Camel Caravans in the American Desert


Jefferson Davis by C.E. Emery, about 1888

Jefferson Davis by C.E. Emery, about 1888

The story of the experiment made in the mid 1800’s 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.

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 camels were used by Napoleon 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 eat the hardiest shrubs and to drink the same kind of brackish 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 with was a reckless extravagance that the Senators could not sanction.

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 and striking straight across the country regardless of watering places, and boarding himself on sage brush on the plains across, would take his next drink of the trip out of the Colorado River; then after a quiet stroll across the desert, he would land his passengers in the California coast towns in two weeks from the time of starting. No more running the gauntlet of Panama fevers and thieving natives on the isthmus. No more dying of thirst on 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 in regard to 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, who authorized the sending out of 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 for the purchase and importation of camels.

Arabian Camel

Arabian Camel

In December, 1854, Major C. Wayne was sent to Egypt and Arabia to buy seventy-five 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 on 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 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, with an escort of 20 soldiers, the camels carrying the baggage and water.

Fort Tejon, California

Fort Tejon, California

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 Star thus notes 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 per day, finding their own 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, made note 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 pack a ton and can travel sixteen miles an hour.”

Camel in the desert, about 1900

Camel in the desert, about 1900

It would seem that a beast of burden that could pack a ton, travel sixteen miles an hour, subsist on sage brush and go from six to ten days on one drink would have supplied most effectually 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 reckoned into the account.

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

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

Abstractly that was a virtue; but when camp was struck in the evening and he was turned loose to sup off the succulent sage brush, 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *