Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Caroline Clemmons: Camels in the Old West

Caroline Clemmons, author
 Camels in the West
by Caroline Clemmons
Copyright © 2012 Caroline Clemmons

Since I live in, write about, and love Texas, you won’t be surprised to learn that today’s post involves Texas and Southwest history. If you saw the 1976 family comedy “Hawmps!,” then you already know that the U.S. Government experimented with the effectiveness of camels in the desert West. The movie was hilarious, but loosely based on fact.

Jefferson Davis

In 1855, the U.S. Congress, at the urging of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, authorized the importation of camels and dromedaries to be used for military purposes and earmarked thirty thousand dollars for the experiment. Davis, a veteran of the war with Mexico, had seen considerable service in the Desert Southwest. Keenly aware of the role that camels had played over the centuries in the warfare of other nations, he believed that the strange beasts could be put to use in the United States as well.

Major Henry C. Wayne and Lieutenant David D. Porter departed for North Africa, where they were met by a third American, Gwinn Harris Heap, whose father had been the U.S. consul to Tunis for a number of years. They acquired thirty-three camels before departing for home in February 1856. Native camel drivers accompanied the camels and dromedaries.

Camel Headquarters

The ocean voyage from the Mediterranean, through the Strait of Gibraltar, and across the Atlantic was been uneventful considering the fragile cargo. On May 14, 1856, the camels came ashore at Indianola, Texas. Ten acres of land had been set aside for them and a two-hundred-foot-long shed had been built to house them. Major Wayne decided first to acclimate the camels to the intense humidity of the Gulf Coast by letting them rest in a large corral.

Writing to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, Navy Lieutenant Porter said, “We have lost on the voyage but one of those we purchased…and she died from no want of care, but because she was unable to produce her young one…We still have more than we started with, some young ones having been born on the passage, and are in fine condition. All the other camels I am happy to say have not received a scratch…They are looking a little shabby just now, most of them shedding their hair…but they are fat and in good health.

Three weeks later, the animals began first leg of the trip that would take them to San Antonio, Texas, on to El Paso, Albuquerque, and across the arid Southwest all the way to Fort Tejon, California. The camels performed extremely well. Capable of carrying loads of up to twelve hundred pounds—larger than a horse or mule could carry—the beasts lumbered along at a slow but steady pace.

A monument in Quartzite, Arizona pays tribute to chief camel driver, Hajid Ali, called Hi Jolly. After the camel experiment failed, he used some of the released camels to conduct a freight business. Later he married and worked in Quartzite. The monument is at his last campsite. At his death, he believed small families of camels still roamed in remote areas of the Southwest.

The great camel experiment eventually failed. With the advent of the Civil War, the personnel at Union garrisons in the Southwest scattered before the advancing Confederates. Some of the imported animals were set free and some were kept in captivity. The last known survivor died in a Los Angeles zoo in 1934. However, even today people occasionally tell tales of seeing lone camels in remote corners of the Southwest.

Note: Most of this info was gleaned from an article in his book It Happened in Texas, by James A. Crutchfield, 1996, Two Dot Press, Helena, Montana.

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  1. Jacquie, thanks for sharing your blog with me for another post. I loved this movie, and always hope I'll see a remaining camel whenever I cross the southwest desert. Do you think there are any still out there?

    1. I'll have to look up the movie--haven't seen it. Haven't seen any cames in Texas, either, but I'll look for them next time I'm there. :)

  2. I'm sorry I'm a little late getting here. I had no idea we had camels imported into Texas. How very interesting the idea that there may still be happy free camels roaming the range. Isn't it just like America--not only the melting pot for humans from different cultures but animals, too?


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