In 1848, before the 1st iron horse went West, the U.S. Army was desperately searching for a cheap, fast, efficient means of supplying its bases for the constant fight against the Indians. Also, spoils of the Mexican War had added 529,000 sq. mi. to the nation's Western wilderness and by the terms of the treaty the U.S. was responsible for the protection of settlers, towns, and travelers in what is now California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and the western portions of Colorado and New Mexico. About this time, Lieut. Edward Fitzgerald Beale, a friend of Kit Carson and superintendent of Indian affairs in California and Nevada, revived the idea of importing camels into the U.S. Five years later, Jefferson Davis, who was Secretary of War under President Pierce, advised the 33rd Congress, "For military purposes, for expresses, and for reconnaissances, and for transportation with troops rapidly moving across the country, the camel, it is believed, would remove an obstacle which now serves greatly to diminish the value and efficiency of our troops on the western frontier."
In 1855, through the pressure of Illinois Senator Shields, Congress voted an appropriation for $30,000 "to be expended under the War Dept. in the purchase and importation of camels."
Two men were assigned to carry through the strange experiment. One, Maj. Henry Wayne, hurried to Britain to study camels in the London Zoo. The other, David Porter, took a U.S. Navy ship, the Supply, to Italy. Major Wayne and Porter met in Pisa, Italy, to watch 250 camels, owned by the Duke of Tuscany, accomplish the work of 1,000 horses. The pair then went on to Malta, Tunis, Constantinople, observing camels. The Crimean War was on, and the British were proving a single camel could carry 600 lbs. about 30 mi. a day.
The Americans acquired 3 camels in Tunis, 9 in Egypt, and 21 in Smyrna, 33 in all. And they hired Arab and Turkish camel drivers--Elias Calles, George Caralambo ("Greek George"), and Hadji Ali ("Hi Jolly"), men who knew how to handle the beasts--to accompany the cargo to the U.S. When the Supply arrived in Egypt, a flat-bottomed boat was used to ferry the camels aboard. The loading took 16 hours. One camel, 7'5" tall, was too large to fit into the ship--a hole had to be cut in the deck to accommodate his hump.
The journey from Egypt to Texas took 3 months. The camels proved excellent sailors. During gales they were tied down, in kneeling positions, which they didn't seem to mind at all. On May 14, 1856, the ship arrived at Indianola, Tex., a port about 120 mi. south of Galveston. When the camels were taken on land they "became excited to an almost uncontrollable degree, rearing, kicking, crying out." They were camped 60 mi. northwest of San Antonio. When the citizens of San Antonio laughed at the camels, doubting their strength, Major Wayne took this as a challenge. He assembled a crow, brought forth one camel, made the animal kneel, hoisted 2 bales weighing together 613 lbs. on its back, and then, to convince even the worst skeptics, loaded on 2 more bales. The camel had a total of 1,256 lbs. on its back. At a signal from the major, it rose easily and walked off. The crowd went wild. The feat was considered a miracle, and the local press even ran poetry about it.
It is interesting to note that the total cost of the camel-buying spree up to 1856 was $7,331. The balance left, after the 1st draw upon the original $30,000 appropriation, was returned to Washington--setting a precedent that didn't catch on.
The arrival of a 2nd shipload of camels at Indianola on February 10, 1857, brought their number to 75.
In the months of semi-idleness at the Camp Verde caravansary before June 25, 1857, a great deal was learned about the camel. They require about as much food and water as a horse, but they drink 20 to 30 gallons at a time. They do not perspire, having a much higher body-heat tolerance than the horse or mule. When possible, they browse constantly on whatever food is available; this allows them to store energy in the form of fatty tissue. This is what their humps are composed of, and these serve as a commissary in time of famine. Ordinarily the camel will travel 3 to 4 days, covering a distance of perhaps 300 mi., under a heavy load, without food or water. Contrary to common belief, a camel's backbone is as straight as that of a horse. Their humps of pure fat will vary in size from relatively flat, after days without food, to pleasingly plump under regular feeding. The normally docile animals are capable of anger when abused and can expel their foul-smelling cuds with uncanny accuracy. On occasion 2 males will become angry enough to fight to the death. Their act of rising hind-part 1st from a kneeling position is not unique to the camel, but a characteristic of the entire ruminant (cud-chewing) family, including cattle, sheep, goats, deer, giraffes, and others.
