A day in the life

US Camel Corps

In 1856, Secretary of War (and future president of the Confederate Sates of America) Jefferson Davis, ordered 70 camels to brought to Texas in order to establish the United States Camel Corps.  Costing a whopping $30,000 dollars ( approximately worth $811,000 in today’s dollars), the concept was that Camels were better suited to desert terrain, could eat the plants, needed little water and make great pack animals. Although a seemingly a great idea, the Camel Corps did not work out.

The camels turned out to be hard to handle. The animals bit, spit, and kicked their American handlers. They scared the horses and livestock. In other words, they behaved liked camels.

The Camel Corp’s first and only real use was by Lieutenant Beale who led many of the camels across the country to California. After only two years and with the start of the American Civil War, the Camel Corps was disbanded. Beale  said that the corps should be maintained just in case the Army needed them.

It was not to be. Beale put the camels on his friend’s ranch who used them to haul freight back and forth from his ranch and Fort Tejon. The route taken to Fort Tejon passed through lands controlled by the Mojave Indians who often attacked civilian transports, but avoided any military soldiers. As Bishop was now a civilian and the camel experiment was now officially a civilian experiment, no soldiers were with the camel and during one such trip a large force of Mojave Indians threatened Bishop’s men. Bishop ordered them to mount the camels and charge the attackers. The surprise charge of the men on such strange beasts did in fact rout the Mojave Indians and went down in history as probably the only camel charge in the west, which ironically was performed by civilians as opposed to the military.

So what happened to the camels? Well, many were sold to zoos, circuses, mining companies and private parties. Some of the camels escaped into the desert and some were released into the wild, mostly by the mining companies when they realized that the camels were difficult to deal with.

There was even an effort to use some of the camels as an alternative to the Pony Express in the desert and dry areas of the west.  The camels did not fare well and many died of exhaustion. Turns out that although camels are well suited for the desert terrain and can go where horses can’t, they are built for endurance and not speed. The long distance running required to deliver the mail in a timely manner proved to much for the camels.

Today, the descendants of those camels live on in tourist ranches where one can take tours riding on a camel. There is also a Camel Dairy farm in San Diego. Are there still wild camels living in the Mojave Desert? Well it depends on whom you talk to. Some say there are none, however residents and those who trek out into the desert would disagree. If you happen driving through the desert, perhaps on little traveled road and you see what you think may be a camel, rest assured you have not driven into the twilight zone, rather, you may have actually seen one