In 1891 two thirsty gold prospectors, Shep Searcy and Charlie Fisher, were drinking from a muddy puddle on the western fringes of Death Valley, California. A sixth sense alerted the pair to the fact that they had company. Glancing up, they were transfixed by a sight neither would ever forget. There, silhouetted against the night sky, were nine camels eyeing them speculatively. Then with a snort they disappeared. The shaken miners gathered their wits and hurriedly left. Reliving their experience in the bar that night, they met a sceptical, disbelieving audience.
Their surprise is understandable. Camels have not been indigenous to the American Continent since the Ice Age. Their close relative, the llama, was alive and well in South America, but this was an animal unfamiliar to all but a few explorers. Few would be aware that the Spanish Conquistadores introduced camels to South America in the 16th Century, or that camels were unsuccessfully introduced as pack animals to Virginia as the 18th Century dawned.
General Douglas MacArthur would have believed the miners. A few years earlier, as a young boy growing up in Fort Selden, New Mexico, he saw with his own eyes a camel wandering round the garrison. Mexican prospectors in the Harqua Hala mountains of Arizona would have nodded in understanding; so too would native Americans in Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community, who reported encountering the beasts as late as 1913.
These sightings were neither illusory, nor were they by chance. Sixty years earlier, Jefferson Davis, Mississippi senator and chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, was facing huge challenges on America’s south-western border. The short, sharp war with Mexico had just been won; suddenly, vast expanses of newly-acquired territory needed policing and supplying. These were inhospitable, dangerous lands in which to venture; much of it was mountain or desert, offering precious little water or vegetation to horse or pack mule.
Davis had seen military action during the Mexican War. He had observed camels in action. He realised, as had Napoleon years before while campaigning in Egypt, that the camel had significant advantages over horse or mule. It was no accident that the camel had been man’s key agent of transportation for centuries in North Africa and parts of Asia.
When Davis persuaded Congress to invest $30,000 in buying and shipping 70 camels from Egypt in 1855, he knew what he was doing. Camels, he asserted to Congress, could cover ground much faster than horses; they could go days without food or water; the loads these beasts could carry were significantly greater than anything horses or mules could sustain.
Two years later, Lieutenant Edward Beale, another passionate advocate of the camel, vindicated Davis’ claims. That summer he set off from Camp Verde, Texas, with two dozen camels. Five months later his expedition arrived at Fort Tejon, an army outpost lying just north of Los Angeles, California. His camels had just travelled 1,200 miles, at the height of summer, carrying loads in excess of 600 pounds.
That got everyone’s attention. The California and Nevada press waxed lyrical, heralding a camel ‘express’ that would transport mail, from points on the Missouri river to California, in fifteen days. Private enterprise recognized the potential. Companies such as The American Camel Company, started shipping camels through Mobile, Galveston and San Francisco to the mines in Nevada and Montana.
Yet within 10 years, the camel trade in North America had collapsed. The camels, both military and civilian, enjoyed mixed fortunes. Some were auctioned off to entrepreneurs such as Samuel McLaughlin, ending their days in circuses, the mines or helping in construction of the railways. Many were turned loose and left to fend for themselves; the unlucky ones were simply butchered for their meat.
No single cause can be attributed to this collapse. Commercial self-interest played its part. Mule operators could see themselves going out of business and lobbied hard against the camel ‘experiment.’ The outbreak of civil war separated the camels from those that understood them; men like Lieutenant Porter, who travelled with these animals on their voyage to America. These were people who cared for their animals; they knew what to feed them, how to treat their ailments, above all they understood a camel’s temperament.
The ‘mule skinners’ and ‘bull whackers’ employed by the army and later the mines to manage them soon discovered that cursing and kicking was repaid in kind. Mules and horses lived in abject terror of these strange beasts and accidents were frequent. It was easier, old timers said, to head off an avalanche than rescue a mule train bolting from camels. By the time one valuable consignment of whiskey drained into the dust following such an incident, the ‘love affair’ with the camel was well and truly over.