Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Camels in the United States West

Only known surviving photo of
the U.S. Camel Corp
Since I live in, write about, and love Texas, you won’t be surprised to learn that today’s post involves Texas history. If you saw the movie years ago called "Hawmps!" then you already know that the U.S. Government experimented with the effectiveness of camels in the desert West. Although the movie is listed under "turkeys" in the movie guide, my family liked it. Yes, our tastes run to lighter, less serious subjects with happy endings. The movie was even loosely based on fact.

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.

Camels and Dromedaries
were imported

The ocean voyage from the Mediterranean, through the Strait of Gibraltar, and across the Atlantic was  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.
The geat 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.

Hajid Ali's monument
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 monuement is at his last campsite. At his death, he believed small families of camels still roamed in remote areas of the Southwest.

The last known camel corp 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: Portions of this info was gleaned from an article in the book IT HAPPENED IN TEXAS, by James A. Crutchfield, 1996,Two Dot Press, Helena, Montana.

Caroline Clemmons is the author of historical and contemporary books set in the Southwest.


  1. When we drove to the coast, I remember keeping an eagle eye out for camels through the El Paso desert area. I didn't see any, but then I was only 6 and may have missed a few things.

  2. Great post. A wonderful piece of American history.

  3. Thanks for stopping by and for commenting.

  4. I vaguely remember reading about the import of camels for the West. But I sure didn't know all this about them. I've always liked camels and the babies are darling.

  5. I still don't think Hawmps was such a bad movie. Then again, you and I rewatched The Apple Dumpling Gang the other night.

  6. I read a historical romance back in the 80's, I believe, that featured camels. Can't remember the author or title, though. Kind of funny, isn't it?


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.