Camel Caravans of the American Deserts
BY J. M. Guinn
The story of the experiment made
nearly fifty years ago, to utilize the Arabian camel as a beast
of burden on the arid plains of Arizona, New Mexico and the
deserts of the Colorado is one of the many unwritten chapters in
the history of the South-west. A few fugitive locals in the
newspapers of that time and the reminiscences of some of the
camel drivers who survived the experiment are about the only
records of a scheme that its pro-genitors had hoped would
revolutionize travel and transportation over the American
deserts. The originator and chief promoter of the project was
Jefferson Davis, late president of the Southern Confederacy.
During the last days of the session
of Congress in 1851, when the army appropriation bill was under
consideration, Mr. Davis, then Senator from Mississippi, offered
an amendment providing for the purchase and introduction of 30
camels and 20 dromedaries, with ten Arab drivers and the
In advocating his amendment, Mr.
Davis alluded to the extent to which these animals are used in
various countries in Asia and Africa as beasts of burthen; and
among other things stated that they are used by the English in
the East Indies in transporting army supplies and often in
carrying light guns upon their backs; that camels were used by
Napoleon in his Egyptian campaigns in dealing with a race to
which our wild Comanche and Apaches bear a close resemblance.
Mr. Davis thought these animals might be used with effect
against the Indians on our Western frontier. Drinking enough
water before they start to last for one hundred miles; traveling
continually without rest at a rate of ten or fifteen miles an
hour, they would overtake these bands of Indians, which our
cavalry cannot do.
They might be made to transport small
pieces of ordnance with great facility; and in fact do here all
that they are capable of doing in the East, where they are
accustomed to eat the hardiest shrubs and to drink the same kind
of brackish water which is stated to exist in some portions of
our Western deserts. Ewing of Ohio expressed the opinion that
our climate was too cold for the camel. Mr. Rantoul of
Massachusetts had no doubt the camel might be useful, but
thought $200 apiece sufficient to pay for the animals.
The amendment was lost 19 years and
24 days. The appropriation of $30,000 to buy camels with was a
reckless extravagance that the Senators could not sanction.
This was long before the days of
billion dollar Congresses. The total appropriations for all
purposes by that Congress was $41,900,000 eight millions less
than the appropriation of the River and Harbor bill alone that
Senator Carter of Montana talked to death in the last Congress.
Then the newspapers of California
took up the scheme, and the more they agitated it, the mightier
it became. They demonstrated that it was possible to form a
lightning dromedary express, to carry the fast mail and to bring
eastern papers and letters to California in 15 days.
It would be possible, too, if
Congress could only be induced to import camels and dromedaries
to have fast camel passenger trains from Missouri River points
to the Pacific Coast. The camel, loading up his internal water
tank out of the Missouri and striking straight across the
country regardless of watering places, and boarding himself on
sage brush the plains across, would take his next drink of the
trip out of the Colorado River; then after a quiet pasear across
the desert he would land his passengers in the California coast
towns in two weeks from the time of starting. No more running
the gauntlet of Panama fevers and thieving natives on the
isthmus. No more dying of thirst on the deserts. No freezing to
death in the snows of the Sierras; no more shipwrecks on the
high seas. The double-decked camel train would do away with all
these and solve the transportation problem until the Pacific
railroad was built.
Although beaten in his first attempt
at camel importation, Jefferson Davis kept his scheme in view.
While Secretary of War under President Pierce from 1853 to 1857
he obtained reports from army officers stationed on the
Southwestern frontier in regard to the loss of animals on the
plains, the cost of transportation of army supplies and the
possibility of utilizing the camel in hunting Indians. These
reports were laid before Congress and that body authorized the
sending out of a commission from San Antonio, Texas, to Arizona
to ascertain the military uses to which camels could be put in
the Southwest. The commission made a favorable report and
Congress in 1854 appropriated $30,000 for the purchase and
importation of camels.
