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Volume 53, Number 3May/June 2002

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Camels West

Written by Robert Berg
Photographed by Rick Rickman

On February 2, 1848, the United States and Mexico ended nearly two years of war with the signing of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. By its terms, Mexico ceded to the us approximately 1.36 million square kilometers (525,000 sq mi) of territory, an area encompassing the present state of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas and parts of Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. Well over half the area was desert cut by rugged mountain ranges. Roads and navigable rivers hardly existed. Among those who foresaw the enormous challenge of exploring and, eventually, settling this acquisition was one Lieutent George Crosman of the US army. In 1836, he proposed that the US use camels to aid this westward expansion.

Noting that the camel is gifted with strength, endurance and remarkably efficient use of its moisture intake, Crosman reasoned that it would be the animal ideally suited for traversing such vast, arid lands. In 1847, Crosman convinced a fellow officer, Major Henry Wayne, of the merits of this idea. Wayne in turn caught the ear of Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.

Davis was appointed US secretary of war in March 1853, and from that post began to advance Wayne's idea in reports to the president and before an initially skeptical Congress. In the "Department of the Pacific," he wrote in 1854, "The means of transportation have, in some instances, been improved, and it is hoped further developments and improvements will still diminish this large item of our army expenditure. In this connexion,...I again invite attention to the advantages to be anticipated from the use of camels and dromedaries for military and other purposes, and...recommend that an appropriation be made to introduce a small number of the several varieties of this animal, to test their adaptation to our country."

Two years later, Congress allotted $30,000 for the purchase of camels and the establishment of a US Army Camel Corps. An expedition departed for the Middle East aboard the USS Supply, under the command of Lieutenant David Porter, with instructions that "Whenever you meet with fine animals it would be well to procure them." Major Wayne went along. The Supply docked at Tunis on August 4, 1855 to purchase a single camel for study. In addition, the Bey of Tunis, Mohammed II ben Hassine, made the expedition a gift of two male camels, and thus the Supply continued eastward with three camels aboard.

On October 4, Supply arrived in Constantinople, where the crew found camels in short supply because of the Crimean War. After detouring to Crimea to observe camels in military use by the British, Porter and Wayne moved on to Smyrna (modern Izmir) and to Egypt. By February 1856, Wayne was able to write Jefferson Davis that the Supply was ready to sail home bearing three Arab drovers and a manifest of 33 camels.

Although one died during the Atlantic crossing, two calves were born, and so on April 29 the Supply arrived at Indianola, Texas with 34 animals aboard.

From this point, Major Wayne took charge of the camels and established a base of operations at Camp Verde, near San Antonio, Texas. Using as his models the courtyards of khans he had observed in the Middle East, Wayne ordered the construction of a rectangular corral surrounded by three-meter (10') walls. In July, Porter left for the Middle East on a second buying trip, which returned eight months later with an additional 41 animals, all purchased at Smyrna.

As beasts of burden, the camels had an advantage over horses and mules that was convincingly demonstrated at Indianola when a single camel proved capable of carrying more than 550 kilograms (1210 lbs) of hay—four times the load of a mule, which, moreover, typically moved at half a camel's speed. At the same time, there were drawbacks that were to haunt the camel experiment. Horses and mules were frightened by the sight and smell of the camels, and the camels' quirky and irascible temperament made them difficult to handle for men accustomed to more docile livestock. In the American West, where horses predominated, these were factors of no small importance.

A debate immediately arose over the deployment of the camels that would prove crucial in determining their future. Major Wayne's vision was one in which camels not only performed military service, but would also become a common feature of American commercial and private life. To this end, he proposed a three- to four-year delay of their deployment during which large, domestically bred herds could be raised, studied and trained. But both Jefferson Davis and his successor as secretary of war, John Floyd, backed immediate deployment limited to US Army service. Their views prevailed.

