Washington’s Birthday is a federal holiday in America, celebrated on the third Monday of February in honor of George Washington, the first President of the United States. It is also commonly known as Presidents Day.

In 1783, George Washington retired to Mount Vernon, his 8,000-acre country estate 16 miles south of Washington, D.C., on the banks of the Potomac River. According to his adopted son and early biographer, George Washington Parke Custis, the former general “became convinced of the defective nature of the working animals employed in the agriculture of the southern States, and set about remedying the evil by the introduction of mules instead of horses, the mule being found to live longer, be less liable to disease, require less food, and in every respect to be more serviceable and economical than the horse in the agricultural labor of the southern States.”

To this end, Washington vowed to buy large jacks abroad to bring to Virginia to sire better mules. Instead, he was given two jacks – Royal Gift (an Andalusian jack) and Knight of Malta (a Maltese ass) – by foreign dignitaries King Charles III of Spain and Washington’s friend the Marquis de Lafayette. In less than 15 years Washington had 58 mules working at Mount Vernon.

A later biographer, Paul Leland Haworth, expounded on these remarkable gifts:

Washington, according to his own account, was the first American to attempt the raising of mules. Soon after the Revolution he asked our representative in Spain to ascertain whether it would be possible ‘to procure permission to extract a Jack ass of the best breed.’ At that time the exportation of these animals from Spain was forbidden by law, but Florida Blanca, the Spanish minister of state, brought the matter to the attention of the king, who in a fit of generosity proceeded to send the American hero two jacks and two jennets. One of the jacks died on the way over, but the other animals…arrived on the fifth of December, 1785.

According to careful measurements…[Royal Gift] was fifteen hands high, and his body and limbs were very large in proportion to his height; his ears were fourteen inches long, and his vocal cords were good. He was, however, a sluggish beast, and the sea voyage had affected him so unfavorably that for some time he was of little use. Ultimately, however, ‘Royal Gift’ recovered his strength and ambition and proved a valuable piece of property.

[Royal Gift] was presently sent on a tour of the South…No doubt the beast aroused great curiosity along the way among people who had never before set eyes upon such a creature. We can well believe that the cry, ‘General Washington’s jackass is coming!’ was always sufficient to attract a gaping crowd. And many would be the sage comments upon the animal’s voice and appearance.

In 1786 Lafayette sent Washington from the island of Malta another jack and two jennets…The new jack, the ‘Knight of Malta,’ as he was called, was a smaller beast than ‘Royal Gift,’ and his ears measured only twelve inches, but he was well formed and had the ferocity of a tiger. By crossing the two strains Washington ultimately obtained a jack called ‘Compound,’ who united in his person the size and strength of the ‘Gift’ with the courage and activity of the ‘Knight.’ The General also raised many mules, which he found to be good workers and more cheaply kept in condition than horses.

Henceforward the peaceful quiet of Mount Vernon was broken many times a day by sounds which, if not musical or mellifluous, were at least jubilant and joyous.

Excerpted from Sue Weaver, The Donkey Companion (Storey Publishing, 2008).