or by a horse or mule pack team.
Professional mule packing was a short-lived enterprise in early Eastern Washington and Idaho. The early companies started in 1860 and for the most part mule packing as a business suffered a decline in the 1866-7 time period. According to professional packer James W. Watt, packing declined due to the “settlement of the country and the building of railroads and wagon roads.“ (1) When John Mullan of the Mullan Road fame, wrote his book Miners and Travelers’ Guide to Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado via the Missouri and Columbia Rivers in 1865, he recommended the use of mules and he personally used Spanish packs called “aparajos” for moving equipment and supplies.
Techniques in packing were greatly aided by the technology brought in by California and Oregon miners who had been trained in the Spanish method of packing and brought with them “aparajos” developed for packing. What is an “aparajo”? “It is a Spanish pack saddle made of leather and stuffed with moss, dry hay, or grass, anything handy; it protected the mule’s back from the rubbing of the load and equalized the weight of the pack on the animals. They were far superior to the American pack saddle.” (2) Along with the aparajo, each mule had two blankets of their own for the entire trip. The bottom blanket was a sweat blanket that sat directly on the back of the mule. On top of the sweat blanket was a “caronie”—a fancy Spanish embroidered pack blanket made of the best wool and embroidered with a design or flower unique to each blanket. These “caronies” were costly and packers paid between $15 to $20 dollars apiece for them, but felt it worth it to aid them in carrying the heavy freight.
Wages for the packers and freight fees were all paid in gold dust. Merchants would blacklist those trying to use greenbacks as legal tender, and greenbacks were valued at 40 cents on the dollar so it was not financially sound to use them. Mule trains, therefore, carried a lot of gold dust in the trade of goods making them targets for road agents and robbers who would slash aparejos and cut up rigging looking for hiding places where the gold might be found. A packer’s wages might also be in the packs. Their pay ranged from $100 TO $125 a month plus board. A wagon master would make $150 a month. Freight prices fluctuated greatly.
At first, in 1861 most of the things needed by the miners were staples like flour, bacon, beef, sugar and tea. The prices were quite low for the time with flour going for 16-18 cents a pound, bacon going for 35-40 cents a pound, beef priced at 12-15 cents a pound, sugar 30 cents a pound and tea $2.00 a pound and anything else priced proportionately to these basics. Later, when the miners had their pokes (a small bag purse for holding gold) full of gold dust and nuggets from their prospecting, they asked for more luxury items and fancy things.
S.J. Barrows in his 1875 book The Northwestern Mule and His Driver, writes of a piano transported along the narrow canyon roads from Wallula to a sporting house in the Coeur d’Alene mining camps. The packer needed four mules to do the job. It is reported that the cargo arrived in “excellent condition” and the packer received $1000 for his trouble.
Many other items were transported by mule back, among them unstable quicksilver, used to catch the very finest gold specks, barrels of whiskey, burial caskets, quartz mills, steel castings for use in mining, and even ladies finery for the dance hall and camp ladies. All the necessities and pleasures of life had to be transported by mule back. “The few men in a pack train were often intrusted with train equipment worth ten to fifteen thousand dollars and with the delivery of merchandise worth as much or more again.” (3)
Miners would order their goods from the packers or in more settled areas from the local mercantile. Packers then would pick up and load the freight from the docks in Walla Walla or Wallula where it had been shipped up the Columbia River. They would then pack it in to the miners’ camps and receive payment. They made many stops in the various camps of the area, loading and unloading goods and gold. They would sometimes take goods back down the trail to Walla Walla on mule back too.
As trails improved, wagons were used more frequently and mule packers were only necessary in the very remotest areas. It was far cheaper to haul a wagon of goods than pack it in. For the time this hardy breed of men did business they were indispensible to the settling and supply of vital survival goods and services for the early Eastern Washington and Idaho area.
(1) James W. Watt, Journal of Mule Train Packing, 39
(2) Watt, 39.
(3) Watt, 47.
S.J. Barrows, “The Northwestern Mule and His Driver”(1875) in James W. Watt, Journal of Mule Train Packing in Eastern Washington in the 1860’s. (Fairfield: Ye Galleon Press, 1978),6.
John Mullan, Miners and Travelers’ Guide to Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado via the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. (New York: Franklin, 1865), 15.
James W. Watt, Journal of Mule Train Packing in Eastern Washington in the 1860’s. (Fairfield: Ye Galleon Press, 1978)