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Home on the range, where the deer and the…camels play?

July 23, 2012
Cover of Uncle Sam's Camels

Cover of Uncle Sam’s Camels (1929), edited by Lewis B Lesley

Travel in the American West was a critical challenge during the mid-19th century, both for civilian and military populations.  The first transcontinental route was not completed until the 1860s, and even then many destinations off the main routes required travel by wagon, by horse, or by foot.  This problem was exacerbated in the Southwest due to its rugged terrain and limited water sources. As early as the 1830s, Major George H. Crosman had urged the United States War Department to explore the use of camels, known in North Africa for their endurance, weight-bearing capacity, and ability to travel with limited water.  Crosman’s proposition came to the attention of Jefferson Davis, and years later, when Davis was serving as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, he succeeded in obtaining $30,000 to acquire camels for use by the military. Two expeditions to North Africa brought approximately seventy-five camels to Texas by 1857, where they were settled at Camp Verde, sixty miles northwest of San Antonio.  During the Civil War, the camels entered Confederate control, and afterwards, the federal government sold the remaining animals at auction. Although camels lived up to their reputation for strength and endurance in every way, they never became

Camp Verde

Camp Verde. Page 102 of Texas Camel Tales (1932) by Chris Emmett

widely used by the military or civilians in the Southwest.  To many, their odor was objectionable, as was their tendency to frighten horses.  And handlers accustomed to more docile mules found camels’ temperament difficult to deal with. Nonetheless, occasional camel sightings in Texas continued for many years after the official end of the U.S. military’s camel experiment. For more background on the sojourn of camels in Texas, see the entry on Camels in the Handbook of Texas Online or read Lewis Burt Leslie’s 1930 article “The Purchase and Importation of Camels by the United States Government, 1855-1857”in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly. Special Collections holds several items that address the great camel experiment.  Readers will note that these texts occasionally contain discrepancies with regard to specific details, although they agree upon most major points:

United States. War Department. Report of the Secretary of War, Communicating, in Compliance with a Resolution of the Senate of February 2, 1857, Information Respecting the Purchase of Camels for the Purposes of Military Transportation. Washington : A. O. P. Nicholson, printer, 1857. [UC350 .U5 1857]

Embarkation of Camels

Embarkation of Camels. Page 179 of Report of the Secretary of War… (1857).

A detailed collection of reports and official correspondence between Jefferson Davis, in his capacity as Secretary of War and Major Henry C. Wayne and Lieutenant David Dixon Porter, relating to the first and second expeditions to acquire camels. Part III of the book consists of a “The Zemboureks, or the Dromedary Field Artillery of the Persian Army,” by Colonel F. Colombari, translated by Major Wayne.

Lesley, Lewis B., ed. Uncle Sam’s Camels: The Journal of May Humphreys Stacey Supplemented by the Report of Edward Fitzgerald Beale (1857-1858) . Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1929. [UC350 .S77 1929 ]

May Humphreys Stacey accompanied Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald on his journey from Texas to California with camels, during which he kept a daily journal.  Lesley edited the journal for publication and provided explanatory footnotes where necessary, often with reference to Beale’s official report of the expedition, which is also included in the appendix.

Gray, A. A., Francis P. Farquhar, and William S. Lewis. Camels in Western America. San Francisco : California Historical Society, 1930. [F786 .G7 1930]

Camels Secured for a Gale

Camels Secured for a Gale. Page 180 of Report of the Secretary of War… (1857).

In June 1857, Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale departed from San Antonio with twenty-some Camp Verde camels to carry  out a wagon road survey from Fort Defiance, New Mexico to California.  This short work from the California Historical Society describes Beale’s expedition, the following treatment and dispersal of military camels in California,  subsequent private importations of camels, and California legislation related to camels.

Emmett, Chris. Texas Camel Tales; Incidents Growing Up Around an Attempt by the War Department of the United States to Foster an Uninterrupted Flow of Commerce through Texas by the Use of Camels. San Antonio, Tex.: Naylor Printing Company, 1932. [F387 .E76 ]

This narrative history of camels and related military history in Texas supplements the usual sources in places with quotes from interviews with Texas residents who saw or interacted with the camels, including three sisters who were little girls at the time, and a man who was then working as a slave on the wharves at the time of the camels arrival.  This work includes significantly more detail on camels during the Civil War than most other sources in UTSA’s holdings.

View No. 19 for Vischer's Pictorial of California

View No. 19 for Vischer’s Pictorial of California. Page 11 of Camels in Western America by A.A. Gray et al.

Williams, W. O. “The Camels Come to the Big Bend,” Voice of the Mexican Border. El Paso Issue. Volume 65 (1933): 153-155. [Folio F394 .E4 V65 1933]

In this short article, Judge W. O. Williams of Fort Stockton recounts a field test of camels’ suitability for the American desert during the summer of 1859, including detailed descriptions of the routes taken and the camels’ access to food and water.

Hunter, J. Marvin. Old Camp Verde : The Home of the Camel : A Romantic Story of Jefferson Davis’ Plan to Use Camels on the Texas Frontier. Bandera, Texas : J. Marvin Hunter, 1948. [F394 .C23H86 1948]

This booklet, by an acquaintance of Chris Emmet, author of Texas Camel Tales, complements that work by providing a brief history of Camp Verde, including its establishment and its surrender (along with the camels) to confederate forces.  It also describes the passage of camels through Arizona on Beale’s expedition, and tells of escaped, semi-wild camels subsisting in both Arizona and Texas for some decades after the federal government ended its camel experiment.

Hunter, J. Marvin. Old Camp Verde : The Home of the Camel : A Romantic Story of Jefferson Davis’ Plan to Use Camels on the Texas Frontier. Bandera, Texas : J. Marvin Hunter, 1948. [F394 .C23H86 1948]

Cover of Old Camp Verde (1948) by J. Marvin Hunter

Cover of Old Camp Verde (1948) by J. Marvin Hunter

This booklet, by an acquaintance of Chris Emmet, author of Texas Camel Tales, complements that work by providing a brief history of Camp Verde, including its establishment and its surrender (along with the camels) to confederate forces.  He also describes the passage of camels through Arizona on Beale’s expedition, and tells of escaped, semi-wild camels subsisting in both Arizona and Texas for some decades after the federal government ended its camel experiment.

Interview with George F. Rhodes, 1987. Institute of Texan Cultures Oral History Collection [digitized transcript]

Rhodes, who grew up in Port Lavaca, Texas tells his interviewers some of the background on how camels came to Texas, and describes the three arrivals of camels at Port Lavaca – two for the military and one from private hands. By his account, many of the camels from the third shipment were allowed to run loose and frequently created problems by frightening horses.

For further sources relating to camels in the American West, see the bibliography included on pages 359-372 of A. H. Greenly’s 1952 article “Camels in America,” published in volume 46 of the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America.

Additionally, the manuscript biographical history of William Sanders Oury, held by the Briscoe Center for American History, includes discussion of his work with the U.S. Army’s Camel Corps, as well as his experiences as a rancher in Arizona. 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 28, 2012 7:57 am

    To relive this quirky bit of Texana, check out my website: texascamelcorps.com

    Our family’s camels visit schools, libraries and museums all over the US telling the story of the US Army Camel Experiment.

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