If Jefferson Davis and others could have had their way, camels might have become as much a symbol of Texas ingenuity and grit as the Longhorn or the mustang. Mules, oxen and other beasts of burden might have found themselves ignominiously unemployed when it came to time to cross American deserts and mountains. Rodeos and horse tracks would look a lot different, and cowboys would have a whole different set of skills. It could have happened.
That it didn’t work out that way isn’t wholly the fault of the camels. They proved more than adequate for the tasks assigned them but Davis, Robert E. Lee (who was charged with protecting the camels for a time when he was stationed in Texas) and indeed the entire country was forced to focus on other matters – mainly a little episode in our history known as the American Civil War.
Davis, a U.S. Senator who would later serve as the U.S. Secretary of War, had long supported the annexation of Texas but transportation in the rougher portions of the state, especially West Texas, was problematic. Accepting the commonly held notion that most of the Western U.S. was a Great American Desert, Davis thought camels might be the solution.
As Secretary of War, Davis’ first annual report to President Franklin Pierce included some lobbying on behalf of the humble and hard-working dromedary: “Napoleon when in Egypt used with marked success the dromedary in subduing the Arabs whose habits and country were very similar to those of the mounted Indians of our Western plains. France is about to adopt the dromedary in Algeria. For like military purposes, for expresses and for reconnaisances, it is believed that the dromedary will fill a want now seriously felt in our military service.”
In 1857, Davis helped add $30,000 to the appropriation bill for the “purchase of camels and the importation of dromedaries, to be employed for military purposes.”
And so it came to pass that 32 camels, mostly single-humped Arabian dromedaries along with a two-humped Bactrian and hybrids of the two, along with one calf born at sea, arrived at the historic but now defunct port city of Indianola in the spring of 1857.
Maj. H.C. Wayne, who bought the camels during a trafficking foray up and down the North African coast, brought them to Texas, eventually settling at Camp Verde near present-day Kerrville. From that base of operations those camels, along with a second group from Egypt, went the camels to work with the same accepting nonchalance for which they are known.
Wayne’s first test was an expedition of six camels from Camp Verde to San Antonio; the camels passed with flying colors. “From this trial it will be seen that the six camels transported over the same ground and distance the weights of two six mule wagons, and gained on them 42 ½ hours in time.”
Other reports confirmed the fact that camels were up to about any task assigned them. Skeptics might have been persuaded by a trip to the Big Bend region of Texas, a rugged and arid land that had defeated previous expeditions.
For the camels, the trip was pretty much a walk in the park. The camels at one point traveled more than 100 miles in four days without water, which allowed the human members of the expedition to save their water without a need to share it with horses or mules as would have been the case in a traditional trip to those parts. The group eventually found water and it was reported that the camels “arrived at the water in good condition and showed no evidence of unusual distress.”
In response to complaints from pioneers who found westbound travel more than a little perilous, not to mention downright difficult, Lieutenant Edward Beale was instructed to take a caravan from Texas to California. Like Wayne and others, Beale saw a lot to like in the camels.
He wrote: “They are the most docile, patient and easily managed creatures in the world and infinitely more workable than mules.”
Not all the camels made it back to Texas from California. A few stayed in the Golden State and were seen there as late as the 1890, wandering aimlessly about the deserts in what might be characterized as a typically laid-back California attitude.
The Great Camel Experiment died from neglect, as did the camels from a couple of other subsequent shipments of camels to the state. As hostilities between the North and South escalated, Jefferson Davis became president of the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee refused to fight against his home state and also joined the Confederacy. U.S. officials were quick to wash their hands of any enterprise that had Davis’ fingerprints on it, and the camel experiment faded into history.
Some of the animals were sold to a circus. Bethel Coopwood bought 66 of the camels at an auction with the idea of using them to haul mail to Mexico City; the idea never panned out and Coopwood gave up his camels to repay a loan. Like old soldiers, the Texas camels faded away.
While it may be surmised that Texas and the United States missed a good opportunity when it let the camel experiment die, that’s probably not the case. We can only imagine what kind of havoc camels would have wreaked on native vegetation. And while reports from military officers were laudatory, not everyone was so fond of the camels. They smelled bad and could be extremely foul-tempered. Camels also have an annoying habit of puking on people who displease them. Even the most stubborn of mules won’t resort to pukery.
Horses hate camels too. “The chief objection to using camels as beasts of burden in Texas is that horses usually run away at the sight of them,” one observer wrote. “This is bad for the horse and worse for the pilot of the camel if the owners of the horses should have his pistol with him.”
Using camels in the American deserts and mountains was an idea whose time came, and we can be glad for that because it added a colorful chapter to our history, but we can be just as glad the time for that idea passed. It’s just hard to imagine the Seventh Cavalry riding to the rescue on a bunch of camels.