In December, 1854, Major C. Wayne was
sent to Egypt and Arabia to buy seventy-five camels. He bought
the first lot in Cairo and taking these in the naval store ship
"Supply," he sailed to Smyrna, where thirty more of another kind
were bought. These had been used on the Arabian deserts. They
cost from seventy-five to three hundred dollars each, somewhat
more than had been paid for the Egyptian lot. The ship "Supply"
with its load of camels reached Indianola, Texas, on the Gulf of
Mexico, Feb. 10, 1857. Three had died during the voyage, leaving
seventy-two in the herd.
About half of these were taken to
Albuquerque, New Mexico, where an expedition was fitted out
under command of Lieut. Beale for Fort Tejon, California. The
route lay along the 35th parallel, crossing the Mojave Desert.
The expedition consisted of 44 citizens, with an escort of 20
soldiers, the camels carrying the baggage and water.
The expedition arrived safely at
Tejon and the camel caravan made several trips between Fort
Tejon and Albuquerque. The other half of the herd was employed
in packing on the plains of Texas and in the Gadsen Purchase, as
Southern Arizona was then called.
The first caravan to arrive in, Los
Angeles reached the city, Jan. 8, 1858. The Star thus notes its
"A drove of fourteen camels under the
management of Lieut. Beale arrived in Los Angeles. They were on
their way from Fort Tejon to the Colorado River and the Mormon
country, and each animal was packed with one thousand pounds of
provisions and military stores. With this load they made from 30
to 40 miles per day, finding their own subsistence in even the
most barren country and going without water from six to ten days
at a time."
Again, the Star of July 21, 1858,
makes note that "the camels have come to town." It says: "The
camels, eight in number, came into town from. Fort Tejon, after
provisions for that camp. The largest ones pack a ton and can
travel sixteen miles an hour."
It would seem that a beast of burden
that could pack a ton, travel sixteen miles an hour, subsist on
sage brush and go from six to ten days on one drink would have
supplied most effectually the long felt want of cheap and rapid
transportation over the desert plains of the Southwest. The
promoters of the scheme, to utilize the camel in America, made
one fatal mistake. They figured only on his virtues; his vices
were not reckoned into the account.
Another mistake they made was in not
importing Arab drivers with the camels. From the very first
meeting of the camel and the American mule-whacker who was to be
his driver there developed between the two a mutual antipathy.
To be a successful camel driver, a
man must be born to the business. Indeed, he must come of a
guild or trade union of camel drivers at least a thousand years
old; and, better still, if it dates back to the days of Abraham
and Isaac. The first disagreement between the two was in the
matter of language. The vigorous invective and fierce profanity
of the quondam mule-driver irritated the nerves and shocked the
finer feelings of the camel, who never in his life, perhaps, had
heard anything more strenuous than "Allah, el Allah" lisped in
the softest Arabic.
At first the mild submissiveness of
the camel provoked his drivers. They could appreciate the
vigorous kicking of an army mule in his protest against abuse.
But the spiritless dejection and the mild-eyed pensiveness of
the Arabian burden-bearer was exasperating; but they soon
learned that in pure meanness one lone camel could discount a
whole herd of mules. His supposed virtues proved to be his worst
vices. He could travel 16 miles an hour. Abstractly that was a
virtue; but when camp was struck in the evening and he was
turned loose to sup off the succulent sage brush, either to
escape the noise and profanity of the camp or to view the
country, he was always seized with a desire to take a pascar of
twenty-five or thirty miles before supper. While this only took
an hour or two of his time, it involved upon his unfortunate
driver the necessity of spending half the night in camel
chasing; for if he was not rounded up there was a delay of half
the next day in starting the caravan. He could carry a ton, this
was a commendable virtue, but when two heavily laden "ships of
the desert" collided on a narrow trail, as they always did when
an opportunity offered, and tons of supplies were scattered over
miles of plain and the unfortunate camel pilots had to gather up
the flotsam of the wreck; it is not strange that the mariners of
the arid wastes anathematized the whole camel race from the
beast the prophet rode, down to the smallest imp of Jefferson
The army horses and mules shared the
antipathy of the drivers for the Arabian Desert trotters.
