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Camels in the American Southwest
In 1848, the importation of camels for
military purposes in the southwest was suggested to the War Department by
Henry Wayne, a Quartermaster Major. Two years later, Secretary of War and
Jefferson Davis, tried to persuade the Senate to
look into the use of camels for the U.S. Army.
During this time period, the southwest territory of the United States was
greatly expanding and it was thought that camels could be used to carry at
least twice the amount of weight as horses or mules, and might also be
used in tracking and pursuing Indians, as they could travel without water
or rest for much longer than horses. It was also suggested that the camels
might carry the mail and that fast camel passenger trains might be
developed to run from Missouri
River points to the Pacific Coast.
Initially, the Senators voted the idea down, but after California
newspapers began to promote the idea, they finally agreed in 1854, passing
a bill to appropriate $30,000 for the camel experiment.
Some 72 camels arrived in the country in the early part of 1857 and were
put to work carrying supplies in the southwest. However, though the camels
proved to be well-suited to travel through the region, their unpleasant
disposition, habit of frightening horse, and tendency to wander off during
the nights, made them very unpopular among the soldiers. Still, they
continued to be used until the Civil War
broke out, at which time; they were sold at auction or turned loose into
For years afterwards, wild camels continued to be spied roaming in the
desert, especially in southern Arizona.
Along with these real sightings, a number of legends and tales began
regarding these ugly beasts of burden. The most popular is the tale of a
camel known as the Red Ghost.
In 1883, a woman was found trampled to death and, on her body and a nearby
bush, were clumps of reddish fur. Large hoof prints were found in the
area, but locals were perplexed. A short time later, a large animal
careened into a tent in which two miners lay sleeping. Though they were
unable to identify the beast, again, large hoof prints and tufts of red
hair were left behind. After more incidents occurred, the locals finally
recognized the large animal as a camel. Soon, people began to report
seeing the camel, who one rancher said carried a rider, though the rider
appeared to be dead. The next report came from a group of prospectors who
saw the camel and while watching him, spied something falling from its
back. As the beast moved on, the prospectors went to see what had fallen
and discovered a human skull. For the next several years, numerous others
spied the camel, who by this time had been dubbed the "Red Ghost,”
carrying its headless rider. However, in 1893, when an Arizona
farmer found the red camel grazing in his garden, he shot and killed the
beast. By this time, the large camel had shaken free of its dead rider,
but still bore the saddle and leather straps with which the corpse had
There was much speculation as to who the mysterious dead rider the camel
had carried for several years might have been. One tale alleges that the
rider was a young soldier, who was afraid of the camels, and therefore,
was having much difficulty in learning how to ride them. In order to teach
him how, his fellow soldiers tied him to the top of the beast, determined
that he would get over his fear. They then hit the camel on the rump and
the beast took off running. Though the soldiers pursued the camel and his
rider, the red beast easily outpaced them and escaped into the desert.
Neither the camel, nor his helpless rider, were ever seen again.
Though the abandoned beasts of the
Camel Corps roamed for decades, they
soon disappeared altogether. In 1907, a prospector reported that he had
seen two wild camels in Nevada and other reports continued to come in
sporadically. However, in April, 1934, the Oakland Tribune
reported: "The Last American Camel Is Dead.” The camel, dubbed "Topsy,”
was last seen trekking across the desert of Arizona
When she made her way to Los Angeles,
she was taken to Griffith Park to live. However, sometime later, she became so crippled with the paralysis,
the zoo attendants were forced to put her down.
all the "real” army camels have long passed. However, legends continue to
abound of people sighting a giant red camel, carrying a headless rider, in
the deserts of Arizona.
It sounds as if "Red Ghost,” may very well be living up to his name.
Yet another legend of a ghostly camel also persists. This camel belonged
to a prospector named Jake, who had purchased three camels from the Army
at the public auction. Though his camels were every bit as ornery as the
soldiers had described them, he spent much time caring for them and had
nothing but praise for his beasts of burden.
After Jake hit pay dirt, he led his gold-laden camels into town to sell
his ore. Afterwards, he headed to the local saloon to celebrate.
Unfortunately, in the crowd was a man named Paul Adams, who listened with
much interest to Jake’s story of his gold find. When Jake left to return
to his mine, he didn’t go directly to his claim, knowing that he might be
followed. Though he was careful and took a circuitous route, the man named
Paul Adams followed him. When Jake encamped for the night, Adams,thinking
that he was at the mine’s location, murdered him. Trying to protect his
owner, one of the camels attacked Adams, and for his efforts, was shot by
scoundrel, but not before he had viciously bit him.
Adams then began to search in earnest for Jake’s mine, until one night the
ghost of Jake riding upon the dead camel, approached his camp and
chased the scoundrel all the way into town, straight to the sheriff’s
office. Frightened beyond belief, Paul Adams then made a full confession.
Whether Jake and his loyal camel continue to roam the desert is unknown.
of America, updated October, 2012.
Camel Caravans of the American Deserts
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