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The Great Texas Camel Experiment

The following is a transcript of Podcast #4

Once upon a time in Texas, camels joined the army…

I’ve got to be kidding right? Camels in Texas?

Well why not?  Think about it. West Texas is part of the great American desert, correct?

And what better way to carry men and supplies across dry, rugged desert terrain than the “ships of the desert,“ as camels are called.

At least that’s what a young Army Lieutenant named George Crossman thought back in 1836. Crossman and a friend, E.H. Miller, studied the idea and sent a report to the War Department in Washington recommending that camels be adopted as beasts of burden for the military. The concept of using camels had special appeal in Texas as a way of transporting supplies from San Antonio to the line of military forts running along the very edge of the frontier.  

Crossman and Miller proposed that, “For strength in carrying burdens, for patient endurance of labor, and privation of food, water, and rest, and in some respects speed also, the camel and dromedary (as the Arabian camel is called) are unrivaled among animals.”

The two men were also impressed with the fact that camels can travel thirty to forty miles a day for many days in a row. They can go without water and very little food for six or eight days while each carrying 700 to 900 pounds. Camels for transporting supplies seemed like a great idea.

The War Department ignored their suggestion and the camel idea died, for a time.

Eleven years later, in 1847, Crossman shared the idea with Major Henry C. Wayne, a member of the US Quartermaster Department. Wayne liked the idea so well that he sent a recommendation to the War Department and to Congress that the military import camels. The camel idea caught the attention of the US Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. Finally in 1855, Davis was able to push the idea through Congress and $30,000 was earmarked for “the purchase and importation of camels and dromedaries to be employed for military purposes.”  Camels would join the army!

It was decided that Major Wayne would head the expedition to acquire the camels and the Navy would provide a ship—the USS Supply—under the command of Lieutenant David Dixon Porter. Porter converted the ship to a camel carrier complete with special hatches, stables, as well as hoists and slings for easy loading of the big beasts. The ship customization completed, Porter sailed to the Mediterranean while Wayne visited London and Paris to consult with zoos, military men, and scientists who were familiar with camels and their uses.  The two men reconvened in Tunis where Porter’s brother-in-law, Gwynne Heap—who was fluent in multiple eastern languages and customs—joined them.  For five months the three sought information and searched for suitable animals. Finally they acquired  thirty-three camels—a mix of Bactrian ( or two-humped camels) and dromedaries (one humped camels)—some were male, some female.

Five Arabs and Turks were hired to care for the animals and serve as drovers. In mid-February the ship set sail home, camels on board  Three months later, the ship arrived in Indianola, TX. One male camel had died and the thirty-four camels now onboard included two calves which were born on the ship. All were healthy. The camels were taken to Camp Verde, about sixty miles northwest of San Antonio where a camel kahn or corral had been built.

With money left in the budget, Porter sailed for Egypt, returning in January 1857 with an additional forty-one camels. Five of the original camels had died of disease, leaving the total number of camels at 70. 

In the meantime, a test of the camels was conducted.  Three wagons, each  by pulled  a team of six mules along with six individual camels were sent to San Antonio for a supply of oats.  The three wagons  (pulled by a total of 18 mules) each returned with 1,800 pounds of oats after a five-day return trip. The six camels carried 3,648 pounds of oats and completed the return trip in two days. Camels had passed the test!

It took several months for the soldiers to become comfortable with handling the camels. The soldiers learned that despite camels’ reputation for having an aggressive temper: spitting their cud, kicking, and biting, camels  are docile and rarely strikeout unless mistreated. One issue was getting men used to the unfamiliar, pungent smell of the camels.

In March of 1857 John B. Floyd replaced Jefferson Davis as Secretary of War and Major Wayne was transferred to Washington. Responding to public demand for a road linking the frontier to the west coast, a contract was given to surveyor Edward Beale to survey and build a road along the 35th parallel from New Mexico to the California-Arizona border. A condition of the contract was that Surveyor Beale take twenty-five camels on his expedition.  By the time a skeptical Beale had traveled from Camp Verde to New Mexico, he reported being extremely pleased with the camels abilities.

Traveling to the West coast from New Mexico, Beale found that the camels subsisted on the scrub and prickly pear along the trail, could travel thirty or forty miles a day, go eight to ten days without water, and could swim rivers in which mules and horses often drowned. At one point the expedition became lost and without the assistance of camels in finding water, would have perished. Needless to say, after four months and 1200 miles, Beale’s assessment of the usefulness of the beasts was enthusiastic. “I believe at this time,” he said, “I may speak for every man in our party, when I say that there is not one of them who would not prefer the most indifferent of our camels to four of our best mules.”

After the expedition, Beale delayed returning the camels to Camp Verde, instead moving the camels to a ranch owned by Sam Bishop, his business partner, who used them in hauling freight to a new town starting about 100 miles north of Los Angeles.

At this point one of the most interesting uses of the camels occurred.  While moving freight on the camels, Bishop’s group was attacked by Mohave Indians. Bishop’s men mounted the camels and charged. The Indians were routed.  This is the only camel involvement in US combat recorded. One has to wonder what the Indians thought about these strange beasts!

Numerous other military expeditions used camels in California and in Texas.  One test was an 1860 reconnaissance trip into Texas’ Big Bend region— a dry, treacherous territory full of rugged, dead-end canyons, and high mountains. After two months, the expedition was ended with the “camels still fit for use. . . .the (men) no longer capable of performing more work.”

All in all, the expeditions determined that the camels were not only useful, but superior to horses and mules for use on the plains and deserts.  As Secretary Floyd reported, “the experiments thus far made—and they are pretty full—demonstrate that camels constitute a most useful and economic means of transportation for men and supplies through the great desert and barren portions of our interior.” Floyd went on to urge Congress to authorize the purchase of 1000 camels. Busy with the threat of a Civil War, Congress treated Floyd’s recommendation with deaf ears.

The California camels were finally collected and sent to Los Angeles Quartermaster’s Division.  Three years later, thirty-one California camels were sold at auction.  The remaining forty-four Texas camels at Camp Verde were auctioned at the end of the Civil War.  At the time, Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton said, “I cannot ascertain that these (camels) have ever been so employed as to be of any advantage to the Military Service, and I do not think that it will be practical to make them useful.”  The fact that the Camel Corps had been a project of Jefferson Davis (who led the Confederate States as President) may have had unsaid influence on Stanton’s decision. Or, maybe Stanton just didn’t read the official reports. Who knows?

Over time, many of the camels acquired at auction  were turned loose in the wild. The last known camel from the army’s camel corps (named Topsy) died in April of 1934 at the age of 80 at Griffin Park, Los Angeles; however, camel sightings were reported in the West for decades. afterwards.

Ya’ll come back again for more Texas history you probably didn’t learn in school.

Texas Brave and Strong—it’s the best little Blog and Podcast in Texas.  Bye now!