How Dry I Am? The U.S. Camel Corps

l5camels-in-texas-paintingThe U.S. Camel Corps was an experiment by the United States Army using camels in the Southwest.

While the camels did the work well they were nasty and frightened horses, at least that’s the general explanation for why the program failed.

Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (this was pre-Civil War, how INTERESTING that Jefferson Davis was then Secretary of War, huh? He was encouraged to import camels to supply Western wagon routes. It was a dry, hot , hostile region, not unlike the camel’s natural habitat.

Davis, sold the idea to Congress. “For military purposes, and for reconnaissance, it is believed the dromedary would supply a want now seriously felt in our service.”

Congress agreed and appropriated $30,000.

33 camels were imported from the Middle East. They were loaded onto a Navy ship—and yeah, that was as hard as it camel-loading-gh-heapsounds—and transported to Texas. There Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale took over.

Along with the camels came Hadji Ali to train soldiers in camel wrangling. The Americans slurred Hadji Ali’s name into Hi Jolly and the man became very well known in the west.

Beale set out in June, 1857, with Hi Jolly along, for California. Camels carried 600 to 800 pounds each and traveled 25 to 30 miles a day. After reaching California the expedition returned to Texas, a success — at least to Beale.

Beale wrote. “They pack water for days under a hot sun and never get a drop; they pack heavy burdens of corn and oats for months and never get a grain; and on the bitter greasewood and other worthless shrubs, not only subsist, but keep fat.”

He concluded, “I look forward to the day when every mail route across the continent will be conducted and worked altogether with this economical and noble brute.”

But perhaps he was too optimistic. What he didn’t say was that the camels didn’t take to the West’s rocky soil. It actually became a huge problem because, unlike the smooth sand of the Arabian dessert, American sand was more rocky. It got stuck between the camel’s toes. They experimented with many ways to solve this problem. Hi Jolly for a time wrapped their hooves with burlap and eventually an iron horseshoes, made camel shaped, came along but the cloven hoof was a problem.

And prospectors’ burros and mules — and even Army mules — were afraid of the odd-looking creatures and would sometimes panic at their sight.

Still, in 1858, then-Secretary of War John Floyd told Congress, “The entire adaptation of camels to military operations on the Plains may now be taken as camelmondemonstrated.”

He urged Congress to authorize the purchase of 1,000 more camels.

Congress didn’t act, however, as it was preoccupied with trouble brewing between the North and South. The government ended the experiement and Hi Jolly was grieved but stayed in America and lived until 1902. His burial place is beneath a pyramid shaped marker…with a camel on top.

In the meantime these camels were also being used privately on ranches. It was while moving some of these camels that the nation’s first and only “camel cavalry charge” took place. In 1849 they were trying to cross the Colorado River into California with camels when camel_heada large war party of Mojaves showed up and looked ready to attack. The civilian laborers mounted the camels and charged, routing the Mojaves.

In 1860, experiments were made with racing camels. It was hoped the camels could be used to carry “camel express” mail. The racing experiments proved unsuccessful. Camels excelled at heavy loads carried slowly.

After 1860, Siberian camels were imported to San Franscisco, and ended up in Canadian mining operations. Eventually these were turned loose and became wild herds.

The camel corp was abandoned and the camels either sold or, if they didn’t sell, set free in the desert. Generations of them survived. In the mid-1870s one wandered into Fort Selden, New Mexico Territory. The young son of the post commander saw it and ran, terrified, to hide behind his mother. The post commandant was COL Arthur MacArthur. The terrified child grew up to be General of the Army Douglas MacArthur.

The last camel sighting was in 1941.

This look at American Military History is brought to you in honor of Veteran’s Day. Go hug a vet. If you don’t know him, thought, make sure he’s not armed first. And by the way, that goes for hugging ANY stranger. 🙂

Mary Connealy


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Author of Romantic Comedy...with Cowboys including the bestselling Kincaid Brides Series

18 thoughts on “How Dry I Am? The U.S. Camel Corps”

  1. Love this, Mary! I remember an old song about Hi Jolly. Does anybody else know it? It goes something like: “Hi Jolly, hey jolly, twenty miles a day, by golly, twenty more before the morning light…etc.”

    They did something similar in Australia, and I guess the camels are still hanging around. Saw a hilarious news feature on camel racing down there.

  2. This just amazes me. Someone who knows the Hi Jolly song and someone who’s been to the Hi Jolly monument…and it’s only 10 a.m.

    The world is small on the internet isn’t it? 😀

  3. This is wonderful, Mary. Thanks for all the info. When I started reading, I immediately thought of King Rama IV of Thailand and his offer of elephants to Abraham Lincoln to help in the Civil War.

    Loved the Douglas MacArthur story. 😀

  4. Hmmm… I’m picturing a dark-haired, ruggedly handsome man in a blue uniform, scanning the horizon with eagle eyes as he sits astride his magnificent…camel? Shakes up the stereotypes a bit, doesn’t it? Thanks for a fascinating bit of history.

  5. Fantastic blog, Mary. I had no idea! Never came across this before. Thanks.

    Our local mountains have wild herds of donkeys left over from mining days. I love them.

    Happy Thanksgiving, Mary! oxoxoxox

  6. My mom always had this picture hanging in our house of a camel and I think it was a man…or two…or three in Arabic-type white robes, I think one or two of them were kneeling. (sorry, the memory is lost in the mists of time)

    I used to look at that picture and think the CAMEL was an elephant head. The camel body was the head, the saddle looked to me like a…kind of BLINDER on the elephant’s eye and the camel’s neck was the trunk.

    I was young.

    And the arabic guy kneeling looked like a swan to me.

    So I liked the elephant/swan picture but never gave it much thought.

    I remember the actual moment when I looked at that picture and SNAP, wow, camel. Man kneeling.

    Now I wonder if that was some depiction of the three kings traveling to see the baby Jesus. Or was it a Muslim bowing toward Mecca to pray.

    And mostly I wonder where in the world that picture came from. And did my mom think it was Christian but really it was some Islam image, which would be a funny joke on my mom.

    I could probably google it and find it. Maybe it’s something famous.

    Hmmmmmmmm………. I had quite an imagination even back then.

  7. Oh, Mary, this is a wonderful post. I once said to someone about our American West that they had once imported camels to do the treks. This is such good info.

  8. I loved the part where the most recent sighting of a camel was in 1940. I’m surprised they didn’t take over the west.

    I wonder why it didn’t work. Honestly I think it had more to do with their feet than their temperment. The rocks got stuck in their toes in a way they just didn’t in the Middle East.

    You’d have thought they’d have had babies and the herds would have self-perpetuated and the riders would have learned to handle them and the horses/mules/donkeys would have adjusted. I mean c’mon they adjusted to TRAINS.

  9. Hi Mary – I should be cleaning and cooking, but instead I’m reading about camels in the US Military! This is fascinating. Where do you find all this amazing research? I can understand how the terrain wouldn’t be good for camels and they couldn’t shoe them like we do horses.

    Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

  10. I hug my vet every day;0)
    Thanks for an interesting post. Had heard about the program and Hi Jolly, but didn’t realize how he had gotten his name. It is too bad the program wasn’t more successful. Unfortunately, people forget that animals have adapted to their environment and little variations (like the sand being rocky) can make a big difference in their being able to adapt to a new place.
    Hope everyone has a great Thanksgiving!

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