Texas: Myths, Legends, and the Real Deal
Part 7, The Camels of Camp Verde
This story begins with an action taken by Jefferson Davis. A few years before he became President of the Confederate States, he was the Secretary of War for the U. S. federal government. The year was 1855 and Davis convinced Congress to appropriate $30,000 for “the purchase and importation of camels and dromedaries to be employed for military purposes.” He recognized that moving troops and supplies in the southwest territories was difficult, due to the lack of water. Also, traveling there, even for the military, was often dangerous. Davis believed using desert animals could be the answer and labeled his enterprise, the U. S. Camel Military Corps.
Moneys received, Major Henry C. Wayne was sent straightaway to Tunis, Malta, Smyrna, Constantinople, and Alexandria. His orders were to bring back 33 camels to be “stationed” in Texas. Major Wayne was evidently successful in bargaining, as he collected one beyond the required number. Maybe the local trader threw in the extra animal to help seal the deal.
In April of 1856, the “camel” ship arrived at the Texas port of Indianola. Its cargo consisted of multiple Arabian camels, multiple Siout dromedaries, one Tunis camel, one Booghdee camel, a Muscat dromedary, a Sennar dromedary, and one Mount Sinai dromedary. Also on board were experienced Middle Eastern drivers, two Turks and three Arabs. Major Wayne knew that he would need those men.
Next, this crew with its strange herd journeyed from Indianola to the army outpost of Camp Verde, located between San Antonio and the fledgling town of Kerrville. Can you imagine what frontier people must have thought when they witnessed this parade tromping by? The trip to Camp Verde took four months and the animals were promptly housed in a just-built corral having walls 150 feet in length and 10 feet in height. Camel escapes had to be prevented.
The following year, a second voyage was made to the Middle East and forty-one more camels and dromedaries were brought back, bringing the number at Camp Verde to 75. Nine more native men and one boy were also hired brought to control the animals and train the soldiers to handle them.
Over the next year, Camp Verde personnel used the camels as beasts of burden around the fort and as pack trains bringing loads of supplies from San Antonio. Then the Powers in Washington decided the herd should be split. Toward what purpose? Supposedly more experimentation. Two dozen were sent to California, led by an Army officer named Edward Beale. It took five months to reach Fort Tejon, an outpost north of Los Angeles. This was a journey of 1200 miles, in the hottest time of summer. Soldiers and camels all plodded through barren, desert country with little opportunities to replenish their water supply, and over mountains where the soldiers had to carve roads for themselves in dangerous terrain.
Before this expedition had left Camp Verde, officers and privates alike said the trip couldn’t be done, but those tough camels proved the gloomy prediction wrong. Between the herd’s performance at Camp Verde and the trek to California, this camel experiment looked like a resounding success. Those desert animals could carry more weight and required far less water than mules or horses. Admittedly, one or two did escape from time to time and a few were stolen by Indians, but the original purchases had included females to breed and increase the size of the herd.
Unknown to the soldier handlers, forces were at work that doomed the Camel Corps. The first clue was the disregard of Army requests for Congress to buy more camels. The lack of Congressional response had nothing to do with the animals, one way or the other. It was due to politics. Lobbyists for the purchase of mules were very strong and loud and they won the battle by repeatedly calling the Camel Corps a failed undertaking.
The next coffin nail was the Civil War. When Texas joined the other southern states and seceded, the Confederate soldiers seized Camp Verde. Those fellows didn’t know what to do with the numerous camels and simply turned them loose to graze. Naturally, many wandered away and they roamed for hundreds of miles. Three were caught by Union soldiers in Arkansas. Others meandered all the way to Mexico. In California, the camels who had traveled to Fort Tejon were sent to Los Angeles. The Union forces there didn’t know what to do with them, either.
In late 1863, Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered all Army camels be put up for auction. A businessman named Samuel McLaughlin bought a good many and planned to ship them to Nevada to haul salt and mining supplies. To raise the money for the shipping costs, he arranged for a camel race which was held in Sacramento. Over 1000 people paid to watch the unusual competition!
Most of whatever camels were left in California and Texas were eventually sold to traveling zoos and circuses. Edwin Beale, (the Army officer who took half the herd on the long journey to California), bought several and kept them on his ranch as extremely large pets. In 1866, the last of the Texas herd was auctioned to a woman lawyer named Ethel Coopwood, who used them to ship supplies between Laredo and Mexico City.
Historians who’ve attempted to track the fate of the Army camels believe that both Coopwood and McLaughlin occasionally sold a few to circuses, zoos, and whoever. And this is where the camel trail goes fuzzy. At the time the Army imported its animals, private businesses imported hundreds more through the ports of Mobile and Galveston. It was thought there would be a huge market for the desert animals. Unfortunately for those speculators, the building of the railroads ended their dreams of vast fortunes based on shipping by camel. Somehow, these large herds had to sold off. Some were put to use in mining towns. Some were sent to help in the construction of more railroad lines and some were sold to butchers and meat markets. Yet again, a few were sold to more circuses and zoos. And some were just turned loose in the desert.
In their new homes, the Army camels and dromedaries mixed with the privately imported camels, creating all kinds of cross-breeds. Those living in the desert became feral, although there weren’t enough of them to build a thriving population.
Through the years, the wild camels traveled all around the southwest. Although rare, sightings did occur, which was sufficient to make the local news. A few people understood these were camels from Arabia, but many people had no idea what they were. Legends sprang up. Douglas MacArthur claimed to have seen several of the wild camels in New Mexico in 1885, when he was a boy. In 1887, there were reports of two large and ugly animals living just south of the border. There was even a story of a strange animal, possibly a camel, called the Red Ghost. Word was that it attacked people. Folks even claimed it had a rider who appeared to be dead. That detail morphed into, not just a dead rider, but a headless one. In 1893, a farmer saw a reddish camel nibbling in his garden. The man grabbed his shotgun and killed the beast. End of the Red Ghost.
By the early years of the 20th century, confirmed sightings of wild camels went to almost none. But in April, 1934, the Oakland Tribune reported, The Last American Camel Is Dead. She had been spotted traveling the Arizona desert into California and made it all the way to Los Angeles. There, kindhearted people took her to Griffith Park Zoo, to be cared for and live out her days. The attendants named her Topsy. Sadly, in a few months, she was so crippled by painful arthritis that the zoo workers were compelled to put her down.
Site of Old Camp Verde near Kerrville, now
on private property
Camp Verde Centennial Marker
Photos of Camp Verde by Barclay Gibson
Photo of Camels by Texas Camel Corps