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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Margaret Brownley
Margaret has published more than 46 books and is a N.Y. Times Bestselling author and two-time Romance Writers of America Rita Finalist. She writes historical novels set--where else?--in the Old West! She has written for a day time soap and is currently working on a new series. Not bad for someone who flunked 8th grade English. Just don't ask her to diagram a sentence.
Updated: April 19, 2012 — 5:55 am

18 Comments

  1. I can just imagine those camels, Margaret!
    Have you heard of the famous driver who came with them? His name was Haj Ali, or some version of that. But the Americans called him Hi Jolly. There’s a monument to him and a fun song about him. Here’s a link.
    Love your beautiful cover and title.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZ5pKav9vCU

  2. Hi Elizabeth, yes I knew about Hi Jolly. There was also Greek George. I don’t know what happened to George but Hi Jolly married a woman from Tucson and became a U.S. citizen.

  3. I’d previously heard about the camel experiment.. In one sense, introducing a species to a new environment can go horribly wrong… ie. zebra mussels, kudzu plants.. whether deliberate or accidental..

  4. Love this blog! I have such funny visuals going on in my head right now!

  5. CateS, You’re right, it can be tricky to introduce species into a new environment. If camels did, indeed, roam the Arizona desert I wonder what killed them off.

  6. Connie, thanks. Camels always make me laugh. They are amazing animals but they do look like they were designed by committee.

  7. I can only imagine the commotion these beasts caused when they arrived in the old West. And the Indians…..how they must’ve either run in fear or laughed themselves to death. And I’m sure the soldiers hated riding them. I can’t picture a herd of camels riding into a shootout with Indians.

    I loved DAWN COMES EARLY! Lots of humorous scenes. And it was so neat how your heroine was a failed romance writer. I’m recommending this to all my friends.

  8. Love the US Camel Corp. I suppose it’s just me loving odd bits of history but I wish the camels had survived and now roamed the west like mustangs or buffalo. I don’t know why exactly I just know in my heart, I’m rooting for them. 🙂

  9. Linda, as I was writing the blog all kinds of funny scenes popped into my head. Who knows? There may be a camel in one of my future books!

    Thank you stopping by and for your nice comments regsrding my book. I’m sure you’ll agree that word of mouth is a writer’s best friend.

  10. Mary, I feel the same way. If the sightings are to be believed, it seems that camel offspring survived the southwest desert for a 100 years until the 1950s.

    I wonder what happened in the 1950s to make them disappear. Nuclear test bombs?

  11. You know, Margaret, I had run across this information in my research also, but not in such detail. I love the Arabian sayings. Wonderful blog!

  12. Karen, isn’t it amazing what you run across when looking for something else? Camels were the furthest thing from my mind when I came across this information. I was actually looking up cactus fences.

  13. Hi Margaret, what a fascinating piece of history. I keep thinking of those poor, massive beasts restrained in the bowels of ships. I’m glad they fought back when whipped. I can’t stand cruelty.

    And the Arabian proverbs sprinkled throughout this post made me laugh out loud.

    I love camels even if they’re feisty. I love the Christmas story. And I suspect the nuclear testing had something to do with their disappearance, and tons of other things we will never know about.

  14. Riding off into the sunset with a handsome cowboy on his trusty camel. Hmm…not quite the romantic image I was going for. But boy, it sure does tickle the funny bone. Great post, Margaret.

  15. Hi Tanya, I guess we’ll never for sure what caused their demise.

    See you at the cowboy festival!

  16. Karen, that’s funny! I can just picture it now!

  17. Margaret, Thanks for a most interesting post. I knew a little bit about the camel corps, but you gave many more details.

    The desert is so vast with so many canyons, etc., one wonders if just maybe there is a hidden pocket of camels out there somewhere. Nice thought but not very likely.

    I won’t be surprised if I see camels pop up in some of your stories in the future.

  18. Thank you, Patricia! And if you see a camel pop up in a future book you can blame Karen. I can’t get that vision of a cowboy riding off into the sunset on a camel out of my head.

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