An AmE synonym for muleteer is "mule skinner". Where does "skinner" come from in this term, and why does it only apply to mule drivers and not cattle or oxen drivers?

The closest I can come is some anecdotal evidence, namely that mule drivers would make the animals bleed when whipping them, thus exposing their skin. The same term, skinner, should apply to cattle drivers, but it doesn't. So, I'm guessing there is more to it. Does anyone know the derivation of skinner in this context, and why it only applies to mules?

  • Back in the day "I'll skin you alive" was a threat made by a father to an unruly child, basically meaning the father would use a belt on the child.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 27, 2017 at 12:45

7 Answers 7


I read years ago that muleteers of the Old West were such experts with their long whips that they could snap a horsefly from the ear of a mule in their team without touching the mule's ear. In such a man's hand, a whip could cut into a mule's tough hide; hence the name mule skinner.

John S. Farmer, Americanisms Old and New: A Dictionary of Words, Phrases and Colloquialisms (1889) includes this entry for mule skinner:

Mule skinner.—A plain's term for a driver of mules, in very truth the cognomen in some cases would bear literal translation.

And Stewart Sheldon, Gleanings by the Way, from '36 to '89 (1890) writes:

The crack of the lash, which sounded like a pistol under the manipulations of the expert, was sufficient, so that the terms "bull whacker" and "mule skinner" were anomalous, only as applied to less progressive and more brutal drivers, of whom a sufficient number still remained.

As Matt Эллен notes in his response to the poster's question, the first citation for mule-skinner is John H. Beadle's Life in Utah; or, The Mysteries and Crimes of Mormonism (1870)—a book whose publisher touts it on the title page as "being an exposé of the secret rites and ceremonies of the Latter-Day Saints, with a full and authentic history of polygamy and the Mormon sect from its origin to the present time." In the book, Beadle writes that mule-driving "mule-skinners" and oxen-driving "bull-whackers" had different levels of social status on the range:

The "mule-skinner" considers the "bull-whacker" quite beneath him, and will hardly associate with him upon equal terms, while the latter doubtless looks upon the former as 'stuck up' and proud.

The earliest mention of bull whacker I found in a Google Books search was in a January 1861 article for Hunt's Merchant Magazine and Commercial Review titled "Commerce of the Prairies," by an uncredited author:

Washing and combing are looked upon as superfluities by the genuine "bull whacker."

A close second is Thomas W. Knox's article, "To Pike's Peak and Denver," for the August 1861 issue of The Knickerbocker magazine:

Five yoke of oxen is the motive power for each wagon, and these are urged forward by a 'bull-whacker' armed with a whip, carrying a lash from six to twelve feet in length, which makes its mark wherever it falls.

To these two categories of drivers, George A Crofutt, Crofutt's New Overland Tourist and Pacific Coast Guide (1884) adds a third: "burropuncher."

The Indian troubles of last year [in the Arizona Territory] have tended to make, not only every soldier, but every teamster, wood chopper, burropuncher, mule-skinner, bull-whacker and all other men—traveling arsenals; with a belt about the waist loaded with cartridges, a pair of six-shooters, a formidable knife and a rifle for long range.

I haven't come across a comparable name for a horse driver, indicating perhaps that horses were more tractable than bulls, mules, and burros.


You are correct insofar as the skinner of mule-skinner comes from the noun skinner that means "relating to skin".

The OED has an earliest citation for the use meaning muleteer being 1870 in J. H. Beadle's "Life in Utah".

Skinner, according to the OED, can be applied to: the driver of any team of draft animals, teamsters and drivers of motor vehicles.


"skinner, n.1". OED Online. March 2013. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/180947?rskey=e3Qhwv&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed April 24, 2013).

  • Why has, for example, horse skinner not taken the way muleskinner has?
    – tylerharms
    Apr 24, 2013 at 19:13
  • I'm afraid I don't know. You'd have to ask some skinners, I suppose. Apr 24, 2013 at 19:25

I came across a site that claims that 'mule skinners' were professional mule drivers that could outsmart or 'skin' a mule into doing what they wanted, seeing as they were notoriously stubborn animals.



I’m Dutch, so not an English linguist, but why not think about this: to skin, which means to rip the skin off someone or something.

Mules (as far as I know) were exhausted by their drivers. Muleskinner could be a metaphor for that. You never talk about a horse like that.

Although, in Hungary the common man (transporter, farmer) in the fifties till the eighties (later I don’t know) treated his horse like a mule: they were often skin over bone, with wounds from the harness. We used to say sometimes, He treats his horse like a mule.


A good mule skinner was someone that was able to have all mules pulling the load. For example, if the mule train had 20 mules and the wagon full of ore they were very skilled in knowing wich mules were pulling and wich mules were not pulling. So he had to skin the mule that wasn't pulling. If he skinned the the wrong mule that mule would stop pulling too. Then he would have 2 mules not pulling. Before long they would all stop if the skinner didn't know wich mule was not pulling. So a good mule skinner had to know wich mule was pulling and wich mule wasn't in order to not tire the team out.


My dad called me a skinner because i broke my fist mule by myself. My dad was a skinner. I don't know the real term but have herd a lot of stories from my dad, one of which remember well is:

If you have a mule and you are in a bad situation with food, you can cut out some of his flesh and eat it, and the mule would not die

Another thing my dad told me is the mule is as strong as you are; work together.


I read that the word "skin" in western lore meant to outsmart. So to keep the stubborn mules moving, they had to trick or outsmart them. Of course a whip may have been a "convincer" from time to time.

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