On the Backs of Burros: Bringing Civilization to Colorado

Book Cover
Author: 
P. David Smith and Lyn Bezek
Publishing: 

Lake City, CO: Western Reflections Publishing Company, 2010. Black and white photos, index, bibliography, appendices. v + 272 pages. 5½” x 8½”. $16.95 paperback.

Reviewer: 
Andrew Gulliford
Reviewer Affiliation: 
Fort Lewis College

At last a book has been written that sings the praises of the ubiquitous nineteenth-century mountain canary—the lonely burro, although often during full moon nights burros did their own singing, and not to the amusement of local miners seeking a good night’s rest. Finally, two competent and well-published authors have set the record straight about the lowly jackass and how the mighty skyscrapers on Denver’sSixteenth Street owe their height to thousands of pack burros who brought in supplies, carried out ore, and built our fair state.

Though hundreds of mining camps, which in the words of Wallace Stegner “went out like blown matches,” can also be attributed to the burros’ short but broad backs, certainly the urban success of Colorado can be traced to those first pack trains that hauled the mountains’ wealth down from high hills and into centers of commerce.

With black and white photos, many of them historic, and ten chapters, historian P. David Smith and children’s author Lyn Bezek have collaborated on an ode to burros including an appendix with the complete text of the “Wild and Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act” of 1971 (Public Law 92-195) and rules for Pack Burro Racing, just in case readers want to really test their patience. The authors also located drawings of burros from publications like Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. On the Backs of Burros even contains poems about the shaggy, long-eared beasts.

One of the better poems is by Dave Day, editor of Ouray’s Solid Muldoon newspaper who noted the dangerous proximity of wandering donkeys to clothes hanging out to dry. He opined on August 5, 1881:

The burro is a pretty bird,
And loves to dine on shirts;
But for a mid-day luncheon,
Prefers to eat old skirts.
Old petticoats and bloomers
Appraise his appetite,
While crinoline and corset
Fill him with delight. (119)

Beginning with a look at the evolutionary origins of burros from the wild asinus africus to the current equus africanus asinus the authors explain the historic use of burros with plenty of mythology and burro tails (tales). Lyn Bezek explains that the classic story Brighty of the Grand Canyon inspired her own children’s book Daisy: The Cripple Creek Donkey. In the interests of full disclosure, this reviewer confesses that not only does he agree with the significance of Brighty as a timeless children’s book, but he still has a 1955 hardback edition of the book his parents bought him on the South Rim oh so many years ago.

Burros could eat and drink just about anything which made them a favorite of lonely prospectors who shared flapjacks with their beasts of burden. Quiet, submissive, and good listeners, burros can live over forty years and they comforted many a prospector down on his luck and low on grub. This is a rather extraordinary book. It’s Colorado mining history from the perspective of a jackass.

The authors have a good history of the Spanish use of burros in the American Southwest and for a general reading audience the volume serves as a preliminary guide to prospecting. There are tales of mistreating burros, but also stories about the state’s best-known burros like Prunes, and burro packers like Olga Little from the La Plata Mountains near Durango. Burros are shown hauling timbers, cables, ore sacks, and numerous little children—all trying to hang on between the ears and the tail. The preferred mode of equine conveyance for women and toddlers, burros practiced patience almost to a fault. Getting them to move could take most of a day and getting them to stop could take all night.

Yet the hardy animals endeared themselves to several generations of Coloradoans and acted not only as rugged pack animals but also as large, furry watchdogs, ready to guard sheep or alert prospectors of incoming visitors and flash floods. Considering the mines across the state and especially in the high fastness of the San Juans above eleven thousand feet, it’s humbling to note that every mining timber, every stove, winch, ore car, and piece of rail, was hauled in by burros before wagon roads and later tramlines could be established.

Folk tales include prospectors getting so angry at their shaggy companions they reached down to pelt them with a sharp stone only to find the rich ore body they’d been searching for all their lives. With names like Blue, Bummer, Floppy, Shorty, Sweetie, and Plain Jane, burros had almost every handle that a prospector could invent, and in turn burros left their mark across the Western Slope landscape with a variety of U.S. Forest Service place names like Burro Bridge, Burro Creek, Jackass Flats and Burrow (burro) Park near Lake City.

Sure-footed, more trustworthy than a mule or a horse, a burro could haul just about anything, and did, if it were packed properly and the load tied with the right Diamond-hitch knots and a hard knee into the tight little belly to get the animal to quit blowing before the cinch tightened. J. H. Lewis explained, “His slowness and sureness of movement enable (the burro) to go up and over the loftiest mountain summits, the rockiest curves, and on the narrowest of trails. He plods sleepily along on the very edge of the most frightful precipice without once losing his head or making a single mistake” (15).

Beginning with Native American use of burros to haul firewood into Pueblo villages, prospectors used burros to carry their vital mining supplies and grub. Once a vein proved profitable, whole armies of burros brought in materials to build boardinghouses, tramhouses, and cook shacks. Burros also pulled the ore carts deep into the mines and some donkeys almost went blind because they stayed in the dark so long.

A Fairplay prospector noted in the Denver Post, “Us mountain fellers have an old saying that a burro never dies. His life is nuthin’ but fleas, skinned hide, ragged ears, rocky trails, slide diggin’s, flapjacks and prunes, columbines and mountain grass, cussin’ and snow, wind, rain, and sun”(141). Indeed, most prospectors abandoned their burros when, fed up with hard work and few paydays, men left lofty summits and narrow mountain trails for more stable employment at lower elevations. Set loose, burros wandered in the mountains and eventually worked their way into mountain towns where they became adept at opening gates, nuzzling oat bags, gnawing wooden porch rails, and eating petunias, carrots, sunflowers, and other garden truck. The long-eared donkeys became continuous pests, but small towns loved them and children could easily catch a ride just by claiming an untied burro.

Burros bridged the gap between Colorado Territory as a haven for prospectors and the State of Colorado as a tourist mecca. Thousands of burro photos can be found in archives and family albums, and well-dressed sightseers and tourists often posed with local jackasses—burros that is. After the 1930s the burro population declined and fell precipitously in the postwar years. In 1971 Congress passed the Wild and Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act to protect the animals, though serious overgrazing resulted in their removal from the Grand Canyon and other locales.

Today wild horses, which are really feral horses set loose, pose a serious threat to Western public land ecosystems, but burro populations are smaller. The Bureau of Land Management has an innovative adopt-a-burro program but many animals go unclaimed, hence the “Donkey Rescue” chapter at the end of the book.

Well written and researched, On the Backs of Burros belongs in every library in the state and in the hands of a new generation of young Coloradoans. Unfortunately, though indexed and with a useful glossary, the lack of endnotes makes it difficult to match great burro quotes and commentary with the bibliography. That said this book fills a needed niche among Colorado histories. Read On the Backs of Burros and realize that being called a jackass is actually a term of endearment . . . or should be.

Reviewer Info: 

Andrew Gulliford is a professor in the Department of Southwest and American Indian Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, where, among other classes, he teaches popular courses on wilderness, environmental history, and national parks.