In 1836 Maj. George H. Crosman urged the United States War Department to use camels in Indian campaigns in Florida because of the animals' ability to keep on the move with a minimum of food and water. The matter came to the attention of Senator Jefferson Davis, whom President Franklin Pierce later appointed secretary of war. Davis's first problem was that of coping with Indians and with transportation in Texas, but the enormous expense of the Mexican Cession of 1848 had seriously depleted available army resources. Davis firmly accepted the currently prevalent "Great American Desert" thesis, which held that much of the western United States was virtually uninhabitable. He urged Congress to appropriate money to test the value and efficiency of camels in the Southwest as a partial solution to pressing needs. At the insistence of the War Department, Congress passed, on March 3, 1855, the Shield amendment to the appropriation bill, which made $30,000 available "under the direction of the War Department in the purchase of camels and the importation of dromedaries, to be employed for military purposes."
On May 10, 1855, Maj. H. C. Wayne received the special presidential assignment. The naval storeship Supply, in command of Lt. D. D. Porter, was placed at Wayne's disposal. Wayne traveled ahead to study continental use of camels. After trafficking down the North African coast and spending $12,000 for desirable beasts, he returned with thirty-three camels, three Arabs, and two Turks. Thirty-two of the camels, plus one calf born at sea, arrived at Indianola, Texas, on April 29, 1856, but because of bad weather and shallow water were not unloaded until May 13. On June 4 Wayne started his caravan westward. They stopped near Victoria, where the animals were clipped and Mrs. Mary A. Shirkey spun and knit for the president of the United States a pair of camel-pile socks. The animals were finally located at Camp Verde, where several successful experiments were made to test the camels' utility in the pursuit of Indians and the transportation of burdens. Wayne reported that camels rose and walked with as much as 600 pounds without difficulty, traveled miles without water, and ate almost any kind of plant. One camel trek was made to the unexplored Big Bend.
The first camel importation was followed by a second, consisting of forty-one beasts, which were also quartered at Camp Verde. In the spring of 1857 James Buchanan's secretary of war, John B. Floyd, directed Edward Fitzgerald Beale to use twenty-five of the camels in his survey for a wagon road from Fort Defiance, New Mexico, across the thirty-fifth parallel to the Colorado River. After this survey, the drive continued to Fort Tejon, California, where the camels were used to transport supplies and dispatches across the desert for the army. Eventually some of the animals were turned loose, some were used in salt pack-trains, and others even saw Texas again after Bethel Coopwood, Confederate spy and Texas lawyer, captured fourteen from Union forces. During the Civil War eighty camels and two Egyptian drivers passed into Confederate hands. The camels soon were widely scattered; some were turned out on the open range near Camp Verde; some were used to pack cotton bales to Brownsville; and one found its way to the infantry command of Capt. Sterling Price, who used it throughout the war to carry the whole company's baggage. In 1866 the federal government sold the camels at auction; sixty-six of them went to Coopwood. Some of the camels in California were sold at auction in 1863, and others escaped to roam the desert.
The failure of the camel in the United States was not due to its capability; every test showed it to be a superior transport animal. It was instead the nature of the beasts which led to their demise-they smelled horrible, frightened horses, and were detested by handlers accustomed to the more docile mules. Two private importations of camels followed the government experiment. On October 16, 1858, Mrs. M. J. Watson reported to Galveston port authorities that her ship had eighty-nine camels aboard, and claimed that she wanted to test them for purposes of transport. One port official, however, felt that she was using the camels to mask the odor typically associated with a slave ship and refused her petition to unload the cargo. After two months in port, Mrs. Watson sailed for the slave markets in Cuba after dumping the camels ashore in Galveston, where they wandered about the city and died from neglect and slaughter around the coastal sand dunes. A second civilian shipment of a dozen camels arrived at Port Lavaca in 1859, where it met a similar fate.
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Chris Emmett, Texas Camel Tales (San Antonio: Naylor, 1932). Odie B. Faulk, The U.S. Camel Corps: An Army Experiment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Chris Emmett and Odie B. Faulk,
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 18, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
Most Recent Revision Date:
August 1, 1995