Category: Camel Corps

Digging through the Footnotes of History

By Regina Jennings

At the library’s used book sale, I always head to the folding table covered with history books. I’m amazed by what my neighbors have had in their collections. A full-color, hard-backed encyclopedia of the Soviet Navy? A book on the history of boxing? An illustrated guide to historical cosmetics? I never know what I’ll find, but it’s guaranteed that I’ll leave with a paper sack full of resources.

When trying to think of ideas for my historical romances, it’s tempting to steer away from the old favorites. Some events in history have been so thoroughly probed and prodded, that it’d be difficult to come up with a new angle. Besides, as a writer who uses humor in her works, a lot of historical events don’t fit. A light-hearted romance about the Titantic? The Alamo? Nope. Not gonna happen. But I shouldn’t turn down books about those events too quickly. Often in studying the well-known stories, we find stray tidbits that can be quite valuable.

reg-camels-being-loaded-for-america

Camels being loaded for the trip to America. (National Archives)

When I picked up the book titled Orphans Preferred, I didn’t have any plans to write a romance about the Pony Express. After all, no woman of the times would set out to marry one of the poor, hard-working, ultimately dispensable riders, but my reading proved beneficial. Somewhere in the discussion of the mail delivery methods that were tried before the Pony Express was organized, there was a paragraph that taught me something new. Before the Civil War, the U. S. army attempted to replace their cavalry horses with camels in the southwest desert.

reg-us-camel-corp

(US Camel Corps) – “A member of the legendary southwestern ‘Camel Corps’ stands at ease at the Drum Barracks military facility, near California’s San Pedro harbor.”

Wait, what? Here was some interesting fodder for a story, but the book was about the pony express, not the camel express, so nothing more was told. Rushing to my online resources, I began combing through articles and books on the U. S. Camel Corps stationed near San Antonio. After chasing down leads, and following footnotes, I found the material I needed for a fresh story that will be new to fans of the Old West. That story will be coming out next winter in a collection with Karen Witemeyer, Mary Connealy, and Melissa Jagears.

You can never predict where you’ll find that one spark that’ll light up a whole manuscript. Sometimes you already know the event, but you are searching for the right angle to tie the story together.

That’s what happened with my new release For the Record. The Ozark Mountain Romance series is set in…(drumroll)…the Ozarks, and we’d worked our way up into the Bald Knobber era. Now for those of you who haven’t been to Branson, the Bald Knobbers were a gang of vigilantes that tried to impose justice during a time of lawlessness in the mountains. Unfortunately, the masked gang soon turned their justice into revenge and they became the feared and hunted ones.

Sounds like a fun, light-hearted romance, right?

reg-bk-picture-from-shepherd-of-the-hills-1919

The Bald Knobber Gang from the 1919 movie “Shepherd of the Hills”.

So, where was the spark that could move this story away from the inherently dark history? Once again, it was just a line, perhaps an afterthought that the author decided to insert at the last moment. According to the source, because the local law enforcement officers found impartiality difficult in polarizing, post-war Missouri, Governor Marmaduke hired out-of-state sheriffs and deputies to come impose order.

Bingo! I had a handsome, young deputy from Texas from a previous book that just happened to be hero material. A “foreigner” from Texas sent in to straighten out blood feuds, how could that go wrong? There was plenty of conflict, room for misunderstandings and the perfect foil for my dear little heroine who was already convinced that she’d never meet the right man in Pine Gap, Missouri.

All from that one little mention in a Bald Knobbers book.

