Camel Caravans in the American Desert

Camels in the Southwest.

Camels in the Southwest.

By James Miller Guinn, 1901

The story of the experiment made in the mid-1800s to utilize the Arabian camel as a beast of burden on the arid plains of Arizona, New Mexico, and the deserts of the Colorado River is one of the many unwritten chapters in the history of the Southwest. 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 originators had hoped would revolutionize travel and transportation over the American deserts. The chief promoter of the project was Jefferson Davis of the Southern Confederacy.

During the last days of the session of Congress in 1851, when the army appropriation bill was under consideration, Davis, then a Senator from Mississippi, offered an amendment providing for the purchase and introduction of 30 camels and 20 dromedaries (two-humped camels) with ten Arab drivers and the necessary equipage.

Jefferson Davis by C.E. Emery, about 1888

Jefferson Davis by C.E. Emery, about 1888

In advocating his amendment, Davis alluded to the extent to which these animals were used in various countries in Asia and Africa as beasts of burden and, among other things, stated that they were used by the English in the East Indies in transporting army supplies and often, in carrying light guns upon their hacks; that Napoleon used camels in his Egyptian campaigns in dealing with a race to which the Comanche and Apache bore a close resemblance. 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 to fifteen miles an hour, they would overtake these bands of Indians, which our cavalry could not do.

They could have been made to transport small pieces of ordnance with great facility and, in fact, do here all that they were capable of doing in the East, where they were accustomed to eating the hardiest shrubs and drinking the same kind of salty water which existed in some portions of our Western deserts. Thomas Ewing of Ohio expressed the opinion that our climate was too cold for the camel. Robert 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 yeas and 24 nays. The appropriation of $30,000 to buy camels was a reckless extravagance that the Senators could not sanction.

Arabian Camel

Arabian Camel.

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 River, striking straight across the country regardless of watering places, and boarding himself on sagebrush on the plains across, would take his next drink of the trip out of the Colorado River. After a quiet stroll across the desert, he would land his passengers in the California coast towns two weeks from starting. No more running the gauntlet of Panama fevers and thieving natives on the isthmus. No more dying of thirst in 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 regarding the loss of animals on the plains — the cost of transportation of array supplies and the possibility of utilizing the camel in hunting Indians. These reports were laid before Congress, which authorized sending 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 to purchase and import camels.

Loading a Camel onto a Boat by Gwinn Heap 1857.

Loading a Camel onto a Boat by Gwinn Heap 1857.

In December 1854, Major C. Wayne was sent to Egypt and Arabia to buy 75 camels. He bought the first lot in Cairo and, taking these in the naval store ship Supply, he sailed to Smyrna, where 30 more of another kind were bought. These had been used in the Arabian deserts. They cost from $75-$300 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, on February 10, 1857. Three camels had died during the voyage, leaving 72 in the herd.

About half of these were taken to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where an expedition was fitted out under the command of Lieutenant Edward Beale for Fort Tejon, California; the route, which became known as Beale’s Wagon Road, lay along the 35th parallel, crossing the Mojave Desert. The expedition consisted of 44 citizens, escorting 20 soldiers and camels carrying the baggage and water.

Barracks at Fort Tejon, California by Carol Highsmith.

Barracks at Fort Tejon, California, by Carol Highsmith.

The expedition arrived safely at Fort 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 the Gadsen Purchase, as Southern Arizona was then called.

The first caravan to arrive in Los Angeles reached the city on January 8, 1858. The Los Angeles Star noted its arrival:

“A drove of fourteen camels under the management of Lieutenant 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 daily, finding their 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, noted that “the camels have come to town.” It said:

“The camels, eight in number, came into town from Fort Tejon after provisions for that camp. The largest ones packed a ton and could 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 sagebrush, and go from six to ten days on one drink would have most effectively supplied 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 taken into account.

Another mistake they made was not importing Arab drivers with camels. From the first meeting of the camel and the American mule-whacker, who was to be his driver, a mutual antipathy developed between the two.

Working with a camel

Working with a camel.

