The following is an excerpt from my second book, Lindbergh’s Artificial Heart: More Stories From The Flip Side of History.
It’s hard to imagine the old west without images of the classic cowboy riding his horse off into the sunset. Yet, if things had gone differently, those old western movies would have had John Wayne riding into town on his camel. When the Lone Ranger was blurting out, “Hi-Yo Silver! Away!” he would have been referring to his two-humped friend. And Roy Rogers would have had a dromedary named Trigger.
To see what I am talking about, we must set our timepieces back to the first part of the nineteenth century. At this time, the United States was undergoing a great expansion in size and most of the land that it obtained in the southwest was desert. It was not a place for man, horses, or mules. Lack of water meant a lack of life. Yet, the United States government was determined to explore this territory.
In 1836, Major George H. Crosman felt that he had the perfect solution. He proposed that the U.S. government purchase a bunch of camels. After all, what other animal was better suited for desert conditions? He was certain that this was the answer to their problem. Yet, like all good ideas, it fell on deaf ears. That was until Jefferson Davis, who was a Mississippi senator at the time, was told about the camel scheme. He regularly suggested the importation of camels to anyone that would listen, but, again, the idea went nowhere.
The tide began to change in 1852 when Davis was appointed as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Now he was in the position to recommend the purchase of the camels. It took him another three years, but eventually, Davis got the idea approved. On March 3, 1855, Congress appropriated $30,000 “to be expended under the direction of the War Department in the purchase and importation of camels and dromedaries to be employed for military purposes.” The U.S. Camel Corps was now officially in existence.
Now it was time to get some camels. There were none to be found in the United States, so Major Henry C. Wayne and Lieutenant David D. Porter were sent aboard the Navy ship Supply to the eastern Mediterranean to purchase some. Their knowledge of camels was minimal at best, so their first purchases were poor ones. Once they learned the ropes, they were able to obtain thirty-three of the animals at an average cost of $250 each. The camels were boarded on the ship for their three-month voyage across the sea.
From the moment the camels got on the ship, it was obvious that this plan was headed for failure. Knowing little about the care of camels, Wayne and Porter hired six Arabs and one Turk to make the journey to the United States. Just being born in one of these countries, however, does not make you a camel expert. Like the Americans sent to get the camels, these guys basically knew nothing. The Turkish man, who was hired as the veterinarian, had one treatment for everything that ailed these animals: he tickled their noses with a chameleon tail. Clearly, he was well studied in veterinary medicine!
The ship finally arrived in Indianola, Texas on May 14, 1856. One camel had died on the journey but two were born along the way, so the team was ahead by one. Within minutes of unloading, however, there were problems. First, just the sight of a camel made the horses and mules go berserk. Second, they smelled really, really bad and no one wanted to deal with them.
After some fattening up, the camel team was placed at Camp Verde (near San Antonio, Texas) under the command of Lieutenant Edward F. Beale. We can be pretty certain that Beale, who had enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of fourteen, never dreamed he would be asked to lead a pack of dirty, smelly Army camels across the desert. Beale’s mission was quite clear. He was to survey a route from Fort Defiance in New Mexico to eastern California along a trail that would someday become the western portion of that road where you could get your kicks… on Route 66. Clearly, this involved the crossing of a lot of desert terrain. This sounds like a job for… Underdog! No, wait a second. He would die of thirst also. No, this sounds like a job for the super camels!
And off they went. At first, the camels struggled to keep up with the horse and mule teams. They may not have needed as much water, but boy were the camels slow! However, as in that classic race of the tortoise and the hare, you should always bet on the slow guy. After a few days, the camels adapted to their new environment and left the others in the dust.
When Beale completed his official report and submitted it to Congress, it was clear that the camel experiment was a great success. By this time, John B. Floyd had replaced Jefferson Davis as Secretary of War and made the recommendation to Congress to import one thousand more camels. It looked as if the western spotlight on the horse was about to fade into history.
Whoa! Not so fast! Hold your horses!
Making a recommendation is one thing. Actually, getting the money to do it was another. You see, the United States had a big, big problem at the time. The country was on the verge of a Civil War and the last thing Congress needed to deal with was a herd of camels.
Just in case you didn’t know, there was a Civil War. The two sides fought and fought and the United States eventually agreed to be purchased by AOL/Time Warner. (Well, maybe not.) During the war, Camp Verde, which was still home to the camels that did not journey with Beale to California, fell under Confederate control and played absolutely no part in the war. The camels were treated very poorly, mainly because they were misunderstood. If there is one thing that a camel demands, it is R-E-S-P-E-C-T. The camels basically treat you the way you treat them. Hit them with a stick and they will spit on you. Kick them and they will kick you back. It was not unusual for a camel to “accidentally” get loose and have to fare for itself in the desert. As a result, the camels got the reputation of dirty, nasty, and uncooperative animals. Few people had any use for these beasts.
When the war was over, Congress no longer had any interest in the camels. The railroad was expanding west, providing a much better means of transportation. The remaining camels were all auctioned off to the highest bidder, although interest was minimal. Many of these same camels were occasionally seen roaming the vast American desert as late as the beginning of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, the hatred against them was very high and many ranchers used the camels for target practice.
One of the Arabs originally hired for taking care of the camels, a man named Hadji Ali, whose name was Americanized as Hi Jolly, tried for many years to convince others how useful the animals could be. But even he had no success and was forced to let his camels go. Today a monument stands in Arizona in tribute to Hi Jolly and the U.S. Camel Corps.
And so ends the grand camel experiment. It’s hard to imagine how a plan that was so right could end up going so wrong.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.