In March, 1857, the Secretary of War ordered the formation of the 1st U.S. Army Camel Corps and appointed 35-year-old Lieut. Edward Beale, originator of the project, to command it. The animals were under fire now. Critics claimed the whole corps was a useless waste of money. Gossips whispered that Beale was using them for work on his own properties.
To answer the rumormongers, Beale decided to use the Camel Corps to open up a new supply route across the hot American desert between New Mexico and California. The journey was a minor epic, a battle against thirst, Indians, loneliness.
On the long march westward across uncharted territory the camels' surefootedness in rocky terrain, deserts, and mountains allowed them to set a pace difficult for the mules to follow. In fording rivers they were found to be strong swimmers. On seeing an approaching rider or wagon, an advance man would go forward from the caravan shouting: "The camels are coming, the camels are coming!" Invariably the encounter would be a repetition of previous near-calamities. The strange appearance of the camels, their tinkling bells and unfamiliar odor caused horses and mules to go berserk, thus adding further to the camels' unpopularity.
The camels covered the last lap, between San Bernardino and Los Angeles, 65 mi., in 8 hours. One camel, without water for 10 days, refused the drink offered him. Beale continued showing what the Camel Corps could do. At the end of the 1st year, he submitted his report to Congress. "I have tested the value of the camels, marked a new road to the Pacific, and traveled 4,000 mi. without an accident."
The Secretary of War agreed the experiment was a success. He ordered 1,000 more camels from the Middle East. But while Congress debated the request, the Civil War broke out. The project was shelved--and soon forgotten.
What happened to the original 75 camels? Beale gave 28 to the growing city of Los Angeles. They were housed on Main Street, used to transport mail and move harbor baggage up from San Pedro. In 1864 the U.S. Government auctioned the remaining camels to the highest bidder. A rancher named Sam McLeneghan bought them, sold 3 to a circus, employed the remaining 30 in a freight service between States. Gradually they were separated, and spread throughout the West. The Confederates captured several in Texas, but the mule drivers couldn't understand them and turned them loose.
There were other camels, too. Beale's success with them earlier had encouraged private companies to import them. One concern brought 32 over from China, auctioned them for $475 each in San Francisco. They were used in the Nevada salt mines, mistreated, abandoned. Another concern brought 22 camels from Tartary. These were equipped with leather shoes in order-to traverse rough roads in British Columbia. But they frightened horses and were abandoned.
While most of the imported Arab drivers settled on the coast, they turned to other trades, although each of them managed to obtain or retain one camel from the original herd.
Of the imported camelteers, Elias Calles ended up in Sonora, Mexico. His son, Plutarco Calles, became President of Mexico in the early 1920s. "Greek George" served a long term with the U.S. Army and died in Montebello, Calif., in 1913. Hadji Ali, known as "Hi Jolly," became a living legend until his death in Arizona in 1903. Once, insulted because he had not been invited to a German picnic in Los Angeles, he broke up the gathering by driving into it on a yellow cart pulled by 2 of his pet camels. In the 1930s, a monument was erected to his memory in Quartzsite, Ariz.
For years prospectors kept sighting the abandoned camels. Just 50 years ago Nevada had a law fining anyone $100 for using a camel on a public highway. In Arizona, a great red camel carrying a worn saddle on its back was seen at the turn of the century. In 1907 a prospector ran into 2 wild camels in Nevada. In April, 1934, the Oakland Tribune printed the following: "THE LAST AMERICAN CAMEL IS DEAD. Los Angeles--Topsy, the last camel that trekked across the desert of Ariz. and Calif. is dead. Attendants at Griffith Park destroyed her after she became crippled with paralysis in the park lot where she spent the declining years of her life." Actually, Topsy may not have been the last of the U.S. Army's camels. According to rumors, one was recently seen in the Texas desert.
The U.S. Camel corps, which had successfully kept open communications between Texas and Colorado and had carried military loads throughout the new West, finally died of mistreatment and neglect--because it was too strange.
© 1975 - 1981 by David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace