Story by Brittani Boothe
When you think of camels, what comes to mind? Africa? Camel races in the Sahara? Some exotic animal? Camels are not as “foreign” as you may think! Our great state of Texas was home to the United States’ very first herd of camels!
In 1836, Major George H. Crosman petitioned congress for the requisition of camels to help the army during campaigns against Indians in Florida. Maj. Crosman had heard tales of camels and their ability to go days without water while carrying tremendous loads and just knew that they would be a perfect fit to move troops and supplies across the Southern United States. The idea did not get much notice for the first decade or so after it was presented to congress, but resonated with Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. In 1853, Davis was appointed as Secretary of War and brought the idea before congress yet again. On March 3, 1855, Congress passed the Shield amendment to the appropriation bill which gave an extra $30,000 to the War Department to be used for the purchase and importation of camels for military purposes.
Two months later, Major Henry C. Wayne began his journey to Africa on the USS Supply to study and purchase camels to bring back to the U.S. After nearly a year of travel and a $12,000 invoice, Maj. Wayne arrived at Indianola, Texas in April of 1856 with 33 camels, 3 Arabs, and 2 Turks. On June 4, Maj. Wayne started his 219 mile westward journey into the heart of Texas to Camp Verde, located halfway between Kerrville and Bandera. Upon arrival, the camels were immediately being tested on long reconnaissance trips through the dry areas of Central Texas. One of the most notable treks was through the previously unexplored Big Bend region. Due to the success of the first batch of camels, Secretary Davis ordered Maj. Wayne to take a second purchasing trip to Africa.
In 1857, Maj. Wayne returned with 41 more camels to be stationed at Camp Verde. The new Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, ordered 25 of the camels to be used to survey a wagon road from Fort Defiance, New Mexico to Fort Trejon, California where the camels would now be stationed to help the army carry supplies across the desert. By 1858, Camp Verde had about 50 camels and Fort Trejon had 25.The new commander of the Department of Texas , Brevet Major General David E. Twiggs let it be known that he did not want the Camel Corps under his command and the animals were left unused at Camp Verde.
The decline of the Camel Corps came soon after Twiggs’ decision not to use them. During the Civil War, nearly 80 camels were captured by the Confederate Army and were soon spread across the South. One infantry commander, Captain Sterling Price, even used a camel to carry his whole company’s baggage throughout the war. In 1866, the federal government sold the remaining camels at auction and officially ended the U.S. Camel Corps experiment.
The failure of this experiment was not due to the camels capabilities. Every test showed that they were the superior animal to use in desert like conditions due to their ability to go days without food and water, while still carrying supplies. The failure can be attributed to the nature of the camels, they were smelly, too ornery, and they scared the horses, and because of these traits soldiers no longer wanted to work with them.
The remains of Old Camp Verde have long disappeared, but the original gate marker and a historical marker that was commissioned in 1936 can still be seen in Kerr County.
Secretary Davis was not the only person who thought importing camels was a good idea. In 1958, Mrs. M.J. Watson told the Galveston port authority that she had camels on her ship that she was bringing into Texas to test their transportation capabilities. At this time, it is rumored that many slave traders used camels to mask the smell of their illegal cargo onboard. Due to these rumors, the Galveston port authority refused to let Mrs. Watson unload her ship. After waiting in port for 2 months, Mrs. Watson finally let the camels off her ship and sailed to the slave markets in Cuba. The camels wandered around the city until they eventually died of neglect or slaughter. To this day it is still illegal to have camels on the beaches in Gaveston.
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).