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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

The Camel Corps Experiment

It was May 1855, and U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis had just realized a years-long goal, to establish an army “camel corps,” for transportation and other military purposes, along with the funds to implement the project—a $30,000 appropriation for the acquisition and testing of a small camel herd. By and by, some of the beasts ended up in California, at Fort Tehon, a military outpost in the mountains south of Bakersfield.


As a senator, Davis had previously introduced two measures in Congress for the same purpose, only to have them laughed out of committee. Now, however, two events had brought about a change in thinking. First, the treaty that had ended the Mexican-American War, signed in early February, 1848, had ceded to the United States over half a million square miles of new real estate, including vast deserts in the southwestern sections. Second, the near-simultaneous discovery of gold in California had sent thousands of fortune hunters streaming across the continent.


Consequently, America’s meager, 42,000-man Army was charged with protecting the traveling gold rushers, plus keeping the peace between the 100,000 or so native Indians and an increasing number of white settlers in the new territories—in regions where horses and mules faltered in the extreme heat and arid landscapes. What could be better for army transport and defense operations than a species adapted to such extremities?


Orders were issued, two trips to foreign lands were made, new appropriations were authorized, and by early 1857 the army had 75 camels stabled at Camp Verde, Texas. Although it was soon discovered that—for various reasons having to do with its physiognomy—the camel was unsuited for combat, quartermaster units in charge of supply transportation at first considered them a godsend. The animals could easily carry a load twice that of a common pack mule, and for longer distances without water. A large-scale field trial would prove the value of the humped creatures once and for all; and, as it happened, one was already planned: an expedition to survey and build a wagon road from Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory, to the section of the Colorado River that delineated California’s southeastern border.


The expedition leader, personally appointed by President Buchanan, was former U.S. Navy Lieutenant-turned-civilian-explorer Edward Fitzgerald Beale, who had distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War. No more severe test of the camel’s worth could have been proposed, for the bone-dry route stretched from the Texas plains, across the Sandia Mountains to Fort Defiance, then through high desert wastelands and directly down into the scorching Mohave Desert. Beale did voice strenuous objections at having to add these strange creatures to his caravan, but he had no choice. On June 25, 1857, he picked up 25 camels from Camp Verde, and surged westward.


Yet by September 6, two and a half months out, he couldn’t contain his admiration for the heavily-loaded, yet tireless animals. Beale’s 1,000-mile, road-building endeavor ended October 18, when he reached the Colorado River, but he took the camels on to Fort Tehon to be cared for—a military post Beale himself had urged to have constructed for the protection of immigrants. He used the camels again, in 1858 through 1859, on another expedition to extend his original road eastward to Fort Smith, Arkansas.


But if Edward Beale was enthusiastic about camels, most others weren’t. The beasts could be extraordinarily stubborn, required more care than horses, delivered vicious bites to handlers when annoyed … and stank. Furthermore, they frightened horses and mules. In late 1859, Congress, preoccupied with North-South tensions, declined to continue the experiment, although the army still had its two herds: 80 camels at Camp Verde, Texas—later captured by the Confederacy—and 31 at Fort Tehon, California, used only for hauling and transportation in the vicinity of the fort.


Fort Tehon was abandoned in 1864, and the entire camel herd there was sold at public auction, most of them purchased by circus owners. And so ended the government’s short-lived camel experiment, which had been more minimal in scope than grand-scale, anyhow. There never was a “United States Camel Corps,” however much the story, perpetrated by various writers of the last century, is accepted as western lore.


However, Edward Beale retains a starring role in the legend. When Fort Tehon closed, Beale and his wife in fact acquired adjoining Mexican land grants in the same area, founding the 270,000-acre Tehon Ranch. It is said that he purchased a few of the auctioned camels, and kept them at his new ranch … but maybe, that’s part of the myth.

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