Beale’s Wagon Road was a trail that began at Fort Smith, Arkansas and continued through the New Mexico and Arizona Territories into southern California. The modest but serviceable road ran 1,240 miles from Arkansas to the Colorado River.
In the late 1850s, those few people who lived in the far west found themselves isolated from the rest of the country. Furthermore, the land between the Mississippi River and the west coast was wild, unexplored, and dangerous; and what few roads and trails that crossed the territories were in poor condition. In response to outcries from the residents of the new western states and its desires to promote westward expansion, the United States government organized the Pacific Wagon Road Office under the Department of Interior in 1856.
Though this “primitive” terrain had been crossed since the early 1800s by fur trappers and traders on their way from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Los Angeles, California, the trails were in poor condition, and the region was known to be wild, unexplored, and dangerous.
After the Mexican-American War in 1848, Congress sent several expeditions to the Southwest to explore the area. In September 1851, Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves, along with a small crew of topographers, naturalists, artists, and support personnel, plus an escort of 50 infantrymen, were sent to explore and map the Zuni and Colorado Rivers.
From 1853-56, Lieutenant Amiel Whipple, a soldier and topographical engineer, was charged with exploring the territory from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Los Angeles, California, for a projected transcontinental railroad route near the 35th parallel of latitude.
With the information provided by these expeditions, Congress commissioned the southwest’s first federally funded interstate road to be built through the heart of the new lands to California. In 1857, Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale was appointed by President James Buchanan to survey and build a more than 1,000-mile wagon road from Fort Defiance, Arizona, to the Colorado River. Beale had many years of experience in the west, first with the U.S. Navy in California, then with Kit Carson and John C. Fremont, other early explorers of the West.
At this time, the U.S. Army was conducting an “experiment” utilizing camels in the desert, first proposed by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis four years earlier. It was thought that camels could 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. The first camels arrived from Africa in early 1857, just in time for Beale’s survey expedition. In March, the Secretary of War ordered the formation of the 1st U.S. Army Camel Corps and appointed 35-year-old Lieutenant Edward Beale to command it.
From 1857 to 1860, Lieutenant Edward Beale, a crew of 100 men and 22 camels, built the first federal highway in the southwest. Beale’s road roughly followed Lieutenant Amiel Whipple’s trail west across Arizona through the Flagstaff area and then a little north through Peach Springs and Truxton Wash, named for Beale’s son, before making its way through the Kingman area and on to the Colorado River.
Although the camels were very effective at packing heavy loads across the dry, rocky landscape, they did not meet with positive acceptance from the muleskinners, who saw the animals as “foul-smelling, evil-tempered, and ugly.” They also scared the horses and mules. Despite the protests, these beasts trudged across northern Arizona as Beale and his crew cleared a 10-foot wide track and pushed the rocks to the side to allow wagons to travel on the track.
After the trail was blazed, Lieutenant Beale worked from his ranch at Fort Tejon, California, making several trips across the two states to improve the road.
When Beale’s job was complete, he wrote of the road:
“It is the shortest route from our western frontier by 300 miles, being nearly directly west. It is the most level, our wagons only double-teaming once in the entire distance, and that at a short hill and over a surface heretofore unbroken by wheels or trail of any kind. It is well-watered! Our greatest distance without water at any time being twenty miles … It crosses the great desert (which must be crossed by any road to California) at its narrowest point.”
At the same time, Beale and his men worked through the arid terrain of New Mexico and Arizona, and another group of men worked on the road from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to New Mexico, also using camels. In the end, there was a serviceable route spanning more than 1,200 miles from Fort Smith to the Colorado River, which immediately began to be used by emigrants and stockmen. The total cost of the road was about $210,000. Due to the many complaints, the Army never used camels again.
The road became extremely popular and was continually used by cattle drovers and sheepherders until the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad (later the Santa Fe Railroad) was completed in 1883. The railroad and later automobile routes, including Route 66 and I-40, closely followed the old trail across New Mexico, northern Arizona, and the Mojave Desert into Southern California.
Today, parts of the Beale Wagon Road are visible, marked by the thousands of pioneers traveling the road in its early days.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated January 2023.
Camel Caravans of the American Deserts
Edward Fitzgerald Beale – Blazing the West
Ghost Camels in the American Southwest
Hinckley, Jim; The Route 66 Encyclopedia, Voyageur Press, 2016
U.S. Forest Service