If writing has taught me anything, it’s to look for the stray, little-known facts that show up in well-researched history books. What someone dropped in as an aside can be the foundation for another story, because meandering down the road less traveled can lead you to the story yet to be told.

~~~~

 

 

Regina Jennings graduated from Oklahoma Baptist University with a degree in English and a history minor, and has been reading historicals ever since. Regina has worked at the Mustang News along with time at the Oklahoma National Stockyards and various livestock shows. She makes her home outside Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with her husband and four children.

Her latest release is For the Record. She loves to hear from readers at her website – http://www.reginajennings.com and on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest.

For the Record

Betsy Huckabee might be a small-town girl, but she has big-city dreams. Writing for her uncle’s newspaper will never lead to independence, and the bigger newspapers don’t seem interested in the Hart County news. Trying a new approach, Betsy pens a romanticized serial for the ladies’ pages, and the new deputy provides the perfect inspiration for her submissions. She’d be horrified if he read her breathless descriptions of him, but these articles are for a newspaper far away. No one in Pine Gap will ever know.
Deputy Joel Puckett didn’t want to leave Texas, but this job in tiny Pine Gap is his only shot at keeping his badge. With masked marauders riding every night, his skills and patience are tested, but even more challenging is the sassy journalist lady chasing him.

 

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Fallen Lone Stars: Indianola

Kathleen Rice Adams header

Founded in 1840 as an Indian trading post, Indianola, Texas, served as a major seaport from 1844 to 1886. The city and Galveston, about one hundred fifty miles northeast, had many things in common—including a desire to outstrip the other and become Texas’s maritime leader.

Indianola in 1860 (Helmuth Holtz, Library of Congress collection)

Indianola in 1860 (Helmuth Holtz, Library of Congress collection)

For a long time, Indianola seemed to be winning. Companies in the city’s industrial district began canning beef as early as 1848. In 1869, Indianola became the first U.S. port to ship refrigerated beef to New England.

The city’s reputation for innovation and dogged determination paid off handsomely. Ships arrived from New York and other New England ports, ferrying passengers and goods bound for San Antonio and California. Indianola became a major debarkation point for European immigrants…and a few boatloads of camels imported for the U.S. Army’s notorious Camel Corps experiment. (The experiment was abandoned at the outbreak of the Civil War, and some of the camels were turned loose. The last feral camel sighting in Texas took place in 1941.)

“Union Troops in the Streets of Indianola, Texas.” Civil War wood engraving by Thomas Nast, published in the New York Illustrated News, April 6, 1861. From the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.

“Union Troops in the Streets of Indianola, Texas.” Civil War wood engraving by Thomas Nast, published in the New York Illustrated News, April 6, 1861. (From the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.)

Indianola did so well that it made itself a target during the Civil War. Determined to cut one of the major Confederate supply lines, Yankee vessels blockaded the port in October 1862 and demanded surrender. Being Texans, the nearby fort politely declined with a cannonade. Several scuffles later, Indianola and its port fell to the Yanks on December 23, 1863. One of the jewels of Texas remained in Federal hands for the rest of the war.

In 1867, fire and a yellow fever epidemic ravaged the town. Indianola rebuilt bigger and better, reaching a population of 5,000 by the time the first death knell rang. Although the city had been damaged by a strong storm in 1851, a major hurricane in 1875 demolished almost everything. Tough to the core, the people of Indianola used the debris to rebuild again.

Indianola ca. 1875. Image courtesy of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

Indianola ca. 1875. (Texas State Library and Archives Commission collection)

Then, in August and September 1886, two major hurricanes six weeks apart left Indianola and its celebrated seaport in ruins. Sand and silt blown in by the storms made the bay too shallow for big ships to navigate. Most of the residents moved inland.

The post office closed in 1887, and what remained of the town was abandoned.

The storms ended Indianola’s competition with Galveston for maritime supremacy. Galveston got its comeuppance in 1900 when the Great Storm leveled the island city, giving Houston the right break at the right time to become—and remain—the dominant economic power in Southeast Texas.

The city once known as “the Queen City of the West,” today is “the Queen of Texas Ghost Towns.” Though an unincorporated fishing village stands on the shore, Indianola lies beneath the water, 300 feet off the coast in Matagorda Bay.

 

The U.S. Camel Corps

 

 

In 1855 Congress tried an interesting experiment; they appropriated $30,000 to import camels to America to carry army equipment in the southwest and engage in military operations against the Indians.  US Army Major Henry Wayne was sent overseas to purchase them.  

 

A year later he landed on the Texas coast in Indianola with more than thirty camels and eight camel drivers.  His arrival created quite a commotion. Crowds gathered on the pier to view the U.S. Camel Corps, but after being confined to a ship for weeks on end the beasts were in no mood for company.  They bawled and kicked and broke their harnesses.   Horses panicked and bolted, overturning wagons. Spectators screamed and ran for cover.

 

 A camel looks like a horse planned by committee

 

The camels were quickly moved to Camp Verde, but even there they created havoc; They roamed the camp freely and ate their way through cactus fences onto private property, scaring livestock, chasing children and trampling gardens.

 

Containing them, however, was easy compared to loading them.  Their humps required special saddles and pack frames.  During placement cattle had to be made to kneel, stand and kneel again.   The men were ill prepared for all the growling, spitting, bleating and snarling that went on during loading.  Camels were not only vindictive they were also unforgiving and held a grudge.  Some soldiers soon lost patience and tried to teach the animals a thing or two with whips. Used to working with relatively tame horses and mules they must have been shocked when camels fought back with sharp teeth and deadly jaws.  Some men were even knocked to the ground and crushed. 

 

 Two things cannot be hidden:

being astride a camel and being pregnant–Lebanese saying

 

Once loaded, however, camels proved their weight in gold. They could carry six to eight hundred pound loads; more than four times what a mule could carry. They could easily travel up to forty miles per day and were happy to eat whatever desert brush could be found along the trail.  While horses and mules would make frantic dashes to water holes, camels never drank a drop even after traveling days in desert heat.  Camel humps are made of fat, a handy source of nutrition when food is scarce. They also proved to be good swimmers. During one expedition not one camel was lost crossing the Colorado River, though some horses and mules drowned. 

 

 Trust in God, but tie up your camel–Arabian saying

 

By 1858 camels were working throughout the Southwest and did much to help the westward expansion.  They helped establish the Beale Road which allowed wagons, supplies and mail to travel to California. They also helped establish the Butterfield Overland stage routes.

 

 The camel and his driver:

each have their own plan.-African saying

 

The Camel Corps came to an end with the first shot of the Civil War.  Westward expansion was abandoned as Union soldiers were called back east and the US. Government’s experiment with camels officially ended in 1863.

 

Some camels were sent to circuses and zoos.  Others were used to deliver mail.  Some were believed to escape and for many years sightings of wild camels were reported in the southwest.  The most famous was known as the “Red Ghost.”  The camel was thought to have killed a woman and was rumored to roam the Arizona desert with a headless corpse strapped to its back.  Stories of the Camel Corps offspring roaming the desert continued until the 1950s.    

 

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Updated: April 19, 2012 — 5:55 am