Camels in the Old West

Having lived in Nevada for almost half of my life, I was very aware of the brief role camels played in Virginia City and Austin during the mining days, hauling salt and ore. What I hadn’t known was that camel-power had been experimented with many times over the course of US history. So I offer to you, a brief Camel’s in the west timeline.

First of all, camels are native to North American and spread to Asia via the Siberian Land Bridge during the ice age. Camels died out in North America, but thrived in the Old World where they were domesticated.

Camels have a metabolism and specialized body-cooling system that allows them to go days without water, and they eat vegetation that other animals pass up. They can haul large loads. A mule can pack 300 pounds, but a dromedary camel (one hump) can haul 600 pounds. They can lose 40% of their bodyweight without upsetting the fluid balance in their blood, and they can drink 25 gallons of water in one visit to the trough.

Camels first came (back) to North America is 1701 when a sea captain brought a pair to Salem, Massachusetts and displayed them as a curiosity.

In 1836, US Army Major George George H. Crossman suggested to Congress that they explore the use of camels in desert environments. In the late 1840s Major Henry Wayne believed that camels were better suited to the conditions of the American Southwest than horses and mules, due to their ability to go without water and to forage where other animals could not. He made a formal request to the War Department to import camels for the purpose of developing a camel cavalry.

Eventually, in the mid  1850’s Congress provided $30,000 for the purchase of 50 camels, and the hiring of 10 camel drivers. Major Wayne traveled to the eastern Mediterranean via a Navy ship, where he investigated the camel markets of Egypt.  He eventually bought 33 animals, 32 of which survived the sea voyage to Texas. Forty-one more camels arrived in Texas in 1857.

Camels were stronger and had more endurance than horses and mules, and were used for various purposes, such as packing and road building, but horse traders feared that camels would put them out of business. Horses hated camels and anti-camel sentiment grew in Texas. When the Civil War broke out, the Texas camels purchased by the US Military were seized by the confederacy.

Camels that were used for military purposes in western forts were abandoned during the war as the troops moved east to fight the war. The camels scattered and became feral.

After the Civil War, camels were used to haul ore and salt in western mining areas, such as the Comstock in Nevada, and the Silver King in Arizona. The one drawback to camels was that their feet were suited to sand and soft earth, not the rocky paths near mining areas.

In 1875, Nevada made camel traffic illegal on roads due to the fact that camels frightened horses. This ended the use of camels in the mining areas. The animals were either set free or sold to circuses.

In the early1960s, a spoof article in a Nevada newspaper, The Territorial Enterprise, touted the results of a fictitious camel race in Virginia City. The editor of the San Francisco Chronicle reprinted the article believing it was genuine. The next year when the Territorial Enterprise once again mentioned an upcoming camel race, the editor of the Chronicle informed the editor of the Nevada newspaper that they were sending a team to compete. The camel races were born. Director John Huston won the first camel race on a camel borrowed from the San Francisco zoo. The tradition continues to this day.