A man must be born into the business to be a successful camel driver. Indeed, he must come from 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 former mule-driver irritated the nerves. They 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 camel’s mild submissiveness provoked his drivers. They could appreciate the vigorous kicking of an army mule in protest against abuse. But the spiritless dejection and mild-eyed pensiveness of the Arabian burden-bearer were exasperating. They soon learned that one lone camel could discount a whole herd of mules in pure meanness. His supposed virtues proved to be his worst vices. He could travel 16 miles an hour.

Abstractly, that was a virtue, but when the camp was struck in the evening. He was turned loose to sup off the succulent sagebrush, 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 walk of 25-30 miles before supper.

Teamster by Edwin Forbes, 1863

Teamster by Edwin Forbes, 1863.

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 –. Still, when two heavily laden “ships of the desert” collided on a narrow trail, as they always did when an opportunity offered, tons of supplies were scattered over miles of plain, and the unfortunate camel pilots had to gather up the cargo of the wreck; it is not strange that the mariners of the arid wastes cursed the whole camel race from the beast the prophet rode, down to the smallest imp of Jefferson Davis’ importation.

The army horses and mules shared the drivers’ antipathy for the Arabian Desert trotters. Whenever one of the humpbacked burden bearers of the Orient came trotting past a corral of horses and lifted his voice in an evening oration to Mohammed or some other Turk, every horse of the herd was seized with fright, 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, but no one wanted anything to do with the misshapen beast. When transformed into camel drivers, the teamsters 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; the desert ships were anchored at the different forts in the Southwest.

Camel Corps unit pauses en route to Carson Valley, Nevada, 1860.

Depiction of Camel Corps unit pausing en route to Carson Valley, Nevada, 1860.

It became evident to the army officers that the camel experiment failed. Every attempt to organize a caravan resulted in an incipient mutiny among the troopers and teamsters.

No attempt, so far known, 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 Indians, the Indians hunted the camel, as they had learned to love camel steaks and stews. So, whenever an opportunity was offered, the Apache killed the camels, but the camel soon learned to hate and avoid the Indians, as all living things learned 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 sagebrush, for the topknot of an Indian, and in self-defense, to have sent a bullet crashing, not into an Indian, but into the anatomy of a camel.

Camel in the desert, about 1900

Camel in the desert, about 1900.

When the Civil War broke out, some 35-40 of the camel band were herded at the United States forts — Camp Verde, Fort Bliss, Fort Yuma, and some of the smaller posts in Texas. When the government abandoned the eastern forts, the camels were turned loose to take care of themselves. Those at Fort Yuma and Fort Tejon were taken to the Benicia Arsenal, condemned, and sold to the highest bidder at auction. Two Frenchmen bought them to Reese River, Nevada, where they were used in packing salt to Virginia City. Afterward, they were taken to Arizona, and for some time, they were used in packing ore from the Silver King Mine down the Gila River to Yuma, Arizona. 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 men, 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 circus. Still, a few survived to roam at large in the desert regions of Southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. For years afterward, boundary officials would report seeing wild camels on the alkali plains amid sagebrush and cactus. These are probably descendants of the imported ones, as those seen appeared to be in their prime.

Occasionally, soldiers in the garrisons of New Mexico and Arizona would catch sight of a few wild camels on the alkali plains. All reports agreed that the animals had grown white with age, their hides having assumed a hard, leathery appearance. They are reported to have hard prong hoofs, unlike the cushioned feet of the well-kept camel.

Written by James M. Guinn, 1901. Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated May 2024. The text is not verbatim, as grammatical errors and spelling have been corrected, and the text has been updated for the modern reader.

Army Camel in Los Angeles, California

Army Camel in Los Angeles, California.

Also See:

American Southwest

Beale’s Wagon Road From New Mexico to California

California Main Page

Ghost Camels in the American Southwest

About the Author: A teacher by profession, James Miller Guinn was extremely active in the Historical Society of Southern California in the1880s, filling every office in the society. Over the years, he contributed several valuable historical papers to magazines and newspapers, as well as edited the Historical Society’s Annual for more than ten years. He wrote several historical and biographical records regarding California. Camel Caravans of the American Deserts was included in Pioneers of Los Angeles County Register, 1900-1901, Vol. 5. Though the content is essentially the same as Guinn wrote it in 1901, the text as it appears here has been edited for ease of the modern reader.