Camels Arrive in Texas, Begin U.S. Army Experiment
One of the most interesting experiments undertaken by the U.S. Army involved the ugly, irascible animals illustrated above: the Bactrian camel. One the little-known footnotes of American history is really a fascinating story.
In 1836, Major George H. Crosman of the Army's Quartermaster Corps proposed the use of camels in the swamps of Florida against the Seminole Indians. This was mainly predicated on the beasts' ability to survive on little food and water. His proposal caught the attention of then-Senator from Mississippi Jefferson Davis. However, it failed to generate much attention in the higher echelons of the War Department, so the suggestion was dropped.
After the U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War, several million square miles of land were added to United States, much of it desert and mountains. Without railroads yet built to connect California with the rest of the nation, some other means of communication and transportation were needed. In 1856, the newly appointed Secretary of War in the Franklin Pierce administration resurrected the idea of using camels to transport large loads efficiently. That new War Secretary? Jefferson Davis.
The U.S. Army needed to improve transportation in the southwestern US, which he and most observers thought a great desert. The rough terrain and dry climate were considered too harsh for the horses and mules regularly used by the Army.
Secretary Davis first petitioned Congress to build a southern transcontinental railroad line. When this request was turned down, Davis proposed the use of camels instead. On March 3, 1855 Congress passed an appropriation of $30,000 to begin the project. [That amount is equivalent to $768,000 in today's money.] Consequently, on June 4 of the same year, the vessel USS "Supply" sailed from New York City bound for Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The man given the task of finding camels for the project was Major Henry C. Wayne, a veteran of the Mexico war and another adherent of the use of camels in the American southwest.
Henry C. Wayne
The "Supply" made a stop in London first, to examine some camels in the zoo. Next, the odd expedition sailed for Italy, there to meet the ruler of Tuscany, Grand Duke Leopold II. The monarch had a "stable" of 250 camels, which he claimed could do the work of 1000 horses. Then, Maj. Wayne and the crew of the "Supply" sailed for Tunisia, Egypt and Ottoman Turkey, where they purchased a grand total of 33 camels. In addition, as none of the Americans had any experience with the beasts, they coaxed eight Ottoman subjects to come to America as camel handlers. Six of these men were Greek urbanites recruited in the capital of Constantinople, who were looking to go to America, even then the "Land of Opportunity;" the other two men actually were familiar with handling camels.
The "Supply" and its cargo left Smyrna, Turkey in mid-February of 1856, bound for the Gulf Coast of Texas. The crossing was uneventful, with one exception. One of the female camels gave birth during the crossing, increasing their number to 34. The "Supply" arrived at the seaport of Indianola, Texas on April 29, 1856. However, heavy ocean swells endangered the unloading of the animals into smaller boats. Therefore, it was decided to sail farther up the coast to find calmer water. Failing that, the "Supply" returned to Indianola on May 14 and unloaded the animals.
The camels were transported to Cape Verde, located between San Antonio and El Paso, in Kerr County, Texas. A second shipment of 41 camels arrived in Texas in February of 1857. Initial tests with the animals gave the U.S. Army some insights in the animals. Namely:
the beasts could carry substantial amounts of freight;they could go many days without taking water, but not at any great speed;they could negotiate muddy terrain that would normally halt freight wagons;the camels would eat nearly anything fed to them. This included the Texas mountain cedar and the creosote bush, two plants which no other animal would touch. However, they also had an apparently voracious appetite for oats, hay and other fodder;the creatures had a tendency to frighten horses and mules at first contact, but the animals would soon become used to one another; and, finally,their smell and unpleasant habit of spitting at anything that annoyed them did not endear them to Army personnel.
In June of 1857, the experiment took an unexpected turn. The U.S. government was keen on surveying a 1000-mile wagon road from Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory to the Colorado River, on the border of California and Arizona. The mission was placed under Edward Fitzgerald Beale, a former Naval officer, hero of the Mexican-American War, and most recently Superintendent of Indian Affairs for California and Nevada.
As part of his survey mission, Beale was directed to take 25 of the Camp Verde camels to test their endurance and utility in a long-distance situation. However, when informed of the singular honor bestowed upon him by the War Department, Beale was not pleased. He had recently been serving as a brigadier general of California state militia in order to continue negotiating treaties with Indians. However, he dutifully carried out his directive, and surveyed what would be known as the Beale Wagon Road. [This road was later incorporated in historic Route 66.]
As a result of this expedition, Beale became a guarded supporter of the use of camels in the American Southwest. In a letter to his Washington superiors, Beale marveled that the camels could carry 600-800 pounds for distances of 25-30 miles a day. However, he neglected to mention that three of the animals had died during the crossing, nor did he tell his superiors that he had left most of the animals in California, with others left at small Army posts in New Mexico and Arizona. The camels were used by the Army for a number of missions, including one where they rescued a wagon train snowbound in the high Sierra Nevadas.
End of the Experiment
However, the Army was not particularly impressed with the performance of the animals. When an Army report asked Congress to appropriated fund for another 1000 camels, they were ignored. With the beginning of the Civil War, the experiment essentially ended. Confederate troops captured Camp Verde in 1861, where about 11 camels still remained. Many of the camels in New Mexico and Arizona escaped into the wild, where they went feral. Occasional reports of camel sightings took place into the 1930's, with the last one occurring in 1941.
In 1864, the U.S. Army auctioned off the remaining beasts still in California at $31 a head. One enterprising man bought several and took them to the new Canadian colony of British Columbia. Some of those beasts also escaped their pens, and the last sighting of a feral camel in Canada took place in the 1930's.
Footnote #1: One of the camel handlers, Hadji Ali, a man of Greek-Syrian heritage, stayed with the camels when most of the foreign handlers returned to Turkey. Ali acquired the nickname of "Hi Jolly" and became a miner and scout for the U.S. Army. He became a U.S. citizen, and died in Quartzsite, Arizona. His grave is marked by a stone pyramid topped with a miniature copper camel (see below).
Grave of Hi Jolly, Quartzsite AZ
Footnote #2: In 1954, United Artists released the film, "Southwest Passage," a 3-D movie very loosely based on the camel experiment. It starred John Ireland and Joanne Dru. In 1976, the same production company that produced the "Benji" films released "Hawmps!" which was also loosely based on the Camel Corps. It starred – among others – Slim Pickens, Denver Pyle, and Jack Elam.
Footnote #3: Edward F. Beale acquired a great deal of land in California, and became substantially wealthy. In 1871, he bought the Decatur House across the street from the White House in Washington, DC. Beale held many glittering parties there and became Washington's most famous host. He also entertained many members of the Republican Party at his home, including President U.S. Grant. Beale also had a farm in Hyattsville, Maryland called Ash Hill. He was also a friend of Buffalo Bill Cody and President Grover Cleveland. From 1876-1877, he served as American ambassador to the court of Austria-Hungary. Beale died in 1893