The Camel Corps' first assignment came in February 1857, when Congress passed a bill establishing a Federal Road from El Paso, Texas to Fort Yuma on the Colorado River border of Arizona and California. Edward Beale was appointed to head the Camel Corps, and he was charged with surveying a route for the western portion of the road from Fort Defiance, New Mexico to Fort Yuma. Beale was a well-traveled adventurer and a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, and he had backed the use of camels for years. He departed from Camp Verde on June 19 with 25 camels on a trek that, by the time it was over, would take him all the way to the Pacific.

From El Paso, the expedition followed the Rio Grande north into New Mexico and arrived at Fort Defiance in early August. The actual survey work began later that month when Beale set out westward along the 35th parallel. As they journeyed across Arizona's deserts, Beale wrote, "My admiration for the camels increases daily with my experience of them. The harder the test they are put to the more fully they seem to justify all that can be said of them." The expedition reached the Colorado River on October 17, and the camels carried on toward Fort Tejon, California, where some of them were to be stationed.

The utility of the camel was now well established, and subsequent explorations of southwestern Texas and additional surveying of the Federal Road reinforced this conviction. It was not long before entrepreneurs besieged Washington with offers to import camels for both military and commercial schemes. The San Francisco Herald wrote: "The next move in our progress of improvement should be the introduction of camels in California." One San Francisco businessman, Otte Esche, traveled to Mongolia and Siberia in search of sturdy breeds and came home with 45 animals. But his venture, like the Camel Corps itself, was soon doomed.

In early 1861, Texas seceded from the United States, and on February 28 the fledgling Confederacy seized the camels at Camp Verde. Schemes for using them in California, which lay outside Confederate territory, were set aside. Although the camels were put to limited use in Confederate Texas carrying salt, supplies and mail, no real plan for them was ever developed. Ironically, the president of what was then the Confederate States of America was none other than US Army Camel Corps founder Jefferson Davis.

The Civil War put an end to the American experiment with camels. Afterward, the camels in Texas and California were auctioned off. Many ended up in the service of freighting and mining firms; others made the circus circuits around the US and Mexico. With no breeding programs in effect, their numbers waned. By the late 1870's, the last surviving camels used in freighting, now aged beyond utility, were released into the wild.

Roaming the deserts, these camels unwittingly carved themselves a niche in American folklore. Legends of phantom camels popped up throughout the Southwest, prominent among them that of the "Red Ghost," which was said to have been sighted several times with a headless corpse strapped to its back. In 1901, members of the US-Mexico boundary commission reported seeing a herd of wild camels in southern Arizona, which implied that the camels had successfully bred in the American wild. In 1929, a wild camel supposedly stampeded horse herds near Banning, California. And the final report of a wild camel came from the shores of the Salton Sea, in far southern California, in 1941.

There is one further story, that of Hajj Ali, the only truly legendary Old West figure of Arab origin. Born in Syria, he arrived at Camp Verde with the second shipment of camels in 1857 and helped the Americans handle their camels on Beale's trek to California. His easygoing nature—and Americans' ignorance of Arabic—left him with the nickname "Hi Jolly," and after the westward trek he took part in numerous camel projects throughout California and Arizona. After the auctioning of the camels, Hi Jolly prospected for gold, hauled freight and scouted for the US Army. Granted citizenship in 1880, he married Gertrude Serna of Tucson and had two daughters with her. However, in the tradition of the solitary Old West adventurer, he returned to the desert in his late years to prospect alone near Quartzsite, Arizona. He died in 1902. Legendary for his skill with animals, he was cared for in his final days by ranchers and prospectors.

In 1935, the State of Arizona commemorated him by erecting a stone pyramid, topped with a bronze camel, on his grave, which is a prominent landmark in the town of Quartzsite. And today, every January, the town kicks off its winter market and rodeo festival season with "Hi Jolly Daze"—featuring camel races. That's all that remains of an experiment that, in different circumstances, might have changed the landscape of the American Southwest.

Robert Berg is a consultant and cross-cultural trainer who specializes in the Middle East. He lives outside La Luz, New Mexico.

Rick Rickman is a photographer with the Matrix agency of New York. He lives near San Diego.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the May/June 2002 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 2002 images.