Whenever one of the humpbacked burden bearers of the Orient came
trotting along past a corral of horses and lifted his voice in
an evening orison to Mahommed or some other Turk, every horse of
the caballada was seized with fright and broke loose and
stampeded over the plains.
All of these little eccentricities
did not endear the camel to the soldiers of Uncle Sam's army. He
was hated, despised and often persecuted. In vain the officers
urged the men to give the camels a fair trial. No one wanted
anything to do with the misshapen beast. The teamsters when
transformed into camel drivers deserted and the troopers when
detailed for such a purpose fell back on their reserved rights
and declared there was nothing in army rules and regulations
that could compel American soldiers to become Arabian camel
drivers. So because there was no one to load and navigate these
ships of the desert their voyages became less and less frequent,
until finally they ceased altogether; and the desert ships were
anchored at the different forts in the Southwest.
It became evident to the army
officers that the camel experiment was a failure. Every attempt
to organize a caravan resulted in an incipient mutiny among the
troopers and teamsters. No attempt, so far as I know, was ever
made to utilize the camel for the purpose that Davis imported
him, that of chasing the Apache to his stronghold and shooting
the Indian full of holes from light artillery strapped on the
back of a camel. Instead of the camel hunting the Indian, the
Indian hunted the camel. In some way poor Lo's untutored
appetite had learned to love camel steaks and stews. So,
whenever an opportunity offered, the Apaches killed the camels;
but the camel soon learned to hate and avoid the Indian, as all
living things learn to do. Some were allowed to die of neglect
by their drivers; others were surreptitiously shot by the
troopers sent to hunt them up when they strayed away, the
trooper claiming to have mistaken the wooly tufts on the top of
the twin humps of the camel as they bobbed up and down in the
tall sage brush, for the top-knot of an Indian, and in
self-defense to have sent a bullet crashing, not into an Indian,
but into the anatomy of a camel.
At the breaking out of the Civil War,
some thirty-five or forty of the camel band were herded at the
United States forts, Verde, El Paso, Yuma and some of the
smaller posts in Texas. When the Eastern forts were abandoned by
the government the camels were turned loose to take care of
themselves. Those at Yuma and Fort Tejon were taken to Benicia,
condemned and sold at auction to the highest bidder. They were
bought by two Frenchmen who took them to Reese River, Nevada,
where they were used in packing salt to Virginia City.
After-wards they were taken to Arizona and for some time they
were used in packing ore from the Silver King mine down the Gila
to Yuma. But even the Frenchmen's patience gave out at last.
Disgusted with their hunch-backed burden bearers, they turned
the whole herd loose upon the desert near Maricopa Wells.
Free now to go where they pleased,
instead of straying away beyond the reach of cruel man, the
camels seemed possessed with a desire to linger near the haunts
of men. They stayed near the line of the overland travel and did
mischief. The apparition of one of these ungainly beasts
suddenly looming up before the vision of a team of mules
frightened the long-eared quadrupeds out of all their senses; so
they ran away, scattering freight and drivers over the plains.
The mule drivers, out of revenge, shot the camels whenever they
could get in range of them. In 1882 several wild camels were
caught in Arizona and sold to a menagerie, but a few have
survived all enemies and still roam at large in the desert
regions of Southern Arizona and Sonora, Mex. The International
Boundary Commission that recently surveyed the line between the
United States and Mexico, reported seeing wild camels on the
alkali plains amid sage brush and cactus. These are probably
descendants of the imported ones, as those seen appeared to be
in their prime. Occasionally the soldiers in the garrisons of
New Mexico and Arizona catch sight of a few wild camels on the
alkali plains. All reports agree that the animals have grown
white with age. Their hides have assumed a hard leathery
appearance and they are reported to have hard prong hoofs,
unlike the cushioned feet of the well-kept camel. Whether these
are some of the survivors of the original importation brought
into the country nearly fifty years ago, or whether their
descendants are gradually being evolved to meet the conditions
with which they are surrounded, I do not know.
Source: Annual publication of the Historical Society of Southern
California and Pioneer register, Los Angeles, Part I. Vol.
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