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Tuesday, October 23, 2012


When the United States expanded westward in the first half of the 19th Century, people encountered terrains and climates unknown in the east. The mountains were taller and more rugged; the prairies were drier and dustier.

Since there were no roads, soldiers and civilians were forced to travel on horseback with their supplies on pack mules. Railroads were still a generation away. After the end of the Mexican-American War, several million square miles of land were added to the United States, much of it desert and mountains. This took a dreadful toll on the horses and mules upon which the Army depended.

Several Army officers, who were familiar with the use of camels in other countries, suggested that they may fare better that the traditional mounts. This was met by ridicule by some but others were interested in exploring the idea. Major Henry Wayne was able to convince Jefferson Davis, a senator from Mississippi, that camels should be given a try. Davis was the chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs and in 1852, he was appointed Secretary of War. An important ally, Davis saw that the time had come to take action.

Congress appropriated $30,000 to procure some camels, and Major Wayne was sent to Saharan Africa to make the arrangements. He quickly learned about the camel trade: One-humped camels (Arabian) were best for riding and two-humped camels (Bactrian) were best for carrying loads. In Egypt, he found healthy and plentiful camels. Thirty-three were purchased and, along with several drovers, were brought back to Texas in 1856 (forty-four more arrived several months later). They were taken to Camp Verde, 60 miles west of San Antonio.

The following year, the U.S. Camel Corps was formed. Under the command of Wayne and Edward Beale, the Corps conducted a survey of unexplored territory between El Paso and the Colorado River. The skeptics among the party were won over by the camel’s performance.

Beale reported to Congress, “The harder the test they (the camels) are put to, the more fully they seem to justify all that can be said of them. They pack water for days under a hot sun and never get a drop; they pack heavy burdens of corn and oats for months and never get a grain; and on the bitter greasewood and other worthless shrubs, not only subsist, but keep fat. . . I look forward to the day when every mail route across the continent will be conducted and worked altogether with this economical and noble brute.”

In 1858, the new Secretary of War John Floyd urged Congress to authorize the purchase of 1,000 more camels. Congress did not accept his recommendation, being preoccupied with the growing tensions between northern and southern states.

Sadly, Congress did not fully appreciate the role of the camel in the Army. They were rarely used. In 1863, the Camel Corps was dissolved and the stock was sold off to zoos, circuses, and miners. Many were just released into the desert. Feral camels continued to reproduce in the wild and were seen for years; the last sighting was in 1941. Some people believe that they are still out there, somewhere.

Among the many legends associated with feral camels is the tale of the “Red Ghost.” The first incident was in 1883, when a woman was discovered trampled by some beast, which left clumps of its reddish fur in a nearby thorn bush and huge hoof prints in the mud. Several days later, a large animal wildly careened into a tent in which two miners lay sleeping. It left behind hoof prints twice the size of those left by horses, and strands of red fur.

More sightings occurred, and eventually the creature was recognized as a camel. A rancher reported that the animal carried a rider, but the rider did not appear to be alive. Later, the beast was spotted by a group of prospectors. Something fell from its back and rolled away. The men eagerly retrieved the object. It turned out to be a human skull. The Red Ghost and its now headless rider continued to terrorize the populace for the next ten years. When it was finally shot and killed in 1893, there was no grisly rider to be found. Only the camel knows what really happened.

(note: Early camels actually originated in North America but were driven out by climate changes and hunting by early humans. They mostly migrated to Asia and Africa; some went to South America and became llamas. One hundred and fifty years ago they were reintroduced to North America by the U.S. Camel Corps.) 

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