By the 1830s, American westward expansion was going nowhere fast. Difficult terrain and often inhospitable climates made traveling a daunting challenge at best, especially in the southwest.
But in 1836, an outside-of-the-box thinker had a bold plan. The then Lieutenant, and later Major, George H. Crosman proposed to the U.S. War Department:
For strength in carrying burdens, for patient endurance of labor, and privation of food, water & rest, and in some respects speed also, the camel and dromedary (as the Arabian camel is called) are unrivaled among animals. The ordinary loads for camels are from seven to nine hundred pounds each, and with these they can travel from thirty to forty miles a day, for many days in succession. They will go without water, and with but little food, for six or eight days, or it is said even longer. Their feet are alike well suited for traversing grassy or sandy plains, or rough, rocky hills and paths, and they require no shoeing...¹
The War Department ignored the report.
However, the War Department's attitude did an about-face in 1847 when the right people were in the right place at the right time. Crosman met Major Henry C. Wayne, who shared his camel enthusiasm. Together, they submitted another report to the War Department and Congress. At this point, Senator Jefferson Davis took up their cause.
There wasn’t a western railroad system at this time, and horses and mules needed water in a water-scarce environment. All three men reasoned that since camels thrived in deserts elsewhere in the world, they would also thrive in the American southwest. Congress listened and appropriated $30,000 for “...the purchase and importation of camels and dromedaries to be employed for military purposes.”¹
The task of sailing to the Middle East and North Africa to bring back camels fell, willingly, to Major Wayne. It took Wayne about a year to gather up camels for the voyage back to America. While the ship carrying the camels, “Supply”, arrived at the port in Indianola, Texas on April 29, rough ocean waters prevented unloading the camels. It wasn’t until May 14 that the ocean calmed enough to safely move the camels into small boats and deliver them to shore. From the Texas coast, the camels moved out under Army control for Camp Verde. Not too long after that, another group of 41 camels also made their home at Camp Verde.
State Historical Marker - Indianola, Texas
Image by Larry D. Moore (citing below) -
The military used the camels for the next ten years for hauling supplies to different locations as well as using them for the in-camp tasks. The camels were also important during cross-country military expeditions. One expedition involved surveying what is now the historic Route 66. Another was a scouting mission to identify possible fortifications in southwest Texas. While the soldiers brought feed and water for the horses and mules, the camels were content to forage off the land and drink when water was naturally available. Despite being naturally adapted to the American Southwest’s climate and terrain, realistically, camels had a terrible smell, horses were terrified of them, and handlers detested them because of their surly temperaments.
The War Between the States brought the camel corps to an end in 1866 through lack of funding and general neglect. The camels were auctioned to private owners. Some camels ended up on supply trains as pack animals, others went to miners and prospectors, and some went to circuses. A few ended their days on private ranches. However, many camels escaped. Camel sightings continued for decades. “For years, travelers in the Southwest told tales of camels looming up in the flickering light of campfires.”³
From that comment, an idea sparked, and I wrote a scene involving camels in my novel, The Comanchero's Bride. Here is a teaser from the camel encounter:
A horse snorted.
Mingo came wide awake with a revolver already in his hand. A glance without looking directly at the diminished fire told him he’d slept for two or three hours. The sound of heavy breathing and grunting drew his attention beyond their lean-to. Peering into the darkness, he ran through his mental catalog of sounds to identify the source while simultaneously planning a defense against whatever—or whoever—was out there. He separated the soft whisper of drizzle from the normal night noises, ruled-out humans, while sensing a vague familiarity that wasn’t horse, but he was certain it had four legs. And there was more than one.
Careful in his movements, he eased his arm along his thigh and down his leg to grasp the handle of his knife tucked in the sheath on the inside of his tall boot shaft. Shifting his position, he waited. In the glow of the orange embers of the fire, he could make out hulking, ghoulish shadows hovering just at the edge of camp. When a whiff of breeze swirled around their shelter, stirring up ashes at the edge of the fire, Mingo picked up a pungent odor of urine and manure mixed with the tang of wet, dead carcass. There was no mistaking the visitors now, and he relaxed, chuckling softly.
Slipping from under the blankets with slow, deliberate care, he placed a light touch on Isabel’s shoulder. Her eyes popped open, and he spoke in a low tone. “I must calm the horses. Do not make a sudden move or noise, and keep your voice quiet. Build up the fire and stay close without looking into it.”
She rolled to her knees, grabbing Mingo’s arm as she whispered, “Eww, what’s out there? The stench is horrid.”
Speaking close to her ear, he replied, “Camellos.”
Isabel jerked her head around. “Wha— Camellos? Camels?” She looked across the coals into the darkness. “Here? In Texas?”
Mingo’s grin widened at her bewilderment, and he handed her a piece of firewood. “At least two of them. I do not think they will come closer, but it is also not wise to startle them. The horses are already frightened, and we do not want them to bolt. Trying to catch a camel to ride it to our ranch is not how I want to finish this journey...”
The Comanchero's Bride
available on Amazon.com
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References and Resources:
I would direct you HERE for an excellent article about the camel corps.
1. National Museum-United States Army. Vince Hawkins, “The U.S. Army's ‘Camel Corps’ Experiment”, accessed May 12, 2018, https://armyhistory.org/the-u-s-armys-camel-corps-experiment/
2. Handbook of Texas Online, Chris Emmett and Odie B. Faulk, “Camels”, accessed May 12, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/quc01.
3. Smithsonian Magazine. Owen Edwards, “Camelot”, accessed May 12, 2018. Smithsonian.com. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/camelot-121505856/
*Larry D. Moore, US Camel Corps State Historical Marker, CC BY-SA 4.0
*Texas Highways. The Travel Magazine of Texas. The Great Camel Experiment.
http://www.texashighways.com/history/item/7475-the-great-camel-experiment-texas-camel-corps. July 2014. Accessed: May 12, 2018.