History Friday: Five Thousand Miles for a Camel

In the annals of the US Army, are recorded many strange and eccentric schemes and scathingly brilliant notions, but none of them quite equals the notion of a Camel Corps for sheer daft logic. It was the sort of idea which a clever “think outside the box” young officer would come up with, contemplating the millions of square miles of desolation occasionally interrupted by lonely outposts of settlements, stage stations and fortified trading posts which the United States had acquired following on the Mexican War in the mid 1840s. The country was dry, harsh, desolate… logically, what better animal to use than one which had already been used for thousands of years in just such conditions elsewhere?

The notion of using camels in the American southwest may have occurred to others, but it was one 2nd Lt. George Crossman who first raised a perfectly serious proposal for their use. One senses initially that the notion had people falling about laughing at the off-beat nuttiness of it all, and then slapping themselves on the forehead with a strange gleam in their eyes and saying, “By George, it’s a crazy idea… but it just might work!”
Crossman and other military men kicked the idea around for a couple of years; it had the backing of a senator from Mississippi, who sat on the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, and was in the position to advocate in favor of an experimental use of camels by the US Army. The senator also thought “outside the box” although it would not be clear for another ten years how far outside the box he would eventually go. But Jefferson Davis was not in a position to make a study of camels, US Army for the use of (experimental) happen until he became Secretary of War in 1852. Within three years, Congress appropriated $30,000 for the purpose, and a designated ship set sail for the Mediterranean, carrying one Major Henry Wayne who had been personally charged by Secretary of War Davis with procuring camels. After a couple of false starts, a selection of 33 likely camels were purchased in Egypt.Wayne had also hired five camel drovers to care for them on the return voyage and to educate the Army personnel on the care and feeding of said camels.

The camels arrived at the portof Indianola on the Texas Gulf Coast with one more than they started with, since one of them was a pregnant female; a rather promising beginning to a project so close to Secretary Davis’ heart. The herd was removed to Camp Verde, sixty miles west of San Antonio by easy stages from Indianola, where they were eventually joined by a second shipment later that year. At a stopover in Victoria, the camels were clipped and a local woman spun yarn from the clippings and knitted a pair of socks for the President of the US out of them. Once at Camp Verde they mostly transported supplies and amused and impressed skeptics by carrying four times what a single mule bore, without visible effort. (But a lot of grumbling.) They were also used for an expedition to the Big Bend. Late in 1857, Edward F. Beale, explorer and adventurer, friend of Kit Carson and Superintendent of Indian Affairs for California and Nevada took a contingent of camels on a long scout to explore the southwest along the 35th parallel, all through the vast deserts between New Mexico and California. Beale took twenty-five camels and two of the drovers, who were nicknamed Greek George, and Hi Jolly. The camels performed heroically all the way to California with Beale, and were used for a time to transport supplies from Fort. Tejon.

Alas for the demise of what looked like a brilliant solution; although it might have come to something eventually, but for the Civil War. Just about everyone who was a strong advocate for the use of camels suddenly had much greater problems to worry about than overcoming the resistance of Army muleteers and diverse other potential users. For the camels as draft animals were not readily biddable; they were even less cooperative than mules, which says a lot. They spat, nastily and accurately, stank to high heaven, and scared the living daylights out of horses and mules unaccustomed themselves to their presence, and generally did not endear themselves to most of the men who had to work with them. The California herd, those of them which had not been allowed to wander away, was sold – mostly to small enterprises and circuses . Those camels, or their descendents who escaped into the desert southwest were spotted for decades afterwards, well into the early 20th century. Beale even took a few of them to his own ranch; a sort of camel refuge as it were. The Texas herd was also sold off or left to wander the range near Camp Verde; although according to one source, a camel found its way into the possession of an Army officer who used it to carry the baggage of his entire company all during the war. The drover, Hi Jolly eventually took a small herd of camels sold as surplus after the Civil War to the Arizona Territory and used them to haul water for a time, before turning them loose. And so passed the end of an experiment, and the last of the US Army Camel Corps.

There is one small footnote to this; the story of the Red Ghost, which terrorized south-eastern Arizona Territory, for about ten years after 1883; a huge reddish camel… with the dead body of a man tied to its’ back. No one ever who he was, or how he came to be secured to the back of a camel, with knots that he could not have tied himself.

(from my archives, at my book-blog)

16 thoughts on “History Friday: Five Thousand Miles for a Camel”

  1. Oooooh, thanks, Whitehall – I’ve added it to my Amazon wishlist. I love amazing, but relatively unknown historical characters.Finished up as a doctor in San Francisco, hmm … I wonder where I can go with that.

    (Randy Sparks)

    The New Christy Minstrels – 1962
    The Travelers 3 – 1962
    Canadiana Folksingers – 1964
    The Merrymen – 1993
    River City Ramblers – 2001

    Hi Jolly was a camel driver, long time ago
    He followed Mr. Beale way out west
    Didn’t mind the burning sand in that God-forsaken land
    But he didn’t mind the pretty gals the best

    Hi Jolly, hey Jolly, twenty miles a day, by golly
    Twenty more before the morning light
    Hi Jolly, hey, I gotta get on my way
    I told my gal I’d be home Sunday night


    There are more verses at the link and some more of the Hi Jolly backstory.

    Of course you can find the song on YouTube:


    Catchy tune.

  3. I remember when I was in Australia the idea of using Camels from South Australia (Adelaide?) all the way of to the north coast was strong – you really don’t know desert until you see the outback – rocky, makes our look lush. Anyway there were as of the 1980s, still supposed to be some of the descendents running around deep in the outback

  4. Dr. Weevil is correct – Hadji Ali was the original name. There was another famous drover, Greek George, who finished up as a rancher and landowner in California, and at whose house the bandit Tibercio Vasques was captured in 1974. Still another one of the drovers hired to tend the camels supposedly finished up as a handyman in Comfort, Texas – I think I read that in Guido Ransleben’s History of Comfort, but I don’t have a copy available to confirm.

  5. LOL — Setbit beat me to it…


  6. I believe that some time in the late 1960’s a story about this was aired on the TV
    Western series called Zayne Gray Theater.

  7. So I visited another of my regular reading sites (Ace) and there was, believe it or not, an ad from Amazon for “The Man Who Would be King”, just like as posted in comment #1.

    Dumb machine didn’t know that I already owned the hardcopy of the book.

  8. No dice on the diaper rash cream for me at AoS.

    Maybe the computer is smart enough to realize that a site with so many pictures of cheer leaders might not cater to diaper rash cream buyers.

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